Being Transgender Today

After years of struggling for visibility and acceptance, transgender individuals and the issues they face came into the national spotlight in 2015.

Caitlyn Jenner

Caitlyn Jenner
Photo Credit: Annie Leibovitz / Vanity Fair

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In a 20/20 interview with Diane Sawyer on April 24, 2015, Olympian and reality television personality Bruce Jenner said that he was a transgender woman. During the interview, Jenner explained that he has dealt with gender dysphoria since he was young and began the physical transition with hormone replacement therapy in the 1980s. Jenner said he quit transitioning when he met Kris Kardashian, who he married in 1991.

In early June 2015, Jenner appeared on the cover of Vanity Fair and tweeted this statement, "I'm so happy after such a long struggle to be living my true self. Welcome to the world Caitlyn. Can't wait for you to get to know her/me." Jenner's transition will be the subject of a documentary series, I Am Cait, set to air in July 2015.

Having been a fixture in recent years on the popular reality show, Keeping Up with the Kardashians, Caitlyn Jenner has helped to increase transgender visibility in the U.S., which was already at an all time high in 2015. Earlier in 2015, Transparent, an Amazon television series about an aging father living as a woman won a Golden Globe Award for Best Television Series – Musical or Comedy. Orange is the New Black transgender actress Laverne Cox graced the cover of Time magazine a year earlier. In January 2015, President Obama became the first president to use the word transgender in a State of the Union address when he condemned the persecution of "people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender."

Years of Struggle

For years, transgender individuals have struggled for acceptance, protection, and visibility even among other minorities. With the list of states legalizing gay marriage growing and broad acceptance into pop culture, the gay and lesbian population has gained increased visibility and protection in recent years. However, transgender individuals have not been afforded the same rights. The numbers are one reason. In the United States, there are 8 million people who identify as gay, lesbian, or bisexual. According to the Williams Institute at UCLA's School of Law, there are 700,000 transgender people in the United States.

In 2011, one transgender person was killed every month because of their identity, according to the Transgender Legal Defense and Education Fund. The National Center for Transgender Equality and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force surveyed 6,450 transgender individuals in the United States in 2011. Of those surveyed, 41 percent reported that they had attempted suicide compared to 1.6 percent in the general population. Also, 64 percent had been sexually assaulted, and 55 percent had lost a job due to their identity. Of those who had established their transgender identity as school-age students, over 78 percent reported they had been harassed and 35 percent had been physically assaulted. Nearly 15 percent left school because the harassment was so severe.

As of May 2015, 32 states still had no laws banning job discrimination against transgender individuals. Furthermore, in the first five months of 2015, seven transgender women were murdered in the United States.

Definitions

Many people still struggle with an exact definition of transgender, confusing it with other terms. Being transgender has nothing to do with sexual orientation, sex, or genitalia. Transgender is strictly about gender identity. Many transgender individuals do not have sexual reassignment surgery for various reasons. Some cannot afford it. Often health insurance doesn't cover the expensive surgeries. Some do not want to undergo procedures. For trans men, especially, the surgeries are difficult, often with disappointing results.

The term transgender, first used in the 1980s, is an umbrella term that includes any person going against the social norms of their biological gender. This includes transsexuals, people who alter their bodies with surgery, hormones, or both. Intersex people, those born with ambiguous genitalia, are usually considered separate from transgender. Cross-dresser is a term often confused with transgender, but it simply refers to a person of one gender who wears the clothing of the opposite sex. Cross-dressers do not necessarily desire to be the opposite gender. Another term often confused with transgender is transvestite. Transvestite is a synonym for cross-dresser; however, cross-dresser is the preferred term. Finally, the term drag refers to a style of dress worn for entertaining. Drag queen refers to men in female attire while drag king describes women in male clothing.

Lack of Protection and Support

Courts have struggled with how to protect and support the transgender community. The Equal Protection Clause and the Civil Rights Act of 1964 does not allow discrimination based on gender. The issue in courts is whether the protections apply to a person born of one gender, but presents her- or himself as another.

In 2008, a Washington D.C. court ruled against the Library of Congress for retracting a job offer from a woman after she informed them that she was transitioning from male to female. However, in a 2005 case, Etsitty v. Utah Transit Authority, a court ruled that the bus company was allowed to fire a male-to-female employee based on the liability to have someone with male sex organs using the women's bathroom.

Texas has a law requiring two opposite-gender birth certificates for a couple to legally marry. In May 2011, Tennessee passed a law that only protects a person from discrimination according to the gender on his or her birth certificate. The law does not protect transgender individuals because Tennessee does not allow changes to a birth certificate. In June 2011, a gender identity anti-discrimination bill in New York failed to pass.

However, on November 23, 2011, Massachusetts governor Deval Patrick signed historic legislation that protects transgender individuals from discrimination in employment, education, housing, and credit. The law also provides additional protection against hate crimes. In doing so, Massachusetts became the 16th state to pass a law protecting transgender individuals. Of the new law, Attorney General Martha Coakley said, "For too long, transgender people have suffered in silence in seeking employment, safe housing, and educational opportunities. With the signing of this bill, Massachusetts has created a better, and fairer, future for all residents, regardless of their gender identity or expression."

Psychiatrists have debated over the years how to define and support transgender individuals. In 1973, the term "homosexuality" was removed from the second edition of the American Psychiatric Association's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Mental Disorders (DSM). However, in 1980, the term "transsexualism" was added to the DSM. In a later DSM volume, the term "transsexualism" was included under the controversial "gender identity disorder." In 2013, a major change came with the fifth edition publication of the DSM. In that edition, "gender identity disorder," a term that had been considered by many to be stigmatizing, was replaced with "gender dysphoria," a term which refers to only those who feel anxious about their gender identity.

Born This Way

Even among other minorities, transgender individuals have been discriminated against at times. For example, an annual feminist music festival very popular with the lesbian community, the Michigan Womyn's Music Festival, has a strict policy of only allowing women who were born women. The exclusion has inspired an annual protest called Camp Trans. Held across from the Michigan Womyn's Music Festival, Camp Trans works to educate attendees on the issue of transgender inclusion.

In 2015, the organizers of the Michigan Womyn's Music Festival announced that this would be the festival's final year. Attendance for the festival has decreased in recent years. Perhaps it was another sign of a sea change towards an awareness of transgender issues and discrimination. While the Michigan Womyn's Music Festival held to their strict women who were born women policy, a new generation of musicians such as Lady Gaga rose to fame, championing inclusion through music, videos, and charity work. In the lyrics of her hit song, Born This Way, Lady Gaga includes transgender in a verse about survival: "No matter gay, straight or bi, lesbian, transgender life. I'm on the right track, baby. I was born to survive."


Source: U.S. Census Bureau, The National Center for Transgender Equality, National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, American Psychiatric Association's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, Williams Institute at UCLA's School of Law, FTM: Female-to-Male Transsexuals in Society by Aaron H. Devor.

—Jennie Wood
Did you know?
“Vermont” comes from the French “vert mont,” meaning “green mountain.”

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