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Yvonne Abraham

Turning point is coming for transgender rights

“I see this as a race,” said Mark Mettler, father of Maxie, who was born male and is becoming, at age 21, a woman. “It’s a race for the world to become a place my kid wants to live in [before she] loses hope.”

For transgender people, and those who love them, this seems like a significant moment. Just over a week ago, Olympian Bruce Jenner achieved something in a two-hour interview that transgender men and women have been trying to accomplish for decades: persuading millions of Americans to see them as human beings who deserve to be treated with dignity.


And after Tuesday’s arguments, it seems a real possibility that the Supreme Court will clear the way for gay and lesbian couples to marry no matter where they live. Transgender rights, and the acceptance that comes with them, are the next frontier.

To some, this seems fast. After all, the idea of gay marriage was utterly foreign to most Americans only a decade ago. And now here we are, confronting the very notion of gender.

But it only seems fast if you’re not living it. Otherwise, change is gut-wrenchingly glacial. We might have made strides on gay and lesbian rights, but it’s still a very ugly world for people who don’t fit the sex they were born into. It is ugly even when they have the resources and family support to live true to themselves. And it’s especially ugly when they don’t.

“We’ve seen an enormous amount of change,” said Grace Sterling Stowell, executive director of the Boston Alliance of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender Youth. “But for young people who are struggling for survival every day, it’s not better.”

Stowell, 58, has never felt safe in public. When she was growing up in Bedford, her family was loving and supportive, if mystified by her desire to leave her male-ness behind. As a teenager, she used hippie fashion as a kind of cover for her move to more womanly clothes, but she couldn’t fool the bullies who harassed and beat her. As an adult, she has been physically and sexually assaulted by strangers because of her appearance.


Maxie’s family has been loving and supportive from the start. They have the means to get her the treatment she needs to transition safely. And her generation is overwhelmingly supportive of gay rights.

Yet, decades after Stowell’s first beatings, being transgender is still life-threatening. Driving from her family’s home in Westborough back to Cornell two years ago, Maxie was confronted by a car full of men who taunted her, holding up signs asking whether she was a boy or a girl. They got close enough to attempt to knock on her window. It went on for 30 terrifying miles.

It gets worse. A recent national survey laid bare a picture almost too grim to contemplate. A staggering 41 percent of transgender people have attempted suicide. They are four times more likely than the general population to live on less than $10,000 a year. Eight out of 10 had been harassed in school. They reported housing discrimination and homelessness at twice the average rate.

Addressing such outcomes, practically and morally, is urgent and essential. Yet even in Massachusetts, gay rights trailblazer, we’re squeamish when it comes to transgender rights. We extended nondiscrimination laws to cover the community but balked at public accommodations — the part of the law that would guarantee transgender people the right to be served in a cafe or use the bathroom of the gender with which they identify.


Many of us are still freaked out by the notion that gender identity can be complicated. That discomfort forces transgender people to navigate the world as disabled people must, ever conscious of the fact that it wasn’t built for them.

If their lives are challenging here, imagine what it’s like in parts of the country where they are utter outcasts. How many will lose hope before change comes?

Globe columnist Yvonne Abraham can be reached at yvonne.abraham@globe.com.