Trans explosion

Personal narratives drive social change, and vice versa
By LISA BUNKER  |  October 26, 2011

When a social movement gets its own high-profile celebrity poster child, you know it must be hot. Enter Chaz Bono, the pop-culture flash of the explosion of all things transgender in our national consciousness. And Chaz is not the only new trans figure on our glowing screens. Less than two years ago, in November 2009, a Wikipedia list of transgender characters on television had 20 entries; now it has 36.

Another thing: trans-positive change is making headlines. The World Professional Association for Transgender Health just released a major revision of its Standards of Care — the guidelines therapists and surgeons follow when working with trans patients — that significantly lowers the number and height of the hurdles people face when seeking gender transition. Meanwhile, the state of New York is considering whether to provide Medicaid coverage for sexual reassignment surgery, and even Walmart, hardly known for its progressive stance on human resources, recently added transgender protections to its employee non-discrimination policy.

Clearly my perception that trans is happening, right now, is not based just on the gee-whiz factor of my own ongoing transition. The evidence confirms that the T of LGBT, long marginalized and misunderstood, is now emerging as its own unique issue and movement. At the same time the experience of being trans is also changing, as trans folk find more information, support, and community available to them than ever before. Each level of change informs and impels the other, in a fascinating interplay between personal narrative and substantial advances in our society, culture, and institutions.

Political expression

The biggest trans story ever in Maine is undoubtedly the saga of LD 1046, a bill introduced in the Maine Legislature in December 2010. LD 1046 sought to roll back protections for trans-identified people that, in 2005, had been added to the Maine Human Rights Act (a referendum failed to overturn its legislative passage and gubernatorial signature). Had the bill become law, forcing a trans person to use a bathroom or locker room matching that person's physical sex at birth would no longer have been considered discrimination in Maine. (The Legislature voted it down in June.)

The bill was introduced by Republican Representative Kenneth Fredette of Newport, because, according to his testimony before the Legislature's Judiciary Committee on April 12, while serving on the Maine Human Rights Commission he had disagreed with two commission decisions in favor of trans individuals. Both were findings of discrimination against entities that had prevented a male-to-female transgender person from using a women's or girls' restroom: one a Denny's restaurant in Auburn, the other an Orono elementary school.

The power of personal narrative can move in curious ways. In this case, two individual stories triggered a reactionary response, which in turn triggered a large-scale counter-response. Fredette's bill aroused the focused attention of Equality Maine, Maine's oldest and largest LGBT organization. In recent years EQME's main issue has been the push for recognition of same-sex marriage in the state; but when LD 1046 blipped onto the radar, says Ali Vander Zanden, EQME political director, the organization saw it as a pressing concern and spearheaded the opposition.

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 See all articles by: LISA BUNKER