The state of transgender rights in the United States

On Apr. 24, 2015, former Olympian and reality television star Bruce Jenner came out publicly as a transgender woman. Jenner’s interview with Diane Sawyer garnered over 20.7 million viewers during its live broadcast and has over 2 million views on YouTube. Jenner received overwhelming support from the celebrity community and from people all around the globe, yet many tweets, Facebook posts and articles have been posted online degrading and criticizing both Jenner and the transgender community as a whole. But what is the transgender movement, and how long has it been going on?

Gender dysphoria and transgenderism are recorded as having existed in the world since 1503 BCE, but it was not until 1930 that Lili Elbe became the first person to undergo gender reassignment surgery. Before this time, most transgendered individuals dressed as the gender they identified as, but they had no access to hormone treatments or other procedures.

In the US, trans* people have been at the forefront of the LGBTQA* movement but have seen the least amount of progress. The gay rights movement started with the Stonewall Riots of 1969 in New York City. Many people do not realize that the riots, which were vital to the visibility of LGBTQA* people, were started and led by black drag queens and trans* women of color. The riots, which took place at the Stonewall Inn, were instigated when Sylvia Rivera, a trans woman of Puerto Rican heritage, hit a police officer with her high heel during a routine raid on the inn. Officers would regularly enter the building and arrest people for dressing as the opposite sex and harass patrons physically and verbally. For several days, the LGBTQA* community fought violently for the right to exist without police interference. Afterwards the Gay Liberation Front was formed, which worked to affirm the right to be gay with protests and sometimes violent actions. With the formation of this group, the trans* individuals who led the riots were silenced and forgotten.

Even though public and legal opinion about gay people changed in the 1970s, transgendered individuals still faced more prejudice and invisibility than gay males. In October 1979, the National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights took place, where 75,000 to 125,000 gay, lesbian, transgender, bisexual and straight allies marched for equal civil rights and protection laws for LGBT individuals (I use LGBT because the all inclusive LGBTQA* was not yet coined). The platform for the march included five demands: pass a comprehensive lesbian/gay rights bill in Congress; issue a presidential executive order banning discrimination based on sexual orientation in the federal government, the military and federally contracted private employment; repeal all anti-lesbian/gay laws; end discrimination in lesbian-mother and gay-father custody cases; and protect lesbian and gay youths from any laws which are used to discriminate, oppress and/or harass them in their homes, schools, jobs and social environments. There is no mention of trans* rights or protections in these demands, but the program did state that the term “gay” was meant as an “inclusive term meaning lesbians, gay men and gay transpeople.” Furthermore, Ray Hill, the organizer of the march, was a significant supporter of trans* rights and visibility. Trans* individuals have a history of supporting and marching with the gay rights movement, though before 2002 they were not technically recognized as a part of the queer community. Visibility is one of the biggest hurdles for the trans* community, for it has been repeatedly ignored for their contributions to the movement and have not been included in legislation due to public opinion. Perhaps it is easier to pass a bill for lesbian, gay and bisexual peoples because public opinion of gay people is more favorable than that of trans* people. It is important to note that Minneapolis became the first city in the United States to pass trans-inclusive civil rights protection in 1975.

Feminism, and especially radical feminism, has a poor history with transwomen. As always, social movements adapt and change over time for the voices of the oppressed, but some people still hold the view that transwomen are not women. The history of transwomen and feminism goes back to the 1970s and 1980s, when feminism was becoming more radicalized and the gay movement was in full swing. Gloria Steinem, feminist icon of the 1970s, once stated that she did not see transwomen as real women and that “feminists are right to feel uncomfortable about the need for and uses of transsexualism.” When one of the forefront speakers of feminism criticizes transwomen and bars them from the movement, those listening begin to conform to these same ideas. This leads to major harm for transwomen, who feel like they do not fit into the LGBTQA* movement, the feminist movement or their own homes. Gloria Steinem later apologized for her transphobic comments, but there are still people within the feminist community who use her publications to justify their transphobia.

In 1980, the American Psychiatric Association ruled that trans* people were indeed legitimately different from cisgendered individuals, calling transgenderism “gender identity disorder.” It has since been renamed “gender dysphoria” to disclude the term “disorder.” Other major advances occurred in the 1980s and 1990s, including the founding of the National Transgender Advocacy Coalition (NTAC), led by a group of experienced transgender lobbyists, who discovered after lobbying Congress in May 1999 that other organizations not seemed to be supportive of rights for transgender people had actually been lobbying against the interests of the transgender community. Even though transgendered individuals had support from the LGBTQA* community, it was not supporting them in legislation. Now the transgender community works as a separate entity from the LGBTQA* movement in order to focus solely on trans* rights. Groups focused on trans* activism include the Sylvia Rivera Law Project, founded in 2002, and the Trans People of Color Coalition.

With the turn of the century came another series of changes for trans* people. In 2002, transgender became an officially recognized identification within the queer community. Also during this time, trans* people began seeking political positions. For example, Theresa Sparks was a transwoman who worked as police commissioner and CEO. Sparks was named Woman of the Year by the California State Assembly in 2003, making her the the first transgender woman ever to receive the honor. When trans* individuals hold positions of power and influence, the trans* community becomes more visible to the rest of the world. It is vital to any social movement that it receive exposure in order to advocate for the cause. Because trans* individuals still face workplace discrimination, violence and high suicide rates, it is extraordinarily important that successful trans* people receive due credit when they achieve goals. Famous trans* people from the early 2000s include Kye Allums, the first trans* NCAA Division 1 college athlete and Laverne Cox, whose portrayal of Sofia Burset on “Orange is the New Black” normalized trans* characters on television as full characters, not just token minorities. Cox also became the first African American transwoman to appear on the cover of TIME magazine in 2014.

While the transgender movement has made monumental strides over the past 50 years, there is still much to be done. Though transgendered people now have some protections against  prejudice in public schools and universities, these protections are not nationwide. Furthermore, trans* people face three times more police violence than non-transgender people, and 63 percent of trans* individuals have had a personal experience with serious discrimination.

Public reaction to Bruce Jenner’s coming out provides a snapshot of how America views transgendered people and shows that, while there are many trans* allies, there are still many transphobic people who hold positions of power and continue to stall progress for equality in the nation.

There is no right way to be trans*, and if you or someone you know identifies as trans* please find resources available here.

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