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Tribune News Service
Tribune News Service
Martha Ross

The Amy Schneider effect: What her ‘Jeopardy’ triumph means for transgender rights

SAN JOSE, Calif. — A few days before Amy Schneider taped her first “Jeopardy!” game, she decided to literally use her own voice, not the higher-pitched, “feminized” voice she learned after she began to transition several years ago.

More than anything, the Oakland software manager wanted to be herself on national TV: A transgender woman, yes, but also an engaging, whip-smart person whose lifelong dream was to triumph on “Jeopardy!”

Schneider’s authentic self helped her to win a record 40 games, earn $1.3 million and become one of the most popular champions in the venerable game show’s 58-year history. At 42, the Ohio native also emerged as an LGBTQ icon, seen as a friendly woman in pearls who gave many older or more conservative “Jeopardy!” viewers their first chance to spend time with a transgender person, even if via a TV screen.

“Once people accept trans people, they don’t go back,” Schneider told this news organization. “I get the impression that I’ve moved some people into the acceptance camp, and I hope that’s true.”

But Schneider is as aware as anyone that Americans fell in love with her at a challenging time in the history of transgender rights. As she racked up her wins in November and December, 2021 became the worst year on record in terms of anti-LGBTQ legislation in many parts of the country, according to the Human Rights campaign. A few weeks after Schneider’s last “Jeopardy!” episode on Jan. 26, the culture wars escalated when Texas’ Republican governor ordered state agencies to investigate families who provide gender-affirming treatments to their children.

While Schneider said she takes her new role as “public figure” seriously, she confessed to her 137,000 Twitter followers that she’s only starting to learn what that means. But her skyrocketing appeal begs the question of whether she will become one of those transformative figures who helps move a culture forward.

Susan Stryker, Mills College professor and author of the book “Transgender History,” called Schneider “a breath of fresh air” on “Jeopardy!” With the culture wars, people got “a chance to see a trans person in public without it being caught up in polarizing debates about trans issues.”

“She was just an appealingly wonky, nerdy know-it-all kicking butt on a game show, who seemed like a really nice person,” Stryker added. It helped that Schneider was evidently chosen for “Jeopardy!” because she was good at the game, not because the show was specifically looking to diversify its contestant pool, Stryker said.

David Reddish, the entertainment editor for the news outlet Queerty, which chose Schneider for its 2022 Badass award (over Lil Nas X and Kristen Stewart) offered another reason for Schneider’s icon status. Reddish said he first heard about Schneider from his elderly parents who live in a Florida retirement community.

“They were obsessed with this woman, and they said all their friends were, too,” he said. “They’re rooting for this trans woman! That shows you how much things have evolved and changed in so many ways.”

Up until 10 years ago, mainstream America viewed trans people as jokes or worse. They might be seen as sad, marginalized sex workers, targets of cisgender male panic, as in “The Crying Game” or “Boys Don’t Cry,” or deranged predators, as in “Silence of the Lambs.”

But the second decade of the 21st century saw an enormous increase in transgender visibility, Stryker said in her book. Unfortunately, as with any social movement, progress in transgender rights has faced resistance to change.

In terms of forward momentum, Chaz Bono competed on “Dancing With the Stars,” and Caitlyn Jenner was celebrated on magazine covers and in TV specials. Less visible but highly meaningful: The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, published by the American Psychiatric Association, stopped listing transgender identity as a diagnosable condition.

In 2014, Time magazine asked if America was at a “transgender tipping point” by featuring a glamorous photo of “Orange is the New Black” star Laverene Cox on its cover. Stryker said the answer “seemed an obvious ‘yes.'”

But the 2016 election of Donald Trump became a key turning point in a growing conservative backlash. That year, North Carolina adopted legislation that prevented transgender people from using public restrooms that aligned with their gender identity. At least 16 other states considered similar “bathroom bills.”

State legislatures have since introduced bills that target transgender youth by trying to limit their ability to play on sports teams or access medical treatment. Schneider called the efforts in Texas and Arkansas to block gender-affirming treatment “life threatening.”

“Hormones and puberty blockers are life-saving medicine for trans people,” Schneider said. “Texas and Arkansas (so far) are trying to kill trans children, because they don’t think trans children have a right to exist.”

Nonetheless, Schneider, Stryker and others have reasons to believe that history is on their side. “I absolutely think things are getting better at an incredibly rapid pace,” Schneider said. “When I was growing up (in Ohio), I didn’t even know trans people existed.”

More than 6 in 10 Americans said they had become more supportive toward transgender rights compared to their views five years earlier, according a 2019 Public Religion Research Institute poll. Nearly a quarter of Americans reported having a close friend or family member who is transgender.

On social media, many “Jeopardy!” fans talked about Schneider being like a friend or family member. “Everyday American household families fell in love with you!” said Michelle Meow, an LGBTQ activist and media personality, when hosting a Commonwealth Club Q&A with Schneider last month in San Francisco.

This sense of familiarity explains why Schneider’s time on “Jeopardy!” could be helpful in moving the cultural conversation, Meow and others have said.

Jupiter Peraza, director of Social Justice and Empowerment Initiatives at San Francisco’s Transgender District, also said Schneider conveyed ease when she opened up about her cat, her fiancee Genevieve Davis and her personal triumphs and struggles. By not “curating” herself, including not adjusting her voice for national TV, Schneider came across as relatable, Peraza said.

Schneider also told the packed Commonwealth audience that she had come to realize that being transgender is not “a big deal,” in that a trans person is still “the same person they always were” before transitioning. She also was gratified to know that “Jeopardy!” didn’t care if she was transgender.

By being authentic, Schneider found she wasn’t bothered by the surprisingly small number of anti-trans haters online. “It taught me to not be afraid to bring your whole self to what you’re doing,” Schneider said. “People will actually like you just fine, and everything you do will feel so much more rewarding.”


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