2015: The year of transgender


transparentLast night’s multiple Golden Globes wins for Amazon’s series Transparent changed history, and not just because television has shifted from the old model of network exclusivity to one that favors new media.

Good-bye, NBC and ABC. Hello, Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu.

But hello also to transgender persons, who are demanding to emerge from the shadows.

Transgender identity came to national attention two weeks ago with the suicide of Leelah Alcorn (born Josh Alcorn), who threw herself in front of a semi about twenty minutes from where I live in Cincinnati. The tragedy has been front-page news around here.

Leelah had attempted at age fourteen to tell her evangelical Christian parents that she was a girl trapped inside a boy’s body. They were alarmed and told her she was wrong about herself, that she was just going through a phase. They took her to see Christian therapists who also confirmed she was wrong.

In the last two weeks, too many people have piled hate on to Leelah’s parents, and adding to that is not the point of this post. God knows they have suffered enough. They tried to do what they thought was best for their child based on the limited understanding all parents have.

But if some good can come from this tragedy, and from shows like Transparent, it’s that we can bring the reality of transgender identity to people’s minds so that maybe next time, parents and others will think twice before automatically rejecting what trans people are trying to say.

Just how common is transgender? Transgenderlaw.org puts the number at 2% to 5%, but many dispute this as being too high. Gary Gates, an LGBT demographer at UCLA School of Law, cites two separate surveys suggesting the percentage is closer to one-third of one percent of the population.

But he notes that since these were self-reported and there are significant safety risks for anyone self-identifying as transgender, that number may be too low. Maybe the truth is in the middle.

It’s also hard to assess who is included here. Is it only people who have taken action to behave like the opposite gender, or the wider circle of people who behave in line with the gender they were born as but secretly experience “gender dysphoria”?

I’m glad these conversations are happening, difficult as they are. At my alma mater, the question arose last fall about the place of transgender students at a women’s college like Wellesley. If a student had been admitted as a woman, could she continue matriculating if she decided midway through college that she was a man? (At Wellesley the answer is yes, though there are now vigorous debates about whether it can or should still call itself a women’s college. I hope so.)

Let’s face it. Gender fluidity is a difficult concept to understand. During pregnancy (or at least after birth), the very first question to be resolved is the gender of the baby. Gender is a person’s primary identity from that point on throughout life. The whole notion of “trans” inhabits a liminal space that sociologists tell us can feel most dangerous. Anything the falls between established categories is disorienting; we harbor a primal fear of the undifferentiated.

“Trans” is by definition liminal and undifferentiated. Even people who are supportive in theory are confounded in practice (“Um, do I call you he, or she, or what? If you’re a transgender teen who’s been kicked out of the house, can I send you to a domestic violence shelter for women?”)

And the far greater number of people who are vigorously opposed in both theory and practice have sometimes acted out their fear of liminal identity through hate speech or outright violence.

I hope that 2015 is the year that we talk about this, however uncomfortable that is. Some people are already doing so, like with Lily Burana’s “Letter to My Possible Son” here at RNS. “The First Commandment of child rearing is to parent the child you have, not the child you wish you had,” she says.