The Caitlyn Jenner Paradox: Anti-Transgender Violence Soars Despite Star Power


Caitlyn Jenner, surrounded by her supportive family on Father’s Day. Unfortunately, her mainly positive transgender experience is the exception, not the rule. (Photo: Getty Images)

While the past month has brought us the publicly lauded transformation of Bruce Jenner into Caitlyn Jenner, and the confirmation of Dr. Rachel Levine as Pennsylvania’s new physician general — making her the highest-ranking openly transgender person in state government history — these moments of achievement are tragically overshadowed by the historically high numbers of transgender individuals murdered in the United States in 2015.


Dr. Rachel Levine was confirmed in early June as Pennsylvania’s physician general. (Photo:

On June 2, 17-year-old Mercedes Williamson, a transgender teenager from Theodore, Ala., was found murdered an hour and a half away from her home in George County, Miss.

Williamson’s death is the ninth confirmed homicide of a transgender person in the U.S. during the first half of 2015. Mississippi’s hate-crime laws do not cover gender identity.


Mercedes Williamson, a transgender teen murdered earlier this month. (Photo: Facebook)

According to a report released this month by the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs (NCAVP), hate-motivated violence against transgender individuals rose by 13 percent in 2014, despite hate-motivated violence against gay, lesbian, and bisexual individuals dropping by 32 percent in the same period. There were 20 LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender) individuals killed in hate-motivated attacks in 2014.

Hate and discrimination against people for their gender identity is systemic and institutionalized in the United States. Sasha Buchert, the staff attorney at the Transgender Law Center, tells Yahoo Health that with only 18 states having nondiscrimination policies on the books, this means that “in 32 states you can be fired for just being who you are.”

She explains that many trans people end up doing sex work because they can’t get identity documents that allow them to break the cycle. “These same individuals are then often the targets of the violent hate crimes and murders previously mentioned, made additionally vulnerable for either being sex workers or being perceived to be sex workers,” she says.

The transgender community faces unique challenges in terms of access to health care, employment, and housing — and faces disproportionate amounts of discrimination and violence. And yet many Americans are unaware of the daily difficulties faced by this community.

Anti-trans violence, discrimination, and legal struggles

In 2014, the violent murders of at least 13 transgender women were reported in the United States, and all but one of these women were either black or Latina.

Per the Human Rights Campaign:

According to the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs (NCAVP) 2013 report on hate violence against lesbian, bisexual, transgender, queer and HIV-affected (LGBTQH) communities, 72 percent of the victims of LGBTQ or HIV-motivated hate violence homicides in 2013 were transgender women, and 67 percent were transgender women of color. When compared to their non-transgender LGBQH peers, the report found that transgender people of color were 6 times more likely to experience physical violence from the police, 1.5 times more likely to experience discrimination, 1.5 times more likely to face sexual violence and 1.8 times more likely to experience bias-based violence in shelters.

Furthermore, the 2011 National Transgender Discrimination Survey found that 34 percent of transgender and gender-nonconforming people of color had a household income of less than $10,000 a year, 41 percent of black and 27 percent of Latina/o transgender individuals had experienced homelessness, and 40 percent of black and 45 percent of Latina/o transgender individuals had at some point been denied access to homeless shelters.

Related: What People Get Wrong About Being Transgender

Buchert, who in addition to her role at the Transgender Law Center is the current chair of the Oregon State Hospital Advisory Board and the first openly transgender person to be appointed to an Oregon state board, tells Yahoo Health that the root of so many of these troubling statistics has to do with the fact that “41 percent of [transgender individuals] don’t have accurately stated identity documents.” Buchert notes that without something as simple — and as taken for granted by most cisgender people — as a driver’s license, trans individuals are thus prevented from opening a bank account, being able to complete the paperwork necessary to start a new job, or even do something as basic as open a gym membership.


Orange Is the New Black actress Laverne Cox is a prime example of a trans individual giving greater context to transgender lives. (Photo: Getty Images)

“When you get a new job, the first thing you’re asked to do is present an accurate identity document,” Buchert says, noting that because of legal difficulties and discriminatory policies, trans individuals are often prevented from obtaining documentation that accurately reflects their gender identity. “This can have tremendous impact,” she says. The lack of accurate identity documents, Buchert notes, can lead to a pervasive cycle of criminalization of an already at-risk community.

Related: Caitlyn Jenner’s New Face — The Physical and Emotional Effects of Facial Feminizing Surgery

Buchert points out that many trans individuals are subjected to the “school-to-prison pipeline,” explaining that “because bullying and harassment is so pervasive [in high school], a lot of youth will either leave school early, or fight back and are then often subject disproportionately — often because of outright bias from teachers — to unfair sanctions.” Thus, many transgender youth drop out of school or end up in juvenile detention centers as a means of punishment, both of which can lead to homelessness that has a long-term economic impact on their lives.

Those unable to finish high school, Buchert explains, are often forced to turn to “street economies” such as sex work and the drug trade — means of earning an income that do not require a degree, let alone proper identity documents. Being forced into these kinds of illegal careers by economic necessity then “sweeps [transgender individuals] up into the prison-industrial complex” — a self-contained and self-repeating cycle of crime and incarceration.

Buchert notes that another major challenge faced by trans individuals is the act of merely “walking while trans,” noting that trans people are “disproportionately being pulled over and stopped and frisked by police because it’s assumed they are doing sex work because they are trans.”

Misunderstood not by self, but by others

Gender identity is most commonly defined as a person’s “deeply felt psychological identification as a man, woman or some other gender, which may or may not correspond to the sex assigned to them at birth.” A transgender person, then, is someone whose gender identity is different from that traditionally associated with the physical sex characteristics and organs with which he or she was born. It’s important to note that gender identity has nothing to do with sexuality or sexual orientation.

Current research shows that there is no right or wrong age at which a person may come to articulate or fully express a gender identity. As noted by the American Psychological Association, “While many transgender youth have expressed their gender since they were old enough to talk, still many others do not realize their feelings about their gender until around puberty or even later.”

Many people wrongly assume that trans individuals are born in the wrong body. “Actually, as I like to say, we are born in the wrong society,” Alok Vaid-Menon, the communications and grassroots fundraising program coordinator at the Audre Lorde Project, tells Yahoo Health. “We have to modify our bodies to make them more coherent to mainstream society. We know who we are. It’s just that the rest of the world doesn’t believe us.” Furthermore, it’s incorrect to assume that trans people all want to be the opposite gender. “That’s not true: transgender is an umbrella term for anyone who identifies differently than the gender they were assigned at birth. There are more than two genders, and some people don’t identify with any particular gender at all,” adds Vaid-Menon.

Related: The Gym That Helps Hone Transgender Bodies 

Says Levi, a transgender 22-year-old who spoke with Yahoo Health, “The biggest misperception is that we don’t know what we want. That we’re confused. That we’re going down this road and just seeing where our decisions lead. And where this does lead to is trans youth not feeling safe in our own home and communities. One in three of us will attempt suicide. We will be harassed in our homes and schools. I ran away from school at 17 to San Francisco because my school wasn’t there for me.”

Levi personally tries to “not focus on narratives that focus on knowing [one’s gender identity] at an early age — I like to focus on the issues facing us today and right now. The unemployment rate is two times that of the general population. We face discrimination and a lack of legal protection. A lot of people are quick to push aside the great risks we go through to just be who we are.”

Octavia Lewis, a trans woman and the educational specialist for transgender programming at the Hetrick-Martin Institute, shared with Yahoo Health how she, too, was unable to express her true gender identity until later in life. “I am one of those who had to go through high school not identifying as their truth — I came from a small community in south Georgia. It was hard for me to be the woman I knew I was because the people around me were not educated enough to know who I was or who I was striving to be. Now I do see a cultural shift — maybe not that people are more accepting, but are more aware of differences on the gender spectrum.”

‘We are all in transition’

Levi says the public often misperceives that all transgender individuals “immediately do SRS [sexual reassignment surgery].” Levi clarifies that “there is much more to the experience” of transitioning than surgeries and other medical procedures. “I also think that we have to go through our own emotional transition. We have to school ourselves and be in a place where we can be OK with the things that happen to us. We have to transition into a place of recognizing that our families may not accept us. The entire transitioning process is about more than bodies — it also involves a lot of life, mourning the loss of security and acceptance and being OK with that.”

Buchert also notes that because of the existing “medical model set up around trans identity, there is a whole host of legal issues and misperceptions around what it means to transition and what it means to be transgender. People think you’re not a ‘real’ transgender person until you’ve had surgery or hormone intervention. We know who we are on the inside. It doesn’t have anything to do with how many medical interventions we have. A lot of folks can’t have medical interventions [because of other health-related reasons] — and that doesn’t make them any less of a trans person.”

Related: How Transgender Surgery and Hormones Affect the Body

Within this medical model, however, is the requirement that a trans individual receive a diagnosis of “gender dysphoria” from a psychiatric professional in order to receive things like hormones or surgery. The need for a diagnosis is a “day-to-day reality,” says Buchert, which is required by insurance companies in order for trans people to receive these procedures should they want them. Buchert notes, however, that while it would be ideal to “move away from the medical model” when we think about what it means to transition, it is also “important to remember and be careful that we don’t stigmatize those who have mental illness diagnoses, that we support those folks as well.”

Jay Brown, an out trans man, father, husband, and the director of foundation program strategies with the Human Rights Campaign, tells Yahoo Health that he feels there is a huge public misperception that there is just “one idea of what transitioning is and that it applies to everyone — and that’s just not the case.” He notes that medical transition — including surgery — is a “process that many but not all trans people go through to bring an inner sense of self to their outside presentation.”

Adds Lewis, “I always caution people — we are all in transition. All of us.”

Being trans in the media

Even though gender identity is typically formed at a young age, “many people don’t come out to themselves or others until later in life,” says  Brown. “It’s kind of hard to explain when you’re not living it. This is something you just don’t see anywhere in society [as a young trans person]. I wasn’t even aware transgender people existed until high school or college — and only because of The Crying Game! And then I had only heard of transgender women. I didn’t have anyone to look at and go, ‘Oh — that’s what I’m thinking! That’s who I am.’ I think that’s why it can be hard for folks to understand that without the ability to see yourself in the world around you, it’s hard to step forward and say, ‘This is who I am.’”

Related: Bruce Jenner Reveals Herself as Caitlyn on the Cover of Vanity Fair

Brown points to Orange Is the New Black actress Laverne Cox as a prime example of a trans individual who allows the larger public to see her and say, “Yes, she is a transgender woman, but she’s also an actress on a breakout show. She gives greater context to transgender lives.” Brown hopes that the media can take a cue from Cox’s acclaim and overwhelming public support (the actress was recently cast in a new pilot for CBS) as well from shows such as Orange Is the New Black and Transparent, both of which portray trans people “with context,” in the midst of their daily lives with family and friends.

Brown adds that this kind of representation can and should be taken to the next level by including “more than just cisgender couples” when, for example, news stories are done on families and parenting. “There are so many incredible trans people who can be a part of a larger media story,” he emphasizes.

Agrees Lewis, “Once we can have those civil liberties and equal rights, that’s when people can grasp that we do yearn for the same things — consistency and normalcy of life. I go to work and come home to my family, just like most heterosexuals and cisgender people. I don’t want to be known for just the facet of being trans — that’s just one facet of who I am.”

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