11 Ways 2014 Was the Biggest Year in Transgender History

From Laura Jane Grace's triumphant blues to Jared Leto's hollow victory, a look back at the events that put trans in the spotlight like never before

Laura Jane Grace Credit: Taylor Hill/Getty

Transgender people are already everywhere, even if their lives go unnoticed. But in 2014, transgender people truly were everywhere—from the red carpet to the runway, from TV to D.C., and from the cover of Time magazine to the pages of a New York Times bestselling memoir. Visibility is no substitute for change, but 2014 bore witness to plenty of the latter as well, with a series of legal victories that will make it easier for transgender people to find employment, update their legal documents and receive healthcare. Although there's still a long way to go before anti-transgender violence becomes a thing of the past, 2014 is likely to be remembered as an important step toward a more inclusive future.

Rolling Stone has selected 11 of the most notable moments, trends and controversies from this year's transgender tipping point.

1) 2014 was a landmark year for transgender people on TV.

Last week, Amazon's freshman dramedy Transparent was honored with two Golden Globe nominations: for Best Comedy and Best Actor in a Comedy (Jeffrey Tambor). Tambor, in particular, looks likely to repeat at the Emmys, just a year after Orange is the New Black's Laverne Cox became the first transgender actor ever nominated for an award at the ceremony. Transparent, created by Jill Soloway (of Six Feet Under and United States of Tara), has garnered acclaim for its humanistic, layered portrayal of a late-life transitioner, Maura, and her decades-long struggle to come out to her very complicated family. The show is partially based on Soloway's own experiences after her parent came out as transgender in 2011. 

Transparent was also joined by Cox's own TV show, The T-Word, which debuted on MTV in October. The T-Word follows seven transgender youths (between the ages of 12 and 24) to tell their stories. "For many of us, the 'T' in LGBT means more than transgender, it also means truth," said Cox. "The cast members in this documentary are fearlessly living their truths and in sharing their stories will send the message to other trans youth that it's OK to be who you are."

2) Against Me!'s Transgender Dysphoria Blues was a watershed moment for trans musicians and for rock music at large.

In 2012, Laura Jane Grace took a huge step forward when, in an exclusive interview with Rolling Stone, she revealed her decision to transition. But this January's Transgender Dysphoria Blues felt like an even greater achievement. Against Me!'s first post-transition LP is more than a coming-out story: It's 28 tightly coiled minutes of punk-rock bliss just as politically charged as the music on which the band made its name. Tracks like "True Trans Soul Rebel" and "FUCKMYLIFE666" find both Grace and her band excitingly negotiating a new identity for themselves, soaring to new creative heights in the process. The result is Rolling Stone's 15th best album of 2014, and one made even more poignant and powerful when filtered through Grace's True Trans reality docu-series, which debuted on AOL in October. The 10 eight-minute long episodes feature Grace sounding off on everything from parenting and relationships to finding acceptance.

In addition to the impact made by Against Me!'s singer-guitarist, the punk and metal scenes at large are having their own trans renaissance. Earlier this month, grindcore act Cretin released its first album, Stranger, in eight years, and the first since guitarist and vocalist Marissa Martinez began transitioning in 2007. In August, long-running hardcore/metal band Life of Agony re-formed to play their first shows with transgender singer Mina Caputo since she came out in 2011. One of the group's founding members, Caputo has also made her name (formerly Keith) via an eclectic solo career, and last year, she toured with Grace, who has cited the musician as an "inspiration."

3) Laverne Cox continued to break the glass ceiling for transgender actresses.

In addition to her historic Emmy nomination, Laverne Cox was everywhere in 2014, from appearing in the second season of Netflix's cultural phenomenon, Orange Is the New Black to guesting on MTV's Faking It and having a cameo in a John Legend video. (It's a big step up from bit parts in the Law and Order franchise.) No moment, however, felt quite as earth-shattering as Cox's Time magazine cover, in which even the headline, "The Transgender Tipping Point," testified to the history of the moment. The issue, which hit stands in June, made Cox the first transgender person to ever appear on the magazine's cover.

However, visibility came with its downsides. In January, Cox appeared on Katie Couric's daytime show, only to be subjected to intrusive and inappropriate questions about her body. The actress, though, was having none of it: She shut down Couric, while taking advantage of a teachable moment. Said Cox, "The preoccupation with transition and surgery objectifies trans people, and then we don't get to really deal with the real lived experiences." She would later return to the program in June on a much happier note.

4) Janet Mock put Piers Morgan in his place and was elsewhere awesome.

Laverne Cox wasn't the only transgender woman of color with media woes this year. In February, author and advocate Janet Mock appeared on Piers Morgan Tonight to promote her memoir, Redefining Realness. It started out pretty badly and only got worse from there. In his opening, Morgan informed Mock, "Had I not known anything about your story, I would have had absolutely not a clue that you had ever been a boy." A graphic on the screen gracelessly reinforced that point, reminding viewers that Mock "was a boy until age 18." In a tweet after the show, Janet Mock called the show out for "sensationalizing her life and misgendering trans women." Mock later clarified that she wasn't born a boy; she was "born a baby."

In addition to helping educate the public on transgender issues, Mock's ill-fated Piers Morgan segment illustrated the importance of transgender people telling their own stories. After the interview, Mock's memoir debuted at Number 19 on New York Times' nonfiction bestsellers list. A former editor at People magazine, Janet Mock was also named a contributing editor at Marie Claire in June, while continuing to focus on her considerable activism work, including the Girls Like Us campaign. This November, Mock launched a Trans Book Drive on IndieGogo that's nearly doubled its goal of $5,000, with a week left. The drive aims to send reading materials and care packages to trans inmates.

5) Trans fought the law and trans won.

While Laverne Cox and Janet Mock were scoring victories on the small screen, Mara Keisling, the Executive Director of the National Center for Transgender Equality (NCTE), was quietly working to change federal policy on transgender issues. Together, the NCTE and the Obama administration made 2014 a banner year for transgender rights. Starting January 1st, the Affordable Care Act, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of gender identity, made it possible for many transgender Americans to receive transition-related care for the first time. In April, the Department of Education granted Title IX protections to transgender students.

The wins have continued to stack up this month. In early December, the Department of Labor implemented an executive order that protects transgender federal employees from employment discrimination. And in a surprise announcement last week, Attorney General Eric Holder declared that the Justice Department now considers employment discrimination on the basis of gender identity to be prohibited under Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. This decision is a major windfall for transgender Americans, over a quarter of whom have lost jobs due to trans status.

Legal progress in individual U.S. states and municipalities, on the other hand, has been a bit of a mixed bag. In January, California passed a notable law that protects transgender people's right to use the proper restroom, one of several so-called "bathroom laws" that have sent the Religious Right into a moral panic this year. In May, however, Houston Mayor Annise Parker buckled to pressure from the Right and removed language explicitly protecting transgender people's restroom rights from a contentious Equal Rights Ordinance; this move recalled the Human Rights Campaign's endorsement of a trans-exclusive Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) in 2007.

With California, New York and Oregon implementing new legislation this year, seven states and the District of Columbia now allow transgender people to change the sex designation on their birth certificate without undergoing surgery, but most states still require it. Ohio, Tennessee and Idaho still prohibit reissuing or amending birth certificates for transgender people under any circumstance.

6) This year marked a new golden age for transgender models.

Project Runway mentor Tim Gunn earned the ire of the transgender community in February when he told the Huffington Post that he's "conflicted" about transgender women being models because they still "have the anatomical bone structure of a man." But Gunn's comments were a rare discordant note in a year full of enthusiasm for transgender models. 

In January, Barneys New York partnered with the NCTE to produce a Spring 2014 campaign featuring 17 transgender models. Australian model Andreja Pejic came out as a transgender woman midway through the year and successfully funded a Kickstarter for a documentary about her career. Carmen Carrera, a former contestant on RuPaul's Drag Race, continued to make headlines by modeling for David LaChapelle's provocative Life Ball posters, which featured two images of Carrera – each with different genitalia – below the caption, "I am Adam. I am Eve. I am Me." And rounding off the year, Lea T, formerly of Givenchy, became the face of a Redken hair color line in November.

7) Jared Leto won an Oscar for Dallas Buyers Club, igniting controversy in the trans community.

Jared Leto's portrayal of a transgender woman named Rayon in Dallas Buyers Club was lauded by Hollywood and loathed by the transgender community. His awards season sweep made this disjuncture painfully apparent, sparking a heated conversation about the casting of non-transgender actors in transgender roles. Although trans stories are hotter than ever, trans roles are still going to established talent like Leto while trans actors struggle to find work. But while Jeffrey Tambor proved that some non-trans actors can handle a transgender role with a degree of gravitas, Leto's behavior during Oscar season provided a textbook example of cultural insensitivity.

When challenged by a protester who disagreed with his casting at a Santa Barbara film festival in February, Leto quickly grew defensive, attempting to justify his portrayal on the basis that straight actors often play gay roles. He also failed to utter the word "transgender" in any of his major acceptance speeches, even choosing to joke about body waxing instead when accepting his Golden Globe. Said Steve Friess of Time, "[This will] be another moment when liberals in Hollywood, both in the industry and in the media, showed how little they understood or empathized with the lives of a minority they imagine they and Leto are honoring."

In fact, Leto's turn as Rayon may have even perpetuated popular misunderstandings of transgender people. When Rolling Stone cover boy Neil Patrick Harris took on the role of the titular transsexual rocker in Hedwig and the Angry Inch this spring, he briefly conflated drag and transgender identity in an interview with the New York Times. Said Harris, "Thankfully there's lots of drag examples right now with RuPaul's drag show, Jared in Dallas Buyers Club. I'm able to see lots of interesting examples of guys donning a femininity." Hedwig and the Angry Inch has been a box-office smash on Broadway, where Harris won a Tony, but the entertainment industry still has work to do in terms of inclusion and understanding.

8) RuPaul's Drag Race pulled a controversial segment after transgender backlash.

Since premiering on Logo in 2009, RuPaul's Drag Race has been Monday night appointment viewing for gay TV watchers, but transgender critics have become increasingly miffed about the show's trans politics. This came to a head in March when the show asked Season Five contestants to identify whether or not women were drag queens based on their photos. Called "Female or Shemale?", the sketch was criticized for its problematic use of the word "shemale," which many transgender women consider to be offensive and dehumanizing. Until this season, RuPaul's Drag Race also ran a regular feature, "You've Got She-Mail," in which contestants would receive messages from friends and family.

While the network apologized for the segments and vowed to keep transphobic language out of its programming, RuPaul himself was less contrite. In an interview on the podcast WTF With Marc Maron, the show host dismissed criticism, as well as the suggestion that he shouldn't use "shemale" or its more offensive cousin, "tranny." Said RuPaul, "Does the word 'tranny' bother me? No. I love the word 'tranny.'" RuPaul's defense of the word ignited a months-long powder keg of debate in the LGBT community over language use. In a Facebook post, Carmen Carrera called it "a battle for respect." Said Carrera, "[E]very time the LGBT community is featured in the media, people are learning about us." But as RuPaul shows, the LGBT community may also have to educate itself.

9) Social media was dragged into the debate on gender identity.

In 2014, social media services finally recognized that while their code might be binary, gender options don't have to be. In February, Facebook announced that the site would now allow users to select from over 50 gender identities and three gender pronouns (he, she or they). GLAAD President Sarah Kate Ellis called the move "a step forward in recognizing transgender people and allow[ing] them to tell their authentic story in their own words."

Facebook proceeded to squander a large measure of this goodwill later in the year by enforcing a prohibitive "real name" policy, which required users to use a name that would be found "on your credit card, driver's license or student ID," and disproportionately affected drag performers, as well as transgender users. At the time, some drag performers speculated that Facebook was tacitly pressuring them to open fan pages that allow for the use of stage names but also ask users to spend money on self-promotion. Facebook later apologized for the policy and changed its wording, but many LGBT users had already announced they would be switching to upstart Ello, which made a show of welcoming them in September.

Meanwhile in the world of online dating, OKCupid responded to mounting pressure to expand gender and sexuality options in November by rolling out nine new sexual orientation and 19 new gender choices. And not to be outdone, Google+ recently announced that they will accommodate "infinite" genders by allowing users to type in their own gender.

10) Women's colleges began admitting all women.

U.S. women's colleges have arrived at a curious juncture in their post-Title IX history. Many of them have long allowed transgender men to attend, provided that they either transitioned while enrolled or did not have male gender markers on their documentation when they were admitted. On the other hand, most women's colleges have not yet adopted admissions policies that specifically include transgender women who have not yet been able to update the gender markers on their legal documents.

But in 2014, Mills College, Mount Holyoke and Simmons College became the first three women's colleges to adopt explicit policies that allow all women to seek admission, regardless of legal documentation. Noticeably absent from this list is Smith College, which last year rejected a prospective student named Calliope Wong because her Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) still listed her gender as "male." Despite impassioned advocacy on campus, the Board of Trustees has reportedly told protesters that they will not be implementing a trans-inclusive admissions policy until 2020.

11) CeCe McDonald documentary set to raise awareness about the realities of anti-transgender violence.

While 2014 is notable for historic gains for the transgender community, transgender people continue to face disproportionate rates of violence and harassment. In November, BuzzFeed's Dominic Holden reported that four trans women – three of whom were women of color – have been murdered in Ohio over the past 20 months, while similar crime waves have also hit Baltimore and Detroit. In June, Kandy Hall's body was found outside a post office in Northeast Baltimore, with 26-year-old Mia Henderson discovered just weeks later, in an unrelated crime. In August, three transgender women were shot at in Detroit, one of them fatally injured, with another killed in Compton earlier this month. 

There was one bright spot this year: After months of activists advocating for her freedom, CeCe McDonald was released from prison in January. McDonald, whom Rolling Stone interviewed this July, was sentenced to 41 months in a men's prison after an altercation outside a Minneapolis bar led to the death of Dean Schmitz, who had reportedly been harassing her and her friends. (McDonald maintains that the act was self-defense.) A film about McDonald is being produced by Laverne Cox, set for completion in 2016. With the film, Cox and McDonald hope to shed light on the latter's case, as well as continue to raise awareness about the struggles many trans women face every day. While progress is important, many are simply worried about survival.