Transgender activism in the United States seeks social justice for trans people through a combination of legislative and pop cultural advancements. There's data to back up the fact that social attitudes toward minority demographics change with increased visibility, but most people probably don't need to see a study of that to understand that ignorance breeds prejudice when it comes to social inequity.
On Thursday, the national LGBT media advocacy organization GLAAD released the results of a recent survey to track "the number of Americans who report knowing or working with someone who is transgender." According to GLAAD's press release, that number has gone from 8 percent to 16 percent—doubling in the seven years since these statistics were last measured.
These findings may come as no surprise to the average citizen, as our political and pop cultural airwaves have been inundated with transgender subject matter for the past several years. From Amazon's Emmy award-winning series, Transparent, to President Obama's historical appointment of the first openly trans woman to the White House, the high concentration of this demographic in mainstream media has initiated a national discussion on the reality of, and issues related to, transgender people.
Visibility is crucial because ignorance breeds discrimination.
Visibility is crucial because ignorance breeds discrimination. "We know that someone who personally knows a member of the LGBT community is much more likely to be accepting," said GLAAD President and CEO Sarah Kate Ellis, referring to a 2008 survey which found that people who know someone gay are more likely to have a favorable attitude to the gay community.
For those people who have no personal connection to the trans community, trans visibility in the media may be the only realistic means to raise their awareness: According to GLAAD's press release, "Therefore, it's crucial that the media increase and improve the coverage of transgender issues, and that transgender people have the opportunity to tell their own stories about our lives and the issues we face." Getting the stories of trans Americans into the public eye, pushing law reform that recognizes the existence of transgender people, and engaging in critical discourse on this subject matter in mainstream media may have an effect on other issues plaguing the transgender population—including employment discrimination, substance abuse, sexual health, mental illness, and hate-based violence.
According to trans model Arisce Wanzer, the rise in trans visibility has had a measurable effect on the way she's treated at work. "I've experienced trans discrimination in the fashion world for many years," she said. "[I was] only ever being used as a gimmick or as a spectacle, my actual modeling qualifications thrown the wayside." Though she's witnessed a steady rise in visibility throughout the last several years, Wanzer told me that "the turning point in our overall acceptance came with the platform of Miss Caitlyn Jenner. We've had allies and trans activists speak for years, but not until now have people started actually listen to us." Caitlyn Jenner's exposure is of Kardashian proportions, reaching to parts of the country previously unaware of trans issues and causing stagnant industries to suddenly change. "Only recently have I been getting the jobs that were once kept from me for being openly trans; it's been amazing," said Wanzer. "Trans visibility is absolutely necessary for society to accept us."
The transgender community has historically been shafted by the mainstream LGB movement. Issues related to gender identity have long been omitted from reformative bills, like the Employment Non Discrimination Act, which (until 2007) sought protections for queer sexuality but not gender variance. Organizations like the Human Rights Campaign and GLAAD have evolved in their own way to be more trans inclusive. According to GLAAD's release, "In 2013, GLAAD formally dropped its full name – the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation – as another sign of our ongoing commitment to the transgender community."
In the span of decades, there has been a slow but progressive evolution across the United States.
In the span of decades, there has been a slow but progressive evolution across the United States, from mainstream LGBT organizations, to Hollywood, and Capitol Hill. Though 16 percent doesn't seem like nearly enough, that number doubled in less than a decade, suggesting that an increase in transgender awareness has reached that social justice sweet spot, where enough progress has been made that it begins to grow exponentially. Even more promising, GLAAD found that 27 percentof millennials "say they personally know or work with a transgender person, with 30 percent of female millennials saying this."
Studies like this are a useful measuring stick to compare with the cultural advancements we instinctively pick up on when we're reading the news or watching TV and notice an increase in transgender visibility. It's a way to quantify American cultural awareness, and this study specifically underscores the importance of producing media that is representative of real transgender people and the societal issues confronting this population.