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Time to talk about the T in LGBT

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The Time magazine cover featuring Laverne Cox, one of the stars of the Netflix series “Orange is the New Black,” is a remarkable first. She is the first transgender person to grace the national magazine’s cover. But the cover story she stunningly illustrates — “The transgender tipping point” — also marks a momentous coming out for the T in LGBT.

By now you know that LGBT is the catch-all acronym for the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community. And since the modern LGBT civil-rights movement got underway with the Stonewall Riots in New York City in 1969, the nation has gotten to know the L, G and B. From AIDS to hate crimes to the quest for marriage equality, we have been engaging in a raucous 45-year national conversation about what it means to be gay and how the right to equal protection under the law applies to them. How far that back-and-forth has come can be seen in the judicial decisions striking down state bans on same-sex marriage all over the country. Through it all, the T has been silent.

Part of it has to do with so few trans people coming out publicly. It’s tough to bring folks along when there is no one to help lead the charge. But the real problem has been a visceral discomfort with even talking about the T of LGBT. Many of us don’t know what transgender issues are, let alone understand them. This is not an affliction that only strikes straights. There are many people within the gay community who don’t (and don’t want to) understand trans issues. And then there is the fascination with transition surgery that obscures the very real issues trans people have to contend with just to be who they are. “I think the preoccupation with transition and with surgery objectifies trans people and then we don’t get to really deal with the real lived experiences,” Cox famously told Katie Couric on her talk show last year.

Those real lived experiences Cox was referring to were captured in a report highlighted by Time magazine. According to the 2011 National Transgender Discrimination Survey from the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, 78 percent of young trans people surveyed experienced harassment at school and 90 percent of workers say they’ve dealt with harassment mistreatment or discrimination on the job. More than 50 percent said they were “verbally harassed or disrespected in a place of public accommodation, including hotels, restaurants, buses, airports and government agencies.” And a staggering 41 percent of those surveyed attempted suicide.

In the face of these harrowing statistics, more and more transgender people are coming out. As I mentioned on MSNBC last Friday, author Janet Mock and 17-year-old homecoming queen Cassidy Lynn Campbell, a trans girl from California, are just two examples of the trans community finding its voice and feeling more comfortable being who they are. According to the National Center for Transgender Equality, “91 jurisdictions nationwide explicitly protect people based on gender identity/expression.” That includes Maryland, where opponents failed to gather enough signatures to repeal that state’s new law protecting trans people from discrimination in employment and housing, which takes effect in October. On Friday, an independent health board within the Department of Health and Human Services ruled that medical care for transition-related surgery can be paid for by Medicare.

Mara Keisling, the founding executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality, hailed the decision when I e-mailed her Friday. “Americans are tired of healthcare decisions being made by legislatures and insurance companies,” she said. “This decision allows healthcare decisions to be made by seniors and their doctors.” What’s striking about Keisling’s quote is its focus on health care and not on the historic victory for trans Americans it represents. This certainly helps to get everyone to see trans people as people with everyday cares and concerns.

“As more and more trans people are coming out, they’re educating everyone around them and making their communities more inclusive,” Keisling told me. She added, “America is getting to know transgender people and they like us.” That’s a rather bold assertion. But as the Time cover declares, we are at “the transgender tipping point.” The T is finally refusing to remain silent. The more they and we talk about the injustices they face, the easier it will be to remedy them.

Follow Jonathan on Twitter: @Capehartj