Just days ago I sat in the New York State Assembly chambers and watched legislators debate, and then pass, the Gender Expression Non-Discrimination Act (GENDA) for the seventh consecutive year. As Transgender Rights Organizer for Empire State Pride Agenda, New York’s statewide LGBT rights organization, I watched as assembly member after assembly member stood up and explained why they were voting yes, why transgender lives matter. I watched as the most vocal conservative opponent was forced to acknowledge that transgender issues are serious, and that discrimination should not be tolerated. Assembly member Richard Gottfried, the bill’s sponsor, ended simply by saying, “The reality is this is an important bill for human rights, and I vote in the affirmative.”
Last week I was able to walk into a drugstore and buy a copy of Time magazine with transgender actress Laverne Cox on the cover, next to the headline, “The Transgender Tipping Point: America’s Next Civil Rights Frontier.” I was able to use that cover in a presentation I gave to employees of the Department of Health on transgender issues. During that presentation I was able to announce to the room that the state of New York had, after years of advocacy from Pride Agenda and other allied organizations, updated its policies on gender changes for birth certificates, doing away with the outdated practice of forcing transgender people to go through invasive medical procedures — a practice that essentially resulted in the state-mandated sterilization of transgender New Yorkers and had already been long-discarded when it came to updating driver’s licenses and passports. The entire room broke into spontaneous applause at the news.
Just days before the news on birth certificates broke, headlines across the nation proclaimed that exclusions on transgender-related health care were being lifted from Medicare. The week before that the mayor of Rochester, Lovely Warren, announced at the Pride Agenda’s annual Spring Dinner that the city of Rochester would join a daily-growing list of cities across the nation to offer transgender-inclusive health care to all municipal employees. Last month Maryland became the 18th state in the nation to pass a law barring discrimination against transgender people. Not long before that was the announcement made by the New York City Department of Education that it had updated its policies to make sure that all New York City public schools would be safe and inclusive spaces for all transgender students. Janet Mock has spent months bringing widespread media attention to transgender lives, and her memoir, Redefining Realness, became a New York Times bestseller. Laura Jane Grace has been touring the country with her band Against Me!, making kids dance and mosh to the tracks on their latest album, Transgender Dysphoria Blues. Keeping up with every video about a transgender child gone viral, every article about a transgender prom king or queen, every op-ed from The New York Times‘ editorial board calling for transgender rights (three in the past month!), every new transgender character on a television show or in a comic book, every legislative or policy victory is like trying to keep up with a growing snowball rolling down Mt. Everest.
When I was growing up in Dutchess County, New York, hanging out at the South Hills Mall and talking about the latest episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer with my friends, I would have been hard-pressed to find a single snowflake. I’d never knowingly met another transgender person, let alone another transgender boy. I’d never seen a transgender character in a book, on a television show, or in a movie, with the exception of a couple of fanciful and stereotypical depictions in movies like Ace Ventura: Pet Detective. I’d never heard of a real, successful transgender person, ever. I didn’t even know the word “transgender.”