Sunday, 7 June 2015

Equality & Respect for Transgender People: The Next Civil Rights Issue

by Will Wallace

I used to be one of those ill-informed individuals that would laugh and make snide remarks about transgender people. It seems ironic that I, of all people, would snigger at others who have struggled or questioned their identity in the face of such discrimination.

The sad truth is that people whose biological sex (encompassing their sexual organs, chromosomal makeup, etc.) does not match their gender identity face a huge amount of stigma and abuse. It is all too easy to label them as being “confused” – but those who make such assertions are almost certainly from the cisgender/non-trans majority of the public that, frankly, has never had to deal with such identity issues.

Never in my life have I looked in a mirror, seen a boy staring back and felt that it should be a girl. To assume that our gender can be easily identified by our physical reflection would be short sighted, and certainly a simplistic assumption. It’s very much the same for lesbian, gay and bisexual (LGB) people: only you can truly know your sexuality or your gender identity.

It’s really quite depressing to think, therefore, that in the year 2015 far too many people do not seem to understand or accept how an American TV personality can go from being called ‘Bruce’ to ‘Caitlyn’. Or how a former boxing manager can change their name from ‘Frank’ to ‘Kellie’. Much of the language used has been pretty similar to what homophobes use to describe LGB people: the talk about Jenner and Maloney being “confused” and “attention-seeking”, not being “natural” and making a “lifestyle choice” could easily have been used to define Elton John, Stephen Fry and Clare Balding when they came out.

As a society, we need to change fundamentally the way we address the question of gender identity, in the same way that our attitudes and laws affecting LGB people have evolved over the past 40 years. The only way that such a change can be brought about is through sympathy and understanding.

In 1978, a proposal was put to voters in California – to ban LGB people, or supporters of gay rights, from teaching in schools. Initially, there was widespread support for the measure, but following a successful campaign spearheaded by San Francisco politician, Harvey Milk, the initiative was decisively rejected. Milk’s strategy had been to encourage closeted LGB Californians to come out to their family and friends. His words were, “We will not win our rights by staying quietly in our closets…we are coming out to tell the truths about gays, for I am tired of the conspiracy of silence”. The result of this was to enable once bigoted views to be tempered by the unconditional love one has for a brother, sister or child. Gradually, fear was swept away by such compassion and acceptance.

I certainly do not believe that full, equal rights have been achieved for LGB people; in the same way that women still face misogyny, both explicit and subconscious, and ethnic minorities still bear the brunt of racist misdemeanors and stereotyping. However, the views that have been expressed towards Caitlyn Jenner in recent days – the same attitudes that led Leelah Alcorn, a 17 year-old transgender girl from Ohio, to take her own life last year – are utterly unforgivable.

I am proud to live in a country where most people would be horrified if my sexuality were to be the subject of ridicule. We should never remain silent, or walk by on the other side, when the same mockery is directed at transgender people.

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