Why We Need to Celebrate Transgender Successes

Aug 2015

When I read things like, “Why is the first openly transgender White House staffer news?” I want to shake people and yell, “WHY DON’T YOU UNDERSTAND?!” Because transgender success stories are newsworthy. And I’ll explain why. But before we talk about that, let’s take a step back to clarify a few things…

LGBT: Lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender.

There’s a lot of debate around the acronym. It’s not perfect, but it’s used a lot so I’m going to use it to start a conversation.

“Lesbian,” “gay,” and “bisexual” are words used to describe sexual orientation. Sexual orientation describes an individual’s emotional and/or physical attraction to another person or people. For example, Jane is a woman who is attracted to other women, and therefore identifies as a lesbian.

“Transgender” is a word used to describe gender identity. Gender identity refers to a person’s innate identification as a man, woman, neither, both, or some other gender… which may or may not correspond to the sex assigned to them at birth (AKA the sex listed on their birth certificate). For example, Peter’s birth certificate says female, but he identifies as a male. Therefore, Peter is a man who is transgender.

I’m young (some would call me a kid). I’m 24 years old and I live in New York City. I can only speak from my experience. And from my perspective, lesbian, gay, and bisexual (LGB) people are more visible and audible than ever. There is still much work to be done (especially to bolster positive, authentic representation of bisexual people and break down the stereotypes surrounding them), but that’s another discussion for another article. America is slowly starting to understand the LGB, slowly starting to hear them out, and slowly changing to affirm them and offer them the same rights it offers to straight people.

I can’t say America is doing the same about the T. While included in the acronym, transgender people are often overlooked or not considered at all when it comes to offering equal rights and representation.

“But, Nick,” you may say. “I can’t turn on the TV without seeing something about Caitlyn Jenner!”

You might be “tired” of hearing about transgender people in the media. Perhaps you’re experiencing fatigue. But how many famous transgender people can you name off the top of your head? How many government leaders? How many athletes? How many news anchors?

Now think about how many transgender people you see represented in the world immediately around you. How many teachers? How many doctors? How many police officers? The people you come up with will depend on many factors, but I’m willing to bet that for most people, the number probably isn’t very large. And it isn’t because transgender folks are unqualified to perform these jobs. Often, it’s because our laws and culture aren’t set up to celebrate transgender people for who they are. So they’re too often forced to stay in the closet or told they “don’t fit with the organizational culture.”

So when I read things like, “Why is the first openly transgender White House staffer news?” or “Why is Give A Damn pushing this agenda down our throats?”, my response is this: We’re celebrating visibility and success. Until recently, there haven’t been many mainstream conversations about transgender people. By dismissing their stories, we continue to push transgender folks to the sidelines. When the Obama administration hired Raffi Freedman-Gurspan, they saw a capable woman with a strong work history of creating positive change for her fellow Americans. They didn’t sideline her, because her credentials demanded that she be hired.

“But, Nick, if transgender people are just everyday people, and if everyday people are hired every day, why should we care?”

When so many capable, hard-working Americans are sidelined due to their gender identity, how can you blame me for applauding the highest office in the nation for doing the right thing?

“But, Nick, this still isn’t news. It’s 2015. We’re beyond talking about this.”

It’s 2015 and we just now have the first openly transgender person working for the president. We’re not beyond this. Despite what you’ve heard, we don’t live in the land of equal opportunity. We don’t live in a country that sees all its citizens as equal. In 31 states, you can be fired or discriminated against at work simply because of your gender identity.

Mara Keisling, Executive Director of the National Center for Transgender Equality (where Raffi previously served as policy advisor), offers some valuable perspective to Raffi’s hiring. “President Obama has long said he wants his administration to look like the American people. I have understood this to include transgender Americans,” Keisling said. “That the first transgender appointee is a transgender woman of color is itself significant.”

Raffi’s story is newsworthy because it’s an empowering alternative to the stories we’ve become all too accustomed to hearing. This year alone, 15 transgender people have been murdered in the U.S. That’s a historic high and we still have four months to go in the year. 13 of those killed were transgender women of color. If we fail to take violence against transgender women seriously, we fail transgender Americans and we fail America. If we fail to take the successes of transgender Americans seriously, we fail transgender Americans and we fail America.

I can’t wait for the day that reporting on transgender success stories becomes redundant. I can’t wait for the day that we can honestly tell our kids they can be whatever they want when they grow up. I can’t wait until the American Dream is available to all Americans. I can’t wait until the 75% of transgender youth who feel unsafe at school can love their place of learning the way I did. I can’t wait until everyone has the right to simply use a public restroom, for the love of God. I can’t wait until young people can come out without fear of being kicked out. I can’t wait until kids can simply worry about being kids, rather than worrying about if they’ll become the next statistic. I can’t wait for the day we ask “Who are you?”, rather than “What are you?”

That day hasn’t arrived yet, so we’re going to keep talking about this.

When we sideline transgender people’s stories, we stifle change. By celebrating the successes of transgender Americans, we’re saying, “This is good… This is as it should always be.” We’re going to keep celebrating transgender people until their stories and contributions to society are received with the respect and dignity they deserve. Just as we’ll never stop sharing lesbian, gay, and bisexual stories, we’ll never stop sharing transgender stories.

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