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How Transgender Visibility Could Help Drive Social Change


This week, Sarah McBride was sworn into the Delaware state Senate, making her the highest-ranking transgender politician in the country. But even as their profile rises in politics and on-screen, trans people continue to be the target of violence. The Human Rights Campaign says at least 44 transgender or nonbinary people were killed in the U.S. last year, leading some to wonder, does increased visibility really help to protect the lives of transgender people? We put that question to Myrl Beam. He's a professor at Macalester College in Minnesota and co-host of the podcast "Transcripts."

MYRL BEAM: The sort of strategy of visibility - like if we just have more trans people on TV - folks recognize that not only is that not working, it's actually putting the most marginalized trans folks in more danger, right? So it might help me keep my job as a university professor, but it's not helping broke trans fems of color. And, in fact, actually, it's making them more vulnerable. The police are more likely to identify them.

CORNISH: But the journalist Imara Jones sees the issue of visibility through a different lens.

IMARA JONES: I don't necessarily believe that visibility places something us more at risk. I believe that we're already at risk and it's extreme. I think that the visibility over time in the right way will make us less at risk.

CORNISH: I asked Jones to explain why she sees visibility as a good thing, and specifically whether pop culture plays a special role in bringing about social change.

JONES: Absolutely. The reason why is because we're only 1% of the population, and that means that 9 out of 10 people in the United States say that they don't personally know someone who's trans. That means that the way that people can get to know us in a way that centers our humanity, which I believe lessens the likelihood of violence and discrimination and marginalization, is through culture.

I know from reading history that trans people were marginalized and brutalized and killed before representation came to the fore. What representation has made possible in the last year is that we've had a presidential candidate commit to our equality. We had a presidential candidate commit to lowering the murders of trans people, specifically Black trans women. And we had many candidates do that. And that would not be possible without representation.

CORNISH: I want to jump in here because you mentioned politics. And there's been a slight increase in the number of trans elected officials in state legislatures - right? - so at the state level. Is this sort of representation a path to concrete policies that could stem violence against trans people? Or is it even fair for me to ask this question - right? - to demand these politicians be the ones who be the source of policies or legislations to curb this problem?

JONES: We know that the securing of equality in the United States is a combination of legal, cultural and social, which work together to then shift people's ability to be able to be human, and that is earn what everyone else does, to have the same jobs, on and on and on. Therefore, these politicians and the laws that they are advocating for or the bad laws that they're stopping happen are essential for our rights.

Now, that doesn't mean that only legal means are going to secure our full equality. It's much larger than that. And I think that one of the amazing things about being trans is that we get to see beyond binaries, right? We get to go beyond false choices of black and white. It allows us to be able to see all of the things and how they work together and what it means for us to be fully ourselves and that's fully our society. And we need to be thinking about these as and, and, and, not either or.

CORNISH: What sort of policies are you hoping to see out of the Biden administration that could help the community?

JONES: I think, one, we have to have trans people at every single department who know about all of the ways in which the federal government has been weaponized against trans people over the last four years to be there involved in those policies. I believe that those people have to be grouped in a White House coordinating committee to be able to tackle those issues. And I think that we need to have a Justice Department that takes the murders of us seriously and communicates that to police departments across the country. The last thing we need to do is that we need to stop the anti-trans bills that are in over nearly half the state legislatures that are going to come up next year regardless of who's in the White House.

CORNISH: Imara Jones, journalist and the founder of TransLash Media, thank you for sharing this with me.

JONES: Thank you so much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.