What we lose with trans visibility

Opinion by Lily Zheng
April 6, 2017, 12:13 a.m.

Almost three years have now passed from the day when Time Magazine published “The Transgender Tipping Point.” In this article, Katy Steinmetz made the case for the ascendence of the “transgender revolution,” with actress and celebrity Laverne Cox as the centerpiece holding it all together.

Trans people, argued Steinmetz and Cox, “are emerging from the margins” to “live visibly” and “demystify difference.” The trans movement was framed as an uphill battle that was just beginning to crest, and Steinmetz wrote eloquently and optimistically of a future filled with better days for trans people. The article was a powerful and uplifting thing, and Laverne Cox’s regal, poised look on Time’s front cover would be etched into my mind for years afterwards.

Three years later, many of Steinmetz’s predictions have come true. Now, in addition to the two trans celebrities I grew up idolizing, Janet Mock and Laverne Cox, we have Caitlyn Jenner, Lana and Lilly Wachowski and Andreja Pejić, among many others. The public face of the transgender community has grown to include a large contingent of famous transgender youth, including Jazz Jennings, Gavin Grimm, Arin Andrews & Katie Hill, and stories about young transgender children embraced by loving and supportive parents only continue to increase.  

Has this uptick in visibility had any meaningful effect on trans people’s rights — the “civil rights frontier” that Steinmetz wrote about? When we take into account the new DSM-V changing “gender identity disorder” to the more trans-friendly “gender dysphoria,” the Boy Scouts changing their rules to allow transgender members, or the Alpha Chi Omega sorority opening its doors to transgender women, the answer to this question seems to be “yes.”

And yet, something seems off.

In 2014, the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs found that while overall anti-LGBT hate crimes decreased between 2013 and 2014, hate-motivated violence against transgender people increased during this period. In 2015, the Human Rights Campaign and the Trans People of Color Coalition released a sobering 42-page report on anti-transgender violence, and the U.S. Transgender Survey documented pervasive, sweeping and omnipresent discrimination, harassment and violence against trans people in all facets of life. 2016 was the deadliest year on record for transgender murders in the United States.

Steinmetz (and perhaps Laverne Cox) might understand this inconsistency through an optimistic lens of social lag. Perhaps, they might say, the increasing visibility of trans people will lead to a better world all on its own; it’s just a matter of time.

But I believe that this trend is the result of a more complicated story, a story in which visibility and inclusion mirror violence and exclusion, involving two increasingly fractured transgender camps.

The “transgender movement” today is defined more and more by dissonance. The mostly wealthy, white, respectable and above-all unthreatening transgender community slowly moves toward inclusion, while the working-class, non-passing, unrespectable and threatening transgender community increasingly pays for transgender visibility with their bodies, careers, health and lives.

In the same way that the wealthy, mostly-white, respectable gay and lesbian community supplanted drag queens, poor queers and trans women as the face of the gay rights movement, the contemporary trans movement is rapidly expanding, normalizing and sanitizing as a result of its newfound visibility.

It’s this very normalization of trans identity that allowed me to write about my trans identity in my college applications and be admitted to Stanford University as “diversity.” It’s what lets me write for The Stanford Daily and not be mocked out of my own column simply for being trans, and what allows my pronouns and name to be respected on campus. My class background, appearance, mannerisms and educational privilege make me a respectable enough trans person to belong at Stanford, as I suspect it may do for many other trans people in higher education.

What does it mean, then, that the future of the trans movement is increasingly steered by those trans people who are most visible: bright-eyed transgender children who come out at six, affluent celebrities and college-educated transgender young adults fluent in the language of academia? What does it mean when our “transgender visibility” not only leaves out those who do not look, behave, speak or interact like the “right” kind of transgender person, but actively makes these trans people’s lives worse? What does it mean when the transgender movement is narrowly defined as “trans rights,” which are narrowly interpreted to mean legal protections and equality of access?

Regardless of the political climate of the day, we should not advocate for a future in which the “success” of the transgender movement is measured by how many social elites it creates. For the time being, “transgender” remains a dirty word, and we remain in the margins of society. If our movement intends itself to be an uplifting one, then we must fight not only for bathroom use and nondiscrimination law, but also for affordable and accessible housing, education and health care, reproductive justice and alternatives to incarceration.

If our visibility instead makes it harder rather than easier to advocate for these policies, then we cannot say that visibility is an unambiguous step forward. And if visibility is instead a more complex phenomenon where trans communities both win some and lose some, we must ask ourselves who those winners and losers are, and if this is the future we want to create.


Contact Lily Zheng at lilyz8 ‘at’ stanford.edu.

Lily Zheng '17, is a weekly columnist for The Stanford Daily, a Social Psychology major and co-president of the student group Kardinal Kink. Her weekly column revolves around consent culture, queer and trans identity, social justice and activism. In her spare time, she enjoys wearing too much black clothing, accidentally sleeping in her makeup and spending quality time with her partners. Contact her at lilyz8 'at' stanford.edu – she loves messages!

Login or create an account