Trans America: As Visibility Grows, Transgender Rights Lag

(Tyler Grigsby)
Oct 14, 2014 at 7:38 AM ET

When Laverne Cox appeared on the June 9 cover of Time magazine, her image ran alongside the headline: “The Transgender Tipping Point.” 

The honor capped off a stellar year for the actress, who not only received acclaim for her performance as Sophia Burset on Orange Is the New Black (she later became the first transgender actress nominated for an Emmy award), but also proved herself to be a passionate and articulate speaker on trans issues—an area of advocacy in which she has long been active.

Yet, as the headline suggests, the cover story also marks a broader cultural shift in terms of visibility. Of course, Cox isn’t the first big trans personality—hello, Billy Tipton, Candy Darling, Christine Jorgensen, Chaz Bono, Carmen Carrera, Lana Wachowski, Amanda Lepore, Kye Allums, Jenna Talackova and Janet Mock, to name but a few. And activists have long been fighting to advance the rights of transgender individuals in this country. But she is one in an increasing number of trans men and women who are claiming a spot within mainstream pop culture.

Then there is Transparent, a dramatic comedy that debuted Sept. 26 on Amazon Prime. It follows an L.A.-based family as they come to terms with their patriarch’s coming out as a trans woman. Based on the personal experiences of director Jill Soloway and starring Jeffrey Tambor as Maura, the series has received overwhelmingly positive reviews from queer and straight press alike.

However, as important as visibility is for creating awareness, it’s just one step toward equality. For all the positive changes taking place, transgender Americans are still treated as lesser-thans when it comes to policy and legislation that affords them legal rights and protections.

“The recent media attention that the trans community has received is a helpful starting point for working toward greater rights and equal rights,” says Arli Christian, policy counsel at the National Center for Transgender Equality (NCTE). “Now we have all of these legal and policy changes that really need to be made. And looking at the number of states that have more accessible trans policies versus the states that need to improve their policies, we have a ways to go.”

To build our map, Vocativ teamed up with the NCTE (and gathered data from our friends at the National LGBTQ Task Force, the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network and the Movement Advancement Project) to identify five key, measurable areas that provide an overview of the state of transgender rights in the United States: identity documents, anti-discrimination protections in schools and the workplace, health care and hate crime laws. 

Clicking through the categories, one thing becomes clear: Very few states, those on the West Coast notwithstanding, have implemented laws that offer some, if any, protections for trans people. California is the only state that provides full protections in all five categories.

In only 17 states is it simple to alter identity documents without getting sex reassignment surgery, and just six will allow changes to birth certificates without evidence of surgery.

“If you want to open a bank account, if you want to enroll in school, if you want to go into a restaurant or bar, you need your ID documents,” Christian says. “When individuals have an identity document that doesn’t match their presentation, it’s not just inconvenient, it’s dangerous.”

On the health care front, historically there have been many policies that exclude transition-related care—a problem compounded by doctors who are not educated on trans-specific issues, as well as systematic economic disadvantages that leads to a general lack of access. Our map shows nine states where private insurance extends to transition-related care, and only four where Medicaid can cover costs.

The U.S. doesn’t fare much better when it comes to anti-discrimination and hate-crime legislation—well over half of the country does not have laws in place to prevent discrimination against and harassment of trans individuals. Bullying in school is a pressing problem and, according to the 2011 National Transgender Discrimination Survey, workplace discrimination is pervasive.

“Ninety percent of people surveyed had experienced some sort of harassment in the workplace,” says Kylar Broadus, senior public policy counsel of the Transgender Civil Rights Project, adding that the combination of anti-transgender bias and structural racism can be especially devastating. “People of color in general fare worse than white participants across the board, and what this means is that people live in extreme poverty, with households getting less than $10,000 in [annual] income.”

In June 2012, Broadus testified before the U.S. Senate—the first openly transgender person to do so—on behalf of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA), which aims to “prohibit employment discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.” Two years later, it has been passed in Senate, but is currently stalled because of arguments around religious exemptions.

Broadus says he lost his job because of the attention he received following his Senate testimony.

So how do we move forward from these bleak statistics? Both Broadus and Christian believe the key is educating people about the issues impacting the trans community—and getting involved. Whether it’s donating money or time, by showing up for hearings on anti-discrimination bills or identity document changes, Christian adds that it’s important for lawmakers to understand that it’s not only transgender people who are concerned about equal rights, it’s all Americans.

“There has been an incredible amount of progress in the last few years in terms of improvement of policies and improvement of public image and understanding,” she says. “Again, those two work hand in hand to move us forward…but, as you can see from these maps, there is still a long way to go.”