Over the past year, it seems as though transgender issues have finally begun to resonate with the public consciousness. From Laverne Cox’s Time magazine cover and subsequent Emmy nomination to the release of Janet Mock’s stunningly successful memoir, by outward appearances, the state of trans issues seems to be improving at a rapid pace.
Beneath the stories of success and recognition, however, is an epidemic of discrimination, assault, poverty, and murder. While both Mock and Cox have taken up the mantle of activist, working tirelessly to highlight these oft-overlooked issues, the question has to be asked: how much can celebrity role models and figureheads impact the devastating legal, criminal, and social issues facing trans people? Going further, how much of an obligation do openly trans celebrities have in efforts to advance trans rights?
Adding another name to the list of openly transgender celebrities is famously androgynous model Andreja Pejić, who last night came out as a transgender woman. The model, known for her versatility and ability to thrive modeling both men’s and women’s fashions, came out to Entertainment Tonight, People, and Style. Though she’s far from the first openly transgender model, Pejić seems poised to become the world’s most well-known trans model.
Pejić’s decision to come out ends speculation over who she identifies as, what pronouns to uses, but what does it mean in terms of trans rights? How will she align herself in terms of advocacy, and is it fair for society to place any expectations of activism and advocacy on her? Does she have an obligation that extends beyond the world of fashion? Is she a spokesmodel, an activist, or just a model?
A study released earlier this year showed that transgender women are 49 times as likely to be HIV positive than their cisgender counterparts. In 33 states, it remains legal for employers to fire someone for being transgender, trans people face an unemployment rate nearly double that of the general population, and more than 40 percent of all trans individuals have at one time in their life attempted suicide. Additionally, trans people are significantly more likely to be homeless, to live in poverty, and to participate in survival sex work or drug dealing. On top of that, just last month, four transgender women of color were murdered, and a number of others were publicly assaulted.
The media is often quick to pat themselves on the back when dealing with social issues, and Pejić’s coming out announcement is no exception. While it truly is wonderful that Pejić is receiving positive press, and Laverne Cox was placed on the cover of Time magazine alongside a headline, “The Transgender Tipping Point,” it’s safe to say that the mainstream media’s coverage of trans issues will fail to extend beyond that. The media, as it has done for decades, will continue to ignore the plight of the at-risk trans population.
In Pejić’s case, the media focus was primarily on what surgical procedures she has undergone.
"Andrej Pejić Now Andreja After Sex Reassignment Surgery," People's headline read. This headline, which was no doubt written with the best of intentions -- as well as the hopes of maximizing the number of clicks -- leads the reader to believe that it was Pejić's decision to have surgery that makes her a woman, rather than her identity. All three outlets remained fixated on surgery, and seemed to only gloss over questions of identity.
"How did your modeling agents react when you told them you were having [Sexual Reassignment Surgery]?" read a Style question. "How did you identify before the sexual reassignment surgery?" read another. "[I]s there anything else you want the general public to understand about SRS and transgender people?" reads a third. "If I may ask, how do you think the SRS will impact your personal and romantic life? Is that something you’re excited about exploring?"
While this focus and these questions make for neat pop culture celebrity gossip pieces, the conversation that needs to be had begins far from here. While ultimately nothing more than a human interest feature, questions like those -- along with Pejić’s coming out, generally -- plant the seeds for further conversation.
If the media won’t continue that conversation willingly, we need to demand it. We need to continue the conversations brought about by media-friendly coming out stories like Pejić’s. While the media remains focused on celebrity names and the surgery trans people have, the issue trans people face—from employment discrimination, to violence and suicide—remain untackled. It is only when the trans conversation extends beyond Hollywood and celebrity and begins focusing on the all-too-common atrocities many trans individuals face daily that we’ll be able to achieve anything even remotely resembling equality.
Thank you, Andreja Pejić, for starting another conversation. Now let’s come together and talk about some of the more difficult issues.