Trans visibility has skyrocketed since Monday’s unveiling of the new and absolutely fabulous Caitlyn Jenner on the cover of Vanity Fair magazine. Trans bodybuilder, entrepreneur, and advocate Aydian Dowling is vying for a chance to grace the cover of Men’s Health. Laverne Cox is a critically acclaimed actress. Janet Mock is a bestselling author, as is Chaz Bono. Pro-trans legislation has been passed in various places around the country. Now that marriage equality is an inevitability, perhaps it is our turn.
The reaction to this newfound mainstream interest in the trans community that I find most amusing is that of utter shock. Some behave as if this is some type of brand new phenomenon, that transgenderism is obviously the result of homosexuality being allowed to “run amok.” Contrary to collective amnesia, none of the great trans pioneers mentioned above was the first to gain mainstream publicity. None of them were the first to be placed in the public eye, both as an object of disdain and a fetishistic idol. That credit, in modern memory, lies largely with Christine Jorgenson. Jorgenson, a World War II veteran, fell into the spotlight after becoming the first known American to undergo a “sex-change,” hormonal and surgical transition, in 1952.
Long before Christine Jorgenson or the development of any type of medical interventions, thousands of people from generations spanning the entire history of humanity have been transgender.
Transgender individuals have long been given positions of great respect and prominence in indigenous cultures. A wide variety of Native American tribes gave and still give so-called Two-Spirit people great respect. In India, hijras has fought for their socio-political rights in the wake of colonial imposition of Western morality. In Thailand, gender and sexual identities are diverse and numerous. Even in the conservative, socially repressive theocracy of Iran, the government will fully pay for the transition of heterosexual trans women.
Late nineteenth century sexologists like Hirschfeld, Krafft-Ebing, and Ellis documented the existence and “treatment” of transgenderism. An unknown number of transgender individuals during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries ran away from repressive families, and, without the assistance of medical intervention to alter their appearance, blended into the role of their gender identity in a new city, living in constant fear of discovery. Notable examples of this include jazz musician Billy Tipton and the thousands of trans men who took up arms for their country during the Civil War.
We have come a long way. It is incredibly rare, though I cannot say with certainty unheard of, that transgender individuals are arrested for failing to wear three articles of clothing assigned to their birth sex, a practice which was common only forty years ago. Legal transgender nondiscrimination laws are active in nineteen states and the District of Columbia. More people than ever before are becoming educated, willingly or not, on the existence and nuances involved with transgender people. We have moved mountains, but it is not enough. Where do we go from here? What does true trans liberation look like? To find those answers, we must delineate the practical from the theoretical.
Practically speaking, what’s next for the transgender community is for widespread protections against violence and discrimination. Nineteen of fifty states is, while something of an accomplishment, entirely abysmal. Legal protections for the lives and livelihoods of transgender individuals should be protected with the same legal gusto as any other minority group. Insurance companies, including government insurance such as Medicare, Medicaid, and governmental employee insurance, should be required to cover transitional medical care. Hormones, surgery, and therapy should be considered essential instead of elective, and they should be covered as such. Transgenderism should be something that is freely spoken of and for which educational materials are easily accessible. The more the cis world understands the transgender community, the less likely (hopefully) they will be to perpetrate acts of violence, especially against their own children. Issues of trans poverty, underemployment, and homelessness should be addressed. Brutality against trans people—specifically women—at the hands of family, sexual partners, strangers, and the police should be held to as heinous a level as brutality against anyone else. The first steps to solving the practical problems facing trans people is to recognize our shared humanity.
In the realm of the theoretical, there are many dangers. Gender binaries and trans master narratives seek only to reinforce the power of the patriarchy. Perfect stories about perfect trans people who have never once struggled with identity or gender in the face of impossible obstacles are not only too good to be true, they’re harmful both within and outside the community. If cis people believe in these master narratives, it becomes more difficult for those of us who cannot fit that mold to be accepted and understood. Trans lives, just as cis ones, are infinite diversity in infinite combinations. That infinite diversity cannot exist, however, without the recognition of nonbinary gender identities and presentations. Trans is not a bar held so far above everyone as to be impossible to reach. Trans is a simple matter of a misaligned mind and body. Master narratives force us into delegitimizing genders outside the binary, and this is both limiting and repressive. We cannot stand for repression coming from our own community, or we will never pull through.
I have to believe that a future of true trans liberation is possible. I fight for it every day. One day, this world will allow every person of any gender identity to exist freely, without question or harassment. Transgender people will occupy all levels of government and media; no one will bat an eyelash. Gender will cease to be a matter of this or that. Will this be achievable in my lifetime? I’m not sure, but you can bet I’ll fight for it.
What does trans liberation look like to you?