By LUDOVICA PIZZICHELLI
The year 2014 was one of fighting back and visibility, and the LGBTQ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer) community in particular made incredible strides, with inspiring people from all walks of life standing up for themselves and their communities, sharing their stories and uplifting the stories of others.
The year started off with transgender woman activist, Janet Mock, publishing her book “Redefining Realness: My Path to Womanhood, Identity, Love and So Much More” about coming to terms with her identity and journey. Within days, her book became a New York Times bestseller and filled bookstores across the United States. The book focuses on her life as a working-class trans woman of color growing up in Hawaii and suburban mainland United States as she dealt with child sexual abuse, racism, transphobia, homophobia and struggling to find the money to transition. Echoing the struggles of many trans women in the United States even today, Mock quickly became an incredibly present voice within the trans community. She continues to be a voice of hope and healing.
A few months later, in June of 2014, the second season of “Orange is the New Black” aired on Netflix. The show, centered on the lives of women in prison, and particularly women of color, is based on the true account of Piper Kerman, a woman and memoirist who was imprisoned on account of money-laundering charges and who wrote “Orange is the New Black: My Year in a Woman’s Prison” on her experiences. It is political, with its exposure of the mistreatment of women in American prisons. and incensed with same-gender relationships and struggles. “Orange is the New Black” frequently shows bisexual and lesbian relationships both in and outside of prison and carefully portrays the backgrounds and lives of bisexual and lesbian women, fleshing out each character with that essential element of humanity that is distinct to the series. The show also stars transgender actress and activist Laverne Cox as a transgender woman, one of the few accurate and respectful portrayals of a trans woman by a trans woman on television.
Television and film have relentlessly broadcasted hurtful and intolerant portrayals of trans women, demonizing them and painting them to be frauds or men in women’s clothes. They have even had men play trans women characters. In “Orange is he New Black,” Jenji Kohan, the show’s creator, went to great lengths to make sure Cox’s character, Sophia Burset, was represented properly and played by a trans woman herself. In 2014, the show won three Young Hollywood awards, a TCA award, four Satellite awards, three Primetime Emmy awards, a People’s Choice award, a GLAAD Media award, as well as countless other awards and nominations.
There was also greater visibility and representation in the music community last year. Laura Jane Grace, lead singer, founder, and guitarist of Against Me!, an American punk rock band, publicly came out as transgender in 2012 at the age of 31, and this year released a series on Aol.com titled True Trans. The web series, titled after her 2013 EP, is a compilation of stories of transgender people, focusing both on her journey and the journeys of others. The series looks deeply into childhood, the coming-out stories, gender dysphoria, suicide, and the intolerance transgender people continue to face today. It is moving and funny, and stars people of many different genders from all walks of life. The web series is as tear-jerking as it is healing, offering a safe space on camera for trans people to talk about their lives and the pain they have been through living in a world that refuses to consider them valid.
Finally, the year ended with the portrayal of a same-gender couple on a children’s television show. The Nickelodeon cartoon, Legend of Korra, aired its season and series finale in mid-December, ending with main characters Korra and Asami holding hands lovingly and embarking on a final trip together. Bryan Konietzko, co-creator of Legend of Korra and the series it extended (Avatar: the Last Airbender), wrote in a blog post following the airing of the finale, “We did it for all our queer friends, family, and colleagues. It is long overdue that our media (including children’s media) stops treating non-heterosexual people as nonexistent, or as something merely to be mocked. I’m only sorry it took us so long to have this kind of representation in one of our stories.” Though it aired only online, it was a profoundly moving experience for gay and bisexual teens that grew up with the Avatar: the Last Airbender franchise and a message of hope and acceptance to non-heterosexual children and young teens tuning in.
However, despite all the achievements of the LGBTQ community, this year ended tragically with the suicide of Ohio transgender teen Leelah Alcorn on December 27, who in her suicide note she posted on her Tumblr blog wrote, “My death needs to be counted in the number of transgender people who commit suicide this year. I want someone to look at that number and say “that’s f—- up” and fix it. She was forced to undergo conversion therapy and isolation and was denied hormone transition (HRT) by her conservative parents, all of which are considered child abuse by many trans people. Feeling alone, hurt, and thinking that she would never be able to transition to the point of looking how societal norms decide a girl “should” look, Leelah took her own life. She was only 17 at the time of her death.
Non-heterosexual and transgender teens are most likely out of any group to commit suicide, and are constantly broken down by bullying, hostility from family members and adults they previously looked up to. They often feel betrayed by people they felt safe enough to confide in. According to the National Transgender Discrimination Survey, 41 percent of trans people in the United States attempt suicide. The LGBTQIA struggle is not just one for representation; it is one for survival.
It is important to note that representation is not the end all be all of activism. A few shows and a book will not be enough to end widespread hatred and intolerance towards a group of people that traces back millennia. Because of this, it is not valid to say that media representation will end teen LGBTQ suicide. It will not give us back the countless trans and non-heterosexual lives lost each year. Representation alone will not stop bullying; it will not stop hate crimes and aggression. It will not stop police brutality and it will not stop LGBTQ teen homelessness.
However, representing minorities in the media is incredibly important. These shows and this literature send a message to trans and/or non-heterosexual children and young adults: your existence is not wrong and you are not alone. To be told day in and day out that one’s existence is not valid, that one’s sexual orientation is contrived and needs to be “fixed,” there is some sort of comfort in being able to turn on the TV and see yourself on screen. It is a comfort to watch as one of your favorite singers publicly confirms who she’s always felt she was, or see a transgender woman’s story as a New York Times bestseller in your local bookstore, especially when a year or two ago you would have never even dreamed of these possibilities. And in 2014, all of this became a reality, a step forward.
The year was unequivocally important for LGBTQ representation and activism. It was a year of leaps forward, despite some steps back. Though it is not particularly revolutionary or world changing, the year was a step forward in drawing visibility to a movement that found its roots in the Stonewall Riots and the Compton’s Cafeteria Riots, a movement that has always been present, but constantly forced out of sight. In light of LGBTQ suicides and violence that occur every year, the fight is obviously not over. There is more “fixing” to do, more laws to be passed to end conversion therapy and to increase provisions for homophobic and transphobic bullying in schools. Here is to the improvements in representation of 2014, and in honor of the LGBTQ lives lost last year, and in memory of 17-year-old Leelah Acorn, here is to an even better 2015 for the LGBTQ community.