What We Can Learn About Trans Rights From Caitlyn Jenner

Photo: Courtesy of Vanity Fair
Everyone is talking about Caitlyn Jenner’s Vanity Fair cover story about her journey to self-acceptance — and Jenner’s bravery and beauty are undeniable. And so is her privilege. In addition to having the support of her family and the public, Jenner lives in a great place to be a trans American. California offers laudable rights and legal protections to its trans citizens, but other states aren’t so hospitable.

It is still legal in 32 states to fire someone just for being trans; trans people are four times as likely to live in poverty than the national average, and almost one in five live without health insurance. Chase Strangio, a staff attorney for the ACLU’s LGBT and AIDS Project, told us that health care, and lack of access to it, is at the root of much of the discrimination and violence that trans people face on a daily basis.

The excellent care that Jenner could afford highlights the “systematic way trans people are denied health care, which leads to other health challenges, employment challenges, housing challenges, and criminalization, especially for trans women of color," Strangio said. "We can trace a lot of these problems to access to health care.”

As everyone from Janet Mock to Chelsea Manning has made clear, access to the kind of care that aligns gender identity and physical appearance — whether hormones or surgeries — is essential.

Medical care related to transitioning is rarely covered by insurance, and most trans people can’t get coverage through state Medicaid programs. Incarcerated trans people are often housed with inmates of the opposite gender and have been denied access to medical needs, like hormone therapy, during their time in prison.

In a blog post Monday night, Strangio asked that conversations about trans issues go beyond simply using appropriate language for Jenner while continuing to discriminate against trans people with less privilege.

“Telling [Jenner’s] story with care means using the right name and pronoun, but it also means highlighting the extent to which it is not the typical trans story,” Strangio wrote. "Her story can only be told by also telling the stories of the trans people who are struggling to survive systemic discrimination.”

Trans people without the social capital and financial resources of someone like Jenner, Strangio said, still deal with discrimination and violence on a daily basis. Trans women of color, especially, face enormous hurdles to receiving necessary health care, and they are at a disproportionate risk for violence and suicide.

When we asked him what people interested in supporting trans rights in their own communities can do, he said, "We should make sure there are affirmative protections for trans people, make sure employers don't contract with insurance providers that exclude health care for trans people. We should be challenging statutes that deny rights to trans people. We have to change policies, and we have to talk about trans people, make sure they’re part of our public conversation, and think about their struggles."

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