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3 Signs We Have a Long Way to Go on Trans Rights

Major advances have been made, but we can’t stop fighting

Leelah Alcorn vigil

A vigil for transgender teen Leelah Alcorn, whose suicide has become a flashpoint for trans rights.

Peter Marshall/Demotix/Corbis

Last month, writers Samantha Allen and Nico Lang made the case on this site for why 2014 was “the biggest year in transgender history,” shining a light on the many ways trans visibility and acceptance advanced over the course of a truly groundbreaking year. Allen and Lang touched on milestones in the fields of art, music, fashion and entertainment, as well as legislative and policy-based advances in the form of non-discrimination ordinances, public accommodation protections and policies designed to improve the lives of young trans individuals.

Without a doubt, 2014 really was a big year for trans people. But as the year came to a close, the hazy afterglow of celebration began to fade, and it became painfully clear that many battles lie ahead for this oft-marginalized group. For all the progress, massive challenges lie ahead. While Time magazine dubbed 2014 the year of the “transgender tipping point,” perhaps a more accurate description would have been the “transgender tipping point in media.” For many trans people outside the entertainment industry, life remains one of open discrimination, poor wages, homelessness and challenges in health care. Should we, as a society, want to achieve a true tipping point, it’s essential that we start by addressing three extremely basic issues.

  1. ) Leelah Alcorn’s heart-wrenching suicide note illustrates the challenges of growing up trans in an unsupportive world.

On December 28th, 17-year-old Leelah Alcorn took her own life when she stepped in front of a semi-trailer on Interstate 71, near her Kings Mills, Ohio home. Her death, she explained in a posthumously-published suicide note, came after enduring years of emotional abuse and religiously-motivated therapies at the direction of her unaccepting Christian parents.

“I immediately told my mom, and she reacted extremely negatively, telling me that it was a phase, that I would never truly be a girl, that God doesn’t make mistakes, that I am wrong,” Alcorn wrote, describing the aftermath of coming to terms with her gender at age 14. “If you are reading this, parents, please don’t tell this to your kids. Even if you are Christian or are against transgender people don’t ever say that to someone, especially your kid. That won’t do anything but make them hate them self. That’s exactly what it did to me.”

Alcorn’s death renewed the debate over the safety of so-called “conversion therapy,” a process in which a therapist will try to alter someone’s gender identity or sexual orientation. In recent years, California and New Jersey have enacted bans on the controversial practice, citing major medical associations that have come out against the practice as not medically effective, and potentially dangerous. In the other 48 states, including Alcorn’s Ohio, the practice remains legal.

  1. ) Trans women of color are assaulted and murdered at a disproportionately high rate, demonstrating how cruel and violent life can be for many.

At least 10 trans women of color were murdered in 2014, including a staggering four victims in June, alone. According to the Anti-Violence Project‘s most recent report, more than two-thirds of all anti-LGBTQ homicide victims were trans women of color. Additionally, the report found that transgender women were six times as likely to experience physical violence when interacting with the police, leading many assault victims not to report their attacks.

Earlier this month, police identified a man who allegedly stabbed a transgender woman aboard a San Francisco Municipal Railway bus. According to the victim’s friend, who witnessed the incident, the man claimed that the two women were “defrauding him by pretending to be female”; the same witness has also said that he shouted a number of derogatory slurs. Even so, local police are not investigating the incident as a hate crime, as they feel there is no evidence that the victim was targeted as a result of her gender identity or sexual orientation.

  1. ) Government-sanctioned discrimination remains an issue at home and abroad.

A new law in Russia will potentially ban trans people from obtaining driver’s licenses, categorizing those who identify as transsexual or transgender as “mentally ill.” Though Russia is hardly a paragon of LGBT acceptance – in 2013, the country famously banned so-called “homosexual propaganda” – it remains startling that this type of government-sanctioned discrimination lives on.

Even in the United States, trans people are discriminated against without reproach, and large corporations will make a large, public show of their own experiences in blatant discrimination. Last month, retailer Saks & Co. filed a motion in the Southern District of Texas, asserting their right to terminate a trans female employee for failing to act masculine enough for her managers’ liking. Though the Justice Department and Equal Employment Opportunity Commission have determined that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act should be interpreted to ban discrimination on the basis of gender identity, a great many trans people have lost jobs, been denied promotions, or discriminated against in interview settings, with few ultimately finding justice.

Though advocates for LGBT rights have pushed hard for cities and states to enact trans-inclusive non-discrimination policies, covering housing, employment and public accommodations bias, opponents of these rights are equally fervent in their drive to prevent these ordinances from going into effect. Opponents of these measures include some famous faces, most notably 19 Kids and Counting star Michelle Duggar, who took part in a robo-call against an Arkansas ordinance. Though her talking points have been thoroughly debunked – including baseless fears that a non-discrimination ordinance would lead to men claiming to be transgender in order to gain access to women’s restrooms and locker rooms – this line of attack remains consistent in anti-transgender arguments.

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