The Affirmative Power of Visibility

This is the final part of a three-part series on the consequences of invisibility. Read parts one and two.

When we get counted, we count. Our visibility can yield power. Lambda Legal and our sister civil rights organizations are supporting efforts to get lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people counted in the United States Census. (In earlier population counts, if a same-sex couple checked the box that said "married," the federal government actually assumed they'd mismarked their form, changed one partner's gender identity, and "straightened" them for the count.) We therefore have painfully little in terms of governmental statistics on what's needed to serve the LGBT community. That means fewer opportunities to fund programs that would serve LGBT needs, and contributes to a snowballing cycle of disadvantaging LGBT people.

When we do count LGBT people, we succeed much better. A fellow safe-schools activist challenged a local school system to improve its harassment policies, and the school system said it didn't need them -- it simply had no gay youth. My colleague used an official state youth survey to say, "Yes, you do. In fact, you have this many of them. They filled out the survey, and you have a legal obligation to protect them." The school fixed its policies.

Professor Marc Poirier writes, "Indisputably, visibility has been key to the rapid shift in Western culture around the status of homosexuality. And LGBTQ strategists seem to return to visibility tactics when all else fails."

Jeffrey Byrne writes, " 'Coming out' as an openly gay or lesbian person... not only essentially contributes to the individual's psychological well-being, but also plays a central political role in the gay and lesbian community's liberation. Indeed, for gay and lesbian people, coming out is the key political strategy for changing attitudes and overcoming oppression."

Transgender people may be most in need of true visibility about their identities and legitimate needs. In Lambda Legal's work on behalf of transgender prisoners and transgender youth in shelters and group homes (a priority because so many LGBT children are ejected from their homes) we seek to have officials use transgender people's pronouns and names of choice, and permit clothing comporting with their gender identity. And we seek the right for transgender people to support their gender identity with therapy, which may include hormones and surgery.

Transgender prisoners are some of the most marginalized of LGBT people, mis-characterized as requesting extreme prison makeovers on taxpayers' dime. Meanwhile, physicians have recorded numerous cases of life-threatening self-castration in prison by transgender women denied medical treatment.

In the transgender rights context, gender presentation -- the ability to be visible about your gender identity -- is often part of the medically necessary protocol to relieve the distress caused by denying one's gender identity.

The World Professional Association for Transgender Health has authoritatively explained that the real-life experience of living full-time in the target gender is necessary for the health and wellbeing of many transgender people. Transgender people are incredibly at risk when their identities are unsupported. In a recent survey, 41 percent of transgender respondents said they had attempted suicide. Forcing invisibility endangers the lives of transgender people. And on the flip side, if we actively support the visibility of transgender people, we will save lives.

Communicating that sexual orientation or gender identity should be less visible, through laws or peer harassment, invites further discrimination. That's simply not something I see as legitimately countenanced by notions of cultural respect. Those treated as lesser humans get lesser rights, in the courts and in the streets. It's not just a matter of words on paper, or the rarified air of sophisticated judicial proceedings.

Discrimination is an invitation to violence. I challenge those who squirm when they see the wounded face of one of the gay men attacked in New York a few days ago. I challenge those who look aghast at children dying by their own hand, and I say we invite it. We invite it through vaunted federal laws and common insults in casual conversation that indicate some people are lesser, based sheerly upon their sexual orientation or gender identity. And if that's the prevailing culture, then everyone who doesn't step forward to counter it has blood on their hands.

The author delivered these remarks at a forum hosted by the University College London Jurisprudence Review.