All of us experience discrimination. But when we discuss it in terms of what the transgender community experiences, most of us have not been overtly harassed for being “strange,” “other,” or “different.” Religion, orientation, even signs of domestic violence can be tucked away from the public eye. But how can you hide when your body does not match who you are inside?
“One of the biggest motivations for my transition was my safety. I wanted to feel safe when I went out in mainstream society,” says Madison, a transgender woman who lives, works and studies in Fort Lauderdale. Her story of coming out twice within the confines of a strict, religious family is unfortunately all too common, and her yearning for the most basic of human rights — safety — is revealing of society’s intolerance for anything outside the gender norm. While members of the LGB community have made great strides in the last decade, especially in regards to marriage equality, the transgender segment has celebrated few reforms — primarily a federal court decision in March that prohibits discrimination against transgender patients and the subsequent announcement by the Department of Health and Human Services that insurers are not allowed to require co-pays or deny patients preventive care based on their birth gender. But those victories have been tempered by an alarming increase in violence.
For most, the violence is self-inflicted — from smoking, drug and alcohol abuse and self-mutilation to a breathtaking suicide rate of almost 50 percent. Some, in the throes of homelessness and helplessness, eke out a dangerous living through sex work. The downward spiral of illegal activity, incarceration, depression and more violence just feeds on itself viciously.
Others become the victims of violence. In 2013, more than half of all LGBT homicide victims were transgender women of color. So far in 2015, there have been eight transgender homicides in the U.S. Some are killed by partners; others by complete strangers. But the underlying causes for their tragic ends seem to stem from a mistrust born out of fear for what is different.
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"Federal laws need to be more inclusive," says Arianna Lint, Director of Transgender Services for Sun Serve in Miami. “By not including us, they are saying it is okay to kill us, that our lives don’t matter.” The death of Kristina Grant Infinity of Coral Gables in February touched an already raw nerve, inciting local activists to participate in an event last March in Tallahassee titled Lobby Days. Participants wanted to bring more attention to this epidemic of violence.
These sobering events and sad statistics are precisely why Madison is pursuing a psychology degree. “I think that we need more positive role models,” she says. “I think we’re starting to see some in the light with Laverne Cox, Janet Mock and other people of that sort, but even their message and their avenue of publication is not venturing far enough into the trans community to our younger girls that are growing up.
“I’m looking forward to reaching out to the earlier trans girls and the ones who are starting out to help them understand that their trans identity is definable only by them,” she says. “We need more role models that are speaking less about validation from others, because that’s where a lot of our dysphoria comes from and that’s where a lot of our troubles come from.”
But change is taking place. Though slow, it’s encouraging to see that the media has picked up on it, and there appears to be a swell of popular support. Broward county teen Jazz Jennings wrote a book titled I Am Jazz, which presents the story of a child discovering her own gender identity. She also founded the TransKids Purple Rainbow Foundation, through which she offers a voice of understanding and a message of love and unity. She has been recognized by a multitude of non-profits for her advocacy work and will star in a TLC docuseries about her life that’s set to premier on July 15.
While a visible — and impactful — part of the transgender rights movement seems to be powered by the efforts of transgender children boldly expressing their true identities at earlier ages, stories like that of Aydian Dowling cannot be ignored. Dowling is on the verge of becoming the first transgender man on the cover of Men’s Health magazine, and while the winner of the “Ultimate Guy” contest is determined by the judges, Dowling’s popular vote is blowing the competition out of the water. As of press time, he had four times as many votes as the next contender, and the outpouring of support has been staggering and affirming. Dowling is also a personal trainer and the founder and CEO of Point 5cc, a transgender clothing and accessories company.
Bruce Jenner’s moving 20/20 interview with Diane Sawyer in April wrested a human being’s very private life out of the tabloid circus it was descending into and treated the story with dignity and respect, paving the way for Jenner to emerge later as Caitlyn.
Fictional accounts of transgender lives have taken the airwaves, too. The character of Maya Avant in CBS’s “The Bold and The Beautiful” was recently revealed to be transgender. And ABC Family just launched its new docuseries, “Becoming Us” this past June. The whole movement seems to have taken off with Netflix’s “Orange is the New Black” and Amazon’s award-winning series, “Transparent.”
Though changing social perspectives is key, the biggest hurdle to overcome and the greatest shift in attitudes would come from changes within the home.
“If a parent is well-educated and well sourced with services and support groups, they’re more willing to allow their child to blossom at their own time, instead of trying to suppress the issue,” says Madison. “I think the first thing to understand is to remind [parents] it is their duty to uphold, support, love and nurture their child. I would remind them that they would still love the same child if the child was born deformed. I’ve seen videos of parents going above and beyond to nurse someone who is thought typically brain dead, but at the sign of a child exuding different characteristics or different gender variations, they go into a panic.”
Even well-intentioned parents, like those featured in Raising Ryland by CNN Films, feel confused and alone. In a little more than 13-minutes Ryland’s parents capture the wonder, love and dread involved with raising a gender non-conforming child.
Becoming a supportive parent is not something that takes place overnight. In fact, transitioning — or supporting a child through transition — takes money, time, patience and, most importantly, courage. Everything from getting the acceptance of family and peers during the change to navigating the labyrinthine process of updating identification, can take years, making daily existence much more complicated.
In fact, only 21 percent of transgender people have been able to update all of their IDs to match their true identity. While living with outdated documents is something many experience — think: old addresses, unmarried surnames — transgender Americans have been harassed, asked to leave or even assaulted because of their non-matching IDs. And that makes landing a job or even keeping one even harder.
Transgender Americans face an unbelievable amount of workplace discrimination. Some endure harassment, ridicule and even violence at the hands of their colleagues. Others may be terminated for deciding to transition. Blatant judgment and marginalization can run the gamut from being socially ostracized to being denied services like access to a restroom or health benefits. These practices are so rampant that 57 percent of transgender individuals delay their transition and 71 percent choose to hide their gender in order to maintain their jobs, according to the 2011 survey run by the National Center for Transgender Equality and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force.
And employment is key. According to the same study, members of the transgender community are four times more likely to become homeless after losing a job and experience double the rate of unemployment. The inability to get a job or keep it makes the socio-economic ramifications of discrimination one of the main hardships advocates seek to rectify.
Meaningful change, the kind that is not a passing trend, happens slowly, but it starts with the discussions that are already taking place. We can all work on it, making the gawks turn into looks, the glares into glances and the animosity into anonymity. Let it not matter how someone looks. Let’s celebrate who they are.•
The National Gay and Lesbian Task Force and The National Center for Transgender Equality broke ground with the National Transgender Discrimination Survey of 2011. In the summer of 2015, they are once again assessing the status of this segment of the community with the U.S. Trans Survey. All transgender individuals are invited to share their experiences. For non-transgender Americans looking to help, the survey needs volunteers too. Visit ustranssurvey.org to register or for more information.
Family Acceptance is Crucial
• The 2011 survey by the National Center for Transgender Equality and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force showed that family acceptance has a protective effect against threats to well-being, including health risks such as HIV infection and suicide.
• Only 43 percent of transgender people polled maintained most of their family bonds, while 57 percent experienced family rejection.