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JUNE 9, 2014

THE
TRANSGENDER
TIPPING
POINT
America’s next
civil rights frontier
BY KATY STEINMETZ

Laverne Cox, a star
of Orange Is the New
Black, is one of an
estimated 1.5 million
Americans who identify
as transgender

time.com

SOCIETY

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NEARLY A YEAR AFTER THE SUPREME
COURT LEGALIZED SAME-SEX MARRIAGE,
ANOTHER SOCIAL MOVEMENT IS
POISED TO CHALLENGE DEEPLY HELD
CULTURAL BELIEFS
BY KATY STEINMETZ

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in the beaux-arts lobby of the nourse theater in san francisco,
men in deep V-necks and necklaces walk by women with crew cuts and
plaid shirts buttoned to the top. Boys carrying pink backpacks kiss on
the lips, while long-haired ladies whose sequined tank tops expose broad
shoulders snap selfies. About 1,100 people, many gleefully defying gender stereotypes, eventually pack the auditorium to hear the story of an
unlikely icon. “I stand before you this evening,” Laverne Cox, who stars
in the Netflix drama Orange Is the New Black, tells the crowd, “a proud,
African-American transgender woman.” The cheers are loud and long.
Almost one year after the Supreme Court
ruled that Americans were free to marry the
person they loved, no matter their sex, another
The
civil rights movement is poised to challenge
Star
long-held cultural norms and beliefs. Transgender people—those who identify with a genLaverne Cox has gone
from being bullied
der other than the sex they were “assigned at
for appearing feminine
birth,” to use the preferred phrase among trans
as a kid in Mobile, Ala.,
activists—are emerging from the margins to
to acting in Orange
fight for an equal place in society. This new
Is the New Black and
transparency is improving the lives of a long
becoming a public face
misunderstood minority and beginning to
for the transgender
movement.
yield new policies, as trans activists and their

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Photographs by Gillian Laub for TIME

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supporters push for changes in schools, hospitals, workplaces,
prisons and the military. “We are in a place now,” Cox tells Time,
“where more and more trans people want to come forward and
say, ‘This is who I am.’ And more trans people are willing to tell
their stories. More of us are living visibly and pursuing our
dreams visibly, so people can say, ‘Oh yeah, I know someone who
is trans.’ When people have points of reference that are humanizing, that demystifies difference.”
The transgender revolution still has a long way to go. Trans
people are significantly more likely to be impoverished, unemployed and suicidal than other Americans. They represent
a sliver of the population—an estimated 0.5%—which can
make it harder for them to gain acceptance. In a recent survey
conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute, 65% of
Americans said they have a close friend or family member who
is homosexual, while 9% said they have one who is transgender.
And as the trans movement has gained momentum, opponents
have been drawn in to fight, many of them social conservatives
who cut their teeth and fattened their mailing lists opposing
same-sex marriage. But perhaps the biggest obstacle is that trans
people live in a world largely built on a fixed and binary definition of gender. In many places, they are unwelcome in the men’s
bathroom and the women’s. The effect is a constant reminder
that they don’t belong.
During her speech, Cox recalled being bullied and chased
home from school as kids called her a sissy and a fag, being put
into therapy to be cured of feminine behavior and getting assaulted on the street by strangers. She talked of downing a bottle
of pills as a sixth-grader, hoping to end her “impure” thoughts.
And she spoke about those who didn’t wake up, after suffering
violence at their own hands or others’, driven by the enduring
belief that trans people are sick and wrong.
“Some folks, they just don’t understand. And they need to get
to know us as human beings,” she says. “Others are just going
to be opposed to us forever. But I do believe in the humanity of
people and in people’s capacity to love and to change.”
Fixing Nature’s Mistake
history is filled with people who did not fit society’s
definition of gender, but modern America’s journey begins after
World War II with a woman named Christine Jorgensen. (This
article will use the names, nouns
and pronouns preferred by individuTHERE ARE SOME
als, in accordance with Time’s style.)
1.5 MILLION
ex-gi becomes blonde beauty: opTRANS PEOPLE
erations transform bronx youth,
trumpeted the New York Daily News
IN THE U.S.—
headline on Dec. 1, 1952. Inside was
ROUGHLY
the tale of a soldier born George, who
0.5% OF THE
sailed for Denmark after being honorPOPULATION
ably discharged, in search of a surgeon
to physically transform him into her.
“Nature made a mistake,” Jorgensen wrote in a letter that the
paper printed, “which I have had corrected.”
The “blonde with a fair leg and a fetching smile,” as Time
described Jorgensen in 1953, became a national sensation and
led some Americans to question ideas they had long taken for
granted, like what makes a man a man and whether a man can,
in fact, be a woman. At the time, the word transgender was not
yet in use. Instead, America called Jorgensen a transvestite (trans
meaning “across” and vest referring to vestments, or clothes);
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today, those who seek medical interventions are commonly known as transsexuals.
The
Columnists wondered whether Jorgensen
could be “cured” or “treated,” and in the deCollege
cades that followed, many in the medical
Prof
establishment viewed transsexuality—like
Paisley Currah
homosexuality—as something to correct. In
decided to
1980, seven years after homosexuality was
transition after
removed from the Diagnostic and Statistical
he already had
Manual of Mental Disorders, a classification
tenure as a
bible published by the American Psychiatric
political-science
professor
Association, transsexualism was added.
at Brooklyn
Eventually that entry was replaced by
College, City
what psychiatrists called gender identity
University of
disorder, and in 2013 that diagnosis was suNew York. “Even
perseded by gender dysphoria, a change apin that situation,
plauded by many in the trans community.
I was nervous,”
Currah says. He
“ ‘Gender identity disorder’ [implied] that
was surprised
your identity is wrong, that you are wrong,”
by how smoothly
says Jamison Green, president of the World
it went, though
Professional Association for Transgender
he believes
Health. The change has helped remove
trans men
the stigma of mental illness (though some
generally
face fewer
worry that removing “disorder” may make
challenges than
it harder to access health care like hormone
trans women.
therapy). Green describes gender dyspho“The culture
ria as discomfort with the gender a person
tends to assign
is living in, a sensation that much of the
more authority
population will never feel. “Most people are
and gravitas
to men,” says
happy in the gender that they’re raised,” says
Currah, noting
Elizabeth Reis, a women’s and gender studies
that he doesn’t
professor at the University of Oregon. “They
get as many
don’t wake up every day questioning if they
late papers
are male or female.”
now as when
For many trans people, the body they
he appeared
female. “It
were born in is a suffocating costume they
makes me think
are unable to take off. “There was a sense of
a lot about the
who I was to myself that did not match who
pervasiveness
I was to other people, and for me that felt
of sexism.”
profoundly lonely,” says Susan Stryker, 52, a
professor of gender and women’s studies at
the University of Arizona who transitioned 22 years ago. “It felt
like being locked in a dark room with my eyes and ears cut off
and my tongue cut out and not being able to connect my own
inner experience with an outer world.”
Understanding why someone would feel that way requires
viewing sex and gender as two separate concepts—sex is biological, determined by a baby’s birth anatomy; gender is cultural, a
set of behaviors learned through human interaction. “Wearing
dresses didn’t feel right,” says Ashton Lee, a 17-year-old from
Manteca, Calif. “When I was in kindergarten and preschool, we
used to line up in girls’ lines and boys’ lines, and I would always
struggle on which line to choose, because I didn’t feel like a girl
but I didn’t look like the other boys.”
Sexual preferences, meanwhile, are a separate matter altogether. There is no concrete correlation between a person’s
gender identity and sexual interests; a heterosexual woman, for
instance, might start living as a man and still be attracted to
men. One oft-cited explanation is that sexual orientation determines who you want to go to bed with and gender identity
determines what you want to go to bed as.

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The
Homecoming
Queen
Cassidy Lynn Campbell,
left, holds hands with her
friend Victoria Avalos, 18,
who has also transitioned
from male to female.
Weeks after Campbell
came out as transgender
in her senior year, the
17-year-old’s classmates in
Huntington Beach, Calif.,
elected her homecoming
queen. Her father, who still
introduces her as his son
Lance, hasn’t been so
accepting. “I wish he could
see me as what I want
him to see me,” she says.
TO HE AR CASSIDY LYNN
CAMPBELL’S STORY, VISIT
lightbox.time.com

That complexity is one reason some trans people reject all
labels, seeing gender as a spectrum rather than a two-option
multiple-choice question. The word transgender, which came into
wider use in the 1990s after public health officials adopted it, is
often used as an umbrella term for all rejections of the norm, from
cross-dressers who are generally happy in their assigned gender
to transsexuals like Jorgensen.
For the majority of people who are accustomed to understanding gender in fixed terms, the concept of a spectrum can be overwhelming. Last year, when Facebook broadened its options for
gender beyond male and female, users suddenly had some 50
categories to choose from. “We generally like to think of things
in black-and-white terms, and this just raises so many gray areas,”
says Reis. Even some people who are sympathetic to the idea of
being trans “just throw their hands up in despair.”
Others reject the notion that a person could have their gender
assigned as male at birth but in reality be a woman. “Gender is a
known fact—you’re either male or female,” says Frank Schubert,
a political organizer who led a failed effort to overturn a new
California law that lets students use school facilities in accor42

dance with their gender identity, regardless of the sex listed on
their school records. “We introduce this concept called gender
identity, and I don’t have any idea what that is. Can you claim
a racial identity based on how you feel or the community that
you’re growing up in? Can I claim to be an African American if I
feel African American?”
Many trans people choose to use hormones and puberty
blockers that can result in beards on biological females and
breasts on biological males. Some go so far as to get facial feminization surgery or speech therapy, training a tenor voice to
spring alto. According to one study, about two-thirds seek some
form of medical treatment and about one-third seek surgery.
While there remains a public fascination with whether any
trans person has had “top” or “bottom” reassignments, these
are highly personal decisions that can have as much to do with
economic status or the desire to have kids as physical preference.
No matter their anatomy, transgender people want to live—and
be identified—according to how they feel: to be able to dress
and be treated like a woman or a man regardless of what their
parents or delivering nurses may have assumed at birth. The

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The
Teenage
Activist
Ashton Lee, 17, told
his family when he was
15 that he no longer
identified as Kimberly
Marie. He soon started
fighting for a new
California law, which
allows K-12 students to
use bathrooms and play
on sports teams that
align with their gender
identity, regardless of
their sex at birth. He says
the law has eased
bullying at his school.
“People have been
standing down,” Lee says,
“because they know
they’ll get in trouble.”

focus on what’s in trans people’s pants is “maddening for us,”
says Mara Keisling, executive director of the National Center for
Transgender Equality. “It’s just not what any of us thinks is an
exceptionally interesting thing about us.”
The Generation Gap
even in the trans community, male-to-female transitions
are thought to be more common than female-to-male, though
experts caution that exact figures are unknown. At a bustling brunch spot in San Francisco’s
Mission neighborhood, Rose Hayes
65% OF
sits straight up, her curly hair in
AMERICANS HAVE
a side-do that hangs around her
neck. She and other trans women—
A CLOSE FRIEND
male at birth but now identifying
OR RELATIVE
as female—are discussing what it
WHO IS GAY;
was like to start their transitions.
9% HAVE ONE
Hayes, a software-engineering diWHO IS TRANS
rector at Google, decided to transition after a friend died a few years
time June 9, 2014

ago. “I had shut myself down emotionally by being in the
closet, and grief opened that up again,” she says. The prospect of proclaiming, in early middle age, that she was ready
to realize herself as a woman was terrifying. “There were all
these things I was convinced I would lose instantly if I came
out,” she says. Some of those fears came true: within a week,
her wife of nearly 23 years contacted a divorce attorney. The
house was sold within the year.
Hayes is certain she could have had a completely different
life if she had been born later. “If the Internet had existed, in
any meaningful sense, when I was 21, I would have figured
it out,” she says. That alternate reality sits opposite Hayes in
a tank top and short purple hair. Teagan Widmer, 25, grew
up a pastor’s son in Northern California and now lives as a
programmer in Berkeley, where she designed an app called
Refuge Restrooms to map gender-neutral, “safe” bathrooms
around the world. As with many other millennial trans people, Widmer’s transition started with search results. As a
middle schooler who had secretly experimented with wearing women’s clothes, she queried, “How do I hide my penis?”

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That was the beginning of an education that led to Widmer’s
coming out in graduate school.
Her story is a reminder that the Internet has been a revolutionary tool for the trans community, providing answers
to questions that previous generations had no one to ask, as
well as robust communities of support. And the digital world
offers a way to test the water before jumping in. As Widmer
puts it, “You can be yourself on the Internet before you can be
yourself in person.”
It has also helped expose the broader culture to trans people.
Cox’s role on Orange has turned her into a sought-after celebrity.
The luxury retailer Barneys featured trans models in a recent
ad campaign. And a memoir by the writer Janet Mock that told
of her transition from living as young Charles in Hawaii became a best seller. The result has been a radical increase in trans
consciousness. When Reis began teaching
a trans-issues class at the University of Oregon in the late 1990s, most of the students—
already a self-selected group highly attuned
The
to gender politics—had no clue what the
Soldier
word transgender meant. Now, she says,
Jamie Ewing,
nearly everyone who enters her classroom
28, says she
already knows the term.
was discharged
That awareness is creating new possibilifrom the
ties. This fall, students in Huntington Beach,
National Guard
Calif., elected a 17-year-old trans girl named
in November
Cassidy Lynn Campbell as their home2013 after
superior officers
coming queen. Standing on the football field
discovered she
in a $23 dress, she broke down in tears when
was trans. Ewing
her name was announced. “I was crying and
is now a defense
sobbing and weeping,” she says. “I was overcontractor, doing
whelmed by what a statement it would be,
similar work
how big it would be.”
for better pay.
“I would trade
Her teary-eyed crowning—a striking
my current job
event in an Orange County town that was
in a heartbeat
ranked as one of the 25 most conservative
for the Army if
in the nation in 2005, according to the Bay
it meant I could
Area Center for Voting Research—was celwear a uniform
ebrated by many as a tolerance milestone.
again,” she says.
But as Campbell thumbed through congratulations from strangers on Twitter after
the game, she also stumbled upon sneers from peers at school,
many saying she wasn’t a “real girl” and didn’t deserve to win.
She posted a YouTube video that evening, which she later took
down, of her crying in front of the computer wearing her sash
and tiara. “I can never have something good happen to me and
people just be happy for me. Never. I’m always judged and I’m
always looked down upon,” she said, wiping tears away with
long acrylic nails. “Sometimes I wonder if it’s even worth it, if I
should just go back to being miserable and just be a boy and hate
myself and hate my life.”
Speaking about the incident months later, Campbell says it
was an overreaction. But in the raw pain of her confession is a
revelation about how wounding it can be to live outside society’s boundaries, even in this more tolerant age. The statistics
also bear it out. According to the National Transgender Discrimination Survey, a 2011 report on nearly 6,500 trans and gendernonconforming people from each state, nearly 80% of young
trans people have experienced harassment at school; 90% of
workers say they’ve dealt with it on the job. Nearly 20% said they
had been denied a place to live, and almost 50% said they had been
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fired, not hired or denied a promotion because of their gender
status. A staggering 41% have attempted suicide, compared with
1.6% of the general population.
The Personal Is Political
the transgender law center takes up one floor of a skinny building on Telegraph Avenue in Oakland, Calif. The staff
there has noticed a shift in the mood, in part because their helpline calls have changed in number and tone. “In prior generations,” says legal director Ilona Turner, “kids who knew they were
transgender told their families ‘I’m a boy’ or ‘I’m a girl,’ and their
families had no context in which to place that other than ‘That’s
not true—stop saying that.’” In the past few years, the help line
has started ringing with parents asking what they can do to support their trans children.
On the other end of the line are mothers like Catherine Lee.
Her son Ashton told his family he identified as a boy when he
was a 15-year-old named Kimberly Marie. Lee soon became
an outspoken advocate for the California law fought by a coalition of
1 IN 4
social conservatives, which ensures
TRANSGENDER
his right to use the boys’ bathroom
AMERICANS
and play on the boys’ sports teams at
Manteca High School. When he came
SAY THEY HAVE
out, his mom tried to be supportive,
LOST A JOB
but it wasn’t easy. “I found myself
BECAUSE OF
making a lot of mistakes and using
GENDER STATUS
the wrong pronouns and confusing
people sometimes,” she says. “I would
say, my son, my daughter, he or she ... It was hard to get Ashton off
my tongue.” Less than a year later Catherine was driving Ashton,
wearing his mohawk haircut and a tie, to Governor Jerry Brown’s
office in Sacramento, where he hand-delivered more than 5,000
signatures in support of the bill.
On May 15, Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley signed a
law that protects trans people from being fired or refused service
at a restaurant or otherwise mistreated because of their gender
identity. As in California, opponents have drawn a line in the
sand on bathroom access. “I don’t want men who think they are
women in my bathrooms and locker rooms,” testified a Marylander named Elaine McDermott at a hearing on the bill. “I don’t
want to be part of their make-believe delusion. Males are always
males. They cannot change. I’m here to stand up for women,
children and their safety.” That criticism rings hollow to state
senator Richard Madaleno, who had been pushing the bill for
nearly a decade: “We hear this on every gay-rights issue. There’s
always this parade of outlandish consequences that are going to
occur that never do.”
At least a dozen other states have instituted policies that allow students to play on the school sports team that aligns with
their gender identity, often after a panel confirms that they’ve
demonstrated habitually living in that gender. One such student is Mac Davis, an 11-year-old from Tacoma, Wash., who just
finished his first season on the boys’ basketball team. Through
the window of a gym door, he looks like the other sixth-grade
boys playing volleyball in gym class: sporting short, dirty blond
hair and baggy jeans, checking his phone and playing rock,
paper, scissors for the serve. School administrators have tried
to be accommodating, instructing teachers to ignore the name
on the roll-call sheet and letting him change in a private area before practice. “Our goal is to make him successful,” says Bryant
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Montessori principal Sandra Lindsay-Brown, “so he has good
days and not bad days.”
Mac has had plenty of bad days. “I have almost always felt
alone,” he says, sitting on a couch at home with his mom on his
11th birthday. “Most of the time it’s like I’m sitting in a corner,
until I make that one friend that helps me get up and dance.” His
older sister, though protective, says she doesn’t “believe in [being] transgender” and still refers to Mac as her sister. Sports have
provided a crucial outlet.
At women’s colleges, administrators are struggling with how
to handle applications from trans women. An even larger question looms over the military, where perhaps as many as 15,500
transgender troops await the day when they can serve openly. On
May 11, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel offered a spark of hope
when he said that the policy prohibiting their service “continually should be reviewed” and added that “every qualified American who wants to serve our country should have an opportunity
if they fit the qualifications and can do it.” Some advocates for
LGBT military personnel believe Hagel’s remarks foreshadow a
formal policy review. Others caution that the military remains a
slow-to-change institution that is only beginning to adapt to the
repeal of “Don’t ask, don’t tell.”
And then there is a far more basic challenge: how to get gender
markers changed on official documents like driver’s licenses,
birth certificates and passports. Thanks to the efforts of the
National Center for Transgender Equality and other advocates,
what in many cases used to require proof of surgery can now be
handled with a doctor’s note. But other obstacles abound. Many
insurance plans have explicit exclusions for treatments related to
gender transitions. Five states—California, Oregon, Connecticut,
Vermont, Colorado—as well as Washington, D.C., have prohibited such clauses, and activists are pushing for more to follow
suit, arguing that many of the services transgender people seek,
like hormone-replacement therapy, are provided to nontrans
people for other reasons. Eighteen states and D.C. currently have
nondiscrimination measures that include gender identity. A
federal bill barring discrimination against gay and transgender
workers, the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, passed the
Democratic-controlled Senate in November but has stalled in the
GOP-controlled House. Years may pass before the measure does.
after cox finished her speech at the nourse theater and
took questions about media stereotypes and trans sex workers, a
person emerged from backstage with a piece of lined notebook
paper, scrawled on by a child. The presenter read it to Cox: “I’m
Soleil. I’m 6 and I get bullied. Since I get teased in school, I go to
the bathroom or to the office. What can I say to the kids who
tease me? What if they don’t listen to me?” The room was heavy
with sighs and empathy—and then yells of solidarity as it was
discovered that Soleil was in the audience. An older woman
made her way to the stage carrying Soleil, who wore a polka-dot
shirt. “You’re beautiful,” Cox told Soleil. “You’re perfect just the
way you are. I was bullied too, and I was called all kinds of names,
and now,” she said, smiling, “I’m a big TV star.” The crowd erupted again, and Soleil reached out her hand. “Don’t let anything
that they say get to you,” Cox continued. “Just know that you’re
amazing.” From the audience, it was impossible to tell if Soleil
had been born female or male, whether the child identified as
a boy or girl. And Cox says it doesn’t matter. “We need to protect our children,” she says, “and allow them to be themselves.”
—with reporting by eliza gr ay/new york
n

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time June 9, 2014