The New York Times' William Van Meter has declared 2010 "the year of the transsexual." That's an odd sentiment, given that "transsexual" is widely considered an outdated term that has fallen out of favor with many gender-nonconforming people. Whatever! Transsexuals are hot, hot, hot this year! And Van Meter has a list of totally not-actually-trans celebrities to prove this thesis.
Van Meter chooses to open his piece on suddenly-fashionable trans identity with the example of film star James Franco, who is not trans, but nevertheless dressed as a woman for the cover of Candy magazine. Once. Van Meter's next two citations: fashion designer Marc Jacobs (not trans) and Lady Gaga (not trans), both of whom have also engaged in a bit of stunt cross-dressing that has nothing to do with their actual gender identity.
His fawning over these cisgender celebrities complete, Van Meter then manages to tick off a short list of trans news-makers with gender identities that aren't simply staged for a magazine cover: a "transgender student [who] pledged a sorority at Trinity University in Texas"; a "boy who wears pink gowns"; California superior court judge Victoria Kolakowski; and Barack Obama's childhood "tranny nanny," a nickname Van Meter strangely cites as an encouraging sign of the heightened visibility of trans people. Only in a stretched-thin New York Times trend piece is the word "tranny" considered as a sign of progress.
After trotting out the supporting documents, Van Meter gets to the heart of the piece: 2010 is truly the "year of the transsexual" because a trans model has been deemed physically fit to be featured in several fashion magazines. Nevermind that Van Meter undermines this new trend by noting similar trans fashion icons from the 60's, 70's, 80's and 90's. (It seems that the fashion world is going on celebrating its 50th "year of the transsexual").
Here's something that doesn't appear to have changed much: The physical appearance of trans people is a key indicator of their worth to the mainstream. At the very end of his piece, Van Meter devotes a little footnote pointing that out: Ady Ben-Israel of Manhattan's Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender Community Center warns against "celebrating people who attain a particular beauty standard that reinforces gender norms." But Van Meter also quotes Luis Venegas, founder of Candy, in support of the frothy focus. “Gay magazines talk about the rights of gay people and the achievements of the gay movement . . . I didn’t want Candy to be like that. I wanted it to be like Vogue. There are few groups of people for whom fashion, makeup and hair is more relevant.”
Trans people deserve to engage in as much beauty-related frivolity as cis people do. But what Van Meter's piece totally misses is that trans people are still denied the basics: They are still discriminated against in employment; they are still denied marriage rights; they remain at a heightened risk of contracting HIV; they are harassed, bullied, assaulted, raped, and killed; they are mistreated by law enforcement and corrections officials; they are underserved by the larger LGBT community. Many are not accepted, even, for the way that they look. For people who identify as trans whether or not it's en vogue, 2010 still has a ways to go.