Compassionate Narratives & Breaking Down Stigma

“It’s impossible to hate anyone whose story you know.” [1]

This powerful statement can be applied universally, but in this case pertains specifically to representing the transgender community. As we have learned in class about how influential and groundbreaking narratives can be in a museum setting, transgender narratives can serve to break down negative stereotypes and stigma that often surround the community. In Throwing Our Voices, Jennifer Finney Boylan actively uses stories as a way to shine light on civil rights for the transgender community. Boylan acknowledges the fact that although there is not necessarily one shared transgender experience, courage, compassion, and solidarity are commonly found in the community despite differences in class, race, and social privilege. In her writing, she reminds us that the most important thing is love between human beings, and acknowledging our shared desire to be respected and have the opportunity for a bright future.

The National Park Service (NPS) is also utilizing the power of narrative in their LGBT Initiative. By incorporating stories of transgender communities, NPS aims to expand the scope of history that has been significantly underrepresented in the past. It is essential for LGBT visitors to see themselves and their communities at historic sites, not only to accurately present a more inclusive history, but to also acknowledge the transgender community on a national level. The NPS seeks to answer the question of, “How can we promote understanding of LGBT people’s experiences as central to American history and also serve the great variety of LGBT groups and their internal dynamics?” [2] Much like Boylan, NPS is aware that tensions may arise when telling stories of civil rights victories aside painful stories of homophobic violence, denial of rights, and suppressed identity. It is vital for public historians to make important, although difficult, decisions, to create inclusive and constructive content, that promotes healthy dialogue for visitors within and outside of the LGBT community.

Allies and Angels is another wonderful example of how narrative can help break down the stigma surrounding the transgender experience. In the book, parents Terri and Vince Cook, share their story of supporting their son’s transition through unconditional love, strength, and compassion [3]. By narrating their experiences through the ups and downs of their son’s transition, the Cooks offer to a broad audience one family’s truth of the transgender experience. Perhaps the most compelling section of the chapter entitled Converging on the Truth is the part describing Drew’s visit to the hospital early in his transition, where medical professionals served as allies in the emergency room. By providing understanding and support for Drew and his family, including using male pronouns, the medical field acknowledged and validated the basic transgender human condition. What may seem like a very subtle gesture, this acknowledgement meant the world to Drew and his family, in a time when it truly mattered.

This memoir can serve the public in a variety of ways. As an informative guide for other parents with transitioning children, the book promotes the importance of parents advocating for their children, as well as providing examples of support systems. It can also serve as an introduction for those not familiar with the transgender community, looking to learn more and cultivate a deeper understanding of what it means to be transgender. With its informal and truthful prose, Angels and Allies provides a look into the life of a family finding their way through the challenges and triumphs of their journey. Drew’s parents share personal narrative, including his encouraging experience at Pride Prom, to remind the reader of the humanity of their story, and what it takes to embrace one’s true identity.

Making strides for transgender visibility in popular culture, the Amazon series Transparent brings a bit of comedy to a challenging narrative about belonging, acceptance, and identity. The Golden Globe winning show created by Jill Soloway is loosely based on her father who recently came out as transgender. Not only does the show serve to tell the fictional story of a LA family coming to terms with finding out their father is transgender, Soloway uses her platform to grapple with traditional notions of femininity and gender norms that many struggle with. Behind the scenes, inclusivity continues with gender neutral bathrooms, a welcoming climate, and a “transfirmative action program” created by Soloway that favors hiring transgender candidates over non transgender candidates. Over eighty transgender people have been hired in the cast, crew, extras, and as transgender consultants.

gendered sign
Gendered Bathroom Sign

Using stories, whether fact or fiction, can be an effective bridge to create a deeper understanding of transgender identity and combat harmful stigmas. After all, we all have our own personal and unique experience in this world, and this universal truth can bring people together. As Taffy Brodesser-Akner writes, “We all struggle to become comfortable in the skin we were born into; we all try to uncover an identity beneath what was assigned to us at birth. That, above all else, is what Soloway’s show is about.” [4]


[1] Boylan, Jennifer Finney. “Throwing Our Voices: An Introduction”. Trans Bodies, Trans Selves: A Resource for the Transgender Community. Oxford University Press. 2014, xv.

[2] Feller, Laura. “NPS LGBT Initiative: An Opportunity for Public Historians”.

[3] Cook, Terri., Cook, Vince. Angels and Allies. Hallowed Birch Publishing. 2013.

[4] Brodesser-Akner, Taffy. Can Jill Soloway Do Justice to the Trans Movement?. The New York Times.


Featured: LGBT pride parade in Spain, 2008

Gendered Bathroom Sign 


16 thoughts on “Compassionate Narratives & Breaking Down Stigma

  1. I thought I had a good understanding of the different ways transgender individuals identified themselves as. But after reading Allies and Angels, and seeing the chart on the last page of all the different ways individuals can identify between both gender and sexual orientation, I realized I still have a lot to learn. In the end, it does not matter how an individual identifies, but it is up to the community to respect that choice. You really explained how incredibly touching it was that simply using the pronoun this youth identified with made such a difference to him and his parents.

  2. I really like how you talk about using narratives to explore and advocate for LGBT issues and rights. Letting queer and transgender individuals speak for themselves and giving them a place to voice their experiences is essential when advocating and promoting LGBT rights.

    1. Having a safe place to tell one’s story is incredibly powerful and meaningful for members of the LGBT community and I think this post really demonstrates that idea. I really liked that you used examples from all of the readings to show that the power of narratives really is an underlying theme throughout the LGBT community.

      1. Trish, I agree. I think this week’s readings were a wonderful example of how powerful narrative can be. I was really interested in the NPS initiative and incorporating actual physical spaces and historically significant locations for the LGBT movement with these stories. I’m wondering if rooting particular LGBT stories in particular places makes them that more impactful or restrains them in any way?

      2. I totally agree. The importance of stories, particularly stories of coming out or transition are important not only to individuals, but to the community as a whole. It’s a way of sharing experiences that are both personal and collective.

  3. Your pairing of Jennifer Finney Boyle and the NPS initiative is really informative. Finney Boyle really focused on the important distinctions between different LGBT communities and individuals, which gives context to the NPS question “How can we promote understanding of LGBT people’s experiences as central to American history and also serve the great variety of LGBT groups and their internal dynamics?” It makes me wonder if there’s something unique to the LGBT movement that we haven’t seen quite as much in the other activism we’ve discussed so far–if this experience is somehow more unique to each individual than some other aspects of identity.

    1. I’m so glad you brought up NPS’s initiative. I remember hearing about it a little while ago. It’s amazing that so much of this history is still ignored or hidden. I think it’s also really important because it’s showing the variety of ways that this community is fighting for its rights and to be recognized and that the issues change from place to place.

  4. Across all the media you discussed, Emily, I was struck by the role story and narrative can have as a facet of activism for LGBT and transsexual groups. Such accounts are the intersecting point in which the unique experience of the individual (as Kate wrote) can be explored as validation of all that identity embraces and means; it shows its inter-relatedness with the larger whole. And I feel the significance of accounts, of narratives, of people’s unique stories represents the key role for museums, we who explore and communicate stories of past and present to explore and convey deeper meanings. Continually asking how such accounts will be explored can help better ensure the field moves in the direction of providing the respect and representation that all individual stories deserve.

  5. Reading your post, Emily, I was struck by the use of stories or narratives in exploring these larger issues of LGBT and transsexual identity. It speaks strongly to the sense of exploring these accounts (as Kate wrote) in the context of individual experience, and the sense of unique circumstances that shape people. Stories are the intersecting point for doing so, and I feel this is where museum, as the explorers and communicators of stories and accounts have a significant and vital role to play. In making this effort to explore how such accounts can be told, in continually moving towards this, the field will come closer to bringing the respect and recognition to all individual accounts that they deserve.

  6. I love how you touched upon the use of narratives and personal stories as a way to break through hate and ignorance. So many people go through life with an intense hatred for members of the LGBT community, without ever once hearing the the suffering they live through each day because hateful social standards. People connect to people, and hearing personal stories, listening to the actual battles, struggles, and victories of members of the LGBT communities may be the most powerful means to defeat hate.

  7. The quote you used to start off your blog, “It’s impossible to hate anyone whose story you know,” was one of the parts from all of the readings that stuck with me the most. I believed I had a decent grasp on the issues that went along with transitioning or being transgender, but Jennifer Finney Boylan so accurately describes how every journey is different for every person undergoing transition. The readings this week gave me a greater understanding of sexuality and LGBT experience and it helped even more when you tied them all together.

  8. I wasn’t aware of Transparent’s inclusive hiring. I’d mostly heard the critiques of the show hiring a cis actor to play a trans character, but this sounds more promising than what I’d heard. I may have to check it out.

  9. I love the use of narrative that you’ve strung together here. I think that the best way to have exposure for any group is to be able to integrate the people who belong to it into every form of media and for them to become a normal presence there. The increase in LGBT+ visibility, particularly trans visibility in the past decade or less, has a lot to do with inclusive media; whether that be traditional media such as books and other written work, visual media like museum exhibits, movies, and tv shows, or social media, where anyone can express their identity and journey on their own terms. The more stories that are shared openly, honestly, and without novelty, the smoother the road to equality becomes.

  10. Obviously everyone here has touched on the tremendous power of stories to create understanding and affect change. As Jennifer Boylan pointed out her book, there is no one trans story, however within individual narratives there is the potential to find similarities and common ground. This is true within the trans community, but I think it can also can be used to help others educate themselves and break down stereotypes about the LGBT population. This is why I think the work of the NPS is so important. By acknowledging LGBT people at places of historic significance, it not only shares essential stories, but reminds others that LGBT community is not small, and will not be marginalized.

  11. In my own experience, understanding transgender and transsexual identities can be harder than other members of the LGBT community. I learned so much through this week’s readings, expanding my own understanding. I think one of the most important things I’ve learned in my time here at CGP is the importance of representation. So many different minorities’ histories have been ignored in the traditional historical narrative and it is so important to tell these stories. Your blog did a really good job of portraying these different ideas and identities.

  12. You bring up a good point about identity in your post Emily. When i started the reading, I found it hard to understand the complex differences between each group. However, Looking at the chart on the last page of Angles and Allies struck home to me. At first it looked confusing with all the lines connecting with each other but then it hit me. No matter what, we are all humans with the right to be human. Respecting the fact that everyone is different and has the right to treated the way they want. I feel to often people try to “do what is best” but in reality they hinder the process. This may be a difficult issue but it needs to be talked about and start a conversation on how those LGBT community have their own stories to tell.

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