Despite President Obama’s State of the Union address primarily speaking of his political and economic plans for the upcoming year, much like the addresses of his predecessors, the president’s speech on Jan. 20, 2015 has caused a remarkable stir in the LGBT community. During his address to the United States Congress, Obama became the first U.S. president to use the words “lesbian,” “gay,” “bisexual” and “transgender” in a State of the Union address. By being the first president to publicly support these frequently ostracized groups, I believe that Obama is helping to create a more accepting environment for those who are perceived as “different” in our country.
Obama’s decision to include transgender people in his speech has garnered a larger reaction than any other of the gender minority groups mentioned. The reaction was well-received by both the LGBT and transgender communities. Most notably, the Transgender Law Center, which serves as the largest legal advocacy organization devoted to defending the transgender community, was pleased by President Obama’s mention of transgender people in his address. Executive director Masen Davis of the organization stated, “President Obama’s public recognition of transgender people in his State of the Union address was historic. While it seems like a simple thing — saying the word ‘transgender’ in a speech — President Obama’s statement represents significant progress for transgender people and the movement towards equality for all.”
Given recent events that have occurred in the LGBT community, I agree with Davis that Obama’s mention of transgender people in his speech was historic. I also believe that it will lead to a re-evaluation by many people who would otherwise be dismissive of the struggles inherently faced by the growing community. The president’s connection in his speech of transgender people to the pressing nature of human rights in our country is a connection that I also consider to be extremely relevant and delivered at a significant time. Considering the reality that transgender people, among many other minority groups, are continually mistreated and denied basic human rights, it is important for Obama, as the person who holds the highest position of power, to publically recognize transgender people as an integral part of our community as he has now tastefully done.
One of the most recent tragic events to have occurred in the transgender community that makes the timing of Obama’s acknowledgment of transgender people even more significant to our society is the suicide of Leelah Alcorn. Alcorn, a 17-year-old transgender girl, was, like so many other transgender people before her, not accepted for her gender identification. Distinguishing loneliness and the alienation from those supportive of her personal identification as the leading causes for her decision to end her life, Alcorn took her own life on Dec. 28, 2014.
The motivating causes behind Alcorn’s suicide are ones that are acknowledged by many as horrific, yet they continue to be perpetuated both inside and outside of the homes of transgender people. In Alcorn’s situation, the preservation of her extreme mistreatment was drawn from the lack of acceptance from her religious parents. However, although it plays a factor in the lives of many LGBT people, I do not consider strong religious beliefs to be the be-all and end-all of transphobia.
I consider ignorance to be the largest facilitator of transphobia in both the United States and around the world. Although transgender people have made significant strides in our society in the past year, such as Laverne Cox as the first transgender woman to appear on a cover of Time magazine, there are still many misguided perceptions held by people regarding the transgender community. Elizabeth Reis, a professor of women’s and gender studies at the University of Oregon, also believes that people continue to hold a false view of transgender people. Reis explains, “The people who say that they’re trans have always been undermined and thought of as not telling the truth, being intentionally deceitful of others.”
It is incredibly important that as a community, we stand by any minority group that continues to be persecuted for their lifestyle. By stating how we as a country should continue to condemn the people who, to this day, actively persecute transgender people, Obama has begun paving the way for a more accepting and supportive country. Additionally, by not accepting transphobia and other prejudices aimed at groups of people for being who they are, we are modeling for the younger generation of how powerful our words are, even when breaking the mold is accomplished by a passing mention of an otherwise excluded group of people.