When Visibility Becomes Power

4.15.2014

By Les Fabian Brathwaite

Trans women are being heard—and seen.

The transgender community, particularly transgender women of color, have long been among the most powerless, and therefore the most vulnerable, populations in America. But within the last year, we’ve seen trans women harness the media to empower and enlighten as never before.

Although some traditional power structures remain, this year, for the first time, we have the first trans woman, Jennifer Pritzker, listed on the Forbes 400, the richest people in America. And it’s through social media, blogging, TV, film, and music that many trans people are telling their stories. From the breakout stardom of Orange Is the New Black’s Laverne Cox and activist/author Janet Mock to the recent Barneys campaign featuring exclusively trans models, the transgender community is more visible now than at any other time in our country’s history.

When Cox and model Carmen Carrera (a former RuPaul’s Drag Race contestant) sat down with Katie Couric, they planned to talk about issues facing trans women. But Couric mostly wanted to talk about their genitalia. “By focusing on bodies we don’t focus on the lived realities of that oppression and that discrimination,” Cox concluded, rebuffing Couric on national television. She and Mock then took to Twitter to rally more support.

That doesn’t mean, however, that mainstream culture is taking all of this lightly. The extreme right has ramped up its transphobic vitriol. They capitalize on the fear and ignorance of the average American, who most likely does not know any transgender people or even what transgender means. For every step forward when a trans person is seen, we also witness states like Arizona trying to pass bills out of the misguided fear that a trans woman using a women’s bathroom would somehow irreparably rend the very fabric of society.

Despite all of the apparent advances, violence, abuse, discrimination, and neglect continue to plague the transgender community at disproportionately high rates. For every Cox there are countless Islan Nettleses, the trans woman of color brutally beaten in Harlem, who later died from her injuries.

The most effective way to combat violence and irrational fear is through the continued positive representations of trans people in the media. It’s easy to be afraid of the unknown, but there’s power in simply being seen.

 

Image Credits: Ilya S. Savenok/Getty Images (Mock). Rommel Demano/Getty Images (Cox). Chelsea Lauren/Getty Images (Carrera)

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