Why Is The Trans-Rights Movement 20+ Years Behind The LGB Movement?

Transgender people are some of the least protected, most persecuted people in the United States. In a recent study of transgender students, nearly half said they’d been “punched, kicked, or injured with a weapon” at least once in the last year. On average, a transgender person is murdered because of their identity every month, according to the Transgender Legal Defense and Education Fund. In 2008, for instance, Angie Zapata, an 18-year-old Colorado woman, was bludgeoned to death with a fire extinguisher when her attacker—a man she met through a social-networking site—realized that she was born male.

Transgender people are regularly evicted from their homes, fired from their jobs, and denied medical treatment. Last July, emergency room staff in an Indiana hospital refused to help a trans woman who was coughing up blood, referring to her as “it.” More than a quarter of transgender people surveyed say they have lost a job because of discrimination. Transgender people are more likely to become homeless (at an average age of 13, in New York City). And then there is the obstacle course of inconveniences that reminds transgender people every day that they don’t belong. One trans woman told me her company requires her to lock herself in when she uses the restroom—even though it’s multi-occupancy—so she is acutely aware of making other women wait. In some states, a court order is required to change a person’s gender on a driver’s license. Many health insurance plans only cover procedures for one gender, so a person born male who transitions to female can’t get both a prostate check and a mammogram.

But these are statistics, and people are rarely moved by statistics. In this country, civil rights movements have prevailed when they have convinced enough people that a minority is being treated in a way that is fundamentally un-American. For this to happen, people need to see members of a disadvantaged group as human beings before anything else. The gay rights movement, for instance, has made great strides in large part because increasing numbers of people know, or are related to, an openly gay person. For more and more people, gays and lesbians do not seem strange—but the idea of denying them rights does. Such a breakthrough seems unlikely for the transgender movement. According to the Williams Institute at the UCLA School of Law, there are only around 700,000 transgender people in the United States, compared with around eight million gay, lesbian, and bisexual people. They are invisible in a way that other minorities are not.

At some subterranean level, transgender people provoke deep fear and hostility in our culture. They complicate categories that many people would prefer to think of as fixed. One might think that, as the gay rights movement has advanced, transgender people would share equally in its gains. But, in fact, the mainstreaming of the gay rights cause has created tensions between the two movements, and at times the transgender community has been pushed aside. Transgender people clearly need more protection from our laws and society. But they can’t win these victories on their own. Like every minority group at the outset of a civil rights campaign, they will need the rest of us to take the time to understand their lives—and maybe even try to imagine ourselves in their shoes.

– Eliza Gray in her must-read piece for The New Republic entitled “Transitions: What will it take for America to accept transgender people for who they really are?” Her beautifully-written article also includes a complete history of trans rights and exclusion in the LGBT community. Well worth your time.