after the tipping point: what do trans people want next?

Trans visibility might be on the up, but there's still a long way to go. Paris Lees investigates.

by Paris Lees and i-D Staff
20 April 2015, 9:55pm

Laverne Cox on the cover of Time Magazine, June 2014.

It's almost a year since Laverne Cox appeared on the cover of TIME magazine heralding a tipping point for transgender acceptance. The following summer, Jane Fae asked if trans was "the new gay" in The Guardian, Laurie Penny asked people to decide where they stand on trans rights in the New Statesman, and I celebrated the explosion of trans faces in fashion for my very first contribution to i-D. It finally felt like trans people had pulled a chair up to the table - and that everyone else had budged up a little to make space for us.

A tipping point can only last so long, though, and, one year on, where exactly has the trans community landed? And what do we want to see next?

Author and academic Julia Serano, says: "The more highly stigmatized a group is, the less likely it is that the dominant/majority group will even attempt to appropriate aspects of their identity or culture, as doing so will only lead to them becoming tainted by said stigma. However, if the marginalized/minority group becomes more accepted over time, there will be less of a social price to pay for associating oneself with that group." By that logic, trans people are already becoming less stigmatized.

This week an interview between Diane Sawyer and Bruce Jenner will air, following months of speculation - and cruel jokes - that the Olympian and reality TV star will transition from male to female. By the end of the week we may well be referring to 'him' as 'her'. Author and trans advocate Janet Mock is winning over fans by the day with her online show So Popular! on MSNBC, and Netflix is set to air new content featuring trans storylines brought to life by real trans people - maintaining the gold, or rather orange, standard it set itself with Orange is the New Black. Jazz Jennings, trans teen and poster girl for what happiness can look like for trans kids given bags of family love and support, recently became the new face of Clean and Clear. Progress is everywhere.

As part of campaign group Press For Change, Christine Burns changed the law so that, in the UK, for the past decade, trans people have enjoyed the right to legally change their gender and birth certificates. But legal reform, as Christine admits, will only get a marginalized social group so far: "The thing about changing the law is it doesn't change people's behavior, you can draw in a line in the sand and say 'This is no longer tolerated by society' but things only really get better when people change their minds and stop wanting to discriminate." That social change, of course, takes longer and it has to come from people wanting to do it: "Look how long it's taken for gay and lesbian people to go from simply not being criminalized in 1967 to everyone wanting a gay person as their friend."

A big part of that, says Christine, is how the media represents people: "That's one of the most important areas that trans people can push for change in. So much about the way Press For Change worked and the way All About Trans works today is about making friends and educating and working with people." Perhaps unsurprisingly, filmmaker Lewis Hancox agrees: "We want more trans people out there in the mainstream media that aren't just known for being trans, so the fact that they are trans is incidental. So they'd be known for being a comedian, or an actor, and they just happen to be trans. I think that would help normalize things."

One person who's helping to get us to that point is Rebecca Root, star of the BBC's groundbreaking trans sitcom Boy Meets Girl - set to air later this year. She told i-D that there's still a long way to go in terms of medical support for trans people: "I think it's important that there is good healthcare on the NHS. We need more gender identity clinics, the waiting lists are ridiculous. More and more people are being referred now and that's putting a strain on the NHS, which of course is controversial to 'middle England', tabloid editors and also broadsheet journalists who see our community as not necessarily being worthy of that funding. I see a lot of people who self-medicate or self-harm because they don't get their appointments".

"We're in quite a strange position as trans people," says Christine, "because if you realize you are a lesbian, you don't need to go to your doctor to be yourself. But trans people, in order to achieve their full potential, have certain medical needs." Being trans isn't an invention of modern science - trans people have been around in every recorded culture in history in some form or another - but modern medicine certainly helps. "It's a bit like having a baby, in that way," Christine explains. "I think the medical profession is used to diagnosing people and telling them, you take this medicine, they are in control and our role as patients is to shut up and do as we are told. Whereas trans people are coming in as quite informed consumers to doctors and saying, look, we know you can do this and we'd like you to do this for us. And it's still a bit of a problem for a lot of physicians, so I think there's still an awful lot of work to do."

For me, the next big battle is to ensure that parents are educated. Like many trans people, many of the complications and struggles I encountered during my teens could have been avoided if I'd had full and informed family support from the start. Rebecca agrees: "People who say we're not born this way, that's bullshit. It's something that's inherent to us, it's like the color of our eyes. The more help that there is, the earlier, the better." President Obama signaled a major turning point for trans youth recently by condemning so-called 'conversion therapy' - the idea that you can talk someone out of being trans, despite stacks of evidence that it is both ineffective and dangerous. Leelah Alcorn's parents tried to help their daughter 'pray away' her transness last year and, as a result, found her dead before she'd even reached her 18th birthday.

Director and screenwriter Jake Graf says he's like to see surgical techniques improved for trans men: "They say it's 'easier to make a hole than a pole' - so for me that would be a consideration. I know it's not first and foremost in a lot of scientists and researchers minds, because they might not see it as that important, but obviously it is to a lot of people." He also cites the media's responsibility: "I think I read somewhere that in the States, only 8% of people know someone who is transgender, so people are looking to the media to get all their information about trans people. When you've got negative representation, the idea that trans people are serial killers of rapists, that affects who people see us and things like TERFs [trans exclusionary radical feminists] trying to keep trans women out of female toilets." Would Jake like to see more high profile feminists come out in support of trans people? "Absolutely. Jane Czsyselska, the editor of lesbian and bi women's magazine DIVA has been getting a lot of flack recently, with people saying she is anti lesbian because she's always been supportive of the trans community. It's a fucking joke."

I agree. And to finish, may I throw in one of my own? The right to walk down the street in safety. I doubt there's a trans person alive who hasn't, at some point, suffered some sort of harassment or hate crime while out and about in public - and the police recorded a rise in transphobic hate crimes in Britain last year. Indeed, walk down the street in many countries and you may well end up dead, especially if you also happen to be a person of color. You might not even be safe at home. Vanessa Santillan, just 33, was beaten to death in her West London apartment just a few weeks ago. Clearly, there's still a very, very long way to go.

The transgender conversation has moved on. We've fought for the right to do what we want with our own bodies and now we're focusing on changing the hearts and minds of those around us. The only question is: Are you with us?


Text Paris Lees

Paris Lees
Laverne Cox