Life

2021 Wasn’t All Bad for Trans People

Indya Moore won! Caitlyn Jenner lost! In a year marked by challenge and strife, there’s still a lot to celebrate.

From left: Elliot Page on the cover of Time; Caitlyn Jenner; cover of Detransition Baby (book); still from Veneno; sign reading "Trans Youth power" from Brooklyn Liberation march.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Apu Gomes/Getty Images, Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images, Time Magazine, and HBO.

This post is part of Outward, Slate’s home for coverage of LGBTQ life, thought, and culture. Read more here.

To talk about transgender life in America requires being a bit of a killjoy. Though the more progressive parts of society are starting to embrace “tolerance,” we trans folks still suffer from daily prejudice, heart-wrenching murders, and laws restricting our ability to exist in public—all of which I feel the need to emphasize whenever I have cisgender people’s ear. This was yet again the worst year on record for killings of trans people (we lost more than 50 siblings, most of them trans women of color), as well as a record-breaking year for anti-trans legislation (37 states considered a total of 110 anti-trans bills, many specifically targeting trans youth). This is the air we’re breathing each day when people ask us how we’re doing.

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And yet, not every article about us has to be another “check out this new fucked up law in Montana.” When talking amongst ourselves, trans people eagerly dole out affirmations and celebrate every win, recognizing how vital it is to honor our successes and joys. “Give us our roses while we’re still here,” demand trans women of color. I want to take this opportunity to reflect on the moments that made me smile for my community in 2021. It’s never really a great year to be trans, but those hashtag-It-Gets-Better people might be on to something, because in 2021, trans people continued to claim power and space in a world that’s still just learning how to love us.

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The post-vaccine reopening era felt like blossoming after a storm. While for some people, quarantine was a time to catch up on reading and build sheds, others, forced to face our souls amidst the endless stretch of solitude, figured out we were trans. I count six friends and a dozen Insta crushes who started hormones this year; Tommy Dorfman came out as trans and Demi Lovato as non-binary, while Indya Moore and Elliot Page set thirst traps up and down the feed, serving newly open-minded cis folk chances to recognize that we are, in fact, hot.

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This summer’s Pride—the first in two years!—was the long-awaited moment for us début the chests and hair we grew or removed while stuck at home, out of sight. When thousands thronged loud, visible events like San Francisco’s Trans March and the Brooklyn Liberation March in New York, we reminded our fellow LGBT’s that while we might come last in the acronym, we (particularly Black trans women like Marsha P. Johnson) have always been at the forefront of queer liberation. As nightlife spaces re-opened, collectives like For The Gworls and Club Carry proved that trans people still throw the best parties, opening portals to worlds where we can twirl together and find the community we crave. After a long year of isolation, these magical, sweaty family reunions allowed us to feel seen in our fullest expressions, recharging our collective power for the challenges ahead.

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Even as a “visibility matters!” skeptic, I was honestly living for this year’s hot trans content. HBO Max’s Veneno came out in 2020, but only post-quarantine could we honor Cristina (a real-life trailblazer) with drag tributes and Halloween costumes. Hunter Schafer nabbed a writing credit for Euphoria’s special episode (an impressionistic take on Jules’ gender feels and longing for male validation), then walked with Dominique Jackson in a Mugler show featuring music by trans techno producer Jasmine Infiniti.* The last season of Pose celebrated trans love, with Indya Moore’s character Angel getting married, and HBO’s Sort Of (created by its star, Bilal Baig) centered a non-binary nanny of Pakistani descent. Hell, even Sex and the City got a trans-masc character, who deigns to help the old, cis white ladies “step their pussies up.” Torrey Peter’s novel Detransition, Baby captivated trans and cis readers alike, landing on countless year-end lists and securing fame for Peters, a longtime community stalwart.

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While queer representation can be exploited to turn profit for the same institutions that oppress us, changes I saw in my own life suggested that seeing trans people humanized on screen might actually be helping cis people understand, respect, and desire us. Love her or hate her, I gotta admire YouTuber Nikita Dragun for how her lackluster pop track “Dick” got straight male reality star Harry Joswey to admit (on a Barstool Sports podcast, no less!) that he was down for the dolls.

I saved political wins for last, because it’s hard to claim “victories” when your sisters are being killed in the streets and lawmakers’ only response is to ban trans kids from sports teams. And yet, in the face of such pain, grief, and hostility, trans communities rallied to protect and care for our own. An initiative called Arm The Girls, started by a mutual aid collective in Oakland, has raised tens of thousands of dollars to fund self-defense kits for trans people nationwide, while the Trans Housing Coalition in Atlanta raised over $3 million to subsidize housing for trans people in Atlanta struggling during the pandemic.

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We did make some headway in mainstream politics, if you’re into that sorta thing. In January, four trans people newly elected last fall were sworn into posts ranging from county judge to state senator, and this year, the so-called “rainbow wave” continued, with several trans candidates winning reelection or setting local firsts. And while states like Montana, Tennessee, and Florida did pass laws restricting youth access to sports and gender-affirming healthcare, the vast majority of anti-trans bills were defeated, thanks in part to the hard work of trans activists and allies. Defeated, too, was Caitlyn Jenner’s unhinged bid to become California’s first arguably transphobic trans governor.

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Time famously declared 2014 the year of “The Trans Tipping Point,” but I think our journey is less like walking across a seesaw and more like playing a really hard video game. With custom avatars, we advance through our personal and collective transformations in fits and spurts, gobbling power-ups, defeating some levels easily, getting stuck on others. Progress, like growth, is non-linear, and no one year will be the year the world decides to treat us like everyone else. But we’re not waiting for anyone’s permission to stake our own freedoms, create our own spaces, and forge our own unique relationships. The memes will tell you every year is the worst year ever, but there’s no other time I’d rather be trans in than now.

Correction, Dec. 22, 2021: This post originally misspelled Jasmine Infiniti’s first name.

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