The Generation Gap
Even in the trans community, male-to-female transitions are thought to be more common than female-to-male, though experts caution that exact figures are unknown. At a bustling brunch spot in San Francisco's Mission neighborhood, Rose Hayes sits straight up, her curly hair in a side-do that hangs around her neck. She and other trans women--male at birth but now identifying as female--are discussing what it was like to start their transitions. Hayes, a software-engineering director at Google, decided to transition after a friend died a few years ago. "I had shut myself down emotionally by being in the closet, and grief opened that up again," she says. The prospect of proclaiming, in early middle age, that she was ready to realize herself as a woman was terrifying. "There were all these things I was convinced I would lose instantly if I came out," she says. Some of those fears came true: within a week, her wife of nearly 23 years contacted a divorce attorney. The house was sold within the year.
Hayes is certain she could have had a completely different life if she had been born later. "If the Internet had existed, in any meaningful sense, when I was 21, I would have figured it out," she says. That alternate reality sits opposite Hayes in a tank top and short purple hair. Teagan Widmer, 25, grew up a pastor's son in Northern California and now lives as a programmer in Berkeley, where she designed an app called Refuge Restrooms to map gender-neutral, "safe" bathrooms around the world. As with many other millennial trans people, Widmer's transition started with search results. As a middle schooler who had secretly experimented with wearing women's clothes, she queried, "How do I hide my penis?" That was the beginning of an education that led to Widmer's coming out in graduate school.
Her story is a reminder that the Internet has been a revolutionary tool for the trans community, providing answers to questions that previous generations had no one to ask, as well as robust communities of support. And the digital world offers a way to test the water before jumping in. As Widmer puts it, "You can be yourself on the Internet before you can be yourself in person."
It has also helped expose the broader culture to trans people. Cox's role on Orange has turned her into a sought-after celebrity. The luxury retailer Barneys featured trans models in a recent ad campaign. And a memoir by the writer Janet Mock that told of her transition from living as young Charles in Hawaii became a best seller. The result has been a radical increase in trans consciousness. When Reis began teaching a trans-issues class at the University of Oregon in the late 1990s, most of the students--already a self-selected group highly attuned to gender politics--had no clue what the word transgender meant. Now, she says, nearly everyone who enters her classroom already knows the term.
That awareness is creating new possibilities. This fall, students in Huntington Beach, Calif., elected a 17-year-old trans girl named Cassidy Lynn Campbell as their homecoming queen. Standing on the football field in a $23 dress, she broke down in tears when her name was announced. "I was crying and sobbing and weeping," she says. "I was overwhelmed by what a statement it would be, how big it would be."
Her teary-eyed crowning--a striking event in an Orange County town that was ranked as one of the 25 most conservative in the nation in 2005, according to the Bay Area Center for Voting Research--was celebrated by many as a tolerance milestone. But as Campbell thumbed through congratulations from strangers on Twitter after the game, she also stumbled upon sneers from peers at school, many saying she wasn't a "real girl" and didn't deserve to win. She posted a YouTube video that evening, which she later took down, of her crying in front of the computer wearing her sash and tiara. "I can never have something good happen to me and people just be happy for me. Never. I'm always judged and I'm always looked down upon," she said, wiping tears away with long acrylic nails. "Sometimes I wonder if it's even worth it, if I should just go back to being miserable and just be a boy and hate myself and hate my life."
Speaking about the incident months later, Campbell says it was an overreaction. But in the raw pain of her confession is a revelation about how wounding it can be to live outside society's boundaries, even in this more tolerant age. The statistics also bear it out. According to the National Transgender Discrimination Survey, a 2011 report on nearly 6,500 trans and gender-nonconforming people from each state, nearly 80% of young trans people have experienced harassment at school; 90% of workers say they've dealt with it on the job. Nearly 20% said they had been denied a place to live, and almost 50% said they had been fired, not hired or denied a promotion because of their gender status. A staggering 41% have attempted suicide, compared with 1.6% of the general population.