Progress made in the transrespect movement has skyrocketed over the last year with award-winning shows like “Orange is the New Black” featuring Laverne Cox and “Transparent” starring Jeffrey Tambor. President Obama became the first President to use the terms “lesbian,” “transgender,” and “bi-sexual” in a State of the Union address. However, along with the notable progress made for the trans community this year, there have also been devastating losses of life that could have been completely preventable with more support and understanding from the non-LGBT community.
Leelah Alcorn, a 17 year-old transgender female took her own life with a desperate cry for progress in her suicide note on Dec. 28. Lamia Beard was defamed after her murder on Jan. 17 by local news outlets who named her as a man and speculated that she may have been working as a prostitute. These are just two of the hundreds of trans women to lose their lives in the past year. While their stories have raised awareness for the transrespect movement, the media has focused on blaming various parties instead of informing people on how to help. As we continue to mourn the loss of these women, their deaths also signal that education on transgender issues is critical for humanity.
Most recently police are investigating the death of Lamia Beard, a 30-year-old trans woman who was found on a sidewalk in Norfolk, V.A. with a gunshot wound. While reports on Beard’s death are scarce, many news outlets are handling the story incorrectly by treating Beard as a man who “prefered to be called Lamia,” as WTKA put it. The Virginian Pilot went as far as to speculate that Beard may have been working as a prostitute at the time of her murder. Speculation alone violates the moral principles that journalism was founded on. The fact that The Pilot insinuated that Beard could have been working as a prostitute could be considered libel and is uncalled for. These outlets either ignored the rules of journalism or didn’t bother to look them up. WTKA’s use of Beard’s male name and reference to her as a man is sloppy and further shows that ignorance is everywhere, including the media. Everyone needs to start learning.
There have been 226 reported cases of trans people murdered in the last 12 months, according to transrespect-transphobia.org. This report takes the entire globe into account with the highest number of killings happening in Brazil, Mexico, Honduras, Venezuela and the United States, respectively. From Jan. 1, 2008 to Oct. 1, 2014 there were 1,612 reported killings of trans people in 62 countries worldwide. One hundred of those killings occurred in the United States.
Forty-one percent of transgender or gender-nonconforming individuals have attempted suicide at some point in their lives, according to The LA Times. Alcorn left behind a suicide note detailing her struggles growing up transgendered with unsupportive friends and Christian extremist parents. Transgendered people need incredible amounts of support, and while it may seem easy to back away from something you don’t understand, there are still consequences.
“The only way I will rest in peace is if one day transgender people aren’t treated the way I was, they’re treated like humans, with valid feelings and human rights,” Alcorn wrote. “My death needs to mean something. My death needs to be counted in the number of transgender people who commit suicide this year. I want someone to look at that number and say ‘that’s fucked up’ and fix it. Fix society. Please.”
The media was quick to blame Alcorn’s parents for her suicide, especially after they continued to call her by her birth name, Joshua, and refer to Alcorn as a boy even after her death. As frustrating as the situation is, continuing to place blame on Alcorn’s family and friends serves no use at this point. Instead this tragic event should serve as an example to the public. Calling someone–especially a loved one–by the wrong pronoun or continuing to label them as a gender that they do not identify with can be incredibly harmful. Instead of doing what seems to make the most sense in your head, try considering what a transgendered person wants or is feeling first.
In her note Alcorn also mentioned that she was a victim of conversion therapy. Conversion therapy is a religiously based practice which focuses on attempting to convert members of the LGBT community to become heterosexual and make transgendered individuals give up their gender identity for what complies with their biological sex, according to princeton.edu. This sparked the fastest growing Change.org petition of 2014 in the last few days of the year, asking for a nationwide ban on the practice. California and Illinois both have bans on conversion therapy, and D.C.’s city council just approved their ban last month. This may seem like rapid progress, but without continuous support it may very well be short-lived.
On Jan. 22, a bill seeking to ban conversion therapy in Virginia was struck down by the state senate. Almost a dozen states have been stalled in conversion therapy bans, according to MSNBC. People need to remember that transgender rights are not a trend, and signing an online petition is not enough. Non-trans individuals can make the most impact by educating themselves and others so that they may understand why banning conversion therapy is so important.
Understanding the transgender community means accepting that anyone’s gender or sexuality can be fluid. In his Ted Talk, “Understanding the Complexities of Gender,” Sam Killermann explains, “Your gender identity is how you make sense of your inner self, and what you understand gender to be. Sometimes this aligns with your biological sex, or fits into the gender binary. Sometimes it doesn’t.” Trans women can have penises and be women. Trans men can have vaginas and be men. Biological sex, gender expression, gender identity and who someone is romantically and sexually attracted to can stretch far beyond preconceived notions of what we previously knew.
While these concepts and combinations may seem a bit complicated (see Killerman’s “Genderbread Man” below for a breakdown), education on sexuality is important, and it is never too late to learn. Those who have transgendered and LGBT people in their lives especially need to educate themselves. Don’t fall short on being there for someone because you don’t want to take the time to learn. Take the time to learn about what a transgender person in your life is going through.
A common misconception is that people are just getting gender reassignment surgery on a whim. The truth is that transitioning is a long and expensive process that varies from person to person depending on what they want and how their bodies react. The gender reassignment process requires years of counseling, permission from a mental health professional, years of hormone therapy before surgery, and subsequent hormone treatment for the rest of that person’s life. In addition, changing hormone levels in a person’s body can cause or worsen mood changes, depression, and anxiety for someone who may already deal with those things in their daily life and struggles to feel accepted.
A Swedish study in 2011 showed when “Using a sample of 324 individuals, with 191 male-to-females (MTF) and 133 female-to-males (FTM), researchers found that mortality rates for transgender individuals after surgery were significantly higher. The main culprit was suicide,” according to The Daily Caller. Just knowing what trans people go through and understanding how physically and emotionally stressful the transition process is can make the difference for tons of trans people in need of help.
As college students and millennials, we are the generation that can make a difference for the future of the LGBT community. We are the people who will soon make decisions for our country and society. Don’t make these changes without being educated or by being clouded by judgements and misconceptions. Even if you say that you support a cause, keeping your feelings on an issue to yourself and letting others remain ignorant doesn’t help anything. Right now some of the people leading our country are choosing to make decisions based on ignorance. Parents are raising children to feel worthless in their own skin and unaccepted in their own homes. People are dying and others are taking lives because of something they simply just don’t understand. Leelah Alcorn stepped in front of a tractor trailer to get the world’s attention. Lamia Beard was murdered on the street only to have news sources call her by a male name. Do not let these innocent individuals and thousands of other trans people die in vain. Act on education, not ignorance.
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Selene San Felice can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org