By now, most Americans are probably familiar with the rights movement known by the initials L.G.B.T., but they may have a better sense of the L.G.B. part — lesbian, gay, bisexual. The T, for transgender, has eluded many people. That, however, may be quickly changing with a string of developments in recent years, not the least being the emergence this month of
Caitlyn Jenner, a transgender woman who was a public figure for four decades as Bruce Jenner, Olympic decathlon champion and reality-show personality.
“Bruce always had to tell a lie,” she said in a video accompanying her appearance on the cover of Vanity Fair, but “Caitlyn doesn’t have any secrets.”
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Caitlyn Jenner, Formerly Bruce, Introduces Herself in Vanity FairJUNE 1, 2015
Gender Identity: The Search for the Best Estimate of the Transgender PopulationJUNE 8, 2015
Barnard College, After Much Discussion, Decides to Accept Transgender WomenJUNE 4, 2015
The Jenner story is a jumping-off point for the latest installment of
Retro Report, a series of video documentaries examining major stories of the past and their enduring effects. The video, though, goes much farther back, to the 1960s and gay rights protests in San Francisco and New York. Transgender men and women, people whose sense of identity did not match the body they entered life with, played significant roles. But over the years they bore burdens unique to them, in part because they were unfamiliar to most Americans.
Though the statistics may not be fully reliable, their numbers in this country are commonly estimated at
700,000, or about three-tenths of 1 percent of the adult population. A survey of 4,509 Americans adults conducted in late 2013 by the Public Religion Research Institute found that 65 percent had close friends or relatives who were gay or lesbian. Transgender? Only 9 percent. Even so, awareness of transgender people and their issues is clearly growing, and not just because of Ms. Jenner.
Chaz Bono, the child of the entertainers Sonny and Cher; Chelsea Manning, the imprisoned leaker of Army secrets; Laverne Cox, the star of the Netflix drama “Orange Is the New Black”; writers like Jennifer Finney Boylan and Janet Mock — all are transgender men and women who are shaping the national discussion. “ Transparent,” an award-winning Amazon online video series, is about a family whose father is a transgender woman. Another show with a dad who is a transgender woman, “ Becoming Us,” began last week on the ABC Family network. On June 4, Barnard College in New York announced that it would join women’s colleges like Wellesley, Mount Holyoke and Smith in enrolling transgender women.
Those sorts of developments suggest that transgender men and women have made strides toward acceptance. “We don’t want anything other than our humanity,” Ms. Boylan, who teaches at Barnard and is a contributing opinion writer for The New York Times, told Retro Report.
Yet hatred, discrimination and violence remain the daily lot for thousands. Seven transgender women, nearly all African-Americans, were murdered in the span of a month early this year. Suicides are common, including among teenagers, who become overwhelmed by the intolerance they face while dealing with their gender identities. In San Diego,
Kyler Prescott ended his life last month at 14. In December, Leelah Alcorn, a 17-year-old in Ohio, threw herself in front of a moving tractor-trailer.
Other examples abound, and teenagers are hardly alone in struggling. A 2011 report by the
National Transgender Discrimination Survey showed that an astounding 41 percent of the 6,450 people interviewed had tried to kill themselves — not just thought about it, but actually made the attempt.
The findings of the survey, titled “Injustice at Every Turn,” cannot be generalized to all transgender and “gender nonconforming” people because the study was not based on a random sample. But people in the study who identified themselves as part of either of these groups said they had frequently experienced physical assaults. Transgender adults and teens who participated in the study said they were harassed in schools and on the street, sometimes by the police.
Some transgender activists feel shunted aside even by their brothers and sisters in the L.G.B.T. movement. “Trans people continue to be marginalized within the L.G.B.T. rights struggle, treated as tokens when convenient,” Meredith Talusan, a transgender woman, wrote last June in
The American Prospect magazine.
Life in prisons or in homeless shelters, never pleasant for anyone, can be a nightmare of rape and other abuses for transgender men and women. Lourdes Ashley Hunter, executive director of the
Trans Women of Color Collective, left Detroit in 2002 to put down roots in New York. Homeless on her arrival and turned away by a women’s shelter that would not accept her gender identity, she had no choice but to go to a men’s shelter. There, she told Retro Report, she was raped in the shower by a man holding a razor blade.
“There was nothing that I can do,” she recalled. When she reported the assault to shelter staff members, “they blamed me.” And that, she said with tears welling, “is just a snapshot of what we have to go through just to live.”
One goal of advocacy groups is to take control of their own narrative. “Language is power,” Ms. Boylan said, echoing an understanding among political groups that a national debate on, say, a topic like the
estate tax is shaped mightily by whether one calls it “a death tax” or “a Paris Hilton tax.” The rights group Glaad, formed in the 1980s as the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Discrimination, has issued a guide for news organizations filled with explanations about which words are acceptable and which are not. “Transgender,” this advisory makes clear, is an umbrella term that can encompass various forms of identity. It may be applied to those who alter their bodies with hormones or through surgery and to those who make no physical changes.
As the guide also notes, the American Psychiatric Association in 2013 discarded the negative word “disorder” to describe transgender people. “Gender dysphoria” replaced a diagnosis that used to be called “
gender identity disorder.” The extent to which other phrases will seep into the mainstream remains to be seen. Take a word like “cisgender” — “cis” being a Latin prefix that means “on the same side as” — to describe people who are not transgender. The guide acknowledges that the term is “not commonly known outside the L.G.B.T. community.”
The real point is “for people to get to know us,” Nick Adams, who represents Glaad on transgender issues, told Retro Report. “And get to know that we’re people just like everyone else.”