Jenner's new identity highlights transgender issues

Washington (AFP) - Caitlyn Jenner gracing the cover of Vanity Fair is a powerful symbol of how far transgender Americans have come -- and the many challenges they still face.

Discrimination, poverty, suicide, even murder continue to haunt the trans community, even as it enjoys greater public acceptance and understanding.

"I'm not sure if it's a turning point, but it's certainly a helpful milestone," said Mara Keisling, executive director of the National Center for Gender Equality, when asked about Jenner's public coming out.

"It's really important to understand that there are about a million trans people in the country -- we don't know exactly -- and not everyone gets to tell their story" as the former Bruce Jenner has, she said.

"So if we can leverage this one story to tell lots of stories, that's really great," Keisling told AFP.

The 1976 Montreal Olympics gold medalist turned "Keeping Up with the Kardashians" reality TV star is by no means the first American celebrity to undergo a gender switch in the public gaze.

Chaz Bono, son of 1960s singing duo Sonny and Cher, began his female-to-male gender transition in 2008 and made it the topic of a 2011 documentary presented at the Sundance Film Festival.

More recently, Laverne Cox became the first transgender woman to score an Emmy nomination -- and to land on the cover of Time magazine -- for her role as a jailed transgender credit-card fraudster in the Netflix series "Orange is the New Black."

"I am so moved by all the love and support Caitlyn is receiving," Cox wrote on her Tumblr blog on Tuesday.

"It feels like a new day, indeed, when a trans person can present her authentic self to the world for the first time and be celebrated for it so universally."

- Seen on TV -

Transgender storylines have meanwhile found their way into popular television shows like "Glee" on Fox and the CBS soap opera "The Bold and the Beautiful."

Jenner's appearance on the cover of Vanity Fair capped a carefully choreographed Hollywood public relations campaign that led to her Twitter account hitting one million followers in a matter of hours.

"My brain is much more female than it is male," Jenner, 65, told ABC News anchor Diane Sawyer in a two-hour television special in April.

"It's hard for people to understand that, but that's what my soul is."

In a 2011 survey by the non-profit Public Religion Research Institute, 89 percent of respondents agreed that transgender people ought to have the same rights and legal protections as other Americans.

"The number of Americans who say they personally know a transgender person has shot up... to about 20 percent. That helps a lot," Keisling said.

But a 2011 study by the National Center for Transgender Equality and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force makes sobering reading about the hardships that transgender Americans still endure.

Their jobless rate is double that of the general population.

Ninety percent have faced harrassment, mistreatment or discrimination at work. Twenty-six percent told of losing a job due to being transgender, according to the study's findings.

"You can still be fired in 32 states simply for being transgender," added Nick Adams, who heads the transgender media program for the GLAAD rights group.

- Poverty, suicide -

Transgender people are also four times more likely to live in extreme poverty -- and a "staggering" 41 percent reported attempting suicide, according to the study, titled "Injustice at Every Turn."

So far this year, Adams said, eight transgender women have been murdered in this United States -- all but one of them women of color.

From 2008 through 2014, transgender individuals have been the victims in 108 homicides in the United States -- out of 1,731 worldwide, including 689 in Brazil, the Trans Murder Monitoring Project says.

"I am hopeful that the public's interest in Caitlyn Jenner's story and their acceptance of her will translate into those same people being concerned about the real social issues of poverty, discrimination and violence that transgender people still face today," Adams said.