Is the transgender community having a “moment”? That’s what the new issue of Time suggests on its newest cover, which trumpets “The Transgender Tipping Point” (the story, unfortunately, is behind a paywall). In the last year, the trans community has gained an impressive degree of visibility in the mainstream, particularly after the success of Orange Is the New Black, which featured a stellar performance from trans actress Laverne Cox. Cox appears on the cover of the Time issue, and it’s a particularly remarkable achievement: for the first time, it seems like a community under the LGBT umbrella has, as its most visible member, an African-American trans woman.
Of course, Cox isn’t the sole player in this game: Janet Mock has also spent time in the spotlight, with her excellent book Redefining Realness and her truly inspiring way of shutting down those so-called allies for misrepresenting and redirecting attention from the trans community to themselves. Both of them, of course, follow in the footsteps of many trans activists and writers (Kate Bornstein immediately comes to mind) who have paved the way for the growing mainstream understanding of a variety of issues that face the transgender community. That Cox and Mock have broken down the barriers for trans women of color, however, is a commendable and impressive achievement, and one that shouldn’t be ignored.
It’s interesting timing, too, as last week saw a lot of controversy within the trans community about language. RuPaul, who has long been an advocate for LGBT equality (and, equally, self-acceptance for all humans, not just queers), has come under fire for using what many claim is transphobic language on RuPaul’s Drag Race, a show that is bringing even further into the mainstream drag performance and queer icons. RuPaul, perhaps the world’s most famous drag queen, is a cisgender man — so, should he be allowed to use the word “tranny,” a term that by all accounts came out of the transgender community decades ago before unfortunately being reappropriated by those outside of it as a slur?
It’s a fight I’ve seen played out on my Facebook feed, but one I’ve stayed out of; as a cisgender man, it’s not my place to tell trans people what should or shouldn’t offend them. But I have been incredibly interested in hearing — and seeing — both sides of the argument, and it’s fascinating how the lines have been drawn almost on a generational basis. RuPaul, who has long represented the gender non-normative community in the mainstream media, likely identified for years as a “tranny,” in the drag sense. Yet now that members of the transgender community have, as Janet Mock has suggested, started controlling their own narratives, the implications behind the word have shifted — and a younger generation, made up of people who have mostly heard it used in a derogatory manner, is rejecting it.
The RuPaul controversy has been seen as something of a crisis in the LGBT community, but there’s a positive side to it, too. The debate supports what Laverne Cox says in an interview that accompanies the Time cover story: “There’s not just one trans story. There’s not just one trans experience.” There’s room for dialogue within the trans community as much as there’s a necessity for one between trans activists and those who don’t quite understand the experience. And that’s what is so powerful about Laverne Cox gracing the cover of Time: she gives the trans community a face that isn’t, say, Jared Leto at the Oscars. Its members are as diverse and complicated as any other community’s, and as more authentic representatives of it enter the mainstream, we’re bound to hear a multiplicity of new, divergent, and sometimes even conflicted points of view. That’s the tipping point, and it’s exciting to watch a strong, powerful, poised woman like Laverne Cox take the baton from those who came before her and continue racing before an ever-larger audience.