One month after the death of HKS student and trans activist Rodrigo Ventocilla MPA/ID 2023, a panel of experts grappled with a difficult question: is the story of trans rights and trans lives one of progress or setbacks?
“On the one hand, in the course of our lifetimes, it seems as if there’s been a remarkable growth in the visibility of transgender people and increased access to recognition, rights, representation, and protection under the law,” Erica Chenoweth, Stanton Professor of the First Amendment at HKS, said in opening Tuesday’s John F. Kennedy Jr. Forum on issues facing the transgender community. “At the same time, it’s also easy to feel that this increased visibility and progress in securing rights has come at the price of an intense backlash—backlash that often expresses itself through hateful attacks on trans people, bigoted rhetoric, and policies that try to force people back into the gender binary.” It was a particularly poignant subject for members of the HKS community and the Harvard LGBTQ community, coming one month after Rodrigo Ventocilla MPA/ID 2023, a Peruvian trans advocate, died while in police custody in Bali, where he had flown to celebrate his honeymoon. The Forum remembered Ventocilla with a minute of silence. Subsequently members of the panel and the audience wrestled with a question posed by Chenoweth: is the story of trans rights and trans lives fundamentally one of progress, struggle, both, or neither?
“The reality is that we might be in a place where this community is more visible than it’s ever been before. It’s more powerful than it’s ever been before. Numerically speaking, more and more people who have always occupied this gender, sexuality, diverse spectrum are feeling open about expressing themselves. And also that that’s an incredibly contingent and small amount of progress compared to the lived reality of the lives of millions of people around the world, which is that most people live in silence. Most people live in secrecy. Most people live in shame and in rejection and being discriminated against and suffering from human rights abuses.”Alexander Chen, Founding Director of the LGBTQ+ Advocacy Clinic at Harvard Law School