The way transgender people are portrayed in news and entertainment matters to trans advocate Alex Schmider. The GLAAD senior strategist for transgender media said only 16 percent of Americans personally know someone who is trans — the rest get their knowledge about the community from media. That's why the 27-year-old works with network executives and casting directors to ensure transgender characters are represented fairly and accurately.
"When you have someone like Laverne Cox in 'Orange is the New Black' and even in 'Doubt,' which was unfortunately just canceled — having those people on screen [who] reach audiences — it can't be understated or underestimated how powerful that is," Schmider told NBC Out.
Schmider, who is transgender, recalled seeing the movie "Boys Don't Cry" when he was 12 years old. The story about the brutal 1993 rape and murder of Nebraskan trans man Brandon Teena was the only transgender character Schmider had seen in film. It horrified him.
"If that's the first person you are able to relate to on screen or otherwise, it's hard to envision a future for yourself," Schmider explained.
"We need to highlight the discrimination and the violence that happens so frequently against the trans community," Schmider continued, "but I'm also super passionate about making sure positive stories are told, because that's really what I needed as a kid. I needed to see that trans people existed and succeeded and could be in any kind of field that they wanted to be in."
In the wake of the Pulse Nightclub shooting and the Oakland warehouse fire, Schmider worked with journalists to ensure trans victims were not misgendered in the news.
"We want to make sure people are respecting people's identities in life and in death, because we don't want people's lives to be erased and their identities to be erased," Schmider said.
Schmider said violence against transgender people is all too common, and that black transgender women especially are "targeted and killed at astonishingly horrifying rates." According to the Anti-Violence Project, transgender people of color made up the majority of homicides within the LGBTQ community in 2015. Schmider explained that transphobia comes from a lack of understanding among the general public around what it means to be trans.
"It hasn't been that trans people have been invisible, it's that we have been so misrepresented and so inaccurately reflected that people really don't know us," he said.
Schmider, who was assigned female at birth, said he didn't know much about transgender people himself until he heard a lecture on gender dysphoria when he was a sophomore at Tufts University in Massachusetts. He called his mother crying later that day and told her he believed he had it.
"She told me to wash my face and have a drink of water, and that she loves me and we would figure this out together," Schmider said. With his family's support, he began his transition that year.
"I think those words and that moment probably had more of an effect on me as a person than maybe any other moment in my life," he said. "For my entire upbringing I had tried to be the perfect daughter, when I was never going to be the perfect daughter, because I was my mom's son."
Prior to joining GLAAD, Schmider got his bearings as the communications coordinator at the Los Angeles LGBT Center, where he worked with homeless LGBTQ teens. He currently volunteers at a summer camp for transgender and gender-nonconforming youth, and said his own experience coming out showed him how important it is for LGBTQ youth to find acceptance.
"The kids that I met there and the young people that I met at the [LGBT] Center and the people that I continue to meet inspire me to want to continue pushing this narrative forward so we can finally be seen," Schmider concluded.
Alex Schmider was recently selected as one of Forbes 30 Under 30 for Media in 2017.
OutFront is a weekly NBC Out series profiling LGBTQ people who are making a positive difference in the community.