Why It’s a Big Deal That Obama Said ‘Transgender’

It's all about legitimacy

Every word in every State of the Union speech is vetted. And President Barack Obama’s decision to say a certain word among the 6,718 he uttered on Tuesday is reverberating through the LGBT community. That’s because Obama just became the first President to say the word transgender during such a high-profile occasion. And most advocates for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights are thrilled.

“The President’s acknowledgment helps shatter the cloak of invisibility that has plagued trans people and forced many to suffer in silence,” author and MSNBC host Janet Mock tells TIME. “By speaking our community’s name, the President pushes us all to recognize the existence and validity of trans people as Americans worthy of protection and our nation’s resources.”

“As a transgender man and an advocate for transgender people, it was thrilling to hear, for the first time in our nation’s history, the President of the United States acknowledge transgender people as an integral and valued part of our national community,” says Shannon Minter, legal director for the National Center for Lesbian Rights.

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The issues of validity and legitimacy are huge ones for transgender people. Decades ago, doctors didn’t think their feelings about their gender identity were legitimate—that they were inclinations requiring correction. Today, the medical community has evolved, but many people still mistakenly assume transgender people are only really transgender if their bodies look a certain way.

Actress Laverne Cox talked about this issue during an interview with TIME for our cover story on trans issues: “We have to listen to people about who they are and not assume that there’s something wrong with trans people. Because we know who we are. And I think the biggest thing is folks want to believe that there’s something, that genitals and biology are destiny. … When you think about it, it’s kind of ridiculous. People need to be willing to let go of what they think they know about what it means to be a man and what it means to be a woman.”

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Elizabeth Reis, a professor of women’s and gender studies at the University of Oregon, says that for decades transgender people have had to deal with the perception that they’re deceiving people. “The people who say that they’re trans have always been undermined and thought of as not telling the truth, being intentionally deceitful of others,” she says. She calls it “the authenticity issue that trans people face, not being believed for who they say they are.”

To get medical treatment or to play on sports teams or to change the gender on their driver’s licenses, transgender people have long had to provide documents and testimony that they are who they say they are. In the past, they sometimes had to prove they intended to have or had undergone surgery. And today, there are people who don’t understand what it means to be transgender or don’t “believe in being transgender,” as the sibling of a transgender boy told TIME in 2014. Constantly proving one’s status is not something that many Americans are forced to do on a daily basis. To have Obama offer up recognition using the word that the community itself uses—rather than circling the issue with a some vague phrase like “regardless of how someone identifies”—is him implying that he does believe and doesn’t need any more proof.

Here is the full context of Obama’s comment:

As Americans, we respect human dignity, even when we’re threatened, which is why I’ve prohibited torture, and worked to make sure our use of new technology like drones is properly constrained. It’s why we speak out against the deplorable anti-Semitism that has resurfaced in certain parts of the world. It’s why we continue to reject offensive stereotypes of Muslims — the vast majority of whom share our commitment to peace. That’s why we defend free speech, and advocate for political prisoners, and condemn the persecution of women, or religious minorities, or people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender. We do these things not only because they’re right, but because they make us safer.

The Transgender Law Center, the largest legal advocacy organization entirely dedicated to transgender issues, lauded his comment. “President Obama’s public recognition of transgender people in his State of the Union address was historic,” executive director Masen Davis said in a statement. “While it seems like a simple thing—saying the word ‘transgender’ in a speech—President Obama’s statement represents significant progress for transgender people and the movement towards equality for all.”

Davis spoke to TIME last year about his own experience coming out as a transgender man and how much times have changed since the ’90s. “When I first came out as transgender, we all just assumed that if you were transgender, you were going to lose your family, you were going to lose your friends, you were going to lose your job. You needed to be prepared to lose everything,” he said. “We’ve come so far, that it’s become easier for transgender people in certain areas of the country to be out and for them to feel like they can come out at work and they’re not going to lose their jobs. They can come out to their family and they might not be thrown out. That they can come out at school and still be treated well.”

Still, as Davis says, transgender people are still disadvantaged as a demographic. They are more likely to experience harassment because of their gender status, to lose their jobs and live in poverty. More than 40% of transgender people, according to one report, have attempted suicide. Leelah Alcorn is a recent, tragic example of how hard it is to be a young transgender person in America.

That’s why even on this historic occasion, some transgender advocates are not sated. “I’m glad that he mentions us but to be honest it’s not nearly enough,” says Greta Martela, who recently founded Trans Lifeline. “I can’t get excited about the President simply acknowledging our existence when we are facing this kind of crisis and discrimination.”

Mara Keisling, executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality, says that word was missing in “laundry lists” he reeled off during the State of the Union in previous years. Still, Keisling notes that even when Obama didn’t say the T-word or the B-word (his mention of bisexual Americans was also a first this year), he did push forward on LGBT-friendly policies. In 2014, he signed an executive order extending workplace protections to LGBT employees working for federal contractors. And his attorney general, Eric Holder, recently instructed the Department of Justice to argue that discrimination against transgender people qualifies as sex discrimination under Title VII.

“Of course, the advancement of those policies is so much more important than a mention in a speech,” Keisling says. “But make no mistake, the President of the United States condemning persecution against transgender people is pivotal … His mention of us makes us know that he meant us when he talked about Americans. When he spoke about children, he meant transgender children too.”

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