Erica Chenoweth headshot at the Forum.“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.”

Alexandar Chen headshot from the Forum.Alexander Chen
Founding director of the LGBTQ+ Advocacy Clinic at Harvard Law School




“I see progress. I see resilience. I see inspiration precisely because if you look back in time and you know, in time and space, we are coming from a point of denial to a point of engaging with the issue. The engagement might be difficult now, but at least we're engaging with it. Twenty years ago, nobody would even admit that there is a trans person in our community.”

Nicholas Opiyo headshot from the Forum.Nicholas Opiyo
A Ugandan civil rights lawyer and currently a scholar at risk and Carr Center Fellow at Harvard Kennedy School




“Certainly we know there's a disproportionate number of trans women who are incarcerated and we also have really disturbing data that 40% of female-assigned people in juvenile detention centers identify as LGBTQ. So all of that's real. … I think I'm also a little more optimistic because we have 30 years of robust education and advocacy. We have already changed the world. We have more allies and more people who … have trans and nonbinary and gender-expansive kids, who they are supporting and advocating for. And I just think there's no amount of hatred and bigotry that's going to undo all that we've done.”

Jen Manion headshot from the Forum.Jen Manion
Professor of history and sexuality and women's and gender studies at Amherst College



The Forum event is available to view online.

Photographs by Martha Stewart

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