How Trans Rights Became the Civil Rights Struggle of Our Generation


Deep into the dog days of last August and barely a week into my tenure at PolicyMic, I happened to glance up from my laptop at the office flat screen we kept trained on CNN. I was right to look: It was in that moment that word of Chelsea Manning's transition blitzed in graphics across the screen. The news went on to cause a lot of media soul-searching, after years of pressure from trans people and our allies, to shift the conversation in mainstream media about trans bodies.

But this was before the full impact of all that became clear. That sweaty day, I mostly felt nervous as I watched the CNN report of Manning's official statement on the Today Show, "I am Chelsea Manning." In her statement she appealed to the media directly by requesting, "Starting today, you refer to me by my new name and use the feminine pronoun."

I tried not to think about the half of my colleagues that hadn't Googled me, because those folks didn't know I was trans. It wasn't a secret, but I hadn't planned on making a formal announcement. In fact, in the two years I'd been on testosterone, I'd written stories for the AtlanticVICE and BuzzFeed that were all variations of the same argument: Advancing visibility of trans narratives is crucial to changing the tired conversations that often dominate these moments. Part of why I work in media is to challenge and overturn the damaging and even dangerous stories about my community. You don't have to look hard to find egregious, unforgivable offenses made in the name of "clarity." For example, just last spring, a paper in Orlando insisted on defiling the memory of a murdered trans woman by referring to her in the lede as a "man who lived his life as a woman."

Image Credit: TransGriot

In our open office, I listened to the conversation blooming around me as the team decided how to incorporate the news into the ongoing coverage of the Manning case. After a brief back-and-forth centered on pronouns and name clarity, I volunteered that a simple "Chelsea (formerly Bradley) Manning announced today that she was transgender" would suffice. Perhaps startling some of my coworkers, I said, "I'm trans, and the language we use makes a huge difference."

But the truth is, it wasn't really a battle. Most of our young team already understood the importance of staying true to Manning's preferred name and pronoun. It's the very nature of our Internet-native generation to believe the source over the media translation. Many of us share a mistrust of a monolithic government and media authority. We are skeptics who came of age in a world of voices via social media that prove for every dominant narrative, there are infinite stories that counter it.

So as the New York Times and NPR both faltered and then issued memos directing writers in correct usage, I'm glad that PolicyMic (with the exception of backdated stories) called Chelsea by her name.

I think back on that moment in August often because it was a turning point in both my story and the story of what is undeniably becoming one of the key civil rights fights of our generation. This battle found its spark online, away from the dismissive portrayals and misgenderings in old-school reportage. Instead, trans folks and our allies used new media's maverick interest in highlighting individual voices over pundits. We lifted our voices and insisted on ourselves.

As I've continued my testosterone injections over these last six months, my body has hardened into something adult and fully familiar to clerks and gym bros and women at bars. I have a beard, a few more pounds of muscle, a broadening back, a thicker skin. I am called "sir" with increasing frequency, and I am never carded. It seems to me that, with lightning speed, I've become a man as the world around me has come to see the value in the kind of man I am.

Image Credit: PolicyMic

The truth is that just a few years ago, in June 2011, I'd never felt more invisible. Deciding to transition took me decades, and I only gave in when the buzzy, terrible anxiety in my chest crescendoed to the point that I worried I'd lose my mind if I didn't. A big part of my hesitation was the sense that I wasn't "really trans" because I didn't share the story I saw all around me: the sensationalized, big media profiles that made us sound fundamentally strange; or the pitying, disempowering puff pieces that trumpeted a single, flattening storyline. Tragically, I was trapped in the wrong body, and eventually I soul-searched and figured out this terrible malady. Now I take hormones and have had surgery. I'm finally what I've always wanted to be: a "normal" man or woman, just like you.

But to be honest, I didn't want to be just like you. I didn't feel there was anything wrong with the body I was born into, just that I needed to make some adjustments to it.

Nevertheless, the first six months were terrifying. A blur of sudden, endless energy had me at the gym most days, pushing weights skyward in the hopes of keeping my head on straight as my body expanded and bristled and bloomed.

I called myself handsome, every day, even when I didn't mean it. It was my armor that kept me moving past magazines in the supermarket line of tall guys with ripped abs and boyhoods I'd never have. It's what helped me avert my eyes from the long and gnarly comment threads attached to almost anything I wrote. It's the mantra that soothed me when I'd wake up from a nightmare about being murdered, about being left to die, about not being loved, about having to spend the rest of my life explaining my body, about not being seen for the man I am, about not being seen at all.

I'd never felt more alone.

Lucky for me, I was in a position to do something about it. I was at the scrappy start of a freelance career in journalism and so, between trips on the commuter rail from my job in Boston and my home in Providence, I wrote stories on masculinity in pop culture from a trans perspective, including one that addressed and deconstructed the "trapped in the wrong body" story directly.

In the meantime, as the media began to slowly turn the tide via more complex stories of trans kids, and published glamorous profiles like Laura Jane Grace's Rolling Stone cover story that treated transition as part of a person's identity, not the whole of it, I became aware of more and more trans folks circumventing mainstream media to tell their stories on their terms. As lovely as the translations by non-trans journalists could be, their angles assumed our "otherness," and often had a tone that presumed the need to clarify and placate in the reader a disbelief as if we were otherworldly creatures. Editors encouraged me to be explicit in my language by including "female to male" ahead of my adjective of "trans." It was as if my name, pronoun and photo weren't clear enough.

Trans folks have long created "transition diaries" documenting our transitions in real time on YouTube. We have blogged about our experiences, and the media has turned an increasingly interested eye toward our lives by offering more dynamic lifestyle stories portraying our humanity.

In 2012, a year into my transition and when I finally quit being surprised by my own name, trans activist and writer Janet Mock organized an organic Twitter campaign built around the hashtag #girlslikeus. The idea was to create positive, supportive community and tell stories about trans women — especially trans women of color. As I was surprised at the ease with which I befriended and connected to straight, pregnant women in my small New England city about rapid body and identity changes, trans folks became increasingly savvy with social media. Young people in particular utilized Tumblr to spread information not found in mainstream media — from sharing archival footage of Sylvia Rivera, to telling our stories in positive ways through the "We Happy Trans" project, to crowdsourcing surgery fundraisers, to starting magazines of our own. After I started a column on The Rumpus to universalize and make sense of my transition, I found that there were many of us — the invisible, coming forward. 

Then came Lana Wachowski's moving and unapologetic Human Rights Campaign (HRC) speech, a series of policy wins — particularly non-discrimination bills that allowed trans adults and children to use the restroom in peace in schools and other public spaces — as well as protections for trans people in prison, at work and an ease of federal bureaucracy requirements for our name and gender change documentation.

If the tide was turning, this shift in media was the swell. The nation was starting to recognize our trans brothers and sisters as equals. But for years to come, I believe the summer of 2013 will be cited as the seminal moment: the begininng of a cresting wave.

Laverne Cox, the trans activist and actress who won the hearts and minds of so many people as one of the stars of Netflix's cult hit Orange is the New Black about a women's prison, told me that she'd almost exclusively played sex workers until her breakout role as Sophia — a dynamic, sympathetic character who happens to be trans. Her experience was not unusual. According to a 2012 GLAAD analysis, transgender characters were portrayed as the "victim" on television 40% of the time over the past decade, and a one-fifth of all trans characters depicted sex workers.

Image Credit: Getty

I won't forget last summer and the way posters for Orange is the New Black seemed to pop up like magic all over New York. It wasn't that I stopped being afraid of backwards doctors refusing to treat me in rural emergency rooms or flying-while-trans, but something had shifted. I learned that I could only become more myself in every iteration.

I felt like a new man as I sat in our newsroom the day we made the Chelsea Manning call. I'd navigated a blitz of locker rooms and New England manly nods before my move to Brooklyn; I could pass and I could out myself with nimbleness; I knew how to shut down a sexist comment and how to move in a queer bar so that I looked like I still belonged. I also learned to believe that I couldn't be erased.

Transphobia hasn't disappeared. For many of my more marginalized brothers and sisters, it remains a major barrier to housing, health care and even basic survival. I'm also privileged in many ways like most straight, white males — and the fact that I'm not terrified of being murdered for who I am shouldn't be a matter of luck. It should be a dignity I share with all humans.

But, to be honest, I'm still afraid — even as my fears are increasingly unfounded. After last summer's crest, the wave rolled on. Facebook unrolled over 50 gender options, a project pioneered by a trans employee. As I worried about whether or not being an out trans man would be a career barrier, Barneys awed us with its spring campaign in partnership with the National Center for Transgender Equality, which features beautiful photos of 17 trans models. At PolicyMic's daily editorial meetings, we incorporate trans coverage across the site, just as BuzzFeed LGBT, HuffPost Gay Voices, Feministing and many other online outlets.

My last visit to the doctor involved inappropriate questions, and it felt good to see Laverne Cox address the same sort of nonsense with grace when Katie Couric quizzed her about her body. I also felt heartened as I watched Janet Mock confront bullying by Piers Morgan after a belittling and transphobic interview that followed the old, sensational trope can-you-believe-this-used-to-be-a-"boy." I love that most people in media rushed to condemn Morgan and his coverage as irresponsible journalism.

I spoke to some students last month who asked me how I'd know when trans people will have achieved equality. For me, this will be when I don't feel concerned about the basics: who to disclose to, who to not, when I can go on a date or a business meeting and not get dry-mouthed about a pivotal moment.

And that starts now. We are a critical mass of voices, and — as we raise them above the din of bad translations, and make sure our stories are our own — even traditional media has joined the crest. I found proof of this shift in an unlikely place a couple of weeks ago. As I ate my oatmeal and scanned the news before heading into work, I almost dropped my coffee when I came across a New York Times story headlined, "In Their Own Terms: The Growing Transgender Presence in Pop Culture." It was a vignette of profiles, almost entirely direct quotes from trans artists, actors and activists, with very little commentary.

Our own terms — that's finally, and exactly, right.