Column: Building the Bridge

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Recently, I had the chance to see Gender Revolution, the National Geographic documentary on trans and intersex people hosted by Katie Couric. It was almost exactly what I expected, a primer on gender variant people and some of the issues in our lives. It’s clearly intended for straight, cis viewers, basic and accessible, a “Trans 101.”

Since I can remember a time when seeing this kind of information in mainstream media was exceedingly rare outside of the occasional sensationalized features on daytime television talks shows, I’m personally very happy that this documentary and others like it are getting the kind of attention they are. 

At the same time, however, there are times when I think those creating these programs assume they and their viewers know more than they actually do, and as a result leave out important information which could help a viewer new to these topics to understand them better.

One example of this comes toward the end of Gender Revolution, during an interview segment with two trans women, former professional tennis player Renee Richards and actress, model, and writer Hari Nef. As you’d expect, the difference in perspective on trans people and issues between 80-year-old Richards and 24-year-old Nef is vast. Richards, who underwent gender confirmation surgery in 1975, expresses a strictly binary view of gender in the interview, while Nef’s perspective is unsurprisingly far more modern, also encompassing non-binary expressions of gender.

It was watching these two women debate gender and trans issues from perspectives so completely removed from one another that I began to feel that something important was missing. It wasn’t at all an unfamiliar feeling.

Even though we’ve seen a massive increase in trans-relevant programming in mainstream media over the last few years, it’s still a pretty rare thing to hear our community’s history discussed, and even rarer to see it portrayed accurately. When we get anything at all, what we usually see is at best an abbreviated retelling that leapfrogs from the eras of Lili Elbe and Christine Jorgensen to Sylvia Rivera and Richards to Laverne Cox, Janet Mock, and Nef’s generation of modern trans youth. Rarely, if ever, is the story of the trans community in-between the eras of Richards and Nef even acknowledged, much less actually told, and it’s an important story to tell.

That trans community, the one which was prevalent in the ‘90’s and ‘00’s and still is to some extent, was responsible for creating and building much of the foundation of our modern community. We were the generation who brought the term “transgender” into common usage. We were also the generation which, with the help of the Internet, transformed a collection of small local cliques of trans people into a national movement. We were the first to collectively lobby federal, state, and local politicians for civil rights laws to protect trans people from discrimination, and we were the first to create our own community media, by, for, and about trans people and the topics and issues we care about.

We weren’t a particularly large group, especially at first. With few legal protections on the books, and a culture that saw us as clowns and freaks, coming out trans and going public was an especially courageous act. Doing so not only carried the very real risks of being ostracized from friends and family but also losing jobs and the prospect of future employment, as well as becoming targets of public derision and physical violence. 

There were no well-funded civil rights organizations fighting for our equality, no major media outlets reporting on us from perspectives other than derision and sensationalism. Few jurisdictions in the United States had laws forbidding discrimination against us, and virtually no politicians or political parties had any interest in creating any. 

In the 1990’s and early 2000’s, we had one thing and one thing only we knew we could rely on with certainty: Ourselves.

Just about all of us presented solidly within the gender binary. Out of necessity we were far too busy concerning ourselves with fitting into society well enough to keep our jobs and not be thrown out of our homes to concern ourselves with futuristic fantasies like non-binary identities. It was only once we’d reached the point where we’d successfully integrated ourselves into the social and political culture as women and men in the mid-to-late 00’s that non-binary identities began to emerge with any regularity.

It’s our generation which is the bridge between Richards and Nef. We built the foundations of the community which trans youth like Nef is expanding and modernizing. Most of us are still here, though, and while we certainly don’t deserve all the credit, it would be nice to be recognized for all that we did do, at least once in a while.


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