Issues of sexual orientation have been excellent news fodder as the debate over gay rights and gay marriage have turned into policy changes in states all over America and rightly so. The journey towards equality is a long one with many challenges, but the LGBT community has more to it than just the issue of equal marriage. Lately, more emphasis has been placed on the “T” in LGBT as transgender issues have been getting more attention in the media.
Bringing these issues to the fore are shows like Orange is the New Black, which featured a male-to-female transgender character who has been quite popular with viewers. This show portrays a healthy person struggling with issues of having her identity accepted by others and viewers have a strong identification with her. Laverne Cox, the actress who portrays this character, is herself transgender and has used her success in the Netflix Original Series role to create more awareness for the community in the world at large.
Beyond the realm of series television, however, the transgender community has been struggling not just to create awareness for itself, but to fight back against discrimination and ignorance. Rather famously, transgender activist and author Janet Mock had an awkward interview with Piers Morgan which caused some controversy as a headline on the screen said that she was a boy until age 18. Janet Mock tweeted her disapproval of this phrasing and a media storm was created, which culminated with Piers Morgan no longer having a show on CNN.
The Janet Mock interview is possibly one of the best examples of what transgender individuals deal with in their everyday lives. The headline that called Mock a boy until age 18 is an example of what is called misgendering, which is when a person refers to a transgender individual by the wrong pronouns or with reference to the wrong gender. Saying that Mock “was a boy until” is misgendering because transgender individuals do not magically change gender at some time. Janet Mock was a woman from birth no matter what her assigned gender was.
That is the issue that got most of the discussion, but there is a more subtle problem with the Piers Morgan interview. Morgan repeatedly commented that it was unbelievable that Mock should be such a good looking woman after her transition. It is an implication that many transgender individuals deal with and despite seeming to be complimentary, it can actually be offensive in some cases. Outward appearance is not the only factor in transgender identity, but it is the one that gets the most focus because it is so obvious at first glance.
The issue of visibility is a big one for the transgender community because it is a bit of double-edged sword. Being out as transgender can open a person up to serious discrimination and abuse. Cases of transgender individuals being physically abused or even killed are numerous and tragic and show the severity of the risks people take when they come out publicly as transgender. The feeling of being “exposed” is an often repeated concept, one which the Fillipino swimsuit model Geena Rocero referenced in her TED Talk.
There is a certain comfort in anonymity, but the danger in being unseen is that no one will believe there is a problem. Many members of the transgender community feel like the LGBT movement focuses on the “L” and the “G” and even the “B,” but forget the “T.” That is an issue of ongoing debate in the community, but without the exposure and visibility that gays and lesbians have, it seems doubtful that the transgender community will make as much progress as the gay rights movement has unless it starts getting more attention.
There is no doubt that the journey for transgender rights needs to make progress. There are stories in the media about transgender individuals who are discriminated against for jobs or school. In one case, a student at a community college was suspended after using the women’s bathroom, which is the one that aligns itself with her gender identity as a woman. But because the student was transgender, campus police were able to harass her and then have her suspended for a time, claiming that she refused to give them her student ID when asked, a charge the student herself denies. It took six officers to examine the student and her identification and then escort her off the campus, creating an embarrassing scene in front of her classmates and peers.
Incidents like this are why transgender protections are necessary, a fact which some states are aware of and are making progress to provide. In Maryland, for instance, the Maryland House of Delegates approved the Fairness for All Marylanders Act of 2014 which prohibits discrimination against transgender individuals. A Washington Times editor responded to the act, saying that it would endanger all women by allowing a member of the opposite sex to enter a women’s bathroom any time they wanted. Her argument was that because the act does not require someone to have undergone surgery or even dress like a woman, it puts women in danger.
The facts coming from other places with similar protections, however, directly contradict this argument. Baltimore County, Baltimore City, and two others have not experienced any of the problems the Washington Times editor cited. Moreover, there is a report from Equality Matters based on interviews with officials from 12 other states with similar protections bills and there have been no documented cases of attacks on women due to their anti-discrimination acts. The report was extensive and does not support the claims that were made by the Washington Times editor.
People like Laverne Cox, Janet Mock, and Geena Rocero are doing their best to bring more awareness to transgender issue. They are providing a personable, relatable face to the issue with the aim to bring it to the fore of the LGBT movement. Progress is being made in places like Maryland, but for every success story there are more stories of discrimination. Transgender individuals are an important part of the LGBT community and the more attention issues regarding them get, the more progress can hopefully be made towards equality and safety for all transgender people.
Opinion By Lydia Webb