Why Sarah Silverman’s wage equality campaign made me feel awful

On average, women are paid only 78 percent of what their male counterparts make for doing the same job. The phenomenon is known by a number of names — the “pay gap,” the “wage gap,” the “gender gap,” and others — but really, the most accurate descriptor is just plain old sexism, and it only gets worse when you begin looking at it from an intersectional point of view.

An American Association of University Women study shows that factors like race, occupation, education, age, and location each impact the wage gap differently, with certain combinations exacerbating the problem. For example, when you compare the median annual earnings of white women compared to that of white men, women make 78 percent. When you compare the earnings of black women to that of white men, women make just 64 percent.

No, this is not the “Oppression Olympics;” this is simply the reality of a complex world in which a number of systemic forces help and hurt us — privilege and oppress us — in different ways entirely outside our control. Women’s organizations should know this, and they should understand that in a push to close the wage gap, we need to address all oppressions, and not simply focus on sexism.

It’s because of this that I was so very disappointed to see the National Women’s Law Center’s new equal pay campaign. The campaign, developed by New York-based ad agency Droga5, is titled the “Equal Payback Project” and stars comedian Sarah Silverman. The gist of the ad is basically that women shouldn’t make only 78 cents for every dollar a man makes (good), and that as a way to highlight this, the comedian jokingly decides to get a penis so she can be a man. The video highlights the lifetime losses women face as a result of the wage gap (nearly half a million dollars each!), calling this a “$500,000 vagina tax.”

While the overall goal — to raise awareness of the wage gap — is admirable, the tactic taken by Silverman, Droga5, and the NWLC is anything but. This framing erases the existence of transgender people by presenting harmful narratives about gender being directly related to one’s genitals.

I’ve never directly addressed this in my writing at HelloGiggles, but I am a transgender woman. Those of you who have followed my writing at other outlets are probably well aware of this. Much of that writing, at outlets like the New York Times, Rolling Stone, and The Advocate magazine, centers around the many challenges transgender individuals face. From unbelievably high rates of violence to an unemployment rate more than double that of the general population, the lives of transgender individuals is one filled with impossible, systemic obstacles.

When someone comes out and socially transitions gender, they experience a shift in how society views and treats them. Paychecks are no exception.

Sociologist Kristen Schilt and economist Matthew Wiswall studied the changes trans individuals experience in terms of income. According to their study, published in the peer-reviewed Journal of Economic Analysis & Policy, trans women — that is, women who were assigned male at birth — experience, on average, a 32 percent decrease in pay. This decrease can be attributed to a number of factors; among them, a loss of male privilege, society’s negative attitudes towards trans individuals, and other forms of discrimination. The same study discovered that when a trans man — that is, a man who was assigned female at birth — socially transitions genders, he will typically experience a small boost in pay. While these men gain male privilege as they are viewed as men by society, they are still negatively impacted by our culture’s treatment of transgender individuals. This is why their boost in pay — averaging an increase of 7.5 percent — doesn’t quite mirror the 32 percent nosedive trans women face. It should also be noted that 7.5 percent is just an average. A great many trans men face unfathomable levels of discrimination for being trans, costing them their jobs.

Now, what is it that accounts for the boost in pay for trans men? Is it really as simple as the presence of a penis on one’s person determining which gender you are? That’s almost certainly not the case, given that only two percent of trans men have undergone the phalloplasty surgery necessary in order to construct a penis. These are men who were assigned female at birth; 98 percent of them do not have a penis, yet they benefit from male privilege, and they benefit from no longer being viewed by society as women.

This is the core of the wage gap. It’s not about genitals. Some transgender women — most, actually — still have a penis. Believe me when I say that being a women with a penis does not make life easier, and it most certainly does not result in being paid more than cisgender (non-trans) women. You don’t even have to believe me; you can just look at the mountains of data that support this.

Since the video was posted, a number of media outlets have shared the campaign, treating it as a positive step forward in the battle to close the wage gap. This seems to be treated in a type of “ends justify the means” fashion, where someone might acknowledge that yes, the ad erases the existence of trans people and reduces gender to one’s genitals, but hey, it’s for a good cause.

It’s not as though trans voices were silent on the matter, either. GLAAD co-chair and New York Times bestselling author Jennifer Finney Boylan and fellow bestselling author Janet Mock both tweeted their disappointment in the ad’s tact.

Other individuals — myself included — issued tweets of sadness, frustration, and disappointment.

Of course, I understand the campaign’s video is supposed to be funny. The whole thing is done in a very tongue-in-cheek manner, and its star is a famous comedian. Yes, I understand this. Even so, trans people are constantly being used as the butt of jokes, and over time it starts to wear you down. It was wholly unnecessary to treat something very real — the wage gap — as being centered on one’s genitals (or, for that matter, suggesting that having a penis makes one a man, or that having a vagina makes one a woman), when really, it’s about how society views you, what’s in your pants aside.

99.9 percent of people in my life will never see my genitals, nor will most even know what kind I have. That is okay by me. Unless someone is my doctor or my lover, what’s in my pants isn’t of their concern. When people look at me, they see a woman. That’s great, because I am a woman. What’s not great is how society treats women—all women. Society treats women differently—worse—than it treats men.

Regardless of what’s in my pants, I am still “treated like a woman.” (The fact that the phrase “treats me like a woman” even exists is a clear indicator of how pervasive sexism is.) And that’s what I think the campaign got wrong. In my eyes, it sends a transphobic message that ignores so many women, like me, who face wage discrimination — and discrimination in general — everyday.

Transphobia in the name of feminism is still transphobia. The ends do not justify the means, nor can they. If we, as a culture, want to address sexism and discrimination, it starts with an inclusive, intersectional worldview. A campaign born out of exclusion can never bring justice to the masses, only the few. You can do better, Sarah Silverman. You can do better, Droga5. You can do better, NWLC.

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