During their long fight to legalize gay marriage, advocates found that their most powerful tool of persuasion was gay and lesbian people themselves. As America got to know the two dads or two moms who live next door, it became easier to see them as a set of neighbors like any other. In this gallery of portraits by Gillian Laub, you’ll meet people who are ready to tell their own stories in service of the nation's next battle for civil rights: the T in LGBT.
Though the numbers are far from concrete, there are an estimated 1.5 million transgender people living in the U.S., about 0.5% of the population. (Put together, LGBT Americans make up an estimated 5%.) That sliver of the population and their supporters will be fighting this battle on two fronts: one is winning hearts and minds, convincing those who are confused or dubious about them that trans identities are just as valid as everyone else’s. If they can succeed there, it will be much easier to achieve policy changes in schools, workplaces, hospitals, the military and other aspects of American life.
The concept of being transgender can be confusing for many people. Though there are few definitions on which everyone agrees, the basic concept is that sex is something determined by biology, while gender is entirely separate, a set of behaviors and expectations developed through human interaction. For many trans people, their gender identity -- the way they feel they should fit into society -- does not align with the sex that the doctor proclaimed in the delivery room.
Ask anyone who has been working in the transgender movement whether things suddenly seem different today and they will likely say yes. For decades, activists have tried to advance the cause of a misunderstood and oft-caricatured minority. Now, a wave of prominent trans people like Laverne Cox, Janet Mock, Chaz Bono and Chelsea Manning are increasing the visibility of the movement and increasing awareness about trans people among all Americans.
Visibility is, in turn, helping to get transgender-friendly laws passed, like a non-discrimination measure signed by Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley on May 15. It’s also introducing young trans people to more examples of how they can lead their lives in an affirming way, far from the sexualized, miserable figures that have long been easy fodder for the media. Supported by robust communities on the Internet, this new generation is growing up knowing tolerance previous generations could only dream of—even though as a demographic, trans people are remain subject to much higher rates of poverty, harassment, unemployment and suicide than the general population.
“Some folks, they just don’t understand,” Cox tells TIME. “And they need to get to know us as human beings. Others are just going to be opposed to us forever. But I do believe in the humanity of people and in people’s capacity to love and to change.”
Gillian Laub is a photographer based in New York and a frequent contributor to TIME.
Katy Steinmetz is a TIME reporter based in San Francisco.