Brandon Teena (AP Photo)
Not many transgender people made the news 20 years ago. Then Brandon Teena, who was born female but identified and lived as a male, was raped and murdered in a small Nebraska town.
The incident made national news, in part because it seemed unusual and was easily exploited. An individual who had been born female but was living as a male, complete with a girlfriend? And this person was attractive and seemingly "normal?"
"It was the first time I remember having a transgender person being talked about, even if in ways of exoticizing him," recalled Genny Beemyn, director of the Stonewall Center, a resource center for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transsexual individuals at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. "I remember feeling how important it was to have that happening. It was giving transgender people validation to be covered at all."
Teena was 21 when he was raped and then – after local police ignored his fears that his two rapists would further harm him – killed Dec. 31, 1993, by men who became enraged when they learned he was born a female but was living as a man.
His life and death, documented in the 1999 Academy Award-winning film Boys Don't Cry, helped bring transgender people into the national conversation.
In the years since, dozens of cities and states have enacted hate crime laws that specifically include transgendered people. (Human Rights Campaign, an LGBT advocacy group, estimates that 31 million Americans live in counties and states that have such legislation.) Major businesses such as Hewlett-Packard have adopted similar guidelines. Dozens of politicians also have promised that transgendered individuals would not be discriminated against in their offices.
"How many times do you get to see a giant sea change like this in people's perceptions? But you look at Congress, corporate America and cities and states ... and you see this enormous change in how people are looking at gender as a civil rights issue," Riki Wilchins, executive director of the Washington-based Gender Public Advocacy Coalition, told The Associated Press in 2003.
In 2012, New Hampshire elected a transgender woman to its state House of Representatives. Just last month, the AP noted that about one-fourth of Fortune 500 companies covered medical expenses associated with transgender care. No Fortune 500 companies offered such benefits in 2002, when Human Rights Campaign began keeping track.
"We're making progress," Beemyn said. "We're maybe at a place where lesbian and gay people were back in the 1980s. Think of Ellen (DeGeneres) coming out in 1997 and what a controversy that caused. Now she's one of the most admired celebrities out there."
Much work remains undone, however. In October, the former executive director of South Carolina's Republican Party, Todd Kincannon, put out this message on Twitter: "There are people who respect transgender rights. And there are people who think you should all be put in a camp. That's me."
When other Twitter users challenged Kincannon, he called transgendered people "sick freaks," adding, "I have plenty of compassion for trannies. They should all be locked up in mental institutions and their care paid for by the state."
While Kincannon is not representative of his entire party or his state, HuffingtonPost.com writer Parker Marie Molloy reported that the "official 2012 platform of the South Carolina Republican Party consisted of language specifically targeting transgender individuals. … Essentially, this platform goes out of its way to advocate for the removal of transgender individuals from federal hate-crime protections, considering that a 'special right.'"
The term "transgender" is often misunderstood. Transgender Law and Policy Institute uses the term in "its most-inclusive sense," according to its website. It encompasses "pre-operative, postoperative and non-operative transsexual people; cross-dressers; feminine men and masculine women; and more generally, anyone whose gender identity or expression differs from conventional expectations of masculinity or femininity."
The younger generation is more open to these differences, Beemyn said. The difference can in part be credited to pop culture, where "we see transgender people as people, not as a sensation, not to be exoticized."
Now we have Chaz Bono competing on Dancing with the Stars, trans actress Laverne Cox on Orange is the New Black, and a constant ratings-winner, Ru Paul's Drag Race. In November, a petition was started on Change.org to get transgender model Carmen in a Victoria's Secret runway show. She didn't make it, but more than 43,000 people supported the attempt.
"It's harder to have hatred and fear of people when you know them as people. It's harder to stigmatize people you know," Beemyn said. "If you know it's not 'us versus them,' then it's all 'us.'"
Natalie Pompilio is a freelance writer based in Philadelphia. Her lifelong love of obituaries raised eyebrows when she was younger, but she's now able to explain that this interest goes beyond morbid curiosity. Says Pompilio, "Obituaries are mini life stories, allowing a glimpse into someone's world that we're often denied. I just wish we could share them with each other when we're alive."