"For all intents and purposes, I’m a woman." With those eight words, Bruce Jenner confirmed months of speculation and rumors about his gender identity and joined a growing list of openly transgender figures in the public eye.
In the same week, Andreja Pejic became the first trans model profiled in Vogue, Laverne Cox was named one of People’s Most Beautiful and Time’s Most Influential, and a spate of trans-inclusive stories and TV shows dominated the news cycle. If it seems that trans people are everywhere all of a sudden, it’s because they kind of are — albeit not so suddenly.
Indeed, the transgender rights revolution has taken center stage, but it took over 60 years to get this far.
Christine Jorgensen rose to fame as the first trans “celebrity” in 1953 after her sexual reassignment surgery became public knowledge. She went on a series of interviews in hopes of spreading transgender awareness — an all but nonexistent concept in 1953, but a rapidly rising one in 2015. A recent survey by the Human Rights Campaign found a 5% increase in Americans who personally knew or worked with a transgender person — from 17% to 22% in just the past year. Among that 22%, 66% expressed support for equality.
“This is powerful testimony to what we in the LGBT community have always known,” said HRC President Chad Griffin, “the more people who know us, and become familiar with our personal stories, the more supportive they are of inclusion and equality.”
While society has made leaps and bounds over the past few years — hell, over the past few weeks — in trans acceptance, the survey also points out just how far we have to go. Last year, 13 trans women were reportedly murdered — all but one of whom was a trans woman of color — and at least seven trans women have been killed this year alone. Trans women also represent more than 70% of victims of LGBT- or HIV-related hate crime homicide with 67% being transgender women of color.
Depressing stats like that make the fact that, arguably, the most visible transgender person is a trans woman of color that much more striking. Laverne Cox emerged as the flawless face of the movement thanks to her recurring role on Netflix’s popular, Orange is the New Black. Along with Amazon’s award-winning Transparent, it represents a new wave of trans-inclusive television bringing rich, complex portrayals of transgender people to the mainstream.
A number of reality shows about gender-nonconforming or trans people have also been produced or are being produced, such as The Prancing Elites Project on Oxygen, All That Jazz (about teen trans activist Jazz Jennings) coming to TLC this summer, Carmen Carrera’s TransAmerica on VH1, Discovery Life Channel’s New Girls on the Block and ABC Family’s Becoming Us. After the Diane Sawyer interview, E! also announced plans to air a documentary series following Bruce Jenner’s transition this summer.
Related | Laverne Cox Wins Daytime Emmy
With this current fascination with transgender people comes the fear of an inevitable backlash. This fall Eddie Redmayne will star as trans pioneer Lili Elbe in The Danish Girl. How long do we have to wait for another Deadline article wondering if all this diversity is “too much of a good thing?” Last week’s Inside Amy Schumer, for instance, featured a highly divisive interview with trans adult performer Bailey Jae, which some found transphobic. And then you have serial offender Wendy Williams dismissing Bruce Jenner’s transition as a publicity stunt.
“When the media is talking to transgender people now, they’re still focused on that coming-out narrative and not very focused on giving that portrayal of transgender people as well-rounded family individuals,” GLAAD’s Nick Adams told The New York Times.
Adams has a point, but the coming-out narrative is still very important. There are still 78% of people who don’t personally know a transgender person and who probably don’t understand what it means to be trans. Stories like NBC Nightly News’ coverage on transgender kids go a long way to educating people so they can ultimately view trans individuals as just that — individuals.
And Bruce Jenner is poised to “make a difference in the world” as he promised Diane Sawyer. As Martha Stewart astutely observed, for better or worse, the Kardashians have somehow become the new model of the American family: multi-ethnic, non-traditional, and now queer.
“The one real true story in the family was the one I was hiding, and nobody knew about it,” Jenner said. “The one thing that could really make a difference in people’s lives was right here in my soul, and I could not tell that story.”
Jenner’s story is just one of many being told everyday and the more stories are told, the more people will understand that the transgender movement isn’t just another fad, but simply the desire to be one’s authentic self.
Les Fabian Brathwaite — begrudgingly keeping up with the Kardashians.