November 20th is an insignificant date to most Americans save scholars of history, yet it is a date well known and anticipated to certain members of the LGBT community. To that minority, November 20th of 2010 marks the 14th annual Transgender Day of Remembrance that memorializes those murdered due to anti-transgender hatred or prejudice. The annual event began in honor of Rita Hester, a transgendered person who was brutally stabbed to death and left to be discovered in her Allston, Massachusetts, apartment by police on November 28, 1998, with no signs of forced entry or robbery motive. The homicide case today remains reportedly unsolved with many blaming the case status on a perception that law enforcement and the media often seek to ignore or erase the existence of transgender murder victims.
Transgendered persons are quite easily the most invisible and most misunderstood segment of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) community, pushed towards isolation by not only the heteronormative majority but others in the LGBT minority as well. Our society frequently confuses or interrelates transgender and transvestite, seeming to describe the issue as an abnormality or mental illness. The mental health community, while having moved greatly forward on many LGBT issues, currently maintains a formal mental health diagnosis of Gender Identity Disorder (GID) to describe a patient who experiences significant gender dysphoria or discontention with their biological sex while serving as the gateway for those who identify as transgender to seek hormone replacement therapy and sex reassignment surgeries.
While movies such as “Boys Don’t Cry” (1999) and “Transamerica” (2005) are hailed as furthering compassion for and understanding of the transgender community other pop culture tales such as “Ticked Off Trannies with Knives” (2010) are assaulted in review as damaging to compassion and understanding. In “Boys Don’t Cry”, actress Hilary Swank portrays the role of Teena Brandon, who was born biologically female yet identified as male, ultimately identifying himself as Brandon Teena. Teena was sexually assaulted, and the investigation by the sheriff’s department was mishandled due to greater interest in Teena’s sexual identity than the criminal offense. After it was discovered that he had gone to the police, Teena was murdered on December 31, 1993, by the sexual assault offenders. In “Transamerica”, actress Felicity Huffman plays a transgendered woman whose therapist refuses to authorize her sex reassignment surgery until she faces her past and the son she never knew she had from a previous relationship with a woman. The independent film portrayed a theme of self-discovery and personal journey while generally receiving positive reviews from critics and numerous awards at independent film festivals. “Ticked Off Trannies with Knives”, another independent film, was a controversial and campy revisit to the revenge thriller genre of decades past inspired by an increase in hate crimes against people in the transgender community yet argued by some as destructive to the community through blatant stereotyping.
The news media as well has marginalized transgender issues, historically considering transgenderism to be something for tabloid talk shows and not traditional news programs. Most stories, even those covering the murder of a transgender person, have seemed to focus on the curiosity or novelty of transgenderism and sex reassignment surgeries. Many reporters further the perceived dysphoria by failing to match the subject’s name and appropriate gender pronouns, reporting the person’s chosen name and birth sex without truly understanding the confusion and hurt that result.
The uneducated questions and views on transgenderism abound, causing many professions that should otherwise gain a foundation of understanding to avoid the topic altogether. To begin to understand transgenderism we need to understand a few fundamental terms used in human sexuality. Sex, or biological sex, is typically a dichotomous term identifying a person’s anatomical sex or gender. Sexual orientation is a term used to identify whether a person is attracted to people of the opposite sex, same sex or both and is usually consider scalar ranging between two extremes – exclusive heterosexuality or exclusive homosexuality – on the Kinsey Scale. Gender expression or gender identity is a term used to define how well a person identifies with society-presented gender roles and gender norms. A person whose biological sex and gender expression are at apparent odds with each other may or may not be transgender, some may be described as “extremely effeminate male” or “extremely masculine female” while being comfortable within their own biological sex. A person is transgendered if he or she has a biological sex at apparent odds with her or his gender expression and a desire to transition his or her lifestyle to the opposing gender identity or biological sex. The causes of transgenderism may be physiological, psychological or a combination of the two depending on the individual. Physiological transgenderism can manifest from genetic intersex conditions where a person’s biological sex differs from his or her genetic sex (usually defined by XX or XY chromosomes, frequency approximately 1 in 1000) or having an extra chromosome (XXY, frequency approximately 1 in 1666). It has been estimated that the frequency of transgenderism is approximately 1 in 500 or 0.2% of the population (American Association of Collegiate Registrars & Admissions Officers, 2010).
It is imperative that professions likely to encounter transgender persons implement basic training to help in understanding and compassion when encountering members of the transgender community. A 2010 study conducted by the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force and the National Center for Transgender Equality found that 41% of transgender people reported one or more suicide attempts in their lifetime – a shocking percentage nearly twenty-five times the national estimated rate of 1.6%. The same study of more than 6,400 respondents from all fifty states further reported high levels of educational bullying (59%), physical assault (23%) and sexual assault (8%) related to their gender identity or expression. While transgender people make up a fraction of a percentage of the population, these reported findings show that they are at a significant risk for increased encounters with law enforcement, medical professionals and court personnel as crime victims due to their gender identity or expression.
© 2010 – 2014, Jeremy Liebbe. All rights reserved.