Have We Evolved in Our View of Transgender People?

VIDEO: Debbie McMillan Speaks at the 2012 International AIDS Conference

Happy birthday, Debbie McMillan! Here she is speaking out at the 2012 International AIDS Conference in Washington, DC. 

Like most people, the sum of who I am is much more than my individual traits. However, there is one fact about me that puts me way outside the mainstream. It’s that I’m a tran-sgender woman.

Last week, The Wall Street Journal reported that Massachusetts judge ordered prison officials to provide sex-reassignment surgery for a murder convict. 

The piece started by talking about a transgender woman who used to meet in dark parking lots with other transgender people for support. “How things have changed since then for transgender men and women in America, who have made great strides in recent years toward reaching their ultimate goal: to be treated like ordinary people,” the piece noted.

I agree, strides have been made. But “great” grossly overstates the reality. Discrimination and misunderstanding is still rampant. I frequently feel that I’m assigned to a class of sub-humans. Even the judge who ordered the surgery said it was to treat “gender-identity disorder.” As a society, we still view transgender people as being against the natural order and place the blame on our minds, rather than where the real problem is: our incorrect bodies.

A recent article in the New York Times Magazine would indeed lead sympathetic readers to believe things are not so bad for transgender people and that there’s really just left over misunderstandings to clear up. The piece told honest, compelling, sometimes gut wrenching stories of good people trying to navigate the world for and with their gender non-specific children.

Consider that it was only in April of this year that the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunities Commission ruled that that discriminating against an employee or potential employee based on their gender identity is in violation of the Civil Rights Act. Forty-eight years after that Act passed Congress!

Twenty states now have laws prohibiting gender discrimination against LGBT people. However, that still means that 30 states do not.

I work with transgender people every day. Many of them have trouble finding housing or jobs, no matter what the laws say. Many of them are drug users driven to it, in part, because by living with the constant, unrelenting stigma we feel. It’s almost palpable.  

I went to the street alone at 14 because I thought it was the only place for someone like me. I became a commercial sex worker because I believed it was the only occupation available to me. I looked around and saw that no one was going to give me a job.

Though I lived as a woman and looked like one, when I was arrested for solicitation, I was sent to the men’s prison. After one arrest for prostitution, I was thrown in the wing with the felons. When I inevitably contracted HIV, the doctors I sought continually called me by my birth name. When you have HIV, you want medical personnel who understand that your entire life changes the instant you get that diagnosis. Not someone who doesn’t bother to look in your eyes and see the very basics of who you are.  

To be fair, these events happened to me 20 years ago. Back then, we didn’t have the word “transgender” and I was considered an effeminate gay boy. Things are different now but believing that there is significantly less discrimination because some people allow their sons to wear dresses is like thinking that because we have a black President, racism in America is gone.

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  • swallows


  • weston3

    First of all, I am shocked that only 20 states have anti-discrimination laws for LGBT. Clearly the war is not won. But, the hurdle for transgender people is even bigger.

    The reaction I’ve seen most is fear, which sometimes results in blatant violence. It is absolutely disgusting, despicable and inhumane to beat transgender people in public for using the bathroom. I have not personally witnessed violence like this, but there are a plethora of youtube videos depicting said violence.

    The struggles and misunderstanding the transgender community faces is exquisitely unique. I just wanted to let you know, Debbie, that I think you rock!!


    Keep up your good work :)

  • wendy-davis

    Hey, Debbie, you might want to visit your diary at FDL.  There are comments.  ;o)

  • mindy-mcindy

    I am a cisgender lesbian, but me and my wife’s best friend is a transgender lesbian. While trying to be understanding to the T part of the community, we never really knew anyone who was trans before she came into our lives. I had a better understanding of it than my wife, surprisingly after hearing the story of David Reimer and how you can’t make someone not be the gender they know they are in their head all along. We see our friend as no different or no less than a woman than I am. I feel like the “T” in “LGBT” gets lost in the shuffle or flat out ignored by so many of the “LGB” folks and it’s just sad.