First things first: Caitlyn Jenner's new photos in Vanity Fair are incredible. She deserves all the accolades she's getting for her bravery, too. Coming out is a huge risk for anyone, and coming out to the entire world in one fell swoop is an act of astonishing courage.
With that said, it's time to have a serious conversation about what life is like for transgender people who aren't impossibly wealthy celebrities. Which, of course, is 99.999% of transgender people who aren't Caitlyn Jenner.
The transgender community faces enormous challenges that are invisible to many. Challenges like pervasive job discrimination, extreme poverty, recurrent violence, and far-too-prevalent homelessness.
Many transgender young people find themselves rejected by their families and communities, as we witnessed in the tragic case of Leelah Alcorn, the 17-year-old who committed suicide last year after being subjected to harmful conversion therapy (which has now been banned for minors in a handful of states).
Leelah's death galvanized a national conversation about the way young transgender people are treated in the United States. Even so, little has been done to make concrete change for the futures of kids like her.
Less than half of gender-expansive youth in one survey reported that there was an adult in their family they could turn to for support. Another survey found that 75 percent of transgender high school students felt unsafe at school.
Due no doubt in part to the difficult conditions in school and at home, a disproportionate number of transgender youth become homeless, with 22 percent of youth ages 18 to 24 reporting having been homeless. And a full 41 percent of transgender survey respondents said they had attempted suicide.
Meanwhile, employment discrimination among transgender people is rampant (and is still legal in most states), so once these youth are old enough to enter the workforce, the future that awaits them is uncertain. Transgender people also face persistent discrimination in health care and insurance coverage as well as in housing and voting rights. And violence is a constant threat for the transgender community. In the first five months of 2015, at least eight transgender women were murdered in the United States.
For transgender people of color, the situation is especially alarming. Of the transgender women murdered in 2014 and 2015 in the United States, all but one were black or Latina. One-third of black transgender and gender non-conforming survey respondents had household incomes of under $10,000 a year. And nearly half of all homeless transgender and gender non-conforming Latinos who tried to go to a shelter were denied access.
Getting back to Caitlyn Jenner for a moment, let's pause to think about why everyone thinks those Vanity Fair photos are so amazing. To be sure, Caitlyn looks like what we as a society tend to think of as a "beautiful woman." But what if she didn't conform to traditional feminine gender norms? What if she, like a lot of transgender, non-binary, genderqueer, and gender non-conforming people, looked different from what many of us think of when we picture a "man" or a "woman"?
More and more people today, especially young people, are challenging these norms. And when we look at gender as binary ― as purely either/or, "male" or "female" ― we exclude anyone who sees themselves as somewhere in between or outside those two poles. When we compliment Caitlyn Jenner for looking "hot," we imply that embracing extreme femininity (or extreme masculinity) is the ideal to which we all should aspire. But right now there are many, many people who are exploring gender identities and presentations that are just as beautiful as Caitlyn Jenner's ― even if these individuals don't have the celebrity profile necessary to score a Vanity Fair cover.
Last year Time magazine showcased the equally beautiful Laverne Cox on its cover and proclaimed that we were at the "Transgender Tipping Point," but it's going to be the next generation ― the fast-growing population of non-binary, gender non-conforming youth, many of whom reject old-fashioned labels like "man" or "woman" or "he" or "she" ― who will take us over the edge.
No matter how many lovely photos grace magazine covers in the coming year, the fact remains that we still have a lot of work to do to make sure our laws and our society are welcoming and respectful for everyone, regardless of where they fall on the gender spectrum.
Because the next generation is the one that's going to define our future. And to many of them, gender looks very different than it did to the generations that came before.
Let's work together to make sure their future is beautiful, too.
Robin Talley is a Lambda Literary Fellow who lives in Washington, DC, with her wife. She is the author of the critically acclaimed Lies We Tell Ourselves (Harlequin TEEN; 2014) and the upcoming What We Left Behind (Harlequin TEEN; November 2015).
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