2 July 2015

A Transgender Awakening

It seems almost unconceivable the ground we have covered over the last year in terms of real visibility and what it is to be trans. We have entered a period of ‘transgender awakening’. There can be no going back, but there is still much to do.

Leading this charge and putting the issues on the world stage was the feature in the June 2014 issue of Time. ‘The Transgender Tipping Point – America’s next civil fights frontier’ by Jaty Steinmetz profiled a range of transgender people, making the point that trans people are significantly more likely to be impoverished, unemployed and suicidal than other Americans. We know through current studies that this is exactly the same in Australia.

For the first time anywhere in the world a magazine with the credibility and power of Time put US trans woman and star of the Netflix drama Orange is the New Black, Laverne Cox, on its cover. She is an incredible role model for us all and in this profile she nailed the benefit we all wish as an outcome of this awakening.
“We are in a place now where more trans people are willing to tell their stories,” Cox told time.
 “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 humanising, that demystifies difference.”

These stories are also being told in Australia. Around the same time as magazine was released, Carlotta screened on TV, easily winning the ratings for the most watched program in its timeslot. Based on local trans icon Carlotta, the movie chronicles her life: growing up in the 1950s, her gender confusion, her response to it, her departure from the suburbs and how she became a showgirl. This movie handles the more confronting and challenging aspects of Carlotta’s journey, those out of the spotlight, with great sensitivity and gives an accurate insight to what it is to grow up and live a trans life. 

Cate McGregor is another who has had a high visibility over the last year. She is known to the public as the highest ranking trans person in the Australian military. Cate was profiled over eight pages in the Australian Women’s Weekly in March earlier this year March and her Australian Story, ‘Call Me Cate’, introduced by the Prime Minister Tony Abbott, exposed a different snapshot of a trans life to the mainstream public. Cate has become a popular speaker, telling her transition story all over the country and to wide-ranging audiences.

Australian model Andreja Pejic has become the first trans model to be profiled in the May issue of Vogue. At just 23, Andreja has an incredible story to tell, especially to our young folk. Born in Bosnia, her family fled Serbia during the Bosnian War, where they lived in a refugee camp before being resettled in Melbourne in 2000 when she was eight. She is currently making a documentary about her transition and her life in the world of fashion. “I have the opportunity to tell this very interesting story and I feel so many kids all around the world will relate.” Andreja said.

Reaching a level of visibility of unimaginable proportions is, of course, Caitlyn Jenner. As the cover girl of the July issue of Vanity Fair, complete with a 22-page feature of photos by Annie Leibovitz and story by Buzz Bissinger, Jenner is taking the trans story to millions all over the world. This builds on the successful 20/20 interview with Diane Sawyer that Jenner used to come out as trans. Although part of the Kardashian TV brand, her transition story is to be told in an eight-part documentary and to her credit Jenner has said it will focus on ways to address the level of trans suicide and violence among other issues.

So what is the benefit of all this visibility? Well the lesbian, gay and bisexual coming out story is often celebrated as arriving at a place of pride, but for a trans person it is the start of a long challenging journey. Seeing how others have made a tran’s life possible and become a success is a true solace. 
A recent study out of Curtin University found that trans people in Australia are four-times more likely to ever be diagnosed with depression than the general population. Difficulty accessing healthcare and surgery, lack of employment, the challenge in changing identifying documents; experiences of discrimination and poor quality of life were all contributing factors.
“The simple reality is that too many transgender Australians face utterly unacceptable bullying and harassment, other forms of social stigma and discrimination,” said Human Rights Commissioner Tim Wilson last year, during a speech honouring transgender activist Isabelle Lake.

The Human Rights Commission recently released a report on their consultations with the LGBTI community, and it covers the full breadth of challenges faced by trans people. The outcomes of this process will inform the work of the commissioner in the area of LGBTI rights in the coming years. 
“The task before us all is to ensure the experience of the next generation of transgender Australians is better than those before,” Wilson said.
When I hear such a strong statement from such an influential leader and see the trans women mentioned here standing up as examples of all the different kinds of trans stories and experiences, I’m sure that this new level of visibility will lead to a more trans-friendly world.

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