2015 saw transgender people burst onto America’s social, cultural and political radar as never before, with a household name leading the charge.
“This transition has been harder on me than anything I could imagine,” Caitlyn Jenner said in July when she received an Excellence in Sports Performance Yearly Award (ESPY) for courage.
For decades, Jenner had been known as former Olympian Bruce Jenner, one of America’s most celebrated athletes. Jenner’s gender identity announcement and re-emergence as Caitlyn drew national and international attention.
Jenner did not shy from the spotlight at the ESPY Awards ceremony, declaring, “Trans people deserve something vital. They deserve your respect.”
Meanwhile, an American television series, Transparent, revolves around a fictional family with a father coming to grips with being transgender. And moviegoers can see Oscar-winning actor Eddie Redmayne portray a 1920s transgender pioneer in The Danish Girl.
With increased public awareness has come scrutiny and varying reactions to transgender people, who are born with a physical gender at odds with their core identity.
“Visibility comes with real risk,” said Jay Brown of the Washington-based Human Rights Campaign. “Already in 2015 at least 21 transgender people have been killed [in the U.S.] in large part because of who they are.”
Brown knows firsthand the challenges transgender people face.
“When I was born, doctors said to my parents, 'Hey, you have a baby girl,' " he said. “And they thought that that was right until several years later when it became clear that my real gender is really male.”
Brown transitioned from female to male.
“I’m a dad, I have two little girls. I have a wife I’ve been married to for more than a decade,” he said. “We know who we are, and it is very frustrating to not have the outside world see us as who we are.”
Transgender Americans have yet to score a sweeping victory like gays and lesbians did with same-sex marriage.
In November, voters in Houston, Texas, defeated a local anti-discrimination measure after religious conservatives argued it would empower cross-dressing males to use ladies’ restrooms and prey upon women and children.
Presidential candidates at odds
Now, as America enters an election year, transgender military service is a point of contention in the 2016 presidential contest.
“I hope the United States joins many other countries that let transgender people serve openly,” said Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. “There are transgender people in uniform right now. They are keeping this core part of their identity under wraps. They shouldn’t have to do that.”
Republican presidential contender Ben Carson disagrees.
“When our men and women are out there fighting the enemy, the last thing we need to be doing is saying, ‘What would it be like if we introduced transgender people into the platoon?’ ” Carson said. “Give me a break. Deal with the transgender thing somewhere else.”
Many social conservatives oppose transgender rights as fiercely as they do gay rights. Mat Staver of the Florida-based Liberty Counsel sees both as forcing people of faith to violate their consciences.
“We actively oppose any inclusion into a nondiscrimination code something that should never be there, and that is gender identity or sexual orientation,” Staver said. “With respect to gender identity, it’s a product of someone’s imagination, of their mind. It can be one thing one day and another thing another day.”
“We [transgender people] make good political fodder sometimes,” Brown said. “We’ve really seen our opponents come at us and use fearmongering, quite frankly, to paint transgender people as monsters. We have a lot of work to do when it comes to making sure that people know our stories.”
More of those stories are emerging every day, including among children. U.S. television networks have aired programs profiling kids as young as 8 years old declaring their gender identity and beginning to lead their lives accordingly.