the latest thing

13/02/2009

“I’m transitioning because all the cool kids are doing it.”

It was tongue in cheek, said in response to a comment that being transgender is “the latest thing” these days.

I suppose it’s a valid argument. Over the last year or so we’re suddenly out in the public eye, with stories of transsexual people on film and television, both in fiction and on reality TV. We’re the latest “cause” to fight for or against, featured on Oprah and Dr. Phil and Tyra and every other talk show in need of some ratings. We’ve moved up in the world from the days of Jerry Springer. I think.

So why don’t I feel particularly accepted?

Don’t get me wrong. I believe this kind of exposure goes a long way towards educating people, towards making them familiar and comfortable with the idea of transsexuality and transgenderism. But there’s also a very real danger of stereotypes and misconceptions getting mass-syndicated and entrenched even further.

That visibility is a double edged sword in other ways too. We’re the latest cause to champion, but by the same token we’re also the latest group to fear and hate. Statistics are hard to come by, but in a presentation at the Harvey Milk institute in 1999, Kay Brown calculated that a murder rate of one transgender person a month, the average at the time, equated to a likelihood for trans people to be murdered of about 16 times the national average[1] in the United States. Those rates have started to creep upwards as trans people have become more visible in the years since, to where it now sits at an average of just under 2 people per month, almost double what it was in 1999.[2]. Reliable statistics for South Africa and the rest of the developing world are harder to come by, but imagine what it must be like to be transgender in the Middle East or in rural Africa, where you’re as likely as not to be branded “possessed”, or a witch or a demon by ignorant and superstitious people. Religious groups blame us for everything from the disintegration of the family to plotting to cause the extinction of humankind, and with the sort of power and influence these groups have, from Baptist megachurches to radical Islamism, amongst others, we have alot to be concerned about.

More than ever, it’s so very important for trans people to speak for themselves. As we get more and more attention, we are going to be discussed, we are going to be represented in fiction and propaganda and marketing and everything else. If we don’t take the initiative to make sure that OUR voices are heard, other voices will be, and they may not have our best interests at heart, to put it mildly. And even if it is an activist or an ally, friend or family member, they can never present our case as well as we can. We’ve lived it. They haven’t.

Mina.

Notes

1. Kay Brown, instructor for “20th Century Transgender History and Experience” at the Harvey Milk Institute in San Francisco, Washington Blade, Dec. 10, 1999. Ms. Brown’s figures are widely cited, including at the HRC’s page on discrimination against transgender people.

2. In the absence of reliable government or NGO statistics, The Transgendered Day of Remembrance is about the best resource we currently have to track the deaths of trans people. Their latest report on death rates can be viewed at transgender-death-statistics-2008. Please note that this report includes incidences where trans people died because of neglect by medical staff.