America in Transition is about trans people of color fighting to be heard, seen, and understood every day. Whether we are screening in a film festival, leading a workshop at a college in the South, or speaking on a panel at a museum, we are building our capacity connecting Trans People of Color with opportunities to share our experiences, our analysis, and our love with all of you! Today is Trans Day of Visibility, a day that we set aside to celebrate our sheros, highlight legacies of resistance, and reflect on what visibility truly means for our community.
Where did the need for LGBTQ visibility come from?
Visibility is widely touted as the basis of any LGBTQ politic towards liberation. The beginning of an organized push towards visibility came from the relatively privileged cis-male gays who were part of the homophile movement in the 1940’s & 1950’s. In the McCarthy Era that followed, the government imbued homophobia with the power to devastate personal lives, destroy careers, and even to undermine nations via pink baiting. LGBTQ activists of many stripes developed the theory that us being in the closet helped transform homophobia into a weapon.
The 1970’s and 1980’s, bull daggers, leather daddies, art sissies, and grunge queers yelled from the rooftops of San Francisco “Come out, come out wherever you are!” Coming Out as a strategy that allowed us to find one another, build community, and build power. The Establishment Gays saw coming out as a process by which gay and lesbians could gain formalized political power and assimilate into the mainstream. By 1975 Harvey Milk so staunchly believed that coming out was THE STRATEGY that would propel our movement into the brave new world that he even nonconsensually outed a close friend who saved president Ford from an assassination attempt. His logic was that if a gay veteran was visible as a national hero, then gays would win the acceptance and maybe even admiration of mainstream America. Meanwhile, Queer Nation and a range of organizations/cadres/collectives we shall lump together under the knomer of the Defiant Queers used the same strategy to an opposite end. By the 1990’s, the sounds of hundreds of unified voices wailed, “We’re here, we’re queer, get used to it” amidst the cacophony of the streets. Decades of LGBTQ activism either direction has all built upon the simple and unassailable truth that Visibility will set us free.
How is trans visibility evolving?
Formerly, a lot of trans folks lived in their gender assigned at birth because they were too afraid to come out. They intentionally lived stealth, afraid to tell anyone for fear of retribution. In some places, particularly the South and rural america, people lived an “open secret” lifestyle–just minding their own business in a world that didn’t fathom their existence. In the 2011 book, Sweet Tea, oral history interviews with black queer men living and some gender-variant people living in the South reveal a prevalent sentiment that people were willing to look the other way, not socially acknowledging queerness but also not challenging it. A similar logic allowed trans people to live under the radar in many communities and enjoy a negotiated sense of safety, security, and community.
According to the New York Times, between 2011 and 2016, the transgender population doubled!
One way to understand this is that the spike in media visibility, has created a social climate that’s more accepting, and has emboldened hundreds of thousands of trans people to come out in a short period of time. Every day people are coming out younger and younger while at the same time older folks are finally finding the courage to be themselves. There are more services, support groups, and medical providers than ever before contributing to the perception that this is our time. The trans community in all likelihood will continue to grow rapidly over the next decade because of all of these trends. And as our numbers rise, we will continue to be more and more visible, but will this bring progress for our community? Which parts of our community? To what end?
Time magazine heralded that we’d reached the “transgender tipping point,” in 2014 when they featured Laverne Cox (all hail the goddess of our community) on the cover. Yet 2016 and 2017 have brought some of the most regressive civil rights legislation in modern US history. Trans people have become the targets of radical social conservatives who are leveraging fear and ignorance to create a social climate of increasing and unrelenting hostility. We’ve become front and center, caught in a culture war. So-called religious freedom advocates compelled Southern lawmakers to fight the federal government in order to protect the supposed “right” for businesses (MS and NC), schools (TX), and even health professionals (TN and TX) to discriminate against transgender people.
When Obama’s white house invited all of the stars from America in Transition (along with 100 other transgender advocates we adore) to join them for a strategy session about transgender rights, they took visibility to a whole new level. What does it mean to be formally acknowledged by your country? I’m normally not one for patriotism or symbolic victories, but when the white house released a statement of support for trans kids, I cried. They signaled to many of us that we were really part of this country for the first time. By 2017, the transgender movement–for all of its infighting and division–is in full force and our visibility has never been stronger. Andrea Jenkins and Phillipe Cunningham became the first trans people in city office, Transparent won an Emmy. If our goal was visibility, we have surely accomplished it many times over. However, if our goal is access to medical care, housing, employment, and a reasonable assurance that we won’t be murdered in the street, then we are falling short. In fact, some may argue that visibility is has brought mixed results.
Visibility = LGBTQ Liberation… right?
For the past four years, trans murders have risen along with an explosion of visibility. 2013-2017, each year more trans women were murdered than the year before. Because it’s so fundamental, we rarely interrogate how visibility operates. The reality is that visibility is a strategy and not an end in itself. What is strategic in one moment isn’t necessarily in another situation. Is it possible that we have reached the limits of this strategy?
The problem with visibility as a tactic is that it doesn’t stop neatly with those who have chosen to engage it, rather the consequences of the visibility impact the whole community and (like everything else) impact us in ways that compound power dynamics already present in society. The gains of visibility have been many (upward mobility for those who play into social norms, increased influence through celebrity, gay marriage, etc.) but the consequences have been also (murdered trans people, challenges to basic civil rights in the South, etc.). Too often this means more rights and privileges to those who are already the most privileged in our community that is inextricably linked to the targeting of those who are most marginalized within our community (ie. murders of black trans women).
Violence is a reaction to the changing social order. Social tension is the highest right before the most change happens. People who have previously had privilege feel that they are “losing” something, having to adjust to a new social order in which they do not have carte blanche to look down on others, subjugate others to their will, and exploit others for their benefit. We are paying the price of visibility right now because it has made us the targets of radical conservatives who can pander to people who are afraid of the change we represent.
Visibility fuels exceptionalism. We often fall into the trap of thinking that if one very visible person from a disenfranchised group can access to success, then that means that structural inequality isn’t that bad. We often even mistake an exception to the rule as a sign that the rule no longer exists or that has way less power than it once did. Not only does exceptionalism not address the roots of inequality, it almost reinforces the logic of inequality because it blames other people in that group for not attaining the same thing. For example, many people who now identify as “color-blind” say that if Obama, a black man, can become president then racism doesn’t exist in America. This logic denies the reality of millions of black men who make our prison the fullest in the world, the families of numerous unarmed young men gunned down by police, and the pervasive whiteness of the Senate floor. One person can be an exception without destroying the system, and unless they take action to change the system, they will likely reaffirm the legitimacy of the system sheerly by the reality of their exceptionalism. We can’t fall into a trap that would let our society off the hook for killing black trans women because we love to read Janet Mock and watch Laverne Cox. Trans Visibility isn’t enough.
Why isn’t visibility enough?
We can’t stop at visibility, we need accountability. In a world where more people believe they have seen a ghost than that they have seen a trans person, we know that media plays a disproportionate role in influencing how the public views and understand our community. From entertainment to the news, the entire media industry needs to take responsibility for their role in shaping how people think it is okay to treat us. We need more visibility that shows the complexities of our lives, and that shows our families, church congregations, and people who are interested in dating us how they can be respectful and supportive of us in the struggles we face every day. We need the news media to be accountable to accuracy, cultural sensitivity, and the very real implications of suicide contagion when reporting about our communities. GLAAD’s transgender writing guide is a useful starting point for understanding how to do this.
We can’t stop at visibility. We need action. We need our allies to step up and take action to support trans people who challenging the powers that be and building a new world. Our lives depend on it.