Why 2017 Was The Most Volatile Year For Transgender America

With so many alternating steps forward and back, it’s impossible to know if we came out ahead or behind.

In late 2016, the future was ominous: Not only was Donald Trump elected president, but there was backlash against so-called “identity politics” and “political correctness.” Op-eds in The New York Times and other major outlets held up trans issues as a prime example of how liberals were out of touch, and of what had to change if Democrats were ever going to regain power.

It was hard to imagine a bleaker start to a year than having our rights dismissed as a distraction.

The early months of the Trump presidency were just as toxic and terrifying as we’d feared. Hate crimes were widely reported to be on the rise, and Trump nominated Jeff Sessions as Attorney General, entrusting one of the most racist and virulently anti-LGBT politicians in America with enforcing federal law.

But by March, a glimmer of hope appeared with the partial repeal of North Carolina’s odious HB2, which forced trans people to use bathrooms according to their sex assigned at birth. HB2 was repealed in the face of legal challenges from the ACLU and other human-rights groups over its blatantly discriminatory intent, in addition to boycotts, including one by the NBA, which financially damaged the state.

Sara D. Davis/Getty

This was the start of a pattern for 2017, a year with so many alternating steps forward and back that it’s impossible to know if we came out ahead or behind.

If you thought the repeal of HB2 would deter Republicans from campaigning on bathroom bills, you’d be wrong: Baseless insinuations that trans people’s bodily functions somehow make cis women unsafe continued to be featured in campaigns large and small. One politician who participated in this discourse was Bob Marshall of Virginia, who campaigned on anti-trans bigotry only to lose his seat in the Virginia House of Delegates to Danica Roem, the first openly trans person to serve in a U.S. state legislature.

Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post via Getty

Another was Roy Moore, an alleged sexual predator, who ran for Senate in Alabama on Bible-thumping and anti-trans rhetoric. Moore was narrowly defeated on December 12 by Democrat Doug Jones, thanks to a high voter turnout rate by black men and women. While the win came as a relief to the left (and socially conscious Republicans), the use of trans people as bogeymen to stir the hatred of the Christian right continues, endangering us psychologically and physically as trans homelessness, imprisonment, and victimization in violent crime remain high.

President Trump’s ban on transgender military service was another example of the uncertainty we faced as a community this year: First announced in a series of tweets on July 26, the ban called into question the validity of Twitter as an avenue through which the commander in chief could issue directives to the U.S. military.

A full month passed before the president followed up with a memo directing the Departments of Defense and Homeland Security to implement the ban. Within days, current members of the military and transgender individuals who wished to enlist sued the president with the help of groups like Lambda Legal, Human Rights Campaign, and the ACLU.

In October, a judge blocked the ban from going into effect, a hopeful sign for the many trans service members whose futures remain uncertain until the final outcome is decided by the courts.

Eclipsing all political and social triumphs, however, were the murders of at least 27 trans individuals Americans, making 2017 the deadliest on record for trans and gender-nonconforming people, of which trans women of color made up the majority of victims. This figure, however, is not conclusive: Many states don’t include gender identity in hate-crime data, and because trans victims are often misgendered by authorities, family members, and media outlets, there were undoubtedly others who went unaccounted. We honor and grieve for them all.

Popular culture was not excluded from the insidiousness of 2017. In early October, Netflix’s The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson stirred the controversy about cisgender white men co-opting trans narratives. Trans activist and filmmaker Reina Gossett alleged that documentarian David France stole her idea and foundational research from a grant application video she had submitted to the Arcus Foundation, with which he’d been involved. Though France provided evidence of his longstanding interest in doing a project on Johnson’s life prior to his knowledge of Gossett’s work, the question of whether cis men have too large a role in art depicting trans women’s lives remains an open, and painful, wound.

This issue resurfaced in a different form a month later. In November, when sexual harassment scandals besieged Hollywood, the future of Amazon’s award-winning series Transparent was thrown into doubt. A dramedy following Maura Pfefferman (Jeffrey Tambor), a late-transitioning trans woman, and her family, Transparent had been at its critical height after its fourth season, until allegations of sexual harassment against Tambor by his former assistant Van Barnes and co-star Trace Lysette resulted in him leaving the show. On screen, Maura bravely explored her identity within a culture awash in violent masculinity. Off-screen, the cis straight actor allegedly abused his power and embodied precisely the kind of man creator Jill Soloway had been trying to write against. Transparent was renewed for a fifth season, and will most likely potentially without Tambor.


But in continuing 2017’s mercuriality, there were numerous entertainment successes for the trans community. Laverne Cox made history as the first trans actor to land a regular series role on CBS’ short-lived Doubt. And though Netflix’s Sense8, helmed by trans creators and sisters Lana and Lilly Wachowski, was canceled on July 1, an outcry from fans secured a two-part series finale that will air in 2018. The visibility of trans artists, as well as inclusive entertainment, is increasingly in demand.

It’s hard to know what to make of a year in which every cloud had its silver lining, but every silver lining seemed to have its own cloud. If we went into the year afraid, we came out of it more strengthened in our resolve. Trans people proved to America in 2017 that we will not sit back and allow ourselves to be scapegoated nor our rights dismissed as a frivolous distraction. Our community will defend our lives—on screen, in the courts, on social media, and through protests in the streets.

If 2017 affirmed that trans folks can fight—and sometimes even win—the astonishing number of trans murders revealed just how dire the stakes remain. We will continue the battle into 2018, knowing it will be one that will extend years into the future. But let us all hope, together, that upon the horizon of 2019 we will be that much closer to equality, safety, and dare I say, victory.

Evan Urquhart is a freelance writer covering LGBT issues.