About a month ago, I was asked by a friend to present to his class at the University of Central Florida.
He teaches a course on representations of gender in entertainment, and because the subscribers to my YouTube channel seem to think I’m entertaining, and I do indeed have a gender, I was the obvious choice to address his students and tell them my story. This was the third time I had been the designated transgender speaker for this course in the last few years, but it was the first time I had gotten the brainwave to ask the class a question to confirm a trend I had noticed developing over time.
It was obvious from my first visit the class needed a little Transgender 101 and perhaps had never met a trans person. A year later, the questions were more sophisticated, and one or two of the students were trans themselves. This year I asked them if they had ever met a trans person. Easily 75 percent of the students raised their hand and a few came up to me afterwards to tell me they were transgender. Clearly, major social change has been afoot with transgender people making our presence known. These pupils were showing some of the impact of that greater trans visibility.
As we close out Transgender Awareness Week (TAW), I find myself reflecting on whether simple awareness is all we should be promoting. Being aware we exist does not require recognition of our basic human rights. Awareness without understanding may very well be counterproductive in the worst way possible. Perhaps it is fitting then that TAW should culminate in Transgender Day of Remembrance, when we pause to remember those trans people who were lost in the previous year, as the awareness of our presence too often results in our violent end.
It is no wonder then that until fairly recently, the ultimate goal of trans people was to fade into the woodwork of society, or go “stealth” as it is commonly known in the community. It was the only defense we had in a world that seemed hell-bent on casting us as the conniving villains in a seduction play filled with sexual insecurity and homophobia. Our popular media is rife with jokes of cisgender men “tricked” into sex with trans women who are “really men” for the purposes of the punch line. These jokes help to establish the groundwork for devaluing the rights of the victimized trans people in favor of the reputations of these men. Indeed, the “trans panic” defense in court cases has been used more than once successfully. Who wouldn’t prefer invisibility in such a hostile world?
However, invisibility has had a cost too. For many years, our apparent absence made it difficult to create the critical mass necessary to make our civil rights a top-of-mind concern. It was left to a very noisy few to make sure we had access to the medical care, government documentation, and support systems to allow for our very existence. Not surprisingly, the results up until now have been uneven, and there have been some recent attempts to roll back our gains from state and federal government legislative bodies as well as agencies largely controlled by Republicans. The building groundswell of support from LGBTQ+ orgs and ordinary citizens as a result of so many trans people stepping out of the shadows has helped to make this more difficult than in times past, but it has not stopped the increasing threat.
It is time we recognize that relying on our allies by raising their awareness of our needs is not enough; they alone cannot do all the heavy lifting that will be required to safeguard our rights and advance our concerns. We need to create the platforms to speak for ourselves in places of power where decisions are made. Two recent events have made me very optimistic for the first time in our history, demonstrating that trans people are ready and willing to play an active role in controlling our destinies on a scale never before seen.
The first was the recent court case over Trump’s transgender military ban. Both lead lawyers in the case arguing against the ban, Shannon Minter of the National Center for Lesbian rights and Jennifer Levi of GLAD, were transgender. Given the stakes and players involved, the world was watching the outcome. The symbolism of two trans people take on a discriminatory directive against our community created by the most powerful man in the world, and prevailing, cannot be overestimated.
The second event was the election of Danica Roem to the state legislature of Virginia. I am ashamed to admit that when I heard about her candidacy, I thought it was a noble cause, but she would of course lose. She was facing a longtime incumbent who had gotten himself elected repeatedly despite open homophobia and transphobia. Her chances did not seem especially good. Her win was shocking enough, but she was only one of EIGHT transgender people elected to various offices around the country on election night.
Clearly, a seismic shift in how transgender people are perceived is happening. Just as clear is events such as Transgender Awareness Week, Transgender Day of Remembrance, and Transgender Day of Visibility are playing a role in changing perception for the good. However, they have simply cracked open a door. It is up to us to step through if we are to assert our rights as individuals. We have stood locked on the outside looking in and shouting for our presence to be acknowledged long enough.
Melody Maia Monet operates a YouTube channel on lesbian and transgender topics. You can view her videos at youtube.com/melodymaia.