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to Section One | to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, January 23, 2015 - Volume 43 Issue 04
Obama mentions Transgender people in State of the Union speech
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Obama mentions Transgender people in State of the Union speech

by Shaun Knittel - SGN Associate Editor

President Barack Obama has mentioned the acronym LGBT before; but never before has the President, Obama or any other, ever actually said the word 'Transgender' during a State of the Union (SOTU) speech. Until last Tuesday, that is. During his speech, which has been lauded by many as one of the best SOTU speeches in history, the president said, 'As Americans, we respect human dignity, even when we're threatened, which is why I've prohibited torture, and worked to make sure our use of new technology like drones is properly constrained. It's why we speak out against the deplorable anti-Semitism that has resurfaced in certain parts of the world. It's why we continue to reject offensive stereotypes of Muslims - the vast majority of whom share our commitment to peace. That's why we defend free speech, and advocate for political prisoners, and condemn the persecution of women, or religious minorities, or people who are Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, or Transgender. We do these things not only because they're right, but because they make us safer.'

The Transgender Law Center, the nation's largest legal advocacy organization entirely dedicated to Transgender issues, applauded his speech.

'President Obama's public recognition of Transgender people in his State of the Union address was historic,' Executive Director Masen Davis said in a statement. 'While it seems like a simple thing - saying the word 'Transgender' in a speech - President Obama's statement represents significant progress for Transgender people and the movement towards equality for all.'

Last year, Davis told TIME about his experience coming out as a Transgender man in the '90s and how much times have changed since then.

'When I first came out as Transgender, we all just assumed that if you were Transgender, you were going to lose your family, you were going to lose your friends, and you were going to lose your job. You needed to be prepared to lose everything,' he said. 'We've come so far, that it's become easier for Transgender people in certain areas of the country to be out and for them to feel like they can come out at work and they're not going to lose their jobs. They can come out to their family and they might not be thrown out. That they can come out at school and still be treated well.'

Progress has been made. Nobody is denying that. But you'd have a tough time convincing Transgender people like Davis that Transgender people aren't still disadvantaged as a demographic. The facts remains that Transgender people are more likely to experience harassment because of their gender expression, and to lose their jobs and live in poverty. More than 40% of Transgender people, according to one report, have attempted suicide.

Leelah Alcorn is a recent, tragic example of how hard it is to be a young Transgender person in America. Leelah Alcorn, born with the name Joshua, was 17-years-old when last month, she stepped in front of a tractor trailer on highway I-71 in Warren County, Ohio, left a heartbreaking letter in which she blamed her religious parents. Alcorn says she had been forced to undergo conversion therapy, which traditionally seeks to change sexual orientation through counseling, although Alcorn was Transgender, which has nothing to do with someone's sexual orientation. The practice has been banned in two states on grounds it is medically unfounded and puts children in danger.

The high school student's poignant suicide note accused her devout Christian parents of refusing to acknowledge her gender and forbidding her from transitioning. The suicide note was posted on Alcorn's tumblr account through scheduled publishing just a few hours after her death. The note begins: 'If you are reading this, it means that I have committed suicide and obviously failed to delete this post from my queue.'

Alcorn wrote that although she was born a boy, she began identifying as a girl at the age of four.

'When I was 14, I learned what transgender meant and cried of happiness. After 10 years of confusion I finally understood who I was,' she said in the letter. 'I immediately told my mom, and she reacted extremely negatively, telling me that it was a phase, that I would never truly be a girl, that God doesn't make mistakes, that I am wrong.'

'I formed a sort of a 'fuck you' attitude towards my parents and came out as Gay at school, thinking that maybe if I eased into coming out as Trans it would be less of a shock,' she said. 'Although the reaction from my friends was positive, my parents were pissed. They felt like I was attacking their image, and that I was an embarrassment to them. They wanted me to be their perfect little straight Christian boy, and that's obviously not what I wanted.'

Alcorn wrote that on her 16th birthday, when she didn't receive consent from my parents to start transitioning, 'I cried myself to sleep.'

She then added, 'I'm never going to be happy. Either I live the rest of my life as a lonely man who wishes he were a woman or I live my life as a lonelier woman who hates herself.'

The one thing that Alcorn has in common with the thousands of other Transgender youth (and adults) that have died by suicide is the desperate need to be seen as whom they know themselves to be; that their gender is different from the body they were born into. Everyone needs love and acceptance to help them build a strong self-esteem and prepare them for life's ups and downs. President Barack Obama's SOTU speech mention of Transgender people relates directly to that fact. Affirmation, finally, by a sitting U.S. president.

'The President's acknowledgment helps shatter the cloak of invisibility that has plagued Trans people and forced many to suffer in silence,' author and MSNBC host Janet Mock, who is Transgender, said. 'By speaking our community's name, the President pushes us all to recognize the existence and validity of Trans people as Americans worthy of protection and our nation's resources.'

'As a Transgender man and an advocate for Transgender people, it was thrilling to hear, for the first time in our nation's history, the President of the United States acknowledge Transgender people as an integral and valued part of our national community,' said Shannon Minter, legal director for the National Center for Lesbian Rights.

The issues of validity and legitimacy are huge ones for Transgender people. Not long ago, doctors didn't think that Transgender patients' feelings about their gender identity were legitimate. Instead, many thought those feelings were inclinations requiring correction. Today, the medical community has evolved. Again, though, it is important to note that many people still mistakenly assume Transgender people are only really Transgender if their bodies look a certain way. Last year, TIME made history when they put the issue on their front cover, declaring that the Transgender movement had arrived and reached its tipping point. Actress Laverne Cox talked about this issue in her interview with TIME for that cover story, saying, 'We have to listen to people about who they are and not assume that there's something wrong with Trans people. Because we know who we are. And I think the biggest thing is folks want to believe that there's something, that genitals and biology are destiny. & When you think about it, it's kind of ridiculous. People need to be willing to let go of what they think they know about what it means to be a man and what it means to be a woman.' For decades Transgender people have had to deal with the perception that they are deceiving people. 'The people who say that they're Trans have always been undermined and thought of as not telling the truth, being intentionally deceitful of others,' Elizabeth Reis, a professor of women's and gender studies at the University of Oregon, said. She calls it 'the authenticity issue that Trans people face, not being believed for who they say they are.' To get medical treatment or to play on sports teams or to change the gender on their driver's licenses, Transgender people have long had to provide documents and testimony that they are who they say they are. In the past, Transgender Americans have even had to prove they intended to have or had undergone surgery. And still, today, there are people who don't understand what it means to be Transgender or don't 'believe in being Transgender.' No other group in America, in quite the same way, is asked to constantly prove their status on a daily basis. The powerful thing about what Obama did is that he, as the President of the United State of America, offered up recognition using the word that the community itself uses - instead of spinning the issue with a vague phrase like 'regardless of how someone identifies.' What Obama said, by saying the word 'Transgender' is that he does believe Transgender people are who they say they are and he doesn't need any proof. This is truly a historic moment for the Transgender community indeed. Locally, there are resources for Transgender people seeking community, answers, support and more. Ingersoll Gender Center: Join Ingersoll every Wednesday from 7-9 p.m. at their weekly peer support group held at Seattle Counseling Services (1216 Pine St #300). For more information, go to http://ingersollgendercenter.org/. Gender Justice League: Empowering Trans* activists and allies in fighting sexuality & gender oppression in Washington state. More at: www.genderjusticeleague.org.

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