In the last 12 months, 238 reported murders of trans people have occurred worldwide. Transgender Remembrance Day was stated as a vigil for Rita Hester, a trans woman murdered in Boston in 1998. Transgender people today still face widespread discrimination and though great strides in positive visibility – Sarah Brown, a city counsellor in Cambridge and Paris Lees, a Radio 1 presenter, being great examples of successful trans women – there is still a huge lack of understanding of trans issues in the wider community. Gender related slurs are still common in schools and many trans people find it hard to get people to use their preferred pronouns or to find employment, and violent attacks are still a significant risk.
Transphobia is not just a problem in straight communities. Western ‘LGBT’ equality movements are almost exclusively focused on the assimilation into mainstream society of lesbian and gay people, with little attention given to the plight of numerous transgender people and those who identify outside of the gender binary. Media coverage of LGBT equality tends to be about marriage equality or the use of the word ‘gay’ as an insult – both of which are very valid issues. But you won’t find much news coverage about the fact that in 33 states in America, it is perfectly legal to fire someone based solely on their gender identity. Closer to home, I have personally been witness to incidents of transphobia in gay bars in Leeds; earlier this year a transgender student was harassed in the toilets of the Union. Encouragingly, Union staff dealt with this well, making moves to train staff in awareness of trans issues and introducing gender neutral toilets in most buildings on campus, but it shouldn’t have taken an incident of physical harassment to prompt change.
In the straight community, there s often a lot of confusion as to what constitutes a transgender identity. Some people are uncertain as to the difference between transvestites and transgender people; others see being trans as a phase or see transgenderism as an entirely modern phenomenon. This lack of understanding takes its toll on the trans community, with trans women of colour being especially prone to violent attacks. Trans children and teenagers often have to suppress their true identity for fear of bullying from students and teachers alike. Trans people are often caught between being seen as undesirable if their physical attributes do not conform strictly to a gender and being accused of ‘tricking’ people if they do ‘pass’ well.
All of this contributes to a society where being trans is still one of the biggest challenges you can face – but face it some do, with a tremendous amount of courage and determination. We need to educate people on respecting trans identities, increase positive visibility in the media of trans men, trans women and those who don’t conform to a gender binary. People need to know that using transphobic slurs is utterly unacceptable. We need to expand our understanding of LGBT issues beyond marriage equality for gay and lesbian couples. Let’s hope that with each year that goes by, there’ll be fewer lives to commemorate and more to celebrate.