Nearly a year after the Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage, another social movement is poised to challenge deeply held cultural beliefs

By Katy Steinmetz for TIME Magazine

Laverne Cox Time magazine The Transgender Tipping Point

Laverne Cox, who stars in the Netflix drama Orange Is the New Black, tells the crowd, “a proud, African-American transgender woman.” The cheers are loud and long

Almost one year after the Supreme Court ruled that Americans were free to marry the person they loved, no matter their sex, another civil rights movement is poised to challenge long-held cultural norms and beliefs. Transgender people—those who identify with a gender other than the sex they were “assigned at birth,” to use the preferred phrase among trans activists—are emerging from the margins to fight for an equal place in society. This new transparency is improving the lives of a long misunderstood minority and beginning to yield new policies, as trans activists and their supporters push for changes in schools, hospitals, workplaces, prisons and the military. “We are in a place now,” Cox tells Time, “where more and more trans people want to come forward and say, ‘This is who I am.’ And more trans people are willing to tell their stories. More of us are living visibly and pursuing our dreams visibly, so people can say, ‘Oh yeah, I know someone who is trans.’ When people have points of reference that are humanizing, that demystifies difference.”

The transgender revolution still has a long way to go. Trans people are significantly more likely to be impoverished, unemployed and suicidal than other Americans. They represent a sliver of the population—an estimated 0.5 percent—which can make it harder for them to gain acceptance. In a recent survey conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute, 65 percent of Americans said they have a close friend or family member who is homosexual, while 9 percent said they have one who is transgender. And as the trans movement has gained momentum, opponents have been drawn in to fight, many of them social conservatives who cut their teeth and fattened their mailing lists opposing same-sex marriage. But perhaps the biggest obstacle is that trans people live in a world largely built on a fixed and binary definition of gender. In many places, they are unwelcome in the men’s bathroom and the women’s. The effect is a constant reminder that they don’t belong.

During her speech, Cox recalled being bullied and chased home from school as kids called her a sissy and a fag, being put into therapy to be cured of feminine behavior and getting assaulted on the street by strangers. She talked of downing a bottle of pills as a sixth-grader, hoping to end her “impure” thoughts. And she spoke about those who didn’t wake up, after suffering violence at their own hands or others’, driven by the enduring belief that trans people are sick and wrong.

“Some folks, they just don’t understand. And they need to get to know us as human beings,” she says. “Others are just going to be opposed to us forever. But I do believe in the humanity of people and in people’s capacity to love and to change.”

 

laverne-coxLaverne Cox

[The Internet] has also helped expose the broader culture to trans people. Cox’s role on Orange has turned her into a sought-after celebrity. The luxury retailer Barneys featured trans models in a recent ad campaign. And a memoir by the writer Janet Mock that told of her transition from living as young Charles in Hawaii became a best seller. The result has been a radical increase in trans consciousness. 

YOU MIGHT LIKE: Ethan and Jessica’s Real LGBT Wedding

At women’s colleges, administrators are struggling with how to handle applications from trans women. An even larger question looms over the military, where perhaps as many as 15,500 transgender troops await the day when they can serve openly. On May 11, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel offered a spark of hope when he said that the policy prohibiting their service “continually should be reviewed” and added that “every qualified American who wants to serve our country should have an opportunity if they fit the qualifications and can do it.” Some advocates for LGBT military personnel believe Hagel’s remarks foreshadow a formal policy review. Others caution that the military remains a slow-to-change institution that is only beginning to adapt to the repeal of “Don’t ask, don’t tell.”

And then there is a far more basic challenge: how to get gender markers changed on official documents like driver’s licenses, birth certificates and passports. Thanks to the efforts of the National Center for Transgender Equality and other advocates, what in many cases used to require proof of surgery can now be handled with a doctor’s note. But other obstacles abound. Many insurance plans have explicit exclusions for treatments related to gender transitions. Five states—California, Oregon, Connecticut, Vermont, Colorado—as well as Washington, D.C., have prohibited such clauses, and activists are pushing for more to follow suit, arguing that many of the services transgender people seek, like hormone-replacement therapy, are provided to nontrans people for other reasons. Eighteen states and D.C. currently have non­discrimination measures that include gender identity. A federal bill barring discrimination against gay and transgender workers, the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, passed the Democratic-controlled Senate in November but has stalled in the GOP-controlled House. Years may pass before the measure does.

WATCH: Laverne Cox Talks to TIME About the Transgender Movement

 

After Cox finished her speech at the Nourse Theater and took questions about media stereotypes and trans sex workers, a person emerged from backstage with a piece of lined notebook paper, scrawled on by a child. The presenter read it to Cox: “I’m Soleil. I’m 6 and I get bullied. Since I get teased in school, I go to the bathroom or to the office. What can I say to the kids who tease me? What if they don’t listen to me?” The room was heavy with sighs and empathy—and then yells of solidarity as it was discovered that Soleil was in the audience. An older woman made her way to the stage carrying Soleil, who wore a polka-dot shirt. “You’re beautiful,” Cox told Soleil. “You’re perfect just the way you are. I was bullied too, and I was called all kinds of names, and now,” she said, smiling, “I’m a big TV star.” The crowd erupted again, and Soleil reached out her hand. “Don’t let anything that they say get to you,” Cox continued. “Just know that you’re amazing.” From the audience, it was impossible to tell if Soleil had been born female or male, whether the child identified as a boy or girl. And Cox says it doesn’t matter. “We need to protect our children,” she says, “and allow them to be themselves.” —with reporting by eliza gray/new york

This shortened Time magazine article was shared for the purposes of republishing. For the full article, visit time.com.

Photographs by Gillian Laub for TIME