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Transgender America: 10 Best and Worst Moments of 2017

With Donald Trump in office, it was a hard year for the trans community – but there were still some hopeful signs

Trans America: 10 Best and Worst Moments of 2017

One of the brightest spots of 2017 was the November election, when several trans people won seats in local races.

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Three years ago, the outlook for transgender people in America was optimistic: Time Magazine announced the “Transgender Tipping Point” in May of 2014, as pop culture milestones and minor legal victories were falling into place at a pace that suggested more substantial victories would not be far behind.

But by 2015, the anti-transgender backlash had already begun – and today, the optimism of 2014 seems like a distant dream. The anti-LGBT groups who first put transgender people in the state-level crosshairs now hold sway in the White House, and they have been using their power to make life hell for a community that was already living in legal purgatory. But even these dire circumstances, transgender people have made genuine gains, both cultural and political. The Trump administration’s actions may have delayed full equality, but the progress made in 2017 proves that it won’t be out of reach for long .

Here are the five best and worst moments of a year that saw the transgender community persisting under unprecedented political pressure.

Chelsea Manning

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The Good: Chelsea Manning emerges from prison, becomes progressive icon

After serving seven years of her 35-year prison sentence, no one was expecting Chelsea Manning to be a wellspring of optimism when she was released early this year, after President Obama commuted her sentence. She had endured a lot behind bars: suicide attempts, a hunger strike, forced conformity to male grooming standards and a long struggle to secure access to medically-necessary surgery. If she had needed to retreat from the public eye for a few years – or even forever – that would have been perfectly understandable. 

But she didn’t. Even in prison, Manning had kept up with the world at large through a Guardian column and through dictated tweets posted to her account by friends on the outside. And when she emerged this spring, she brought a ray of digital sunshine into a dreary world. First, there was a new jaw-dropping photograph of her with red lipstick and a pixie cut – the first since a grainy black-and-white selfie to show Manning presenting fully as herself. Then, an Annie Leibovitz Vogue shoot, in which the whistleblower posed in a ruched red swimsuit. And, of course, there was Manning’s high-energy presence on Twitter, where she took on her transphobic trolls and displayed a preternatural talent for stringing emojis together. But Manning’s aesthetic brilliance and social media optimism were both backed up by genuine political convictions, like vocally supporting the J20 defendants – a group of protestors arrested on Inauguration Day – or condemning the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville.

The Bad: Survivor contestant Zeke Smith outed as transgender

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The Bad: Survivor contestant Zeke Smith outed as transgender

There had been some speculation on various web forums that Survivor: Game Changers contestant Zeke Smith was transgender before he was outed, but that information was his to share – if he even wanted to share it.

Fellow contestant Jeff Varner, himself a member of the LGBTQ community, took that choice away during the “tribal council” portion of a much-discussed episode of the long-running CBS reality show’s 34th season. After publicly asking Smith, “Why haven’t you told anyone that you’re transgender?” Varner repeatedly referenced the younger man’s “deception,” implying that he couldn’t be trusted because he hadn’t revealed that information to his tribemates. And because the event was taped and televised, Varner not only outed Smith to the cast of Survivor, CBS effectively outed him to the world. Varner apologized, but the incident had already amplified what Smith later called “one of the most odious stereotypes of transgender people”: the idea that being transgender is, in and of itself, about tricking other people. 

The Good: Zeke Smith handled his public outing with grace

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The Good: Zeke Smith overcomes his public outing with grace

Writer David Canfield captured the potential power of the Smith outing when he wrote for Slate that “Survivor, in its own syrupy way, provided the ideal platform for an unexpectedly seismic cultural moment.” It’s one thing for an explicitly LGBT-themed TV show to nudge transgender representation forward; it’s another entirely for a popular reality program with a more conservative-leaning audience of eight million people to host a thoughtful, respectful, and educational discussion of transgender identity.

If Smith hadn’t given his permission for the outing to be shown, CBS would have been just as culpable as the contestant who outed him. But in the days and weeks after the episode, it became clear that host Jeff Probst, GLAAD and most importantly Smith himself – who wrote a powerfully optimistic column after the event for The Hollywood Reporter – had all coordinated on the episode together. Smith also clarified that he had decided before appearing on the show “that, should my being trans become part of my Survivor narrative, I would incur an obligation to my community to speak responsibly and authentically.”

And thanks in large part to Smith’s powerful voice, the episode actually seemed to change some hearts and minds. Smith’s fellow contestant, Sarah Lacina – who shared at tribal council that she had come from “a very conservative background” – reacted to the news the same way that many viewers did: “The fact that I could love this guy so much and it doesn’t change anything for me makes me realize that I’ve grown huge as a person.” And Smith himself said that he and GLAAD were stunned by the positive public reaction to the episode, writing with characteristic humor, “Where we expected angry villagers wielding pitchforks, we confronted a sea of puppies and rainbows.”

The Bad: For the third year running, reported killings of transgender people in the U.S. reach an all-time high

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The Bad: For the third year running, all-time high for reported killings of transgender people in the U.S.

According to the Human Rights Campaign, 28 transgender people have been reported killed in the United States so far this year, making it the deadliest on record. Most of these killings were classified as homicides, some were the result of officer-involved shootings, though so far none have been treated by law enforcement as hate crimes. The stories of their deaths are heartbreakingly hard to fathom: shootings, stabbings, burned remains and even a drowning. What’s worse is that the number of killings this year may actually be much larger. Because transgender victims are often misgendered posthumously in local media reports, the toll could be much higher than 28 – but in the absence of expert estimates, there is currently no way of knowing exactly how high it might actually be. It remains important to confront the reality of this violence, the brunt of which affects transgender people of color. Until the cultural transphobia that sparks that violence begins to abate, we will continue to live in a country where transgender lives are perceived as disposable.

The Good: Gavin Russom of LCD Soundsystem comes out as transgender

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The Good: Gavin Russom of LCD Soundsystem comes out as transgender

The music industry may be lagging behind film and television in terms of transgender representation – but that’s like comparing the pace of a snail to the speed of a turtle. And that only makes it more important to recognize the major strides that have been made in music over the past few years: Against Me! frontwoman Laura Jane Grace, for example, changed the game for transgender rockers when she came out in a Rolling Stone profile back in 2012. This year saw arguably the most high-profile “coming out” moment in music since, namely Gavin Russom’s July announcement that she is a trans woman. (She also said she’d be keeping her name.) The LCD Soundsystem synth player told Pitchfork, “I don’t like coming out so much as a term, but sometimes it’s the only way to say it.” Say it she did ­and more transgender musicians should feel safe enough to echo her choice. 

The Bad: The #MeToo movement has some unintended consequences for transgender representation

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The Bad: The #MeToo movement has unintended consequences for trans representation

By now, everyone knows that comedian Louis C.K. has admitted to masturbating in front of women without their consent. What you might not realize is that the subsequent suspension of his animated TBS cop show The Cops derailed a potential milestone: Actress Jen Richards, who is transgender, was slated to star in that show – or as she put it on Twitter, “There was going to be an animated trans character, voiced by a trans actress, on network television.” No one is arguing that Louis C.K. should have been allowed to keep his network ties for the sake of transgender representation but it is still deeply unfortunate that transgender people working in Hollywood have had their careers affected by the alleged misdeeds of the powerful men implicated by the #MeToo movement. As Richards wrote on Twitter, “I will mourn my own lost opportunity for a moment, but I’ll continue to loudly celebrate a complete sea change in the gendered power dynamics of every corner of society.”

For a second example, look no further than Transparent – a show already controversial in the trans community for casting a cisgender man in the lead role. As it turns out, that cisgender man, Jeffrey Tambor, has now been accused of sexual misconduct by two transgender women who worked with him on the award-winning dramedy. Tambor initially resigned from the show – although a spokesperson backtracked that statement, as Variety reported in December – and now the production, along with the jobs of the many transgender people who work on the show, appear to be up in the air.

The Good: Transgender service members

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The Good: Transgender service members shine under pressure

On the morning of July 26th, Trump unexpectedly announced on Twitter that “the United States government will not accept or allow transgender individuals to serve in any capacity in the military.” But his administration’s attempts to implement that policy have, so far, been unsuccessful. What Trump has unwittingly done, however, is draw public attention to the many transgender service members who “have and continue to serve with distinction,” as District Judge Kollar-Kotelly noted in the first of several court rulings against the hasty ban.

Suddenly, transgender service members and veterans are being given large platforms to share their stories. MTV, for example, issued an open invitation to transgender military members to attend the Video Music Awards – and a small group of them ended up walking the red carpet. And as transgender soldiers speak up, the public is learning the stakes of Trump’s actions. Retired Staff Sergeant Shane Ortega, who became one of the first public faces of transgender military service back in 2015, told Rolling Stone that the ban wasn’t just about military service but about “who is considered a valid human being, and who is not a human being.”

Trump’s tweets – which claimed, without any evidence, that transgender inclusion in the military would cause “tremendous medical costs” and “disruption” – were deeply dehumanizing. But they have been followed by six months of the most humanizing attention transgender troops have ever received.

Lil Duval

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The Bad: Lil Duval makes transphobic remarks on “The Breakfast Club”

“This might sound messed up, but I don’t care, she dying.”

That’s what comedian Lil Duval said on the July 28th edition of the hip-hop-focused radio show “The Breakfast Club” when asked how he would react if he discovered that a women he had been intimate with was transgender. Lil Duval went on to say that the experience would make him “gay” in his mind and he “can’t live with that.”

Given the violence perpetrated against transgender women – often by men who feel shame around sleeping with them – the comments hit a particularly raw nerve. Author Janet Mock penned the definitive response to the incident for Allure, writing, “It’s this deplorable rhetoric that leads many cis men, desperately clutching their heterosexuality, to yell at, kick, spit on, shoot, burn, stone and kill trans women of color.” 

The Good: Election Night 2017

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The Good: Election Night 2017

A lot of transgender people spent the night of November 8th fearing for the future, only to be pleasantly surprised. And while 2017’s electoral gains weren’t good enough to counteract the devastating effects of a Trump-Pence administration, they were certainly a step in the right direction.

Seven openly transgender candidates won elections, ranging from Stephe Koontz, who won a city council race in Georgia, to Danica Roem, the incoming Virginia state legislator (and metalhead) who ran against the author of an anti-transgender “bathroom bill.” In fact, two black transgender candidates – Andrea Jenkins and Phillipe Cunningham – both won races for Minneapolis City Council seats. This is the first time in history that so many transgender people have won elections. Not only is that precedent a direct repudiation of Trump’s bigotry, it’s proof that voters increasingly don’t care about a candidate’s transgender status, so long as they can get the job done. Last year ended with the election of Donald Trump. This year ended with hope.

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