At a time when Bruce Jenner, Olympic gold medallist and reality TV star, has come out as transgender and Laverne Cox, the transgender star of the hit TV series Orange is the New Black made it to the cover of Time magazine, it would be easy to assume that this is the moment in the sun for transgender rights. The transgender are enjoying great visibility in the media - the American media for sure. Another example: the series Transparent, about an elderly man deciding to transition, won two Golden Globes at this year's ceremony, including for the best television series (comedy or musical).
Jenner's coming out, however, prompted some in the media to take issue with his "white privilege". According to them, Jenner has the financial muscle and star power to not only undergo transition but share that story with a wide audience. What about the many transgender women of colour, say, who continue to face grave odds in their battle for dignity and respect?
While Jenner's personal journey and his courage in sharing it are worth celebrating, there is some truth to the argument that other trans lives are under-represented in the media. So it is only appropriate that last month's Emmys chose to recognise a documentary that shines light on the continued danger that trans people face, not just physical danger but also the perils of daily adjustments. Titled Laverne Cox Presents: The T Word, the documentary, hosted and executive produced by Cox, looks into the lives of seven transgender youth who, in spite of their struggles, lead lives filled with hope and cheer.
The story of one, 20-year-old Daniella from New York, is instructive. She takes Cox to a part of town where, walking one night last year, she was held down by a man. She was raped and told not to scream, else her rapist threatened to kill her. Her trauma was accentuated by the fact that she was homeless at the time and, thus, exposed herself to continued risk.
But worse was to follow. When she went to the police to report the crime, she was given a rape kit. She declined saying she had been anally violated at which point she also revealed she was transgender. The police officer in charge asked her if she had really been raped or if it had only been the case of a John refusing to pay her for her services that had prompted her to file charges.
Daniella's tears flow freely as she recounts the incident. She has a roof above her head today and is looking to graduate from college this year. But stereotypes about trans women working as sex workers abound. Besides, not all stories like Daniella's end hopefully. The documentary lists nearly eight trans women of colour who have lost their lives in violent attacks over the last two years.
Another such case that has received much media attention is of Cece McDoland, who like Daniella, found a normal walk turn into a life-threatening situation. In self-defence, she took out a pair of scissors and when her attacker dashed towards her she pierced his chest with them. She was sentenced to 41 months in prison, but was let off after 19 months on account of good behaviour. In an interview with Rolling Stones, her lawyer Hersch Izek expressed anguish at how Ms McDoland's trial was not merely about justice but justice to a member of a community whose struggles were not appreciated by the majority of Americans, as Daniella's police encounter attests. "The idea was to show the violence transgender individuals face, to bolster the self-defence claim. We'd have to be educating the jury about what it meant to be transgender. That would be difficult. Most wouldn't even know what that meant," said Mr Izek.
The T Word addresses other less frightening but equally gravid issues to being transgender. After beginning her transition to a man, Shane, as he is called now, worried that he might end up alone. "My mother said that no straight woman would want to be with me since she would want a man with a penis and no lesbian would want to be with me since I was now a man," he tells the camera, articulating nervous concerns that trans youth face as they begin new lives. But today, he is with Jess. When they got intimate for the first time, Jess reveals to us, Shane was worried about taking his clothes off. "Shane, you are not an alien," she told him. "You are going to have parts I am familiar with, and that's fine."
It is against the backdrop of such open-minded generosity that the transgender, like other members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgendered (LGBT) community, are building their lives. And by showcasing such a varied spectrum of trans lives, Cox's documentary gives us a fairer idea of the community's hopes and dreams.