Op-Alt: Transgender in America hits critical mass

City Paper

Last week in Chicago, the Trans 100 ceremony celebrated 100 transgender women and men who made a significant difference within the trans community in 2014. The keynote speakers were Lana Wachowski, half of the sibling duo that gave us “The Matrix” trilogy and “Cloud Atlas,” and Tiq Milan, senior media strategist at GLAAD (formerly the acronym for Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation). Laura Jane Grace fronted her band Against Me! performing songs from the 2014 album “Transgender Dysphoria Blues.”

The ceremony also celebrated a year, 2014, that was the most extraordinary year ever for the 700,000 transgender women and men in America. In terms of visibility, acceptance, and organization, we’ve reached a critical mass that has forever changed the way transgender people are perceived. Whether it’s television, film, music, the internet, university lecture tours, fashion, the news, we are everywhere.

Actress/activist Laverne Cox graced the cover of Time magazine. At Against Me! concerts, fans chant “God bless your transsexual heart.” Writer/activist Janet Mock’s New York Times-bestselling autobiography brought her national acclaim and her MSNBC show “So Popular!” Who has not seen the beleaguered Bruce Jenner on the cover of every magazine in the grocery line? Whether she’s being mocked or praised, she is omnipresent. We are omnipresent!

Television in 2014 showed a significant increase in transgender programming.  This year, Jeffrey Tambor received a Golden Globe for his role in “Transparent,” and thanked the transgender community “for letting us be a part of the change.”We are no longer the fodder of Law & Order drag-queen “gay panic” murder episodes, or the stale talk-show trope of “a girl trapped in a boy’s body.” More often we’re seeing positive, often thoughtful portrayals of transgender women and men (often played by trans actors). Alexandra Billings, a trans actress, co-starred in “Transparent.” Laverne Cox, a woman of color and co-star of “Orange is the New Black,” has become an activist and is invited to lecture at universities, including Towson University, where I heard her speak to a sold-out crowd of hundreds of students. Britain’s BBC2 began shooting a sitcom series “Boy Meets Girl” starring trans actress Rebecca Root. An American film of the same name stars the very pretty 23-year-old trans actress Michelle Hendley. At 14, Jazz Jennings has an upcoming reality show called “All That Jazz” on TLC that chronicles her life as a trans teen. She also landed an advertising spot as the new face of Clean & Clear. BBC America’s “Orphan Black” featured an FTM trans as one of the six orphans. We used to be portrayed as victims often receiving our just desserts in the end for being society’s outcasts—but we’re done with that.   

In the world of haute couture, using trans models has become the fashion. Barneys’ 2014 spring campaign used 17 transgender fashion models including Carmen Carrera and gorgeous Andreja Pejic. Carrera was the first trans model signed to New York’s prestigious Elite Modeling Agency. Many trans models blend in, not as novelties, but simply and appropriately as part of the industry.

The internet is full of websites focused on all aspects of transgender life. Huffington Post has a section dedicated to covering trans news and issues. Anyone seeking information on how to transition, where to find therapists or surgeons, or any other concerns will find a plethora of sites.

Recently investor and philanthropist Jennifer Pritzker was identified as the first transgender billionaire. Chelsea (formerly Bradley) Manning, convicted for leaking confidential government documents, is beginning hormone therapy while in federal prison. Perhaps one of the most stunning stories is the MTF transition of ex-Navy Seal Kristin Beck. And the Department of Defense is taking steps towards allowing transgender men and women to serve in the military. Obama even mentioned transgender rights in his State of the Union address.

Women’s colleges like Smith, Wellesley, Mount Holyoke, and Mills are revising their admittance policies to accommodate all trans women. Washington, D.C. health insurance now pays for transgender health care including genital reassignment surgery. Last year Maryland passed landmark legislature protecting transgender people from discrimination in housing, employment, and the use of public bathrooms. On March 10, Utah—we’re talking Mormons here—did the same. Many states are following suit. 

Why has America embraced the transgender community? There is no one answer other than that we are no longer invisible. There are 700,000 of us in America and we are no longer living in the shadows as pariahs. When I transitioned over 20 years ago I was practically on my own. Now we’ve gone mainstream, and it’s incredibly empowering. Maybe young trans girls, as I once was, will transition early enough to spare themselves many years of misery. And maybe those who are older but still haven’t resolved their gender dysphoria will decide it’s OK to be themselves. It’s okay to be transgender. And that is something to celebrate.

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