In a recent interview for Fusion TV, author Janet Mock flipped the script on talk show host Alicia Menendez, asking her a series of invasive questions about her body. “When you were going through puberty, did you feel trapped by the changes your body was going through?” Mock asked Menendez. “Did you feel like a girl?”
The questions clearly made Menendez feel uncomfortable, even though the pair had rehearsed them. Menendez responded that they made her feel “tokenized.” In a way, that was the point: As an out transgender woman, these are the kinds of questions Mock gets asked all the time.
Last month saw the release of the second annual Trans 100 – a list working to change that conversation by honoring those “making a difference in the day to day lives of trans people in a tangible way.” The 2013 list welcomed Mock and Orange is the New Black actress Laverne Cox, and this year it honored names as diverse as film director Lana Wachowski (The Matrix), actress Carmen Carrera and MMA fighter Fallon Fox.
Rolling Stone spoke to some of this year’s honorees to discuss the Trans 100 and its continuing impact both for the transgender community and for everyone. This is what change looks like:
1. The Trans 100 lets trans people tell their stories themselves.
According to Hayden Mora of the Human Rights Campaign, the power of the Trans 100 is in giving transgender people the space to share the fullness of their lived experiences – something that often gets lost in media coverage of trans folks. “Far too often, respectful coverage is the exception rather than the rule,” says Mora. “Folks are often not comfortable with complexity. I think that is true in all facets of life, but particularly true in the media. When we overly focus on one part of a person’s identity, it demonizes them.”
In telling trans stories, Mora argues that media narratives often essentialize or objectify transgender people. Looking at the Trans 100, you get a different story – in fact, 100 different stories. “It’s a true and accurate representation of who we are,” says Mora. “Without a true and accurate representation of who a community is, folks fill in the blanks. When we allow others to fill in the blanks, those narratives that get filled in tend to be really dangerous.”
Tiq Milan, GLAAD’s senior media strategist of national news, says it’s important not only to educate the public about transgender people but also to highlight their successes. “It’s about telling vigilant, positive stories of trans people in the community,” says Milan. “Trans people are human beings, who are so much more than a stereotype. We are in your classrooms, in your homes, in your workplace and in your families, trying to live our lives as authentically as we can. We just want to be happy.”
2. The Trans 100 showcases the trans community’s incredible diversity.
“There’s strength in numbers,” says trans advocate Angelica Ross, host of this year’s Trans 100. “People assume that the trans community is a very small portion of the community. We are a big community. We are everywhere.”
Against Me! singer Laura Jane Grace, who came out as trans in a 2012 Rolling Stone profile, says she appreciates how the Trans 100 doesn’t just focus on one segment of the community. “Sure, there’s people in the entertainment industry or from a military background, others who are writers,” says Grace – but she adds that she’s also inspired by those on the ground, doing the work that often doesn’t get attention.
When she’s on tour with her band, Grace says she enjoys talking to people about what life is like where they are. “It’s about knowing the differences – what does it mean to be a transgender person in Northern Florida versus living in other places – and seeing the various ways in which people are accepted in their communities,” Grace says. “Adversity they face in different places can educate the community as a whole as to what we’re fighting for.”
Ross says moments like the Trans 100 give trans people a safe space to come together and address that adversity together. “We don’t know each other, but we need to get to know each other – to connect and network more,” says Ross. “That’s how we make change. What’s kept us down is the divide and conquer.”
3. The Trans 100 validates and affirms non-cis identities.
For transgender porn star Bailey Jay, seeing Janet Mock take on CNN’s Piers Morgan was a powerful moment. In a much-criticized interview with Mock earlier this year, the cable host framed her as “a boy until age 18,” while Mock affirmed her identity as a woman. “Hearing someone speaking about being trans in an unapologetic way gave me a new perspective on my own gender,” says Jay. “It was like, ‘Oh hey, I’m a human, that’s kinda cool.'”
According to Jay, seeing people speak affirmingly about being transgender provides validity for trans lives. “It’s the word a lot of people need to hear,” she says. “I think everybody is struggling to live up to whatever gender they see themselves as. Everyone’s trying to pass, whether you’re cis or trans.”
Jay says she hopes younger generations of transgender people can look at the list and be inspired to lead open and proud lives: “I hope [the Trans 100] makes it easier for kids to come out and explain to their parents, when there’s a context for their existence.”
4. The Trans 100 saves lives by giving people hope.
Like Bailey Jay, Hayden Mora hopes that the Trans 100 can be particularly meaningful for those who are still in the process of coming out. Mora explains that he didn’t come out until he was 33. “If I had seen depictions of trans folks who were at all relatable to me, I would have come out 20 years earlier,” Mora says. “It would have saved me a lot of pain.”
Laura Jane Grace says she hadn’t “even heard the word ‘transgender'” for most of her childhood. “The first person I read about transitioning was Renee Richards, the tennis star,” Grace says. “I re-read it and re-read it, and it felt like the universe speaking to me in a weird way. You go from that – a two-paragraph write-up in a sports mag – to reading a yearly list of people. That’s a real stark comparison.”
According to Grace, these stories can help give people strength. “I think very specifically it saves peoples’ lives,” she says. “If you look at the statistics rates among the trans community, 40 percent have attempted suicide.” Seeing stories like those reflected in the Trans 100 can make a difference, she adds, simply by giving people the space to be visible, successful and strong. “You hold onto that and it gives you hope.”