Transgender Awareness Week: Where We’ve Been & Where We’re Going

Every year between November 13–19, we join together to recognize Trans Awareness Week. This is a week to raise visibility about transgender people and address the issues that members of the community face. To honor the trans community and their role in this fight for equality, our Chief Executive Officer (Interim) and Chief Policy Officer, Denise Brogan-Kator, shares a few of her thoughts as a trans advocate in this movement.

2020 has been an unprecedented year for Family Equality, the LGBTQ+ movement, and the nation as a whole. If this year, and the past four years, has discouraged you, I want you to know: I get it.

But particularly in this Transgender Awareness Week, I want you to know why I’m still hopeful for our futures. Let me start by framing the situation, from my perspective.

Issues facing the trans community today

We need to talk first about the pandemic, which disproportionately touches this community. Trans and nonbinary communities face higher risks of exposure to the virus, delays in access to gender-affirming care, and diminished access to social support. This means that COVID-19 has disproportionately touched this community. Nevertheless, in the middle of global health crises, the current Administration attempted to roll back nondiscrimination protections for transgender individuals in healthcare, homeless shelters, and schools.

Of course, that’s not all. This administration also eliminated critical data collection about the trans community, so that older trans adults may not receive urgently needed services. And, they passed a near-total ban on military service by transgender people.

In 2020 alone, a record number of anti-trans bills made their way through state legislatures. Plus, the reported number of trans and gender-diverse people whose lives were taken by anti-transgender violence actually increased.

Of course, we’ve made progress too. We elected a new Administration, one that has openly issued statements in support of our community and against anti-trans violence. The Supreme Court ruled this summer that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 protects trans people from discrimination in employment. And in the 2020 election, voters elected six transgender candidates to state office. This raises the total number of transgender elected officials nationwide from 28 to 32. When I first came out as transgender—more than 27 years ago—I could hardly have imagined that!

A look at where we’ve been

But I have been in the battle for recognition (and basic decency) for more than 25 years.  I have seen, and felt, the good, the bad, and the ugly.

Outside our community

While I recognize that I have not had as hard a time as many who have come out, my journey hasn’t been without struggle. I’ve lost three jobs as a result of my gender identity. Life partners have rejected me, and I have very nearly lost parental rights to my children. This was the everyday narrative at the time for people who came out; such events were the norm, not the exception.  We weren’t really protected by law. Courts almost never ruled in our favor. No elected official—Democrat or Republican—stood up for us. 

And I have been afraid.  I was out as transgender when Brandon Teena was brutally murdered and when Tyra Hunter was left to bleed to death while paramedics stood over her and laughed. I’ve been afraid to use a public restroom (and been told innumerable times that I was in the wrong one).  I have been denied medical care and feared having to access it.

I remember a policeman laughing at me after he pulled me over for a burnt-out taillight. “Do I call you sir or ma’am?” he chortled. Even then, I was lucky.  It could have been so much worse.

People have misgendered me. They have called me names. They have told me that I will burn in hell more times than I care to remember.

In 1995, I went to Washington, D.C. to lobby for transgender inclusion in that year’s version of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act. On that trip, I ran into one of my senators, Connie Mack of Florida, in the tunnels under the Capitol.  When he heard me say “transgender,” he had to ask what that meant. When I explained, he physically recoiled. His aide even stepped in between us, as if to protect the Senator from a threat.

From within our community

Even within the queer movement, we were pariahs. Without the Internet, we had few ways of connecting with one another, and we met in secret klatches. Many in the larger LGB movement (and more broadly) saw us as punchlines and scapegoats—the reason the gay community couldn’t achieve its own goals of progress.  Opponents of equality portrayed us as child predators lurking outside public restrooms. We were used as a wedge to defeat protections for the LGBTQ community.

We’ve come a long way

Despite all of the above, I cannot begin to list all the strides we have made over the years, for ourselves and for trans youth.  In fact, just one Administration ago, I stood in the East Room of the White House as the President of the United States, President Obama, talked about expanding rights for transgender people.  I have spoken to many elected officials and power brokers who now see us as an integral and inseparable part of the LGBTQ community, deserving of equal recognition, respect, and protection. Our current President-Elect Biden just became the first U.S. president-elect in history to mention the transgender community in his victory speech.

So, believe me when I tell you that we’ve come a long way.

However, looking back at the progress we made isn’t what brings me hope. What brings me hope is understanding how and why we made that progress.

Understanding our progress

We are where we are today because of the bravery of thousands of transgender people who refused to live in the shadows any longer. From the queens of Stonewall to courtrooms in Nebraska, and in classrooms all across America, trans people have stood up to be counted.  

The birth of a movement

When I need to remember why we keep fighting, I am inspired by:

  • Riki Wilchens founding Transexual Menace and, later, GenderPAC
  • Tony Barreto-Neto founding Transgender Officers Protect and Serve
  • Vanessa Edwards Foster founding the National Transgender Advocacy Coalition
  • Mara Keisling founding the National Center for Transgender Equality
  • The community coming together to protest the lack of police attention to the murders of transgender women of color (which is still happening at a horrifying rate). 
  • Monica Helms designing the transgender flag.
  • Monica Roberts writing an award-winning blog about the experience of living as an out, proud, black transgender woman (may she Rest in Power)
  • Jenny Boylan finding her voice
  • The start of Transgender Day of Remembrance thanks to Gwen Smith and the start of Transgender Day of Visibility thanks to Rachel Crandall
  • Amanda Simpson being appointed to the Obama Administration
  • Autumn Sandeen chaining herself to the White House fence in protest of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.

I think about the thousands of people like me beginning to teach, most often by the example of our lives, but also in classrooms or courtrooms across the country.  This includes people like Diego Miguel Sanchez, who became the first openly transgender senior staffer on Capitol Hill, and Lynn Conway, a renowned scientist and transgender activist who came out as trans when I was in grade school and has done so much to tell our stories. It includes Andre Wilson and Jamison Green. It is not possible for me to list the contributions of just my own friends, people of my generation, let alone the young people who have taken up the baton. Their work inspires me and fills me with hope.

But more than that, no one can ever erase their accomplishments, their mark on society.

Advocates in law

This is true, too, in law. I am grateful for and inspired by the trail-blazing lawyers who won the first cases on behalf of courageous transgender clients—people like Phyllis Frye, Spencer Bergstedt, Jennifer Levi, Shannon Minter, Kylar Broadus, and so, so many others. Over time, trial courts began to admit actual medical testimony validating the reality of our identities and lives.  I witnessed Michael Kantaras opened up his life for the whole world to examine and watched as the trial court dived deeply into what it means to be transgender. 

Thanks to the tireless efforts of these people, and many others, there now exists an impressive body of legal analysis and precedent to support our existence, our humanity, and our civil rights. No administrative action can undo that law.

I have been witness to the rise of allies in our struggle to gain respect and recognition.  Our many allies both in and around the movement—including not only national and local advocates, but also friends and family and co-workers and community members who know us and love us—give us the added strength and the heart to persevere.

And so, for me, I am not afraid. I am hopeful and proud.

What we need to do now

Nothing can ever erase who we are—as individuals and as a collective. We will never go back to living in the shadows, to accepting anything other than our full place in the American story of growing equality and acceptance. We know who we are.  Our loved ones know who we are.  The legal community knows who we are. The medical community knows who we are. There are outliers, still, who would see us marginalized, disgraced, harmed and even erased. But I’ve seen where we’ve come from and I’ve glimpsed the future of our movement.

It is time to turn our anger into constructive action. I was a boxer in the Navy—I don’t know how to quit. So I will do what I can to keep fighting, as a transgender person and as the Chief Executive Officer at a leading national LGBTQ+ nonprofit.

Do what you can, too.

Together, we can ensure that no matter what, #WeWontBeErased.

A version of this post first appeared on Denise’s personal Facebook page in October 2018.