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Person of the Year: Transgender Americans

Person Of The Year

The Advocate highlights the people who gave the LGBT community hope in 2017.

As always, we limited ourselves to selecting the 10 people (or groups of people) who were most influential on LGBT lives during the past year, and the resulting list represents some of the most inspirational figures of 2017. This was been another difficult year, with many fighting just to keep hold of recent advances for equality and to awaken the country to systemic inequities for LGBTs, people of color, religious minorities, and women -- all of whom have come under attack with the ascendancy of the Trump administration. This year's list gives us reason to rely on our strength and persistence.


Transgender Americans have borne the brunt of the Trump administration's hostility toward vulnerable populations. Barely a month after Donald Trump took the presidential oath of office, his Justice and Education departments rescinded guidelines issued under President Barack Obama advising school districts on how to accommodate transgender students. The action led the Supreme Court in March to cancel its plans to hear trans teen Gavin Grimm's case, which hinged partly on the guidance. (In a bit of irony, Grimm was honored by the Justice Department during Pride Month.) Trump's announcement of the egregious ban on military service by transgender Americans followed in July. The Justice Department also announced that it would no longer consider Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which bans sex discrimination in employment, to apply to gender identity (or sexual orientation). The administration banned the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention from even using the word "transgender" in official documents for the 2018 budget. Transgender people stand to suffer along with lesbians, gays, and bisexuals due to the administration's "religious freedom" guidance, its undermining of an antidiscrimination order for federal contractors, and its anti-LGBT appointees. At the state level, there have been more attempts to pass anti-trans "bathroom bills." And trans Americans continue to suffer horrific rates of violence, with 26 known homicides so far this year, one short of 2017's record of 27.

But trans Americans have shown they are nothing if not resilient. Lawsuits by transgender service members have resulted in federal judges blocking the military ban at least temporarily, so trans troops can serve openly for now, and the armed forces will take new trans enlistees beginning January 1. Activists have pointed out that even with the withdrawal of the education guidance, schools can and should establish trans-inclusive policies, and should be pressed to do so, in court if necessary. "It does not change the legal and moral duty of schools to support all students," Mara Keisling, executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality, said when the guidance was rescinded in February. A "bathroom bill" went down the drain in Texas. Many major corporations have announced support for trans rights. Transgender visibility continues to rise, on television, in movies, and in politics, with November bringing groundbreaking trans victories from coast to coast. (Read more about these political wins in the following pages.)


Danica Roem won a historic victory November 7 in the Virginia House of Delegates District 13 race. An out transgender woman, she decisively defeated the most anti-LGBT member of the legislature, 17-year veteran Bob Marshall. A Democrat and former journalist, Roem won by knocking on doors throughout the northern Virginia district and emphasizing the economy, jobs, and transportation, issues Marshall had neglected in favor of pushing bathroom restrictions and fighting marriage equality, and during the campaign he even refused to recognize Roem as a woman. By contrast, "I campaigned on a platform of building up our infrastructure and not tearing down each other. ... A message of inclusion and equality resonated here," she told MSNBC's Lawrence O'Donnell on Election Night. She will become the first openly transgender person seated in any state legislature in the U.S. (a trans woman elected in New Hampshire in 2012 was never sworn in, and at least one other was elected while not acknowledging her transgender status).

There were other victories for trans candidates in November. Not one but two trans people were elected to the City Council in progressive Minneapolis -- Andrea Jenkins and Phillipe Cunningham. Jenkins replaced the departing council member she had worked for, and Cunningham beat a 20-year incumbent. Tyler Titus became the first openly transgender elected official in Pennsylvania with his election to the Erie School Board. Lisa Middleton was elected to the Palm Springs City Council, making her the first out trans person to win a nonjudicial office in California -- and her win, along with that of bisexual woman Christy Holstege, made the desert oasis's council entirely LGBT.


Out director Luca Guadagnino's lush adaptation of Andre Aciman's queer-themed novel Call Me by Your Name, about a 17-year-old's romantic/sexual awakening with a 24-year-old over the course of the summer in northern Italy in 1983, has already earned a Golden Globe nomination and it could well be on its way to a Best Picture Oscar nomination. An auteur who combines the naturalism of location shooting, long shots, and sweeping pans that allow the action to unfold seamlessly with a formalist sensibility that includes a focus on doorways and window panes as frames within the frame, Guadagnino has delivered possibly the first queer-themed film from an out director that both elevates the art of filmmaking and is beloved by audiences for the visceral romance between Elio (a revelational Timothee Chalamet) and Armie Hammer's Oliver, a statuesque depiction of male beauty if ever there were one.

Already a force to be reckoned with in his native Italy, Guadagnino had a couple of features under his belt before he directed his breakthrough 2010 film I Am Love, which starred his friend and frequent collaborator Tilda Swinton and explored some of Call Me by Your Name's territory with its focus on location shooting and a bourgeous family forever changed by romance and passion. The director's star continued to rise with his first English-language film, A Bigger Splash, in 2016, which starred Swinton and Ralph Fiennes. Todd Haynes's deftly crafted queer romance Carol earned Oscar nods for its stars Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara, and Gus Van Sant's biopic with a queer political bent, Milk, earned a screenwriting Oscar for Dustin Lance Black, a Best Actor win for its lead Sean Penn, and a Best Picture nomination. But Guadagnino is poised to become the highest-profile out director to earn awards and attention for a film about desire and love between men. At the very least, the images Gaudagnino has carefully crafted to depict Elio and Oliver's love affair will be shown over and over again on network television throughout awards season.



Lena Waithe made history this year at the Emmy Awards by becoming the first African-American woman to win for Outstanding Writing for a Comedy Series. The lesbian writer, actress, and producer earned this honor for co-penning an episode of Netflix's Master of None with Aziz Ansari, "Thanksgiving," which was inspired by her own coming-out to her family.

The win was a bellwether moment for Hollywood, which had chosen to honor a writer and a storyline that advocate for intersectional identities. Waithe, in another win for visibility, also took the opportunity to send a message to the LGBT community in her acceptance speech. "The things that make us different -- those are our superpowers," she declared to the world and us.

This triumph established Waithe as a face of change in the entertainment industry. White straight people may still dominate the narratives in mainstream films, but the reality of America is far more complex. Waithe, through her storytelling and roles, is helping to push Hollywood in the direction of reality.

But Master of None, in which she also costars as the queer character Denise, is far from the only mark Waithe has made in Tinseltown. She served as a producer of Justin Simien's prescient film Dear White People -- and is set to appear in its critically acclaimed Netflix adaptation of the same name. She also created a Showtime series, The Chi, which tackles police corruption and violence within communities of color in her native South Side of Chicago. Her web series, Twenties, which centers on a queer black woman, may also soon see new life on television.

But perhaps most admirably, Waithe has served as a collaborator, mentor, and possibility model to an up-and-coming generation of queer people and people of color in Hollywood. As Waithe told Out magazine, which recently honored her as Artist of the Year, "I hoped that they could see through me that when you tell your story, when you live your authentic life, only good things will come from it."


Before Harvey Weinstein's downfall spurred a national reckoning about sexual harassment and abuse and prompted the #MeToo movement, Andrea Constand came out publicly in 2015 as a lesbian to challenge Bill Cosby's assertion that he knew how to read the desires of the women he assaulted. Constand filed suit against Cosby in 2005, alleging that he had drugged and raped her in 2004, which ended in a settlement for an undisclosed amount that was bound by a confidentiality agreement that Cosby's attorneys accused her of breaking through two vague tweets in 2015 in which she simply wrote "Yes," and "Sir!" And despite Cosby's attempts to silence her through his attorneys, she fought back. A former employee of the basketball program at Cosby's alma mater, Temple University, where they met and were friendly, Constand told her story for the first time in a courtroom this summer.

Of the more than 60 women who accused the once-beloved comic of drugging, raping, and abusing them, Constand had the only case for which the statute of limitations had not run out, which left her battling in a Pennsylvania courtroom not only for herself but on behalf of all of his accusers, although several of them testified at the trial. The trial against Cosby hinged on Constand's standing strong against him in her testimony as lawyers attempted to use the fact that she had once been friends with him and that he had a habit of coming on to women, including her, against her, ended in June in a mistrial with a deadlocked jury. A retrial was scheduled for early November but was pushed to March or April of 2018 while Cosby reassembles his legal team. Meanwhile, Constand, despite having already bared her self in court is set to testify at the retrial to take down her abuser, an act of courage that could send a message to survivors to continue to speak out and to abusers that there will be consequences.



The #MeToo movement is a watershed moment for Hollywood and the world, shedding a much-needed spotlight on sexual abuse toward women. But men can also be victims of sexual abuse, and they face their own stigma against coming forward.

Anthony Rapp is at the forefront of fighting this stigma. In an October interview with BuzzFeed, the out Star Trek: Discovery star revealed he had been "seduced" by Kevin Spacey when he was 14 and the Usual Suspects actor was 26. His story prompted Spacey to come out -- a move that was slammed by GLAAD as well as prominent members of the LGBT community, who criticized it as a dangerous diversionary tactic that conflated gay identity with pedophilia.

But Rapp also inspired dozens of others, queer and straight, to speak out against Spacey, with allegations of abuse, rape, and misconduct that spanned decades. Many pointed to Rapp's courage as the reason they felt empowered to come forward. As a result, the Oscar-winning actor was fired from Netflix's House of Cards and was even erased from the film All the Money in the World after director Ridley Scott recast and reshot his role with Christopher Plummer.

The impact of Rapp's bravery is far-reaching. If he had not spoken out against Spacey, there is no telling if these stories would ever have come to light -- and a potential predator might still be on the prowl. The accusations against Spacey also reveal a troubling pattern, in which Spacey used the closet to his advantage. Some victims claimed they were hesitant to accuse Spacey, because it would mean "outing" the actor, which is considered a taboo act in the media. Others were closeted themselves or felt shame about being taken advantage of by another man. As more men come forward with claims of sexual assault, these conversations on how the closet and stigma can be used to silence victims are essential to fighting abuse within the entirety of the LGBT community.

In addition to taking down Spacey, Rapp has continued to empower victims. In November, he shared messages of hate he has received on social media since coming forward with his accusation. The move demonstrated that, for all the progress the culture has made with the #MeToo movement, there is still much work to be done in fostering a more supportive society -- not to mention the fight against trolls and online harassment.

On top of all of this, Rapp also made history this year, by portraying the first gay character on the Star Trek television franchise, Lt. Paul Stamets. Both on and off screen, he has boldly gone where no man has gone before.


We know the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention can have an aversion to "science-based" proclamations. And yet this year, undetectable Americans -- those whose treatment for HIV has made the virus undetectable in blood tests for at least six months -- finally made the government acknowledge what they've long known: A person with HIV cannot transmit the virus when they're undetectable. Hundreds of other experts and HIV organizations had already signed a document called the "Undetectable Equals Untransmittable Consensus Statement" in 2016 that declared the very same thing. But the CDC took a little longer. The importance of acknowledging this breakthrough -- one that was unimaginable and only dreamed of during the height of the crisis just a few decades ago -- cannot be underestimated as we head into 2018 and the future beyond. Already the CDC estimates that of the 1.1 million HIV-positive Americans in 2014, 85 percent knew their status and 49 percent were undetectable.


The daily dosage of a pill taken to prevent contracting HIV, commonly called PrEP, is one incredibly important tool in the quest for an AIDS-free generation. And in 2017, adoption seemed to reach a cultural tipping point. No longer are men hiding the fact they're on the pill, they're out about it.

As of the start of 2017, Gilead Sciences estimated that 120,000 Americans were on Truvada as PrEP, or pre-exposure prophylaxis. By mid-year, that number was 136,000, according to Poz magazine. These are huge increases compared to recent history. A survey of pharmacies had estimated that almost 80,000 people were on PrEP in 2015. The Truvada pill from Gilead Sciences only got the green light for use as PrEP in July 2012 (it was already used in combination with other drugs as a treatment for HIV-positive people). Immediately it became the target of those who shamed users, saying they'd misuse it to have endless unprotected sex and cause increases in sexually transmitted diseases -- which doesn't appear to be the case. Some inaccurately claimed science couldn't be trusted, that it wasn't actually more effective than condoms in preventing transmission. Those were the days of stigma when only a few thousand prescriptions were documented, with just 3,250 reported prescriptions in 2013.

Now the World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend that gay and bisexual men who are sexually active take PrEP. And men are commonly noting on their dating-app profiles when they're on PrEP. Being out about PrEP usage only means more men will take the pill in 2018 and beyond, and the virus is contracted by fewer and fewer people. Next it's time for PrEP to break outside the older white men that statistics show are most likely to have access to the pill now and into minority populations at greatest risk.


The enduring success of Rachel Maddow is easy to calculate from a numbers perspective. Her eponymous news show is more of a ratings juggernaut than ever before, helping catapult MSNBC to the second-most popular cable network this year, doubling CNN's ratings and nipping at the heels of Fox News. The audience of The Rachel Maddow Show contrasts wildly with Fox's greying audience; Maddow was number 1 in cable news viewers aged 25-54 during November.

Her influence in shaping political opinion and discourse may be less tangible than her ratings, but it's rarely in doubt. As the only out lesbian to front a cable news show, Maddow could be given credit solely for bringing diversity to mainstream journalism. But her work -- especially this year -- transcends visibility. Unlike her contemporaries, Maddow doesn't just regurgitate the day's headlines and offer talking heads a place to mouth off; she uses her time to analyze and provide context for the sands shifting under our collective feet.

Maddow began exploring the Russian role in the 2016 election before Trump won the Electoral College and, after November, offered extensive detail about how the Trumps were financially connected to Russian interests. Heard rumors about Trump's dealings with shady Deutsche Bank? Maddow had the details. Wondering why Trump owns a mostly empty tower in Panama City? Tune in. How about intel on the players involved in the infamous Trump Tower meeting this summer, where Trump Jr., Mike Flynn, and Jared Kushner sought out dirt on Hillary Clinton? Rachel had you covered.

No one in broadcast journalism is doing the kind of in-depth reporting into the 2016 election and its disastrous aftermath than Maddow is -- and viewers simply cannot get enough. Maddow remains the model of smart resistance; no gnashing teeth or pounding desks, just a measured, deliberate, dogged pursuit of the truth.


Wonder if Don Lemon, as a little boy in Louisiana, imagined he would grow up to be a thorn in the side of a president? It may sound like an unenviable position, unless that president is Donald Trump, of course.

As the host of CNN Tonight, Lemon is one of the frankest personalities on the network. Often speaking about personal subjects like police brutality and unabashedly showing his playful side when hosting CNN's New Year's Eve broadcast, Lemon is a counterpoint to the network's other gay superstar, suited-up Anderson Cooper. Is his "realness" what challenges Trump so much? Probably not.

The president's attacks on Lemon seem personal, like most of his bullying of prominent African-Americans (e.g., President Obama, Congresswomen Maxine Waters and Frederica Wilson). Trump has repeatedly called Lemon "the dumbest man on television" and, according to a New York Times report, "hate- watches" Lemon to get riled up. Trump disputed the report in a tweet, which, of course, included another mean-spirited dig at the award-winning journalist.

Like the professional he is, Lemon doesn't directly respond to Trump's bullying (though his employer does). Lemon just keeps doing his job in the face of racism and homophobia that comes his way from the world's most powerful person. Lemon put it succinctly as he accepted the Davidson/Valentini Award at the GLAAD San Francisco gala in September: "I've been a gay black man my whole life. So I ain't scared of nobody."

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