She Ain’t Heavy, She’s My Brother

Actress Laverne Cox made history last week when she was nominated for an Emmy for Outstanding Guest Actress for her role on the hit show “Orange is the New Black.” Ms. Cox is the first openly transgender actress to receive an Emmy nomination. While Hollywood has been increasingly open to portraying transgendered individuals in a positive light — such as Jarod Leto’s Oscar-winning turn last year a transgendered woman in Dallas Buyers Club — even the progressive entertainment industry falls prey to the stereotype that transgendered people are just men or women in drag. That the Emmy’s nominating committee made a point to list Laverne Cox as an actress is a welcome change.

Even if she doesn’t win the Emmy, Ms. Cox’s nomination is a big victory for the transgendered community. Although great strides have made towards achieving social and legal equality for most members of the LGBT (lesbian-gay-bisexual-and-transgender) community, most transgendered Americans face blatant discrimination, open hostility, and institutionalized violence. Moreover, the LGBT community itself has generally overlooked the concerns of transgendered individuals.

Part of the problem is that the acronym LGBT is largely used to refer to a community of individuals who, are, in some way, attracted physically, romantically, spiritually or emotionally to members of the same sex. But many people fail to realize that the “T” in the acronym doesn’t relate to sexual attraction at all. Rather, it refers to a personal sense of gender.

Transgender is an umbrella term that is used to describe people whose gender identity, expression or behavior is different from those typically associated with their assigned sex at birth. But that term encompasses a large and diverse community. It includes gender-nonconforming who self-identify as male-to-female (transgender women), female-to-male (transgender men), those who consider themselves to be bigender, and those who fall elsewhere on the traditional gender spectrum, among others.

The actual number of transgendered individuals in the US is unknown. According to a recent survey on sexual orientation and health conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, approximately 96% of Americans consider themselves heterosexual, 2% gay or lesbian, 1% bisexual, and 1% “something else.” But this doesn’t mean that 1 out of every 100 Americans is transgendered. The study asked only about sexual orientation, not gender identity.

Similarly, while the 2010 US Census was the first in history to report how many Americans lived in a same-sex partnership, questions about gender were strictly binary. The biological sex of each person was recorded, either as male or female, but no questions were asked about gender identity. Transgendered individuals had no way to express their transgendered status even if they wanted to. Many do not publicly acknowledge their transgender status, however, because of stigmatization and discrimination. The transgender community is thus largely invisible, which is why Laverne Cox’s Emmy nomination is all that more important.

Consider the importance of visibility the struggle of gay rights in this country. The Stonewall riots were a watershed moment for the gay rights movement precisely because they increased the public visibility of gay men and women. That visibility and the concomitant confidence of early gay activists helped to pave the way for others to come out and made many Americans realize that they had gay siblings, gay children, gay neighbors, gay friends and gay coworkers. It becomes hard to justify legal or social discrimination against a class of people like gay men and women when you realize that they are just another group within the mainstream culture.

Laverne Cox’s Emmy nomination is, I hope, a watershed moment for the transgendered community. By standing on the Emmy stage as a proud and successful transgendered woman, she provides a positive and public role model for closeted transgendered youth who live a life of fear, shame and marginalization. She has also used her newfound celebrity to focus people’s attention on the extreme levels of discrimination and violence faced by the transgender community. Without folks like Laverne leading this charge, for example, it would be hard to imagine politicians even proposing transgender-inclusive laws like those that would allow students to use bathroom facilities that are consistent with their gender identities rather than their biological sex.

This increased visibility does have its downsides, including the flood of vitriolic and rancorous attacks launched at Ms. Cox by right-wing pundits and the slew of anti-transgender laws that have been proposed by various local, state and national officials. But even those bigoted assaults raise the public profile of the transgender community, move discussions of transgender identity into the mainstream, and help pave a path towards increasing equality and acceptance.

[This blog entry was originally presented as an oral commentary on Northeast Public Radio on July 17, 2014, and is available on the WAMC website.]

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About Sean Philpott-Jones

A public health researcher and ethicist by training, Sean holds advanced degrees in microbiology, medical anthropology, and bioethics. He is currently Chair of the Bioethics Department at Clarkson University's Capital Region Campus and Director of the Bioethics Program of Clarkson University-Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, and Director of two Fogarty-funded programs to provide research ethics education in Eastern Europe and in the Caribbean Basin. Until his term expired in August 2012, he served as Chair of the US Environmental Protection Agency’s Human Studies Review Board, an advisory panel that reviews the scientific and ethical aspects of research involving human participants submitted to the EPA for regulatory purposes.
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