In 1999, transgender Navy veteran Monica Helms designed the Transgender Pride Flag.
Twenty years later, her pink, white, and blue design is adorning the halls of Congress. Several lawmakers—including Bernie Sanders, Nancy Pelosi, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez—are currently hanging the flag outside their doors to mark the International Transgender Day of Visibility, observed annually on March 31.
Flying that flag on Capitol Hill won’t grant full legal protections to LGBT people, nor can it stop the current administration from kicking transgender Americans out of the military in which Helms once served.
But the display does send a much-needed message of hope to transgender people like me, who are exhausted and afraid right now: For the first time, many of our most prominent elected officials aren’t afraid to be visibly, publicly on our side. They are literally waving the flag for us.
Heightened transgender visibility has been a double-edged sword so far. Given the Trump administration’s persistent attacks on the transgender community, I have often longed for a time when we were less of a known quantity than we are today. When I started transitioning seven years ago, Laverne Cox had not yet appeared on Orange Is the New Black and the mere idea of Caitlyn Jenner was still tabloid speculation.
Back in those days, we peed where we pleased—and while we had to be wary of potential harassment in restrooms, states like North Carolina were not yet attempting to make it illegal for us to relieve ourselves.
When the momentum for same-sex marriage rights started to pick up in 2013 and 2014, I falsely assumed that full transgender equality would be next. I thought the entire process would be like walking up a low-grade hill: First, the cisgender gay and lesbian people would be able to get hitched, then there would be a presidential election, and then comprehensive non-discrimination legislation would follow. One, two, three.
Suffice to say, that is not how things played out.
Instead of the slow and steady climb I expected, it has felt lately as though we are in a backslide. The 2015 legalization of same-sex marriage prompted anti-LGBT groups to pivot and attack transgender people instead. We were bright, newly visible targets in the culture war.
After enduring dozens of failed “bathroom bills”—and one successful one—the 2016 election installed a vice president with an anti-LGBT record and a president who would later announce on Twitter, of all places, that he wanted to eject transgender people from the planet’s largest employer.
The thought that Trump would sign the Equality Act—or that the LGBT non-discrimination bill would even make it through a Republican-controlled Senate—is downright laughable.
First came visibility, then the backlash—but the backlash has been so lengthy and so intense that some transgender people are finding it hard to imagine a brighter future.
When the New York Times published a Trump administration memo revealing a plan to define transgender people “out of existence,” as the paper of record put it, many of us hit rock bottom. After that Times article, crisis hotline TransLifeline received four times the call volume that it usually does, as The Advocate reported. (I was among those callers.)
But there are still reasons to be optimistic—at least in the long term.
In the Trump era, two states—New York and New Hampshire—have passed transgender protections. Public opinion polling on transgender issues like restroom use and military service suggest the country is trending, however slowly, in a positive direction.
Change in the area of employment has been much more rapid: More businesses than ever offer transgender-inclusive health care, according to the Human Rights Campaign’s latest Corporate Equality Index.
And just this week, as the Transgender Pride Flag flew outside many of their doors, 238 members of the House of Representatives passed a non-binding resolution opposing the Trump administration’s transgender troop ban, set to go into effect on April 12.
To be sure, these are minor steps compared to the sweeping reforms that LGBT people need. Until either the United States Congress or the Supreme Court establishes that we are protected under federal civil rights law, LGBT Americans—and especially transgender Americans—will continue to live under a patchwork of protections that varies by state, municipality, or court district.
Not helping matters is the Trump administration’s habit of nominating anti-LGBT judges, whose impact will continue to be felt long after the Trump era is over.
Realistically, it will be years, possibly a decade or more, before transgender people achieve some of our most fundamental and long-awaited victories.
Some days, I still find myself feeling despondent at the slow pace of change. To pull myself out of those stormy moods, I try to retrace some of the baby steps we have taken toward full acceptance. (I remember, for example, that Pose exists. It’s only a TV show, sure, but it’s also a sign that our stories are starting to be told.)
I think, too, about how differently I felt about the state of transgender rights seven years ago—and imagine how much things could change in the next seven years.
I used to believe that the fight for full transgender equality would be like hiking up a hill. Now, I think, it’s more like climbing a peak in Yosemite—grueling, but not impossible.
In rock climbing, the term “exposed” describes areas on a mountain where the terrain is challenging and the danger is high. Transgender people are in such an exposed place right now, figuratively speaking. Visibility, I think, has contributed to our exposure—but in the end, visibility is what will earn us the allies we need to get safely past this Trump-era exposed section of rock toward the top. And make no mistake: We are still headed toward the summit, foothold by foothold.
When we get there, I know what flag we’ll plant: pink, white, and blue.