IN April this year, Caitlyn Jenner, formerly known as Bruce Jenner, presented herself to the world as the woman she has always known herself to be.
The former Olympic champion made the decision to be honest with the world, and herself, about who she is amid growing speculation and public discussion on the subject of Transgender awareness.
Her personal success, however, raises the question of acceptance of trans people, particularly youth, in everyday, working class environments. In addition, it provokes questions on what it means to be trans* for different individuals.
TLC’s new docu-series, I am Jazz, follows the ups and downs of life for a 14 year old transgender girl and her family, providing a unique and captivating view of her experiences growing up.
This, combined with coverage of Caitlyn Jenner’s journey throughout the stages of her gender transition, has been widely publicized at a time when trans issues have never been more important.
19 transgender women have been murdered this year in the US alone, and in a community that makes up less than 1% of the world’s population, a transgender person is killed every 29 hours.
Combined with the shocking fact that almost half of all trans people have attempted suicide, transgender actress Laverne Cox has rightly declared a ‘state of emergency’ within the trans community.
If we are to further examine these issues, it is worthwhile to note that Caitlyn Jenner, while commendable in her achievements, is at an undeniable advantage in comparison to the average transgender person.
Of the 19 US murders this year, 17 were trans women of colour. Ashley Reed, the creator of a recent petition calling for the UK government to allow trans* people to self-identify their gender, said Caitlyn is “rich, thus able to afford treatment, of a binary gender, able-bodied and white”.
Unlike most trans people, Caitlyn can afford all of her treatments and her career has not suffered as a result of her transition. She will not face many of the obstacles that our trans youth do on a daily basis, which is why it is crucial that this awareness, acceptance and education reaches the far corners of all social-economic groups.
Zac Wood from Belfast describes her unique experience in coming to terms with her trans* identity as “a double-edged sword”.
She explained: “I experience very little in the way of physical dysphoria and I don’t plan to undertake surgery or HRT in the future.
“What makes me a trans woman is not the body I was born into, but rather how that body is looked at by society and the roles forced upon me because of that…all my negative experiences revolve around what society does to trans* people, rather than what being trans does to an individual.”
This says a lot about the current attitudes people hold here in the UK and what this means to young trans* people going through the coming-out process.
Zac makes clear that identity and expression are two different things, and says that the biggest obstacle she has encountered “has been the general concept of what it is to be trans and this perception not being fully evolved”. Forcing trans people into binary male or female roles to neatly fit our own idea of what it means to be trans* is another expression of miseducation that causes segregation and conflict. Education and awareness is therefore key in moving forward.
Ashley Reed’s petition, which currently has over 28,000 signatures, urges the UK government to introduce an Act similar to the Irish Gender Recognition Act and allow trans* people to self-define their gender rather than face the humiliation of proving their identity to a Gender Recognition Panel.
While Northern Ireland has yet to follow in the footsteps of the Irish government and legalise gay marriage, the transgender community are still another step behind in the equality process.
A minority within a minority, we cannot forget the T in LGBT, especially at a time where lives are being lost and peoples’ rights restricted.
Northern Ireland has a lot of catching up to do in terms of equality laws and social awareness, and organisations such as Transgender NI are a source or education and support surrounding the issue of Gender Transitioning.
Recent studies show that 74% of transgender men and women in Northern Ireland have admitted to using illegal drugs in their lifetime, which is a huge contributor to physical and emotional wellbeing.
Under current Northern Irish law (the Gender Recognition Act 2004), transgender people who are married are required to divorce or annul their marriage in order for them to be issued with a Gender Recognition Certificate and register for a civil partnership, with all the cost and paperwork associated with any divorce.
An Act similar to Ireland’s Gender Recognition Act would be a step closer to achieving equality in terms of gender recognition and pave the way for future legal amendments that will liberate and provide dignity to the transgender community.
Zac Wood rightly points out that Northern Ireland has to “pull itself out of the past and look outwards, rather than avoiding change and remaining on the wrong side of history”.
For Caitlyn Jenner, coming out to a brutally judgmental world as a trans woman and not apologising for it is not only courageous, it is inspiring, and necessary. A post was recently shared on a social networking site negatively comparing Caitlyn Jenner’s bravery with the efforts of soldiers fighting in the Middle East.
This provoked anger from many, and rightly so. Self-defining your gender is not a life-choice in the same way that signing up to go to war is, not to mention the fact that our military heroes are constantly supported and celebrated.
For many trans* people in our society and others across the world, coming out is a traumatic experience and brings new difficulties which they will likely face most days of their lives. It is most certainly a time to celebrate such courage where possible.
The trans* community now have unprecedented visibility, and people like Caitlyn, Laverne and Jazz Jennings are leading the way towards global tolerance. More importantly, people like Ashley and Zac are voices that need to be heard.
These stepping stones are a vital part of the process, and we should not rely upon the success of those in the spotlight alone to liberate the people who are not in a position, socially or financially, to follow their lead.
Gender transition should not be a luxury afforded only to the privileged. These are our parents, friends, brothers, sisters, and our future children.
It is all of our responsibility to ensure they do not grow up in a world where being yourself is something you have to pay, fight, or even die for.
Please sign the petition at https://petition.parliament.uk/petitions/104639