We are at a moment of unprecedented visibility for transgender Americans. According to a new survey released today by the Human Rights Campaign, one in three people personally know or work with somebody transgender.
That’s twice what it was just two years ago. And it’s a huge jump from 2008, when less than one in 10 people reported knowing someone transgender.
This is a good step, remarkable news and, still, there’s so much more to do. We know that when straight, cisgender people know LGBT people, they support laws that protect us. We also know that being a visible transgender person today is far from easy and can be enormously dangerous.
As we celebrate today’s International Transgender Day of Visibility, it’s time for an honest conversation about the realities of what visibility means to our lives and to our movement.
First and foremost, being visible is different depending on who you are. While many of us share an often challenging journey to live our truths, we are not only our transgender identities. I’m a white transgender man who lives in the suburbs with my wife and two kids. I’m enormously privileged even as lawmakers attempt — and sometimes succeed — to pass laws that deny my very identity (or ability to use a public restroom).
To put it plainly, when I walk down the street, I don’t get whistled at. Nobody stares at me because I’m wearing a hooded sweatshirt or because I’m too tall or too big (or, even at 5’1”, too short and too small). Nobody follows me through the store. Nobody scrutinizes my clothing or my voice or my hair. My gender and race aren’t policed because, in our society today, if you’re white and masculine, you avoid such scrutiny. Not to mention the many benefits my identities bring. I couldn’t count the number of times — from professional events to the car dealership with my spouse — where my thoughts have been sought more often than the women and people of color who surrounded me, despite their often superior qualifications.
The reality is it’s a lot easier for me to be visible today than my transgender sisters, especially my sisters of color. Or my transgender brothers who are black or Latino. Beyond these realities, I have the ability to come out on my own terms, when I so choose. People don’t look at me and assume I’m transgender. For transgender people who can’t simply blend in — who can’t be invisible — stigma and transphobia can mean daily harassment and often violence.
To be clear, my ability to secure and maintain a job, to access fully inclusive health care, to help put a roof over my kids’ heads, are all made more precarious by the stigma and discrimination that comes with my transgender identity. But, for me, the consequences of living as an open transgender man are much less dire than for many of my peers.
To help shine a light on all we have in common, as well as the the different realities confronting us, Angelica Ross and TransTech Social Enterprises recently shot a series of videos featuring a group of amazing transgender advocates speaking about their personal experiences. Sponsored by HRC, the series is worth every minute of your time.
In the most recently released video, Kaycee Ortiz, an advocate working with the trans community in Chicago, calls out those in the LGBT community who praise transgender celebrities while “making fun of the girls who are walking down Halstead or the kids who are coming from the homeless shelter.”
In another video, Sarah McBride, a political advocate based here in Washington, D.C., speaks about being sexually harassed by a cab driver. She says, “I didn’t feel comfortable speaking up because, for me, the worst thing that he could realize was that he was sexually harassing a transgender woman.”
Achim Howard, a trans advocate who also lives in D.C., recalls being threatened physically upon disclosing he was transgender, and speaks about the safety concerns many transgender men experience.
The conversations are far-ranging and supported by data from the National Transgender Discrimination Survey. Data from that survey shows the staggering rates of physical and sexual harassment and violence faced by transgender people, as well as their high levels of unemployment, housing insecurity and poverty — burdens largely being shouldered by transgender people of color and women.
To be clear, despite our gains, there continues to be significant stigma for us all to overcome.
The battles we’ve been fighting in statehouses across the country make clear that our opponents are doing whatever they can to paint us as monsters. They’ve taken a page out of an old, bigoted playbook. But we know the key to winning.
And that key, despite its challenges, is visibility. Visibility made a huge difference, for example, in securing the governor’s veto in South Dakota and countering the hateful messages our opponents were sending.
It wasn’t so long ago that our opponents were painting gays and lesbians as deviants. We changed much of that narrative, bringing about key victories. But we are nowhere near done yet. We see our opponents today attempting to paint transgender women as predators — and not just in North Carolina, where a new law strips municipal protections for LGBT people across the state, and aims to both prohibit students and adults from using restrooms consistent with their gender identity in so many aspects of daily life.
As we work toward equality for the full LGBT community, we’d do well not to ignore the enormous progress made possible by the coming out of countless Americans. Yes, that includes celebrities, but it also includes the person in the cubicle next to you at work, the son of your best friend, your teacher, your fellow churchgoer. Each victory — big and small — has been made possible by everyday Americans living their truths, with no laws explicitly protecting them, and facing the deep stigma that continues to persist in many areas in our country.
We should do everything possible to ensure that transgender Americans continue to come out and live our truths in greater numbers all across this country. But to do so, we must stand in solidarity with the many transgender people who often have no other choice than to be visible in all of their identities.
Today, on International Transgender Day of Visibility, we recognize the resilience of my community, the heroism of many, the work left to do, and the hope that our research provides — when people know us, they support us and the laws that protect us.