Image courtesy of caitlynjenner.com
Editor’s Note: This article was revised on August 1, 2015 to reflect more recent estimates for sex reassignment surgery.
In his recent speech on bathroom rights, President Obama highlighted an often-marginalized population of our nation: the transgender community.
Gender identity—the phrase has polarized nations and continues to elicit political turbulence in some cases, but undeniably, America has progressed from the days of classifying “gender dysphoria” as a mental disorder. Since the first documented American sex transition in 1952, the trans community has become increasingly visible and has had its share of landmark victories in legislation. Now for the first time in decades, transgender individuals can embrace their gender identity publicly with less fear of the ostracism, discrimination, and violence that haunted their predecessors.
Despite their apparent legal strides over the past few decades, however, transgender Americans still face the same stigmas perpetuated by society since the early 1950s. While transgender celebrities such as Bruce Jenner, Laverne Cox, and Chaz Bono are lauded by public figures like fellow celebrities, ordinary transgender men and women are still misunderstood and denigrated.
Like racism, gender identity discrimination has become socially unacceptable, but behind closed doors, many continue to label transgender individuals as “mentally unstable,” “extreme,” and “promiscuous”. Despite the recent upsurge in media coverage of the transgender community’s struggles, many still have a shallow understanding of gender identity, viewing gender transformation as a series of cosmetic procedures and often overlooking the years of uncertainty and self-doubt that accompany the process. Some also confuse the decision to embrace one’s identity with one’s political views and sexual orientation, often mislabeling transgender men and women as gay radicals.
In the struggle to define itself, the transgender community has faced significant obstacles. Even the clinical definition of the term “transgender” has made these individuals susceptible to discrimination. Like homosexuality, gender dysphoria was once classified as a mental disorder by the American Psychiatric Association (APA). Homosexuality cycled through a variety of stigmatizing names such as “sexual orientation disturbance” and “ego-dystonic homosexuality” before repeated protests prompted the APA to remove it from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders in 1987. Similarly, the APA classified gender dysphoria as “gender identity disorder”, a phrase which activists claim perpetuated the stigma of mental instability in transgender patients. After protests at their 2009 meeting, the APA reformed its classification once again. Though this modification may seem like a simple shift in terminology to some, this change is vital for progress. Inevitably, semantics plays a large role in how we perceive the world around us (e.g. a “clerical error” sounds less severe than a “deplorable mistake”). Likewise, renaming “gender identity disorder” to “gender dysphoria” eliminates connotations of severe neurological impairment and mental instability that have stigmatized the transgender community.
In addition to their struggle to be properly named, transgender Americans have also faced significant opposition in their efforts to physically transition. Until last year, Medicare policies banned coverage of gender reassignment surgery because the procedure was classified as a cosmetic procedure rather than a necessary procedure integral to an individual’s overall well-being. As a result, transgender Americans had to cover the cost of reassignment surgery (which can cost up to $140,450). Some that couldn’t afford the procedure resorted to hazardous, temporary alternatives such as chest binding and black market hormone injections in an effort to reflect their inner identity in their outward appearance. Though patients can accomplish partial transitions through as hormone replacement therapy, augmentations, and a variety of other methods, these procedures cannot fully transform an individual in the physical sense. Without a full transition, some report, they feel they cannot live full, authentic lives as the gender they associate with.
Even after overcoming the formidable obstacle of transitioning, those who choose to transition face new obstacles. Legally, they are stripped of their rights and widely marginalized. They face discrimination in the military, work force, and housing market. They are openly barred from military service because they are “distractions” (the same justification proponents gave for discharging gay soldiers until 2011). And until last year, the Department of Justice did not classify discrimination on the basis of gender identity as sex discrimination under the Civil Rights Act. According to a federal government survey, one-fifth of transgender people reported having been denied health care by a health care provider as a result of their gender. This led to cases such as last year’s West Virginia DMV incident, in which a DMV official refused to allow two transgender women to change their sex to “female” on their driver’s licenses. Inevitably, this would lead to issues if they were pulled over in the future and could even disenfranchise them in states with strict photo ID requirements for voting.
Until 2012, Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which prohibits discrimination of employees based on sex, did not protect transgender employees. This, combined with discrimination in hiring practices, bars transgender Americans’ entry into the work force. As a result, transgender individuals also experience homelessness and unemployment at higher rates than the general population. According to the 2011 National Transgender Discrimination Survey, “19% of transgender Americans reported experiencing homelessness because they were transgender or non-conforming. 55% of those trying to access a homeless shelter were harassed by shelter staff or residents, 29% were turned away, and 22% were sexually assaulted by residents or staff.”
With widespread legal and social discrimination, even tasks that seem simple, like using the bathroom, pose problems for transgender individuals. There has been much debate over which bathroom transgender individuals should use, especially individuals who have not undergone full sex reassignment surgery. Some argue that allowing transgender people to use the bathroom of the gender they associate with would lead to incidents of sexual assault (an accusation that homosexual individuals also faced in the bathroom debate). In response, transgender Americans have posted images of themselves in the bathroom of their birth gender on social media with the hashtag #WeJustNeedToPee, showing how unsettling their presence is when they are forced to use the opposite gender’s bathroom.
Social media and hashtags like #WeJustNeedToPee have helped advance the transgender rights movement by garnering nationwide attention to the everyday issues the transgender community faces.
Increased coverage of transgender struggles and of the LGBTQ community as a whole has been an essential first step in understanding and garnering acceptance of the transgender community. Through the rapid dissemination of information through the Internet and social media platforms, the general population has learned more about what it means to be transgender and the complications associated with it. However, not enough is being done to reform the transgender community’s current conditions; they continue to face legal, social, and medical discrimination on a daily basis. As the transgender demographic becomes increasingly visible, it is our responsibility as fellow citizens to educate ourselves about their struggles and demand change from our lawmakers; it is our duty to empower fellow Americans by demanding equality.