We need human examples of transgender people

The U.S. should emulate a court decision in India that allowed for a third gender identity.
April 21, 2014

In a landmark decision, India’s Supreme Court recently recognized transgender rights as human rights, allowing people to legally identify as a third gender: transgender.

Declaring that every human being has the right to choose his or her gender, the court ordered state governments to launch awareness campaigns to destigmatize transgenderism in India. Moreover, it ordered the states to construct transgender public restrooms and form health departments designed especially for the needs of transgender people.

In the United States, transgender rights vary on a state-by-state basis. Although the U.S. does not legally recognize a third gender, many states allow individuals to alter the sex on their birth certificates.

To that end, the three most restrictive states — Idaho, Tennessee and Ohio — absolutely prohibit individuals from changing their birth certificates. Many other states, including Wisconsin and North Dakota, require individuals to complete sex reassignment surgery before altering their birth certificates. Finally, states such as Minnesota and California allow individuals to alter their birth certificates without reassignment surgery.

In terms of employment, federal law prohibits discrimination against transgender individuals. To support this, 17 states — including Minnesota — have enacted laws prohibiting employment discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity.      

Despite these laws, however, transgenderism remains largely misunderstood in American society. Transgender rights, furthermore, receive far less attention than other LGBT campaigns, such as same-sex marriage.

There may be several reasons for this. The transgender population is low, even in comparison to other LGBT groups. Transgenderism’s relative rarity has prevented much discussion on transgender issues. It was only last year that the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders removed “gender identity disorder” from its catalogue of mental illnesses. Homosexuality, for comparison, was removed more than 40 years ago.

Despite the removal of gender identity disorder, it still remains common to frame transgenderism as something inherently medical. Laverne Cox, a prominent transgender actress, hypothesizes that sexual reassignment surgery contributes to the stigma against transgenderism. This surgery, along with the question of genitals that it presents, often shifts a discussion of transgenderism to biological rather than humanitarian concerns.

From a humanitarian perspective, however, it’s clear the transgender population faces severe discrimination.

For example, transgender people are nearly 50 percent more likely than gay people to be murdered. Levels of transgender unemployment and poverty, meanwhile, are twice as high as the U.S. average; transgender people of color report unemployment rates four times as high.

In order to address discrimination against transgender people, it is first necessary to promote these issues as an urgent topic for discussion. For this, in turn, to occur, the media must help represent the transgender population as a legitimate and sizable body with human rights and interests equally important as those of anybody else.  

Media representation is critical to the strength of any sociopolitical movement. People generally react positively to what they see represented every day, and a more inclusive media atmosphere can help to promote policy change in real life.

Of course, the media doesn’t create representation equally. Hollywood often reduces transgender people to punchlines: For example, see (but don’t watch) “The Hangover Part II.” Such jokes usually portray a man’s horror when he discovers the woman with whom he’s been flirting is transgender.  They ignore the transgender person’s perspective.

Aware of this reality, transgender celebrities like Cox often double as political activists. But a complicated, relatable transgender character whose personality is not defined by his or her transgenderism is a powerful political statement in itself. Cox’s character on “Orange is the New Black” strengthens her political campaign as much as anything else she could say or do.

LGBT rights campaigns rightly remain a center of political attention. However, it’s important to remember that same-sex marriage is not the only LGBT cause worth fighting for.

Although India’s Supreme Court decision probably won’t wholly eradicate discrimination against transgender people, it’s a critical step toward fostering awareness of a marginalized group.

It is a first step worth emulating.

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