Trans Visibility Is Nice. Safety Is Even Better.

In my childhood, trans representation was largely confined to sensationalized daytime talk shows — think “Jerry Springer” — and fictionalized stories of cisgender people reacting with disgust or violence upon learning someone was trans — think of the movies “Boys Don’t Cry,” “The Crying Game,” even “Ace Ventura: Pet Detective.”

In the past several years, popular culture in Hollywood and publishing has begun to elevate and even celebrate trans characters. That’s a welcome change. And yet while we can finally, at least on occasion, see or read accurate stories of our lives, this rise of visibility has coincided with and perhaps even precipitated a widespread political assault on trans people across the country.

This duality felt particularly stark at the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah, last month, where the comedian Will Ferrell and a longtime friend, the former “Saturday Night Live” writer Harper Steele, premiered their film “Will & Harper,” on the same day that the Utah legislature voted on a sweeping bill curtailing the rights of trans people. The film documents the pair’s 17-day road trip from New York to California, which gave Mr. Ferrell a chance to learn about Ms. Steele’s experience as a transgender woman and her decision to come out and live openly as herself at age 59.

The Park City audience gave the film multiple standing ovations. But little attention was paid to efforts to criminalize the presence of trans people in public spaces — including their use of bathrooms and locker rooms — happening just 45 minutes away in Salt Lake City. Indeed, the very premise of the film — traveling across the country — could very well soon switch from comedy to terror, as lawmakers across the United States continue to aggressively train their attention on the bodies of trans people of all ages.

Films like “Will & Harper” allow cisgender people to see trans people’s full humanity, and they give trans people a welcome chance to see ourselves onscreen. Visibility is a gift when you grow up thinking your existence is impossible. But being invisible can also bring protection. I might not have seen myself onscreen in childhood, but neither did I have to deal with dozens upon dozens of bills filed each year questioning my right to use the restroom that matches my gender, have access to health care, learn about the history of trans people in school or worry about which sports teams I was allowed to play on. Though representation of transness onscreen is crucial for building empathy, trans visibility has also contributed to a false sense that the community possesses a degree of stability and power that, in reality, continues to elude us.

Utah’s bill is just one of over 400 anti-L.G.B.T.Q. bills being considered around the country in the first weeks of 2024 alone, a staggering pace of legislative assault on track to surpass the 510 anti-L.G.B.T.Q. bills that were introduced in 2023. Regardless of whether these bills pass — and some of them will not — they are transforming and worsening trans life in the United States as trans adults and families with trans children try to anticipate and respond to the ever-shifting terrain of legislative interference with our lives.

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