In a year of remarkable progress for transgender visibility and rights, it’s tough to pick the top stories, let alone place them in any particular order.
This list focuses on North America in general and the United States in particular, reflecting North America’s leading role on many fronts of the movement.
Here are ten trans breakthroughs for 2015…
10. Trans prisoners and detainees
It’s been nearly two years since CeCe McDonald was released from prison after a gross miscarriage of justice, the culmination of a protest that brought focus to the extraordinary challenges faced by transgender prisoners. In a significant step forward, Chelsea Manning was allowed to receive trans-related health services as she serves her 35-year sentence in military prison. But the big event of the year was the attention brought to undocumented transgender migrants being held in detention centers by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). Frustrated by the lack of action and the high rates of violence faced by trans detainees in federal custody, trans immigration activist Jennicet Gutiérrez interrupted President Obama during a White House LGBT event. That led to a national conversation about trans detainees (and a sidebar debate on the propriety of interrupting the President).
9. Anti-trans violence
Trans women of color (TWOC) comprise the communities hardest hit by anti-transgender violence. Documenting assaults and murders of trans people remains a challenge, because the media frequently fails to note the transgender identity of victims of violent crime. Further, many trans victims of violence are engaged in sex work and/or are from communities that are deeply distrustful of police, making it less likely they will make a formal report when assaulted. This year saw some promising efforts to raise awareness of this violence epidemic: The New York Times published an extended Transgender Today op-ed series on trans issues and trans first-person narratives, which helped to humanize trans people and raise awareness of the challenges the community faces. In the past, this sort of coverage was usually limited to progressive publications. GLAAD compiled an excellent overview of this year’s media coverage of anti-trans violence as part of their Transgender Day of Remembrance campaign.
8. Trans man finalist in Men’s Health contest
In uplifting news, Aydian Ethan Dowling won a groundswell of support as a contestant in the Men’s Health Ultimate Guy contest. On his way to being a top five finalist, Aydian appeared on The Ellen Show and in magazines, and he spoke about his experiences and outlook in several high-profile news outlets.
7. Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival comes to an end
With its womyn-born-womyn policy, Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival (MWMF) became a long-standing symbol of tensions between a faction of transwomen and a faction of radical feminists with differing views of whether trans women should be welcomed into “women-only” space. The festival was founded in 1976, and the trouble started in 1977, when some radical feminists began agitating against women’s music collective Olivia Records for employing Sandy Stone, an out transgender recording engineer. MWMF founder Lisa Vogel was a key critic of Stone at the time. In 1991, a trans woman was asked to leave the festival because she was not assigned female at birth. This led to over two decades of protest by trans women, an eventual apology by Vogel, and an escalating series of boycotts and actions against scheduled performers and sponsors. This year Vogel announced that the festival would end its run in August. A fictionalized version of the controversy is a subplot in Season 2 of Transparent.
6. TSA policies come under fire
Traveling while trans became even more difficult following the September 11 attacks in 2001. Obtaining proper documentation that matched trans travelers’ identities and gender expression required additional steps, and Homeland Security issued statements that “male bombers may dress as females in order to discourage scrutiny.” Following an incident where television producer Shadi Petosky endured an embarrassing body scan that detected an “anomaly,” TSA promised to review its policies and procedures around trans people. The recently announced updates did little to satisfy TSA’s critics.
5. Military policy shifts
Transgender Americans serve in the military at about twice the rates of non-transgender Americans, but the repeal of the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy did not include transgender servicemembers. In July, Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter announced that the Department of Defense would take steps to allow transgender servicemembers, including the estimated 15,500 currently on active duty, to serve openly.
4. Marriage equality
While much of the excitement over this summer’s Supreme Court ruling in favor of marriage equality focused on gay and lesbian couples, the ruling was critical for trans people as well. Thanks to a patchwork of contradictory state laws, a trans person’s marriage may have been legal in one state and illegal in another. Trans activists were also concerned that if legislation like the Defense of Marriage Act were enacted, it would create federal definitions of “man” and “woman” in order to define legal terms like “one man and one woman.” In another closely-watched case, Nikki Araguz Loyd (pictured above with her family) finally won her five-year battle to have her marriage declared legal under Texas law. Her firefighter husband had died in 2010, and her in-laws argued that she should not receive his death benefits because their marriage was “same-sex” and thus illegal. In October, a Texas state appeals court ruled her marriage was legal after a lengthy appeals process.
3. Anti-transgender reparative therapy bans
Transgender teen Leelah Alcorn (above) killed herself on December 28, 2014. Her suicide note cited the anti-transgender reparative therapy she’d had to endure, and she implored readers to “fix society.” Her plea set in motion a public outcry and calls for action in early 2015. In time, President Obama called for a ban on anti-transgender reparative therapy, and several jurisdictions effected bans at the municipal, regional, and state levels.
2. CAMH Gender Clinic closure
Toronto’s Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) has been the global epicenter of pathologizing ideologies about sex and gender minorities since the 1960s. Despite having a state-funded monopoly, they routinely bragged about turning away 90% of trans people seeking health services. Imagine any other health clinic boasting about that. Their sexualized taxonomies of trans people and regressive requirements for transition services had become increasingly out of step with consensus protocols. Clinic director Kenneth Zucker was infamous for having treated over 500 young children with his brand of reparative therapy. Following Leelah Alcorn’s death, local politician Cheri DiNovo introduced legislation to ban Zucker-style reparative therapies, and the CAMH medical director began an external review. In the wake of a damning report by the outside reviewers, CAMH announced they were “winding down” the entire clinic, and Zucker was summarily removed after 35 years. CAMH promised to start fresh with a new program based on professional and community input, and even apologized for their role in pathologizing trans adults and gender-variant children.
1. Caitlyn Jenner comes out
No matter how you feel about Cait, her coming out after heated speculation was hands down the biggest trans story of the year. No one that famous has ever made a public transition, and the ripples were felt around the world. Suddenly non-trans people joined in the conversation about trans issues, whether they knew Jenner from Olympic glory in the 1970s or from her more recent involvement in the Kardashian media empire. Jenner used the media opportunity to launch a reality show which occasionally touches on important community issues. The media frenzy was tarnished by her fatal car accident shortly before the announcement, and not everyone has been happy with Jenner’s political views or her stepping into the spotlight. She’s been caricatured by South Park, grilled by Ellen DeGeneres about her lukewarm opinion of gay marriage, and called an out-of-touch sell-out by Chelsea Manning and others in the trans community. Despite the missteps and flaws, Jenner’s transition has had an enormous and historic impact, and is certainly this year’s watershed trans moment.