Laverne Cox Epitomizes Growing Transgender Rights Movement

Transgender actress speaks at Tulane UniversityWhen transgender actor Laverne Cox graced the cover of Time magazine this month, the magazine was showered with accolades for featuring her story. But the article also ignited a predictable torrent of outrage from those unwilling to accept what most major medical associations in the United States have already acknowledged: that being transgender is not a “delusion” or an illness but simply another gender identity. The publication of transmisogynist pieces such as that by Kevin Williamson, which was published and then retracted by the Chicago Sun-Times, fuels violence and discrimination towards transgender people. But resistance to such pieces also highlights the growth of the transgender rights movement, which Time has dubbed “the nation’s next battle for civil rights.”

Williamson’s piece, in which he claims that, “sex is a biological reality, and it is not subordinate to subjective impressions …” received almost instant criticism from organizations such as GLAAD and WAM (Women, Action & the Media) as well as numerous news outlets and independent bloggers. Authors criticized Williamson’s misgendering of Cox and tore apart his attempt at science. Three days later, the piece was pulled from the Sun-Times website and editorial page editor Tom McNamee issued a formal apology.

Laverne Cox has skyrocketed in popularity since landing her role in Netflix’s Orange is the New Black, amassing nearly 80,000 Instagram followers, appearing on Katie and, of course, landing the cover of Time. She joins a growing number of transgender public figures, such as author Janet Mock, who publicly identify as transgender and vocally advocate for transgender rights. The movement has even reached the conservative beach town of Huntington Beach, Calif., where a local high school recently named Cassidy Lynn Campbell the first transgender homecoming queen in the country.

Health organizations are also taking note of the shifting tides. In 2012, the American Psychological Association (APA) removed “gender identity disorder” from its manual of mental disorders. Both the APA and American Medical Association now officially support insurance coverage for gender transition treatments. Most recently, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) departmental appeals board lifted a ban on insurance coverage for gender transition surgeries, leaving open the possibility of expanded insurance coverage for such treatments.

But these positive indicators in no way mean that the battle for transgender equality has been won, as national statistics demonstrate. Transgender people experience unemployment at a rate double the national average, and almost all experience harassment on the job, according to a study by the National Center for Transgender Equality and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force. Rates of physical violence against transgender people are disheartening: According to a study by the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs, 72 percent of LGBT homicide victims last year were transsexual women. And assaults are all too common: Just last month, two transgender women were attacked on an Atlanta subway; one was kicked in the stomach, the other stripped naked as other passengers looked on. As The Daily Dot writer Jen Richards eloquently pointed out, articles such as Williamson’s perpetuate a culture of fear against transgender people that underlies such violence.

But the powerful, immediate condemnation of Williamson’s piece, and the Sun-Times’ swift retraction, shows that blatant transmisogyny will not be tolerated in mainstream print. And judging by the overwhelmingly negative response to Piers Morgans’ earlier insensitive interview with Janet Mock, it will not be tolerated on national television either. The task now is to challenge this kind of bigotry in everyday life, to question assumptions about transgender people, correct misstatements and condemn offensive language. The next battle for civil rights can no longer rest on the shoulders of celebrities such as Laverne Cox; it must be taken up by all of us.

Photo of Laverne Cox courtesy of Flickr user Tulane Publications.

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Emily Shugerman is a politics major at Occidental College and an intern at Ms. Follow her on Twitter.

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