It’s been nine years since the TIME cover story in which journalist Katy Steinmetz declared that we are living in the time of the “transgender tipping point.” That put a name to the rise in visibility of transgender people within pop culture and the media we consume. Some of these people became celebrities: That same year, writer Janet Mock became a bestseller author; model Geena Rocero came out in a Ted Talk that has been viewed over 3 million times; the actress Laverne Cox, who was on the cover of Steinmetz’s story, became a star.
To some, 2014 was supposed to herald in a much-awaited recognition—a moment when trans people could finally be included among those who have the right to just be. Others, however, particularly trans people of color, cautioned that this kind of visibility has always been an ambivalent gift, as visibility also exposes trans people to attack. The highest levels of violence brought against us is towards the BIPOC members of our community.
In reflecting on the effects of our visibility, I’ll admit that it’s hard for me not to feel conflicted about it. This moment of visibility enabled me, finally, to come out. For many years, I didn’t understand my own trans-ness. Few resources were available. The few books I found didn’t seem relatable. Visibility helped me and I know it helped others. It helped me find trans people who were already out, who could advise and support me.
But the wave of media interest in us also made us a more visible target. Those who like to harbor prejudices against others came to realize that they had been neglecting to hate trans and gender nonconforming people with the gusto they applied to hating other groups. They came for us as if they were making up for lost time. The wave of legislation against transgender people across the U.S. is one of the consequences of the rise in visibility. As I write, the ACLU is tracking over 400 such bills. And when we are attacked, it is always BIPOC trans people who bear the brunt of it.
For whom was visibility worth it?
I sometimes think there are only two kinds of trans people: Those who can hide that they are trans to avoid persecution and those who just have to come out in order to live at all. I was the kind who could hide it, even from myself. Not always that well. As a teenager in the ‘70s, I was sometimes perceived to be a gay man and pushed about or ridiculed accordingly. I thought they might be right. I tried, and failed, to be a gay man. I was something else—I was a woman. It took me a long time to work out that this was me.
At age 19, I met other trans women for the first time. Everything about their lives was a struggle. They could not get regular jobs, were often homeless, and struggled with addiction or feelings of helplessness. While I recognized myself in them, it felt unimaginable to me that I could have a life, a career, anything, if I, too, were a trans woman. By staying closeted, I felt like I was choosing life over death. That’s overly dramatic, but not entirely baseless. There were very few role models.
Putting any thought of coming out aside wasn’t easy either. It’s hard to communicate to people who don’t feel the visceral need that drives most trans people to modify our bodies, our appearance, our speech, and comportment. The sex of the body is the music of the body—and it can be hard to be in your body when everything about it is felt as intolerable noise. Sometimes, it’s not possible at all.
That noise can be so harsh that we look for any way we can to silence it by drugs or suicide, or over-compensate by being one’s assigned sex in the most self-punishing way. For trans women, it can be by becoming jocks, for example, or joining the army. Mostly, though, we dissociate. We’re just not in our bodies all that much. I was lucky in that I cultivated a writing habit out of that dissociated state. Writing saved me. It was a place to be where I didn’t have to dwell on my body, and could practice a skill that would lead to a career. But for many of us, all this noise just leads to depression, to an endless flailing about at life.
It meant a lot, during that moment of heightened visibility, to see trans people in magazines or television, carrying themselves with dignity and self-respect. Those who ended up being our spokespeople rightly refused to talk about their genitalia, their surgeries, or hormone treatment. Laverne Cox politely but firmly told Barbara Walters not to ask about that on national television. Trans people insisted on being people rather than sideshow attractions.
But what was so hard to convey, and not least to other trans people, is our community’s shared story of the noise of the body and the means we find to cope with it. In so many ways, the trans story was reduced down to an “identity,” when it’s really far more than that. When we come out, we’re not putting an identity to a sexuality. (For trans people can be gay, straight, all the other sexualities other people can be, too.) What we’re actually doing is declaring something about our whole bodies and selves. We’re saying it’s impossible to go on being who everyone, sometimes even ourselves, took us to be.
What the “tipping point” obscured is that we have always existed, and always will. We’re just one of the many variations on what it means to be human. Trying to eradicate us impoverishes the whole of humanity. We know things about what it means to truly be in our bodies in a way that nobody else does.
I wouldn’t say I’m “proud” of being trans. That would be like being proud of being tall. It’s just a fact of the flesh. I had to learn not to be ashamed of it, but maybe the step up from shame isn’t pride, exactly. Tackling the world head-on as something more than ordinary is a survival tactic for many trans people—but it’s exhausting. On the other hand, being considered less than an ordinary human gets too many of us killed. What I want for my people is the right to be ordinary. To be just one of the variations of human.
In the end, you really have to wonder what all the fuss is about. Perhaps it’s that bodies are complicated and can get weird. That’s something a lot of people would rather not confront. I certainly didn’t, until I was left with no other option for a viable life. For this is what trans people being “out” actually means: That everything about the sexed body can vary from whatever arbitrary norms a culture might try to forcibly mold us into. That being human, even at its most ordinary, is also variable. That if you want to really see us, this variability is something to celebrate, rather than merely tolerate, or at worst, repress.
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