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Two magazine covers, and the fight for transgender equality

Another week, another striking magazine cover featuring a transgender woman — that’s not a phrase I imagined writing even six years ago, when I started writing about culture. But here we are, and it’s fascinating to read “Orange Is the New Black” star Laverne Cox’s cover of Entertainment Weekly against Caitlyn Jenner’s debut on the cover of Vanity Fair.

The concept of Entertainment Weekly’s cover is clear: The world has changed, and in the country we inhabit now, a black transgender woman can be the symbol of American liberty. Emma Lazarus’s “The New Colossus” dubs Lady Liberty the “Mother of Exiles” and describes her rejecting your “ancient lands, your storied pomp!” of those who would keep America free of impurities and welcoming “your tired, your poor, / Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, / The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. / . . . the homeless, tempest-tost.” With a job description like that, Cox and women who share her experiences have a particularly strong claim to represent the ideals “Liberté éclairant le Monde” was meant to embody.

But what really makes the cover is Cox’s pose and expression. She’s giving her arm a rest and lowering that lamp Lady Liberty lifts beside the golden door. The hand with the torch in it is tucked under her chin, and Cox regards us over it with both confidence and sardonic note playing around the corner of her lips. It’s as if, having won the right to personify American liberty, and acquired a deep acquaintance with what it means to life without that freedom, Cox is scrutinizing those of us who exercise it so casually.

It’s a stance that makes a certain amount of sense. Jenner is, after all, reintroducing herself to us, presenting her new self for our inspection. The pose suggests both anxiety and hope, fear we won’t like what we see, optimism that we’ll embrace her. Whatever your feelings about what the picture, shot by Annie Leibovitz, says about womanhood in America today, it’s hard to deny the political and marketing canniness of the cover image. Jenner looks vulnerable; rejecting or criticizing her would be like insulting a girl posing for prom pictures in her first formal dress.

Taken together, these two magazine covers suggest the paradox that is the movement for transgender equality in the United States right now (and, yes, I acknowledge all the challenges inherent in using these two exceedingly famous, comparatively powerful women who have been able to alter their bodies as a stand-in for anything). Cox looks like the movement’s vanguard, well-versed in the differences between gender identity, physical sex, gender performance and sexual orientation, and daring anyone to express discomfort. Jenner’s expression and pose hint at the very real vulnerabilities that many transgender people experience, including high rates of incarcerationsexual assault and homelessness and that can only be remedied by significant changes in policy, culture and attitudes.

Bridging the gap between the masses and the vanguard — and between the kinds of people who land magazine covers and those who can’t even afford glossies like these — is the challenge of any movement. Cox’s and Jenner’s rise shouldn’t be mistaken for proof that the transgender tipping point — the headline on another cover Cox has graced — has actually arrived. There are still plenty of changes to set in motion before the golden door in the Statue of Liberty will finally, truly be open to all Americans.

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