In the past ten years, we lost hope in American politics, realized we were being watched on the internet, and finally broke the gender binary (kind of). So many of the beliefs we held to be true at the beginning of the decade have since been proven false—or at least, much more complicated than they once seemed. The Decade of Disillusion is a series that tracks how the hell we got here.
Transgender people entered the 2010s quietly and are leaving it as magazine cover stars and TV show protagonists. That increased visibility pushed society’s understanding of the gender binary, with many people becoming aware of the existence of trans and non-binary people for the first time.
But the 2010s were also when we learned that mainstream visibility doesn’t always equal rights, wealth, or safety. While visibility brought significant rights gains to the trans community over the past decade, it also brought a significant backlash that currently threatens several decades of progress for trans people. Here are the 10 most significant moments marking the steps toward rights and representation, which were also, in many cases, steps back.
May 30, 2010: The State Department Makes Public Life for Many Trans People Possible For the First Time
Before 2010, the ability to legally transition genders was limited to those with financial means. Both conservative and liberal states legally enforced the gender binary, and only allowed changes to gender markers on legal IDs after a trans person had completed gender reassignment surgery, if at all. And given that coverage for such procedures was generally excluded from most health insurance plans, only trans people who could afford the expensive procedures could even dream of legally changing their genders.
In the U.S., you need valid ID to get a job, apply for housing, deal with the police, and buy alcohol, among other things, so any trans person who presented as one gender but had a legal ID showing another was primed to face discrimination.
In 2010, however, the State Department relaxed its surgery requirement in order to change the gender marker on U.S. passports, triggering a sea change for the trans community. Regardless of which state a trans person lived in, they could access a passport with the correct gender that could be used anywhere. It was the first step in allowing a dignified life for trans people who could not afford surgery.
August 22, 2013: Chelsea Manning Becomes a Trans Whistleblowing Icon
After releasing classified military documents to Wikileaks in 2010, Chelsea Manning was eventually sentenced to 35 years in military prison. Then, on the eve of her sentencing in 2013, Manning’s attorneys released a statement revealing that she is a transgender woman. Her struggle in military prison turned her into a high-profile figure for the trans community and brought attention to the plight faced by trans women within the prison system. In 2016, she won the right to have gender reassignment surgery while incarcerated, a first for the U.S. military correctional system.
In early 2017, Manning’s sentence was commuted by President Obama, and she ran an unsuccessful campaign for Senate the following year. In March 2019, however, she was re-jailed for refusing to cooperate with a grand jury subpoena and remains in prison today.
“You can almost use her progress in life to track a lot of transgender rights over the last decade,” said trans advocate and writer Gillian Branstetter. “We as a people entered this decade with immense hope, and now we are leaving this decade with immense fear and immense potential for harm. We started this [period of time] with Chelsea Manning in prison and we're ending it with Chelsea Manning in prison.”
May 29, 2014: Laverne Cox’s Time Magazine Cover Puts Trans People in the Spotlight
“Transgender Tipping Point” blared a Time magazine cover, alongside a statuesque photo of trans actress Laverne Cox. While the issue argued that the U.S. had reached a sort of tipping point of acceptance, nothing could have been further from the truth.
“That might be remembered as the point that cis people discovered us, but we were here all along, and we've been doing the work all along,” said Branstetter. The cover did symbolize a new level of representation for trans people in the U.S., resulting in modest gains in legal rights. But with that increased visibility came increased attacks from anti-trans activists and politicians—attacks that the trans community are still dealing with at the end of the decade.
Transgender journalist Samantha Allen revisited and skewered the overly optimistic cover three years later. “Imagine a magazine cover today announcing ‘The Transgender Tipping Point.’ The thought is almost laughable,” she wrote. “Whatever burst of momentum there supposedly was in 2014 has given way to a seemingly endless war of attrition between civil rights groups and anti-LGBT groups, with lives hanging delicately in the balance. Yes, transgender people are on TV now. But it’s clearer now than it has ever been that visibility is no silver bullet for transphobia.”
June 25, 2015: Caitlyn Jenner Becomes the New Face of the Trans Community, For Better or Worse
When former Olympian and reality-TV star Caitlyn Jenner first announced her transition —via a glamorous Vanity Fair cover—she became the de facto face of the trans community in mainstream pop culture. But it soon became clear that Jenner was out of her depth in her new role as an advocate for the greater trans community.
Her support for Donald Trump’s campaign for president proved disastrous, and early media missteps as well as her initial discomfort with marriage equality cost her much needed credibility with trans people and the LGBTQ community at large. Jenner is a contemptuous figure, and as a former athlete, most of her fans were the kind of people who didn’t know much about trans people to begin with. It’s easy for cis people to mock both her and her gender identity, leaving many trans people in the frustrating position of defending Jenner’s womanhood while denouncing, well, nearly everything else about her.
Despite that, Jenner remains the highest profile celebrity to publicly transition, and that alone makes her coming out a milestone in the past decade of trans rights.
March 23, 2016: The Bathroom Bill Is Signed and Organized Backlash Begins
In the wake of their loss at the Supreme Court over marriage equality, right wing cultural conservatives turned their ire toward transgender people. Using outlandish caricatures of trans women, conservative media and politicians launched a vast campaign against transgender people’s rights to use the bathroom that matches their gender, arguing that trans women are actually creepy men who threaten the safety of cis women and girls in public restrooms.
The issue hit its nadir in North Carolina, when Republican governor Pat McCrory signed HB2—known as the “bathroom bill”—into law. Effectively, it required trans people to use the bathroom that corresponds with the sex on their original birth certificates if the bathroom is government owned, including those in public schools. Backlash against the bill was swift and immediate. Musicians canceled concerts, the NBA and NCAA moved events out of the state, and companies canceled plans to expand into the state. All told, North Carolina lost about $3.76 billion in economic activity before the state finally relented and compromised on a repeal of the bill in 2017.
Importantly, HB2 taught the LGBTQ rights movement how to effectively respond to conservative attacks on trans issues. “You can talk to state legislators in any state who will point to this three billion dollar damage done to the North Carolina economy because of the massive outcry over the threat of HB2,” said Branstetter. “It was a huge, huge turning point because it showed that transgender people are not defenseless. We could not easily be used as culture war fodder or a wedge issue. It showed that we have teeth, that we can fight back in a real way.”
May 13, 2016: The Affordable Care Act Revolutionizes Access to Transition-related Care
Before passage of the Affordable Care Act, a gender dysphoria diagnosis was considered a pre-existing condition by most insurance companies, so trans people were often left without access to even basic health insurance plans for transition-related care. And even if you did have coverage, most insurance companies also specifically excluded transition-related surgeries from coverage plans.
Passage of Obamacare changed that calculus significantly. Not only did the ACA require insurance companies to cover people with pre-existing conditions, the Obama administration put into place a rule to ban healthcare discrimination on the basis of gender identity, ending exclusions of transition-related surgeries.
Suddenly, trans people from all walks of life could afford life-affirming transition surgeries, and hospitals rushed to meet the sudden growth in demand. Earlier this year, however, the Trump administration proposed a rule that would undo the Obama-era rule, threatening access to transition-related care for hundreds of thousands of trans people in the U.S.
June 15, 2017: Oregon Becomes the First State to Allow Non-binary Gender Markers
While Washington, D.C. was the first U.S. jurisdiction to offer third gender markers on government identification, Oregon became the first state to do so in 2017. It was the first time that people were given an option of legal gender recognition outside of just male or female.
While it’s an important step in recognizing that gender is more of a spectrum than a binary, some non-binary people have questioned why gender needs to be on identification in the first place. “It certainly shows how much society has created a world and bureaucracy where everyone must at all times be sorted as either a woman or a man,” said Vin Tanner, a nonbinary writer.
Now, at the end of the decade, 16 states offer non-binary gender markers on ID. The administrative moves came in response to a massive growth in people identifying outside of the gender binary. According to Pew Research data released earlier this year, 35 percent of people in Gen Z know someone who uses “they/them” pronouns and several non-binary actors, such as Asia Kate Dillon, now regularly appear on TV and in movies.
July 26, 2017: Trump Bans Trans People From The Military
With three tweets, President Trump declared that he would order the military to ban transgender servicemembers from serving in the U.S. military. It was one of the few times he actually uttered the word “transgender” in public, and the ban became the public face for the administration’s comprehensive anti-trans agenda.
For some, the attention on the military ban took away from other, more urgent issues for marginalized trans people. “It's taking this big, familiar institution, a violent institution, and using it to frame a marginalized group around shared values,” explained Branstetter. “It was somewhat odd because you saw a lot of advocacy organizations pouring more time and energy into the right of transgender people to be killed in another country than they have ever poured into the transgender people to live in this country.”
Still, the ban brought trans rights onto the moral radars of many who hadn’t previously been paying attention.“The visibility of [the trans military ban] has elevated the visibility of transgender people in the public eye to an unprecedented degree and in a very positive way,” said Shannon Minter, legal director of the National Center for Lesbian Rights.
November 7, 2017: Danica Roem Becomes First Openly Trans State Legislator
Danica Roem not only defeated one of the most outspoken homophobic delegates in the Virginia legislature, but became the first ever openly transgender person to be elected to state level office. Joining Roem in winning elections that year were Andrea Jenkins and Phillipe Cunningham, who became the first ever openly trans Black trans people to win elections when both won races to join the Minneapolis City Council.
Roem’s campaign focused on local transportation issues, but didn’t shy away from her gender identity. So, her opponent’s attacks on her trans status seemed petty and unproductive compared to her plan to fix Route 28, a major thoroughfare through her district that needed significant upgrades. Roem’s issue-focused strategy has provided a blueprint for other trans candidates to win elections in districts all over the country, and her win effectively opened the door for others. There are now 21 openly trans elected officials in the U.S.
October 8, 2019: Trans rights goes to SCOTUS
The Supreme Court heard the case of trans woman Aimee Stephens, who was fired from her job as a funeral home director and embalmer after informing her employer of her impending gender transition. If the high court rules against Stephens, it will set a precedent for employers to legally fire anyone who they perceive as gender-nonconforming.
Conservative attacks on the trans community are not showing any signs of slowing down, but what we’ve seen in the past decade is trans people bravely claiming public life, demanding rights and respect, and fighting back in a loud and organized way.
Aimee Stephens has said the reason she decided to sue was, simply, she “got mad enough to do something about it.” That’s the energy we’ll need for the 2020s.