The cost of being yourself: The persecution of transgender men and women

by Soffi James

Image source: Business Insider

Image source: Business Insider

Caitlyn Jenner has spent a lot of time in the spotlight this year. She was crowned Transgender Champion at American GLAMOUR’s Women of the Year award and has been dubbed the unofficial poster girl for the transgender movement. At first glance, it looks like a sunny time for transgender representation in the media and the world.

Take a closer look, however, and you see Caitlyn has received her fair share of criticism. News stories highlighting her conservative views against gay marriage make for uncomfortable reading. Others state she appears gloating from her position of white privilege and finds it hard to relate to individuals from deprived backgrounds or ethnic minorities who make up the majority of the transgender community. It is hard to argue that she is not distanced from the realities of transgender existence in 2015, controversially saying the hardest thing about being a woman is “figuring out what to wear.”

I think women like Vicky Thompson and Joanne Latham would have begged to differ. These names belonged to two trans women who took their own lives this month when assigned to all male prisons. Twenty one transgender individuals were murdered in the US this year alone and of the 53 victims murdered since 2013, not one prosecution case was launched or marked as a hate crime according to a Human Rights Campaign report. Many more instances of abuse and discrimination against transgender individuals goes unreported; it can safely be said that choosing what to wear is the least of most transgender women’s worries.

Beyond Physical Violence

Alongside shocking homicide statistics, domestic abuse and gender based discrimination are a regular occurrence for transgender individuals. Many who are deprived of family support also lack social recognition, equal access to education, and employment opportunities, leaving transgender individuals socially marginalized.

A study conducted this year by the Williams Institute found that 78 percent of transgender respondents who had experienced sexual or physical violence at school subsequently attempted suicide. Additionally, 41 percent of trans people reported a suicide attempt, with misgendering as a leading factor.

Lack of opportunities for transgender women cases a situation of catch 22. Discrimination in the work place forces many trans men and women into sex work. In Brazil, transgender women are often forced into sex work to survive in the country or they are trafficked to Europe, where they face high risk of violence from clients. The average life expectancy of a Brazilian transgender woman is only 36 years.

Image source: Roehan Rengadurai/Flickr Trangenders - Shrouded in Mystery

‘Transgenders – Shrouded in Mystery’ Roehan Rengadurai/Flickr

The root of the stigma is written into the very doctrines of contemporary society. For example, the US Census excludes transgender individuals in its binary layout. It only offers the two tick boxes: ‘male’ or ‘female’. This makes it impossible for transgender people to stand up and be counted. Actress and transgender rights ambassador Laverne Cox asks: “What message are we sending to young people who are trans and gender-nonconforming when we don’t even count them? We suggest that their identities don’t even matter”

Image source:

Transgender rights activist and actress Laverne Cox said the US Census’ gender binary structure ignoring transgender individuals “suggests that their identities don’t matter”  Image source:

The Transgender Equality site points out that one in five people in the transgender community have experienced homelessness. It’s not hard to imagine why, when in many states in the US it’s still legal to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity when trying to rent or buy. This structured prejudice against transgender individuals is a self-perpetuating process.

Despite the difficulties with Caitlyn Jenner’s position, her time in the spotlight is at least exposing the existence of transgender women in a media which largely excludes transgender people altogether. While examining the top 100 films of 2014, researchers at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School of Communication found that out of the 4,610 characters with speaking roles, zero of the characters were transgender.

Eddie Redmayne plays Einar Wegener in the Danish Girl, one of the first recipients of gender reassignment surgery back in the 1930s. Image source: Eley, Amy (206424926) /

In The Danish Girl, Eddie Redmayne plays one of the first recipients of gender reassignment surgery back in the 1930s. Critics argue that the role should have been given to a transgender woman. Image source: Eley, Amy (206424926) /

Even when there are transgender characters, their voices are erased or appropriated by cisgender actors and actresses. Eddie Redmayne is soon to star in the film The Danish Girl, which follows the life of the incredible Lilie Elbe, a transgender woman in the 1930s. It is hard to believe that almost a century after Elbe’s fight for equality, the movie industry chose to cast celebrity status rather than give a young trans female the role.

The Past and the Future

On November 20th, Transgender Remembrance Day commemorated lives lost to gender-based hate acts. Launched in response to the death of trans woman Rita Hester in 1999, Transgender Remembrance Day is gaining more recognition year on year. The website has listed all of the names of the victims, and it is a long and hard read.

It is important to remember these men and women, and ‘everyone in between’ (as put so pertinently by Orange Is The New Black Star, Ruby Rose) who have lost their lives on account of their gender status. As well as commemorating the dead, society needs to support the resilience and humanity of the of transgender community alive today.