3Qs: Bruce Jenner and the transgender rights movement

Gabriel ArklesBruce Jenner, the former Olympian and current reality TV star, came out as a transgender woman in a recent two-hour interview with Diane Sawyer on ABC’s 20/20. His disclosure was widely applauded by the public as well as gay, lesbian, and transgender advocates alike.

We asked Gabriel Arkles—a legal research and writing professor in the School of Law with expertise in gender and the law—to discuss Jenner’s decision, the barriers facing the transgender rights movement, and the current state of mental health services for the transgender community.

Actress Linda Thompson, Jenner’s second wife, wrote in a column for the Huffington Post that she hopes he will be remembered as a “trailblazer for the civil rights of the transgender community.” In what ways do you think Jenner’s public declaration that he is transgender will help increase support for transgender people?

Some people are taking Jenner’s announcement as an opportunity to begin questioning their assumptions about trans experience, and perhaps unlearning stereotypes. That is very valuable, and it can have positive ripple effects. Much of the positive impact of Jenner’s public announcement has come about because of the long-term work other trans people have done to demand the media treat trans people with dignity—a battle that is far from won. Thus, the positive impact of Jenner’s announcement is due not only to Jenner, but also to trans leaders of color like Janet Mock, Laverne Cox, Sasha Alexander, Ruby Corado, Reina Gossett, Kylar Broadus, and Andy Marra, to name just a few.

We cannot take change in the material conditions of trans people for granted though, particularly for trans people who, unlike Jenner, also face racism and poverty. Wealthy trans people can essentially buy themselves out of some of the discrimination, barriers to healthcare, and violence that other trans people experience. White trans people also simply do not face the level of police profiling and street-based violence that trans people of color do. And many people may find it easier to accept a trans identity in a white, wealthy celebrity than they would in others. So far this year, at least 11 trans women and gender nonconforming gay, lesbian, or queer people have been killed in the U.S., almost all of them people of color. These killings occurred after trans visibility in the media had already been increasing and improving. I hope that people who have been moved by Jenner’s disclosure will push themselves to not just follow trans celebrities with sympathy, but to support the organizations mentioned in this story, and make changes in the systems that harm all trans people.

Transgender people face big barriers on the path to equality, according to GLAAD, including hate violence, high levels of poverty, and limited access to healthcare. Going forward, what do you see as the biggest hurdle for the transgender rights movement?

I think the biggest hurdle is resistance to making fundamental change to our legal, cultural, and economic systems. Changing hearts and minds matters, but it is not enough. Trans people, particularly black trans women and other trans people of color, face extraordinarily high rates of incarceration, homelessness, and murder. Trans immigrants also face detention and deportation in high numbers, and conditions in detention can be especially dangerous for trans people, although they are not safe for anyone. These problems occur not just because of individual people holding prejudices against trans people. That’s a part of it, but more fundamentally it’s about policies and practices that devalue some lives in favor of others, and that treat punishment, exile, and abandonment as solutions to social problems. For example, Ky Peterson is a black trans man now serving time in prison for killing his rapist. Remedying that injustice requires, among other things, changes to how our communities prevent and address violence—particularly violence against trans people of color and women of color.

Fortunately many visionary organizations have emerged with leadership from trans people of color, and they are taking on these very issues. The Audre Lorde Project, Black Trans Media, Bklyn Boihood, BreakOUT!, Casa Ruby, FIERCE!, Streetwise and Safe, Sylvia Rivera Law Project, TGI Justice Project, Transformative Law Project of Illinois, Trans Justice Funding Project, Southerners on New Ground, Translatina Network, Transgeneros en accion, Trans People of Color Coalition, and Trans Women of Color Collective are some of the groups that I think are paving the way.

Transgender Americans face a disproportionately high suicide risk, according to the National Transgender Discrimination Survey, which found that 41 percent of transgender people have attempted to kill themselves. What is the status of mental health services for transgender Americans and how can they be improved?

Mental health services for trans people certainly need a great deal of improvement. Some mental health providers refuse treatment for trans people altogether, sometimes claiming they cannot accommodate trans people’s “special needs.” In fact, a trans woman recently sued a New York drug-treatment facility for refusing to allow her to express her gender identity and ultimately refusing her services. Other mental health providers force unwanted treatment on trans people through involuntary hospitalizations, which can be deeply traumatizing rather than helpful, even to those experiencing a mental health crisis. Also, many providers simply have not done enough of the hard work of unlearning their own biases in order to allow them to provide competent services to trans people. For example, many mental health providers ask trans people to describe their genitals during an initial intake meeting. All of these problems lead some trans people to avoid seeking mental health services if they can.

I think the best way to improve mental health services for trans people is to support more consensual, quality, peer-run mental health services; to support trans people entering mental health fields; and to educate mental health providers about providing respectful care to trans people. Equally important is public insurance that provides full coverage of mental health care, and prisons and other institutions that provide quality, consensual mental health services to prisoners.

But suicide prevention needs to involve more than just mental health services. To improve trans people’s mental health, we have to make sure they have housing. We have to prevent sexual and domestic violence. We have to keep trans people out of prisons and jails. We have to change a culture that denies the existence of trans people, denigrates trans lives, and excuses trans deaths. We also need to build stronger, more interdependent communities, where people can depend on each other for help rather than relying solely on professionals.

Writer’s notes: Northeastern’s LGBTQA Resource Center aspires to create an inclusive community by instilling a culture of respect, advocacy, and empowerment throughout the university. The center—located on the third floor of the Curry Student Center, in room 328— initiates and sustains co-curricular programs and services that enrich the holistic development of the university’s lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, questioning, and asexual students and their allies. For more information, please visit the center’s website.

In his interview with 20/20, Bruce Jenner asked Diane Sawyer to refer to him with male pronouns, a request that news@Northeastern has respected.