I have a trans friend who celebrated a birthday two weeks ago and remarked that all the trans news in the mainstream media must have been to celebrate her birthday. There has certainly been a flurry.
Why? What's changed? Have gay rights victories become so commonplace that they are no longer of much interest, being relegated to smaller stories buried back on page A-22 of The Washington Post? Have trans issues become trendy and chic, driving the audience clamor? Has celebrity culture caught up with the trans experience out of boredom, or is the interest sincere?
I sense a number of factors at play. The visibility and success of the marriage equality movement has introduced most Americans to the concept of being LGBT. Seventy-seven percent of Americans know a gay person. "LGBT" is often written out as "lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender," and people are naturally inquisitive. Gay rights successes have made the culture seem more open and accepting, so more trans persons are willing to step into the public. The coming out of Col. Pritzker as Jennifer two weeks ago seems to fit that model. Having supported the LGBT military community as an anonymous donor for many years, she finally decided to pull the trigger. She's a famously shy and reclusive figure, but the broader social environment may have finally reached a welcoming tipping point for her.
Not the same for some others who've come out during the past few months. A number of trans women have burst onto the public scene and become celebrities of sorts. Like moths attracted to flame, these trans persons have been attracted to the media spotlight. Coverage has been on occasion supportive and celebratory, other times shaming and humiliating. We may have reached a point where even the media have become saturated. There are days when I hope so.
For many years we were content to fly below the radar; we even welcomed it. Now I'm left with a question as to the value of this overexposure. Who is being helped here? California just passed a bill protecting transgender students, allowing them to participate fully in school activities and get the education they've been promised. There has been considerable blowback, and the celebrity media attention doesn't seem to have helped. There may be an effort mounted to petition that bill, A.B. 1266, to referendum. Will our gay allies, who are eager to voice support for our public transitioners, stand by us and help the Transgender Law Center and California allies mount what would surely be a very expensive counter-referendum campaign? It's easy to support Pfc. Manning's decision to transition, but to what end? Our trans youth are far more important, and I can only hope that the community will rush to offer material support should it be necessary.
We had a landmark civil rights victory in the Macy v. Holder case last year, and real trans persons are beginning to benefit with legal representation and success in court. But we're still waiting for the Department of Labor to publicly acknowledge that decision and actively work to make the private workplace safe for trans persons across this country. Such an acknowledgement will increase the odds of success in future lawsuits and, more importantly, educate the employers of this country that discrimination is against the law and that the costs are not worth the exercise. Have the public comings out and goings back in made that Labor Department action more or less likely?
How about the fight for the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA)? We seem to be just several months from an ENDA vote in the Senate. Is all this publicity helping educate a public that is generally ignorant about the trans experience, or is the venting on Fox News and other conservative media outlets going to make Republican support harder to get?
We've reached a point of inclusion in the broader gay community where now our gay allies are routinely sensitive to our needs, sometimes even overly so, with cases where, in their eagerness to support the community or individuals with whom they have relationships, they reflexively shower support without much thought to the possibility of there being other opinions. At the end of the day, we need their thoughtful support. We need from them what they learned when managing their own movement for equality. We're a contentious community with many diverse needs, nowhere near monolithic, and with many who need levels of emotional support no longer necessary for gay folks when they come out.
A particularly public instance was the recent rush to embrace Pfc. Manning when the attorney in the case announced that Manning was transitioning and wanted to be recognized as Chelsea. There was a generous outpouring of support, primarily from those who support Manning's Wikileaks dump, but also from some who don't. But when most of the media refused to recognize Manning as a woman, there was an outpouring of criticism of that action, including from major gay rights organizations. Subsequently, both the Associated Press and The New York Times decided to violate their previous editorial policies.
Here's the problem. We've spent years creating a system to educate the media about the proper way to present trans persons to the public, and the Associated Press subsequently developed useful trans-specific rules in the AP Stylebook. We've been very comfortable with those guidelines. When local media stumble, particularly with victims of heinous violence, we direct them to those guidelines, and corrections are made. But those guidelines are clear: They come into play when a person has either undergone a physical change or a change in gender expression. As described in the GLAAD guide, the AP Stylebook provides guidelines for journalists reporting on transgender people and issues. According to the AP Stylebook, reporters should "use the pronoun preferred by the individuals who have acquired the physical characteristics of the opposite sex or present themselves in a way that does not correspond with their sex at birth. If that preference is not expressed, use the pronoun consistent with the way the individuals live publicly" (see AP, New York Times and Washington Post style).
Manning has done neither, beyond making a declaration and leaking a photo en femme. There are many persons with such photos who have no plans to actually transition. A diagnosis of gender dysphoria in many cases may be necessary but not sufficient. Trans persons change their name, sometimes repeatedly. Desire is powerful, but the will and courage are often lacking. Trans women frequently make declarations and then quickly back down when confronted by the harsh reality of transition. Unless they back up those declarations with action, the prudent response is to be cautious, wait for evidence and then offer support. It's what we've been demanding for years. The media reversals are actually a radical expansion of those principles, and while this is an unusual situation, it is a very public one, and we still need to consider the larger consequences, intended or not. Under these new rules any man can claim to be a woman without any evidence of a lived reality and expect to be recognized as such. When this hypothetical was presented by legislators to us advocates, we responded by describing the intricate transition process and acknowledging that the commitment to transition must be engaged before recognition would be offered. No more. While sympathy and compassion are needed, and while we always require people to push the envelope, we should recognize that there may be resistance from the community at large, and that resistance is part of the dialectical dance of progress.
Gideon Lichfield, the global news editor at Quartz, penned a recent piece taking LGBT organizations to task for the violation of the style guide as well as other failures. It's a good read from someone outside the LGBT bubble.
Our two major national newspapers recently opined on trans rights. First was The New York Times' call for proper and humane medical treatment for Pfc. Manning. That is our fight, to ensure, should Manning want to pursue medical transition, that it is provided according to accepted medical standards. It is independent of Manning's social status. It's a long process, and like the provision of all other medical care, it is incumbent upon the military to do its duty. That will be a positive outcome that we can all celebrate.
And on Labor Day The Washington Post published its own very nuanced, thoughtful and powerful editorial. They closed with their own simple declaration:
As public understanding evolves on this issue, logistical questions and complications will arise, especially as more transgender people come out of the shadows. Shifts in tolerance invariably take time. But the bottom line isn't complicated: All Americans are entitled to live in dignity.
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