March 31 is International Day of Transgender Visibility, often shortened to TDOV. Celebrated since 2009, TDOV is an opportunity to uplift trans voices and celebrate trans visibility; TDOV exists in contrast to Transgender Day of Remembrance, often shortened to TDOR, which focuses on honoring and remembering the lives lost to anti-trans violence.
But with all the anti-trans rhetoric, legislation, and physical violence being directed at trans people, being visible as a trans person can feel overwhelming. In Chicago, we’ve lost transgender people in our own community like Elise Malary; the photo above shows Crispin and me standing in front of a chalk mural honoring Malary outside the Women and Children First bookstore in the Andersonville neighborhood.
So what’s the value of visibility in such a harsh world?
On the one hand, visibility doesn’t necessarily translate into directly improving the lives of actual trans people. For example, 2014 was the so-called “transgender tipping point,” when Laverne Cox appeared on the cover of TIME Magazine and readers were told that transgender people were “emerging from the margins” of society. Furthermore, TIME argued that “this new transparency is improving the lives of a long misunderstood minority and beginning to yield new policies, as trans activists and their supporters push for changes in schools, hospitals, workplaces, prisons and the military.”
But that tipping point, that “new transparency,” also resulted in significant backlash and a rapid rise of anti-trans legislation. Some trans folks are even saying, “I’m proud to be trans, but for now I want to feel invisible.” Simply being visible, after all, doesn’t get laws passed or policies implemented, it doesn’t protect trans youth from bullying, it doesn’t prevent trans adults from being fired, and it doesn’t address the impacts of poverty or violence on the trans community.
In fact, the existence of this anti-trans legislation has a concrete impact on trans people’s daily wellbeing, even if the bills aren’t signed into law:
“More than half of LGBTQI+ adults reported that ‘recent debates about state laws restricting the rights of LGBTQI+ people’ moderately or significantly affected their mental health or made them feel less safe, including more than 8 in 10 transgender or nonbinary individuals.” (americanprogress.org)
So visibility has some downsides. (That might be why Tuck Woodstock, creator and host of the podcast Gender Reveal, designated March 31 as Trans Day of Having a Nice Snack, and created a mutual aid project aimed at giving trans people a yummy little treat, with no visibility required.)
But–for all the shortcomings of visibility–visibility is also incredibly important. When Crispin and I were growing up, trans representation seemed limited to deceptive trans people (think of the Jerry Springer Show) or sad, victimized trans people (think of the movie Boys Don’t Cry). We could barely dream of a world where there are books with trans characters written by trans authors, movies and TV shows with trans characters portrayed by trans actors, hit songs written and performed by trans musicians, news stories about the trans community written by trans journalists, not to mention all the trans characters in picture books and comics and video games and classroom curricula.
I see the importance of this trans representation and visibility when I’m at Harbor Camps, a camp for trans and gender variant youth ages 8 to 15. This summer will be my twelfth year working with Harbor Camps, first as a counselor and now as a member of the leadership team. Every year, campers are eager to share their experiences seeing trans representation in the world and to express their hopes of someday being like this trans person they saw on TV or like that trans person they saw on social media. I’ve spoken to trans youth who were thrilled to learn about trans people in history class, or read books with trans characters for class assignments. While trans visibility isn’t directly resulting in legislative victories, representation absolutely matters to trans youth.
Trans visibility matters to allies, too. At its best, representation allows allies (and potential allies!) to learn about trans identity and the experiences of trans people without having to impose upon or ask invasive questions of actual trans people. Visibility and representation is particularly important to the parents of trans youth, who (like Crispin and I) may have grown up without positive depictions of trans identity, and simply can’t imagine what future their trans kids have in a world that is so often anti-trans. Trans visibility can help calm the fears of those parents and encourage them to be better allies and supporters of their kids.
Where does that leave us for TDOV 2023?
For allies, think about how you can show up for trans folks. That might mean attending events, or donating to advocacy orgs, or having difficult conversations with family members who hold anti-trans views. It definitely means continuing to vote, and to push elected officials to ensure trans people have legal protections.
Visibility also belongs to us, the trans community. In states where harmful laws are being enacted, our visibility–in whatever way feels accessible and/or safe to us–is one tool for change. Being trans does not look like one thing, and there is not only one way to be trans. There is power in being trans and taking up space–being visible–in whatever way feels correct to you, whether that is at a rally at the state capitol, at a TDOV celebration in community, or from the safety of your own home with your family and community. While anti-trans laws are trying to strip away our freedoms, they cannot strip away our trans experience–we cannot and will not be legislated out of existence.
For trans folks, TDOV is a great opportunity to speak out and share your story, if that feels right and empowering and positive for you. Or it might be an opportunity to stay in, catch your breath, and have a nice snack.