Here's What It's Like To Be Transgender In 2019
Trans Day of Remembrance is an annual observance dedicated to the memory of the trans and gender diverse community members who lost their lives in the past year.
We remember and honour those lost to anti-trans violence and transphobic culture and, hopefully, through our reflection we learn. On the 20th of November each year, in hundreds of cities around the world, the names of the dead are read, candlelight vigils and church services are held, and a sense of solidarity and support is found in a collective mourning.
It’s important to remember. It’s crucial to reflect on our community’s violent, oppressive history, to remember the trans forebears who fought to be recognised so that we can exist out loud today. Transphobic violence overwhelmingly impacts and targets transgender women, and particularly trans women of colour, across the developed and developing world, and to forget or underplay that would be to effectively sign the death sentence of countless more vulnerable people.
On this Trans Day of Remembrance, however, I want to reflect in a different way. I don’t want to brush away transphobic violence, nor do I think that reflecting on positives over negatives is necessarily more productive. I simply want to reflect on just how much has changed for the better.
I was thinking about this when I sat down for coffee with an actor friend recently. They had over the past few months come out as non-binary, both socially and professionally. We discussed how things have been for them since coming out and, as usual, I was prepared to be concerned, to counsel and comfort.
“Everyone’s been really great, honestly,” they said. “Everyone cares a lot, and they mostly get it right on set. They don’t always get it, but they’re all working really hard on it and that means more.”
For the first 18 months to two year of my life as an out trans person I had to insist, constantly, on my pronouns and changed name -- and often that insistence was met with frustration and anger from friends, that it was “too hard”.
In 2013 when I first came out as non-binary, things were very different. As little as six years ago the cultural landscape and conversation around trans people was nowhere near as developed as it is now.
For several years, even in the socially conscious “lefty bubble” of Sydney University, I was being asked to “explain trans” to people on a regular basis. There was no infrastructure in place to allow me to be referred to by professors and tutors the way I wanted, and I was unable to be out at any job I had until I started working in theatre.
When I reflect on those years, what I see is a period characterised by almost constant terror -- of being found out, of being rejected or cast out, of being shamed and shunned.
And it’s absolutely still the case that trans people face those same fears every day -- but where six years ago it was a terror I endured in secret, now we experience the ups and downs of being trans out loud, in the open, and people have started to listen.
It is no longer the case that people I meet tell me I’m the “first trans person [they’ve] ever met”, but it’s also the case that people who’ve met me whose children have since come out as trans or non-binary are already informed and aware.
It took me many years to figure out my gender identity, in part because I had no reference points in media. The first piece of media I saw with a trans masculine character in it was 1999 film Boys Don’t Cry, in which trans man Brandon Teena is beaten and eventually killed for his identity -- and a film that has no trans bodies in it, with Hilary Swank playing Teena. As recently as 2013 the dominant narrative in trans portrayal was that of death, disaster, and tragedy, exemplified by films like Dallas Buyers Club.
Today’s young people see trans people on their screens in a wide range of roles. From prestige dramas like Orange Is the New Black, Pose and Sense8 to teen-geared shows like Chilling Adventures of Sabrina and Rise, we have seen a huge increase in the number of trans roles played by trans people, as well as the number of trans characters whose identity is simply incidental to their story.
I have noticed in some parts of the trans community a tendency for the “old guard” to resent how much easier young trans people have it. Discussions around non-binary and genderfluid identity often see that reaction from older binary trans people. The recent debate around making it easier to change the gender on one’s birth certificate saw a number of older trans public figures close rank. There was an urge to gate-keep borne out of the inability to forget the trauma of coming out and transitioning before this new era of burgeoning acceptance.
And I understand that, truly -- when you’ve had to fight tooth and nail just to be recognised for who you are, it can feel like an injustice to see others seemingly sail through that journey.
But when I speak to young and emerging trans people -- kids who have grown up knowing what a trans person is, whose teachers have taken active steps to inform them about gender identity, whose screens are filled with trans actors, writers, politicians, models and other public figures -- kids who haven’t had to search to find a community, who had trans people in their lives before they began interrogating their own gender, who haven’t experienced the soul-crushing isolation of wondering whether you’re the only one who feels like this -- I feel immense relief for them. For all of us.
The fight was worth it.
So this Trans Day of Remembrance, I want to remember all we’ve lost, the pain and grief -- but I also want to remember what we’ve gained in refusing to give up.