Posted by: Shula Asher Silberstein | 30 October 2010

Media Sensationalism and the Culture of Transgender Fear

Recently, a Transgender Woman received a hateful letter from a DMV employee in San Francisco. The story quickly went viral, presumably because of shock and outrage, but also as an example of the discrimination, prejudice and transphobia some Transgender Women experience on a daily basis.

I’m writing about this tonight because in the three days since the incident, I have seen the link posted on Twitter at least a dozen times an hour. I am not exaggerating, at least not by much. Every LGBT-rights organization has picked up the story, again and again and again, and my daily Google alert on “transgender issues” lists it as one of the top new links to look at.

So now I’m writing about it too, because I’m fed up with hearing about it all. the. damn. time.

Don’t get me wrong, I think that it’s horrible that this happened. The young woman in question shouldn’t have had her business at the DMV co-opted by someone’s bigoted religious beliefs any more than Gavi and I should have had our concert experience ruined by a bigot running her mouth last month. And certainly the idea of DMV employees, or anyone really, looking up people’s addresses to harass them is kind of…chilling, to say the least.


Constantly seeing this story on social media sites, news sites and elsewhere makes it look like the problem is way more widespread than it is.

Ever since Gavi started living openly as a Woman, we’ve both noticed something: there is a HUGE culture of fear in the Transgender community, especially among Transgender Women. Some of our friends think Gavi is too open because she doesn’t hide who she is, online or off. They seem to think she’s setting herself up to get hurt both physically and emotionally. We’ve both heard over and over that she’s crazy to want to date because no-one dates “trannies” or if they do, they are just looking to use them to satisfy a sexual fetish, that she’s lucky she works from home because nobody hires openly Transgender Women and that she should be more careful about talking about being Transgender in public in case people are listening.

I really think the media sensationalism around stories like the DMV incident helps encourage that culture of fear. I mean, some people turn to the Internet for help when they are confused about their gender identity and need support. And if all they get, or the top hits for their search anyway, are stories about how Transgender people are attacked, abused and humiliated, they might decide they’d better not explore their identity anymore because it’s too “dangerous”.

I’m really hesitant to post this blog because I already know that someone, somewhere is going to say that Transgender issues are real and that I am hurting the Transgender community by claiming that Transgender people aren’t as unsafe as everyone believes. But I’m going to post it anyway, and here’s why:

41% of Transgender youth attempt suicide. That is higher even than the rate for non-heterosexuals. The number is unacceptably high, and while I don’t know the full story behind every, or even most of the suicides, I do know that when people feel isolated, alone and like it is impossible for them to be themselves, they are more likely to become depressed and/or suicidal. Transgender youth need hope just as much as everyone else, yet there are very few positive stories out there, and the ones that exist don’t get shared nearly as often as the negative stuff.

I also think that to some extent, being afraid becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Do Transgender Women “bring it on themselves”, or deserve to be attacked or humiliated? Of course not. I’m not saying anything like that, but all this fear does create a cycle of more fear. If a person is afraid that others might know s/he is Transgender, that person tends to focus too much on it, giving off a vibe that s/he is hiding something. People in turn become suspicious of, and avoid, that person. The person then feels isolated and blames it on the fact that s/he is Transgender, which makes hir more convinced that others must not know.

This cycle is devastating to self-esteem as well as leading to the depression I talked about a little while ago.

So please… if you know someone who is openly Transgender and living happily, someone who is self-confident and encourages others to be as well… if you know someone whose main frustrations come from not being able to put hir gender on medical or legal documents and not from fear of violence… someone who some may consider “lucky” because s/he is Transgender without experiencing a ton of discrimination…

Please, please please repost their story as often as you can. Let our positive voices be just as loud as the negative voices that share all the ways that being Transgender can be difficult.

Let’s not paint a picture of a world that is hopeless, where being Transgender means being doomed to Hell, forever.

“The whole world is a narrow bridge, and the only thing is to never be afraid.” – Rabbi Nachman of Braslov


  1. […] See the article here: Media Sensationalism and the Culture of Transgender Fear « Meowing … […]

  2. great article Shulamit.

  3. Hi
    While I would like to agree with all that you say, and I have never been beaten or directly abused. I feel it is more a situational thing for most folks.
    I am over 60 years old and while aware I was trans from an early age I suffered in silence to be able to have the children I desired.
    I never even met a trans person till I was 22 and that was in Malaya while on military duty. Suicide rates, I discovered later were far higher than the rates quoted by you. I understood at age four that I saw myself as female but the world saw me as male. My mother knew I was different when I was three years old.
    Today I have a female spouse who I have been married to for 39 years and we had three children. My spouse knew my condition 3 months after we were married and stuck with me. I hung in till the kids were born and when the youngest was ten I started to transition.
    Unfortunately there was a 16 year difference between the dates of their births so it was a long and confusing period for me and my spouse was also pushed to limits.
    While I live in a rural area and have done for over 30 years, we are originally from England and were always treated as outsiders. So to later be known as a trans person was perhaps no big shock. We had a couple of incidents but most folks just ignored us.
    Trans people in Atlantic Canada have not been that well known or welcomed and eventually move to Central or Western Canada.
    Rural area’s are a hard place to grow up in and if you are different the problems get worse.
    Some folks are able to pass easily and slip into their desired life style with no major issues, but some have major issues due to physique and /or finances and suffer greatley. American or Canadian changes very little for Trans people. If we do not fit the mold, we suffer the consequences and depending on where we live, the consequences can be quite violent.
    Remember we are often never even identified as trans when we kill ourselves. Families have enough to deal with without drawing attention to a son or daughter who killed themselves, by exposing a trans side of a child they never really knew.
    My only closing thought is “will we ever truly know” the exact number of trans people of all ages that choose death or are killed because of being Transient.
    Take care
    Denise Holliday

    • Hi Denise,

      Thank you for sharing your story. Stories where people overcome adversity and now live happy lives are exactly the kinds of stories I wish I would hear more of, rather than constant reminders of the way the world is inequitable.

      I’m sorry you suffered the way you did, and I agree that it’s not easy for people, especially people in rural areas, but it also isn’t impossible. I’m all about visibility. I believe that there’s more self-inflicted harm, in which people feel they must hide and as a result become more isolated, than there is actual prejudice.

      Gavi and I live in a rural area as well, and with very little money to boot, but we have found that the more she is open about who she is, the more acceptance she finds. In part you have to find your niche, I think… we were forced to drift away from the religious circles we had been involved in at the time she first came out because of their attitudes, but even here in the Bible Belt we have found many, many people who are accepting of her and who love her.

      People often say that she is just “lucky”. In the sense that she got the help she needed to overcome suicidal feelings, that’s true. In the sense that she hasn’t been attacked for being who she is, I disagree. I think that her self-confidence allows her to blend in more. While many people don’t realise she is trans before she tells them, there are some people who do, and most of them either ignore it or welcome her. Of course there are some that stare or make comments, but those seem to be view and far between.

      I don’t disagree that some people do not have as easy a time, but I think there is more acceptance out there than people realise, and that in many cases self-acceptance fosters acceptance by others.

  4. Hi, Stephanie,
    Good and insightful observations. Occasionally, I wonder what’s new in the transgender world so do a search on the news, and too often come across mostly sad and negative articles. While they are documenting what’s occurring, focusing on these stories, and even spreading them, does give one the impression that life as a transgender identified person are much, much worse than they are. I’ve been out since 2001 and luckily haven’t had any really bad experiences. But at this point, I’ve become wary of reading too much transgender news, because it’s just disheartening and counterproductive. It’s better just to be active in the community and out oneself, then to get caught up in the news.

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