The Road Ahead: Being Transgender in America

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Writer, producer, advocate and bestselling author Janet Mock will deliver the 2018 Reynolds Lecture at 7 p.m., Sept. 25, in the Duke Family Performance Hall. Mock’s memoir, “Redefining Realness,” provides an unflinching account of her coming of age — multiracial, poor and trans in America. She produced the MSNBC series “Beyond My Body” and the HBO documentary “The Trans List.” The event is free, but tickets, limited to two per person, are required. For tickets, please contact the Union Box Office. There will be a book signing immediately following the lecture, in the Brown Atrium of the Alvarez College Union. 

Katie Horowitz, assistant professor of gender and sexuality studies, will facilitate the discussion with Mock. Here, Horowitz writes of generational shifts in gender identity, and of the challenges transgender individuals face.

Recently, as part of my preparation to teach “Introduction to Gender and Sexuality Studies,” I was at home watching a video of a gender nonconforming teenager testifying to the years of bullying they had endured at school. After listening quietly for a few moments, my 7-year-old daughter interrupted, “That’s not something I need to worry about, right? Everyone at my school is nice.” Indeed, since she came out as transgender about a year ago, my child has been unilaterally welcomed and accepted by her teachers, classmates and family. In her experience so far, being transgender has not caused her to be treated worse, or even much differently, than any other kid.

My daughter’s happy childhood notwithstanding, acceptance and welcome are not the norm for trans kids in the United States. Economic and racial privilege combined with my expertise as a gender and sexuality studies scholar have allowed my family to navigate legal, medical, educational, and bureaucratic issues related to her transition with relative ease. I wish I could say that my child’s experience was typical in this respect. Unfortunately, this couldn’t be further from the truth.

Activist, writer Janet Mock

Janet Mock will share her story with the Davidson community.

As trans journalist, television producer and Davidson’s 2018-2019 Reynolds Lecturer Janet Mock explains in her memoir Redefining Realness, recent victories for the mainstream LGBT rights movement like marriage equality and the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” have failed to improve the lot of the most vulnerable members of our community. This is because, Mock observes, “those with the most access within the movement set the agenda…and overwhelmingly fail at funneling resources to those most marginalized.”

According to the most comprehensive study of transgender Americans’ experiences to date, the 2015 U.S. Transgender Survey, more than three quarters of respondents who were openly trans or perceived to be trans had been subjected to some form of harassment or mistreatment during their K-12 schooling, and nearly a quarter were verbally, physically, or sexually harassed at post-secondary institutions. Almost half had been denied equal treatment, verbally harassed, and/or physically attacked in the preceding year alone.[1] This is to say nothing of rampant housing, medical, and workplace discrimination that combine to make trans folks likelier to experience unemployment and homelessness and to attempt suicide than any other demographic in the U.S. population.[2] And all of these impacts are most acutely felt by trans folks who are of color, low-income, undocumented, non-passing, and/or disabled.

Yet in spite of both the LGBT movement and the broader society’s failure to address these shocking levels of persecution, our best data to date show that increasing numbers of Americans are openly identifying as a gender other than the one they were assigned at birth.

  • A 2017 GLAAD poll shows that an astonishing 20 percent of Millennials (adults ages 18-34) identify as LGBTQ, and 12 percent identify as transgender or gender nonconforming—twice the rate of trans identification among Gen Xers and four times that of Boomers.[3]
  • A 2016 report by the Williams Institute at UCLA School of Law estimates that a total of 1.4 million U.S. adults (0.6 percent of the population) identify specifically as transgender.[4] Of these, 40 percent live in the South, with 18-to-24-year-olds being the age group likeliest to identify as trans.

This means that Southern colleges like Davidson can expect their student bodies to become increasingly gender diverse in the coming years. If Davidson wants to continue attracting the best and brightest young minds, it will need to become a leader in providing students LGBT-competent mental health care, transition-related medical services, and gender-neutral housing options.

This exigency is all the more urgent given our location in North Carolina, a state that adopted the nation’s most regressive legislation on gay and trans rights—2016’s HB2, the notorious “bathroom bill”—only to repeal and replace it with a new law that bars local governments from passing anti-discrimination ordinances. Within this context, new scholarship on this changing and expanding aspect of human experience is vitally important, and it is why I was proud to teach Davidson’s first transgender studies course last semester and why I look forward to offering it again in the spring.

One lesson from trans scholarship that I share with my students is that transgender people, and in particular trans women of color, have been at the forefront of all U.S. LGBT freedom struggles of the last half century.

Four years before the Stonewall Uprising that sparked both the modern gay liberation movement and the international Pride parades and celebrations that now span each June, trans women in San Francisco instigated the Compton’s Cafeteria Riot to protest police harassment of queer people. Stonewall itself was led by trans women of color like Sylvia Rivera, Marsha P. Johnson, and Miss Major Griffin-Gracy.

Even today, some of the most prominent voices on pressing social issues like immigration, disability justice, the Black Lives Matter movement, and the growth of the prison-industrial complex continue to be those of trans women and femmes of color like Jennicet Gutiérrez, Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha, Elle Hearns and CeCe MacDonald. And the most visible trans women of color, like Mock and actress Laverne Cox, are using their sizable platforms to promote trans justice across social media, on the news, and in TV and film.

So when my daughter asked me if she needed to worry about transphobic bullying and violence, my answer to her was an unequivocal yes. Yes, she needs to worry about it, and not simply because she herself is trans. We should all be concerned by the grave injustices facing our most marginalized neighbors, classmates, and kin, and it is past time that we begin to repay the debt of gratitude we owe to the trans folks, folks of color, and disabled and economically marginalized folks who put their bodies, health, and safety on the line to create a more just world for us all.

When my daughter reacted to that video with dismissal, I realized that by shielding her, a white, upper-middle class child, from the harsh realities suffered by most of her gender variant peers, I had allowed her to believe that the suffering of others like her is not her problem and relieved her of the responsibility to do something about it. The first step in rectifying this is to educate her on the structures of power and privilege that have allowed her to thrive while so many transgender Americans deal with injustice at every turn.[5] My daughter’s education will start with Janet Mock’s lecture on Tuesday, Sept. 25. I hope you will join us there.

[1] James, S. E., Herman, J. L., Rankin, S., Keisling, M., Mottet, L., & Anafi, M. (2016). The Report of the 2015 U.S. Transgender Survey. Washington, DC: National Center for Transgender Equality.

[2] These calculations are based on comparisons of the results of the U.S. Transgender Survey to numbers from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, Housing and Urban Development, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

[3] Harris Poll. (2017). Accelerating Acceptance: A Harris Poll Survey of Americans’ Acceptance of LGBTQ People. Los Angeles, CA: GLAAD.

[4] Flores, A.R., Herman, J.L., Gates, G.J., & Brown, T.N.T. (2016). How Many Adults identify as Transgender in the United States? Los Angeles, CA: The Williams Institute.

[5] Indeed, Injustice at Every Turn was the title of the 2011 Report of the National Transgender Discrimination Survey, the predecessor to the U.S. Transgender Survey.

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About Author

Katie Horowitz is an assistant professor of gender and sexuality studies at Davidson College. Her research interests include rhetoric, gender and sexuality studies, and American studies.  

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