Southern California high school students elected a transgender girl as their homecoming queen this week, exciting equal rights backers everywhere, but Cassidy Lynn Campbell was still wearing her tiara and sash when she recorded a sobbing confessional decrying the hateful public backlash that came with the crown.
As acceptance grows for gays and lesbians, transgender teens and adults struggle to earn the same respect and rights. Too often transgender people become targets of barbs and harsh responses, like those that 16-year-old Cassidy faced.
But the controversy and becoming part of the national conversation is still a step forward in the slow march to acceptance for the transgender community, experts say.
“Because of transgender people telling their stories in the media and people like Cassidy putting themselves out there by running for homecoming queen, there have been more policy changes on the state and national level,” Nick Adams, a spokesman for GLAAD, told TakePart.
“However, there is still a lot of ignorance and misunderstanding about the lives that transgender people lead.”
In the United States, something as seemingly small as the “M” or “F” that appears on most identification has a huge effect on the daily lives of the transgender community.
Until the Social Security Administration changed its policy in June, transgender people risked being outed by the agency during the employment verification process. Before the policy shift, the agency would send letters to employers saying a female transgender applicant’s gender didn’t match the gender they had on file.
Revised rules allow trans people to obtain federal documentation that reflects their accurate name and gender, without having to send proof of surgery. The landmark advance in policy is also true of passports and green cards, after changes at the State Department and federal immigration agency.
Social Security numbers and employment, in particular, are a serious issue because 90 percent of transgender people report harassment, mistreatment, and discrimination in the workplace, and are four times more likely to live in poverty, according to GLAAD. Being outed as a transgender person to a new boss or colleagues can create a hostile work environment and uncomfortable situations.
In other parts of the world the transgender community is making advances, but still struggles for recognition in some surprising places.
Human Rights Watch researcher Graeme Reid told TakePart that Argentina leads the way with progressive policy on LGBT rights by allowing transgender people to self-identify and legalizing gay marriage a few years ago.
That’s not the case in The Netherlands and other European countries, where activists are working to change the laws.
Typically progressive Dutch legislators were once frontrunners when it came to transgender rights, making the country among the first European countries to grant the community legal recognition of gender identity in 1985.
But the legal recognition came at a cost: A sex change operation had to be completed before legal status was granted.
“It’s an invasive, irreversible surgery and many people don’t want to do that,” said Reid. “(Laws that require sex changes were) based on some misconceptions around the transgender experience. Not everyone wants to transition fully. That was a very binary and rigid idea about gender.”
Activists are urging the Dutch government to stop requiring medical intervention in recognizing gender.
Although the United States has already halted the practice at the federal level, “there continues to be a sensationalistic fixation on the medical aspect of a person’s transition when in fact the whole transition process is much more holistic than that—your pronoun, telling your friends and family. There are so many more aspects to consider,” Adams said
Broad acceptance comes, in part, with familiarity. A GLAAD study found that only eight percent of Americans personally know someone who is transgender, while a Pew study found that 90 percent of Americans say they know someone who is gay, lesbian or bisexual.
Media coverage of violence against transgender women has highlighted a deeply unfortunate and persistent problem: More than half of all anti-LGBT homicides are committed against transgender women. Increased awareness and compassion would be key to curbing violence in such cases, Adams said.
Where shows like Glee paved the way for gay and lesbian teens, transgender characters are making their way into the national cultural conversation, too. One of the many absorbing plotlines in the hit Netflix series Orange Is the New Black explored one transgender woman’s downward spiral into credit debt because insurance doesn’t cover gender transition, allowing unique struggles to be depicted in the mainstream, Adams noted.
In that sense, Cassidy’s tiara-wearing tirade does make her an important transgender trailblazer.
And proof of her success can be found in the fact that Cassidy’s community voted for her win.
As her high school principal told local reporters, the school’s administration is proud that students are spreading a message of “equity, acceptance, tolerance and respect.”