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TransAmerica: Dialogue, Understanding, and Priorities

Yesterday we looked at the articles featuring transgender actor and activist Laverne Cox and reactions to it, specifically that of National Review writer Kevin Williamson. While some might associate his articles with hate-speech, I don’t think that’s exactly fair. Sure, his argument was essentially ignorant but it seemed – in a limited capacity – that he actually showed concern for the trans community, albeit manifested by calling them all “delusional” and “mentally ill.”

Still, some of the questions he raises had a modicum of meritto t and the answers to them could help trans folks and the gender-normative to develop some understanding about each other. To (perhaps over-)simplify things, most people who haven’t lived through the anguish felt by the transgendered find it impossible to understand.

In an interview on TIME’s website, Cox acknowledges this saying that instead of trying to figure out what it means to be trans, “they need to get to know us as human beings.” Cox also pointed out that there is not just one “trans story” or “trans experience.” Earlier this year, Cox garnered attention for suggesting to Katie Couric that people should not focus so much on gender reassignment surgery when discussing the trans community.

Studies from 2004 and 2011 both discovered that the suicide rate for trans persons who’ve had the surgery is almost equivalent to those who’ve not had the surgery and markedly higher than control groups. Unfortunately this led Williamson to conclude that these troubling statistics are evidence that simply becoming “the effigy” of their desired sex does not “cure” their problem.

At least, in that tiny respect, Williamson is correct. Gender reassignment surgery does not simply make a trans person’s world magically perfect. Which suggests not a problem with the surgery, but that both society and the medical community does not yet fully grasp what it means to be trans.

All too often, members of persecuted groups say that it is “impossible to understand” what it is like in their shoes. It is this argument that allows biased folks like Williamson to wholly dismiss their other arguments, which is what makes people like Cox so important.

As an actor, Cox knows that people certainly can understand what an experience they haven’t personally dealt with “feels” like. This understanding comes both from artistic expression – Cox’s character’s backstory on Orange is the New Black is just one of the thousands of examples of this – and from speaking firsthand with those who’ve lived through those experiences.

While Cox had every right to take offense at Couric’s surgery question, what speaks to her remarkable prowess as a spokesperson is that she was able to provide an answer with both clarity and a smile. Rather than telling Couric to check her hetero-normative privilege, Cox was able to shift the discussion to the issues that demand attention and don’t require anyone’s understanding.

Along with disabusing the idea that surgery ultimately “fixes” gender-identity problems, the trans community is under siege. Even amongst the LGBTQ community, transgendered individuals are disproportionately affected by sexual violence, hate crimes, and a perceived lack of willingness on the part of those in authority to do anything about it.

Even those like Williamson who see transgender identity as weird and (medically) illegitimate, cannot deny this mistreatment. While there are legitimate concerns with gender reassignment surgery and the other methods through which the medical community seeks to help the transgendered, these are not problems that society-at-large has any business addressing. What we can do is ensure that the America’s ideal of equal protection under the law is realized for all hir citizens. 

Photo by PopinjayII via DeviantArt

About the author

Joshua M. Patton is a father, veteran, and writer living in Pittsburgh, PA. Along with news and current events, he writes about parenting, art, and personal stories. His serial fiction story "The Prophet Hustle" is available at JukePop.com and a forthcoming independent ebook about the cam-modeling industry "Dirty Little Windows" will be available later this summer.