Students and celebrities represent transgender perspectives at the university
Levi Rojas is a 21-year-old student at the University of Nevada, Reno. He is originally from East Los Angeles, calls his mom his hero, and is a transgender male. He claims he can eat an extra large pepperoni pizza by himself, followed by an order of chicken wings. At first I had my doubts about whether Rojas can actually put down that much food—he’s not a large person—but then he told me what he ate for breakfast, an entire package of string cheese, and I realized that I had to take him at his word for us to move forward from a place of trust and mutual understanding.
Questionable diet choices aside, this example of taking Rojas at his word is about the best analogy I can come up with to illustrate the complicated relationship the transgender community has with the media.
In response to my request for an interview, Rojas preempted our meeting with an email that I can only guess he has sent many times before. It read, “I would be more than happy to meet with you … [but] I refuse to answer any questions about my medical transition, my genitals, or my sex life as those are always topics which are proposed and I always shoot down as that is no one’s business but mine.”
At first, the tone in his email caught me off guard, but if you take a minute to Google “transgender media coverage,” it becomes clear that the cynicism is more defensible than defensive. After being categorically ignored or cast only as sex workers in crime dramas, some recent national news coverage about the transgender community has been aggressively voyeuristic at best, and disrespectful and abusive at worst.
Comments like “When did you decide to become a boy/girl?” or “I never would have been able to tell if you hadn’t said something!” dominate the national media narrative. Closer to home, Kimi Cole, Transgender Allies Group director and transgender woman, has also had a few face-palm inquiries directed her way over the years. “Have you had the surgery?” “Do you want the surgery?” Worst of all, “So, how do you do it?” Although Cole usually views these questions as teachable moments for what not to ask, she is justifiably horrified nonetheless.
It all comes down to the fact that—for most of us—people do not question our basic identities. But for individuals who identify as the opposite gender than they were biologically born, it is a facet of daily life, and it can be an uphill battle for recognition. As Levi puts it, “You are assumed male and straight or female and straight until proven otherwise.”
Tory Clark, professor at UNR and clinical sexologist in Reno, elaborated on the media’s obsession with sexuality and its lack of a filter towards the transgender community. “[It] has to do with the broad issue of Americans not being comfortable talking about sex. When they get an opportunity to ask questions, they ask.”
She continues, “It comes from a place of having privilege. There’s privilege in being a part of the cis-culture [normative culture]. You don’t have to worry about answering questions about your genitalia.”
Most people take for granted that their privates won’t go public. We deny this basic civility to some members of society, but it goes beyond civility. The obsession with proving someone’s gender in a scientific manner gets in the way of meaningful conversations. Conversations like the difference between gender and sexual identity, discussions about the physical and emotional harm that the transgender community faces, and what transgender advocacy looks like are good places to begin.Gender nation X
It doesn’t hurt to know that post-1970s medical research consistently confirms the body/brain dissonance that the transgender community experiences. According to the American Medical Association, both gender identity and sexual orientation are congenital, or present at birth, and do not necessarily fall along the lines of sexual organs.
On the social front, being transgender is synonymous with being misunderstood. As a part of the LGBT lexicon, the “T” has the distinct disadvantage of being the only letter that does not align its identity with sexual orientation. Not surprisingly, this adds an extra element of confusion when people look to the acronym as a simple marker.
A useful graphic for understanding the relationship between gender identity and sexual orientation is the popular image known as “The Genderbread Person.” Created as a teaching tool by transgender advocate Sam Killermann, the graphic displays symbols that correspond to the brain, outer body, nether-regions, and heart in order to differentiate between the three areas that pertain to gender (identity, expression, and biological sex) and the one area that pertains to sexuality (sexual orientation). Unlike the rest of the LGBT community, the transgender experience only has to do with the first three.
As Cole put it, “The gender identity is completely separate from sexual identity. The gender identity is how people perceive themselves in the world, who they see in the mirror, how they present, dress, and how the rest of world perceives them. Sexual orientation is simply who you are attracted to.”
The average lifespan of a transgender individual is only around 30 years old, according to various sources. Research has shown that 43-60 percent of transgender people report being victims of physical violence, and 41 percent attempt suicide. If you are a white, transgender woman, you have 1 in 25 chance of being murdered. For women of color, this statistic ups your probability to 1 in 12.
Although being transgender is not a psychological pathology, being threatened with discrimination and violence has clear psychological effects. Internalized discrimination and outward abuse can lead to social alienation, low self-esteem, extreme vigilance in gender expression (trying to pass as cis-gender), and increased drug abuse. Depression is 2-3 times higher among the transgender community compared to the general population, and it is estimated that 57 percent of transgender individuals face family rejection.
“Truly, for many trans people, it’s a case of survival,” said Rojas.
In the face of these horrific statistics, calling the transgender community resilient reaches beyond understatement. So it is no surprise that the loudest and strongest voices come from within the community itself. People like Rojas and Cole and public figures such as Laverne Cox, a transgender activist and an actress best known for her work on the Netflix series Orange is the New Black, are the faces of the movement.
On April 9, Cox is scheduled to speak at the Joe Crowley Student Union. Without even counting her exceptional acting talent, Cox’s visibility as a successful transgender woman who is “out” is notable. Rojas explains the importance of her visit: “Her speech will open the door for this community. Trans students will see someone like them doing great things.”