Standing on the stage of the ESPY Award ceremony, Caitlyn Jenner delivered a thought-provoking and emotional speech on her journey and that of thousands of other transgender individuals all across the nation. She had known her gender identity from an early age and spent years suppressing it, hiding herself from the world until her most recent announcement earlier this year. Jenner was the recipient of this year’s Arthur Ashe Courage Award, given to those who display tremendous amounts of courage that transcends sports.
Jenner has received criticism from various people doubting her transition as courageous. People took to social media, protesting ESPN’s decision and listing other courageous people who were seen as more qualified to receive the award. Those who serve in the military were brought into arguments as the very example of bravery, far exceeding Jenner’s “act” to appear as a woman. Those not familiar with the transgender community and their issues may not have seen Jenner as someone who did something courageous, but someone who simply adorned women’s clothing and changed their name. Why does being open about one’s gender identity equate to courage?
Being yourself should not have take courage, but in today’s society it takes indescribable levels of courage to do so.
Being transgender in the world today can be very dangerous, even for those who hold higher levels of privilege and luxuries like Jenner. Roughly 700,000 Americans are believed to identify as transgender, though this number is extremely difficult to accurately estimate. Many transgender people are forced to remain silent about their gender identity to remain safe from violence, discrimination, homelessness, and death threats.
While Jenner is privileged enough to afford health care among other things, the stigma of being transgender is not absent from her life. Leading up to the interview, the general public witnessed the media painting Caitlyn Jenner as some sort of abnormality, a fallen celebrity going through a crisis, or some sort of mentally insane person. The media, and much of society, was highly transphobic and no amount of privilege could diminish that. Even after her announcement and what some saw as her easily filling the feminine mold of how society sees as a woman, Jenner continues to face transphobia in various forms.
Those who do not hold the same luxuries that Jenner does face a plethora of challenges and obstacles that Jenner may not necessarily face, ranging from bullying at school, violence at work, and discrimination in the housing sector.
Transgender individuals experience a high level of violence and discrimination in various sections of society. In 2014 The Williams Institute released a report on transgender discrimination, finding that 78% of those who suffered physical or sexual violence at school attempted suicide. This number remains far above 50% for those who are denied healthcare (60%), face homelessness (69%), and face violence at their workplace (65%).
All of this seriously impacts thousands of people, as the life expectancy for those who are transgender is believed to be around 35 years old.
Violence and lack of strong protections are prevalent despite an EEOC ruling in 2014 that barred discrimination of transgender employees. Transgender individuals experience alarming levels of violence and discrimination in the workplace. About 90% of workers reportedly faced some form of discrimination based on their gender identity. And despite efforts to move towards anti discrimination ordinances, anti-LGBT groups and conservative government officials have done their best to block any and all attempts at what is seen as “violating Christian values.”
Transgender individuals were also prohibited from serving in the military openly until the Department of Defense announced a plan to lift the ban. Although it has yet to be implemented, it displays a growing trend of LGBT inclusive policies that the government is taking. Around 15,500 soldiers identify as transgender and have been unable to seek medical resources (or the ability to transition as they see fit) that many desperately need.
One of the most negatively affected group of people of the transgender community are trans women of color. Five trans women of color were killed just within the first two months of 2015 and attention towards their deaths has been minimal. Penny Proud, Lamia Beard, Ty Underwood, Yazmin Vash Payne, and Taja DeJesus lost their lives to transphobic acts of violence. The number of trans women of color killed this year has been greatly increasing ever since. Transgender women of color face even higher levels of violence compared to other trans women, yet receive far less attention than their counterparts. They experience very similar obstacles: homelessness, physical and sexual violence, poverty, discrimination, lack of basic health care, and other issues except at a much higher rate.
The lack of workplace protections and basic health care exposes the transgender community to an abundance of issues. Some in the community resort to sex work, which is fueled by the fetishization of transgender bodies, in order to make money and survive. Unsafe practices and the lack of access to health care increases the chances of contracting diseases and creating serious health risks, especially for those taking hormones that can be costly and hard to come by. Due to the criminalization of sex work, harassment by police only adds to the dangers faced by trans people. Officers use the rule that multiple condoms is evidence of prostitution, and “because of policies like [using] condoms as evidence, trans women often face a choice between protecting themselves and their partners from HIV and risking arrest.'”
And this is only focused on America. The conditions of the transgender community widely vary from nation to nation.
In places like Malta, Ireland, and Denmark, transgender individuals enjoy a wide amount of rights and freedoms, including legal recognition of gender identities and anti-discrimination laws that protect them. Many Western nations, and a handful of countries in Asia and Africa, have worked towards protections and rights for transgender and gender variant people. In the last few years, India has been making strides in relation to transgender rights through government appointments and laws recognizing a third gender identity.
Other nations such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Malaysia have hostile and violent attitudes towards transgender individuals. Saudi Arabia, which follows a strict and conservative application of Islamic law, views and form of gender transgression as illegal and punishable by lashings, deportation, imprisonment, or death. However, Iran, another country that applies Islamic law to society, allows for and often finances gender reassignment surgeries for transgender people (despite an extremely negative view of LGBT people).
Since the overthrow of President Morsi in Egypt, the government has extensively cracked down on any transgender or LGBT perceived group in an attempt to paint the new regime as valuing Islamic traditions. Since the rule of Mubarak, LGBT rights and freedoms have greatly diminished, exposing the community to violence from both society and the government.
And in Malaysia, the conservative government has renews efforts to criminalize being transgender through unjust detainment and systematic abuses by government authorities.
The transgender community faces so much and undergoes the worst throughout their lives. From bullying at schools to violence at work and at home. Being transgender in today’s society, especially in many parts of the world, can be perilous. It can cost a job, it can cost a home, it can even cost a life. For Caitlyn Jenner to risk everything in her life to open up about her gender identity, it took a considerable amount of courage and bravery. Certainly different segments of the community face different levels and forms of discrimination. The positive side to Caitlyn Jenner being public about herself is the loud voice speaking out for transgender rights in a society that knows little about the community.
It’s the bravery of Jannet Mock, Laverne Cox, and many other trans people who have paved the way and continue to do so that helps the progression of transgender rights and its alleviation of social stigmas. Caitlyn Jenner is courageous, not solely for being herself, but for being herself when society punishes those who act freely. It takes tremendous courage to stand before America to announce a part of one’s self that so often results in death, and even more to continue doing so to help others experiencing something similar. For that, I am eternally proud and grateful for the work and contribution Caitlyn Jenner, and so many others, bring to educate our world.
Photo Credit: KTLA