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America Has Not Reached a Transgender Tipping Point

The media would like to think so. Our laws and statistics prove otherwise.

ABC News

Without a doubt, it was an extraordinary week for the transgender community. Model Andreja Pejic made history by becoming the first transgender woman to be profiled in Vogue. Laverne Cox, Emmy nominee for "Orange Is the New Black," joined several other women baring it all for Allure's annual “Nudes” issue, becoming the first transgender actress to do so. And of course, there was Diane Sawyer's highly-rated interview with Bruce Jenner, which, as other outlets have pointed out, was notable mainly for what Sawyer did not do (and which past interviewers have done): fixate on Jenner's genitals and any decisions regarding future surgery; conflate gender and sexual orientation; or sensationalize the episode with inappropriate pictures or invasive questions. Sawyer mostly let Jenner speak for himself, even asking Jenner what pronoun he prefers (which explains my use of  “himself” and “he” in this sentence).

And yet, one wonders if the media is engaging in a bit too much self-congratulation for the apparent “progress” that transgender people have made. Outlets fell over themselves to herald Cox's “groundbreaking” shoot and praise her “flawless”  figure. CNN called the Jenner interview “America's transgender moment,” while Time speculated that it could be a “watershed moment.” This, after Time cover story on Cox last year on how America is reaching a “transgender tipping point,” a phrase Vogue lifted verbatim for the headline of its feature on Pejic. 

But if America is reaching a turning point on transgender issues, so far it is strictly in terms of visibility—not, as one might hope, in terms of America's overall attitudes and laws. 

Not that visibility isn't important. Gay and lesbian visibility, i.e., the willingness for more people in the public sphere to come out, was arguably the most important catalyst in advancing gay rights in our country. And while we still have a long way to go to eradicate homophobia, at least the laws and the polls are moving in the right direction. With 37 states implementing marriage equality—the Supreme Court is set to rule on constitutionality this June—and a slew of polling showing attitudes towards gay and lesbians have shifted demonstrably,  progress is no longer measured by the Ellens and Eltons and Neil-Patricks we see in the news, but by the girl in Arkansas who gets to take her girlfriend to the prom or a man marrying his partner in Oklahoma.

As such, we ought to be careful not to oversell the “progress” we are seeing on transgender issues, remembering that the visibility of a select few rich, famous, and/or beautiful people may not reflect the reality experienced by the transgender community as a whole. 

For that reality, according to statistics provided by the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force's largest survey on the transgender community, is not just sobering, but downright depressing. Sawyer touched upon this in her interview, referring to the high suicide rates among the transgender population and the lack of workplace protection in all but a few handful of states. This barely scratches the surface of the struggles that the vast majority of transgender people face: 90 percent of those surveyed reported experiencing harassment, mistreatment or discrimination on the job, and 47 percent said they were fired, not hired or denied a promotion because of being transgender or gender non-conforming. Nineteen percent  have experienced homelessness at some point in their lives. Transgender youth in grades K-12 reported alarming rates of harassment (78 percent), physical assault (35 percent) and sexual violence (12 percent). For transgender people of color, poverty rates over eight times the national average; HIV infection rates are over 20 percent, compared to 2.4 percent for the general black population; and almost half have attempted suicide. 

And yet, these statistics shouldn't surprise us once we examine the abysmal state of transgender rights in America. The majority of states in the United States do not have laws prohibiting discrimination in employment based on gender identity/expression, nor do they have anti-bullying or anti-discrimination laws to protect students, or hate crime laws specifically designed to protect people in this class. Only eight states provide any form of transition-related insurance, while 20 states still have “unclear or burdensome” requirements for transgender people to change their identities. And if that's not enough, several states have recently attempted to pass laws requiring individuals to use bathrooms based on their “biological birth” gender. 

This is not to say that highlighting these positive steps is wrong. The tendency for media outlets to celebrate these moments is admirable; one hopes that they will inspire those who are transgender and suffering to see change on the horizon and empower them to be part of that change. But much as racism hardly ended with the election of Obama, transphobia is not going away anytime soon. In fact, it's rearing its ugly head so often that we need to remind ourselves to place this week's positive news in the greater context of the struggle for transgender acceptance and dignity. For every Laverne Cox, there are still far too many Leelah Alcorns.