Local people seek to educate about complex transgender issues
Earlier this year, transgender issues were thrust into the national spotlight when the Obama administration threatened to withhold federal funding from schools that did not allow transgender students to use the bathroom of their choice, citing Title IX, which prohibits sexual discrimination in any federally funded educational program.
Whether a transgender person can use the bathroom of their choice is just one issue of many that transgender people face on a daily basis.
Gender dysphoria is the distress a person feels when body and gender do not match. Rose, who requested her last name to be withheld for reasons of privacy, said she struggled with gender dysphoria for 15 years.
“The first hint of it really started at 11 when I hit puberty and body hair and things started changing, and I wasn’t comfortable with the changes,” she said. “I began to become uncomfortable with how my body was developing.”
Rose said she first discovered cross-dressing at the age of 13, thanks to the film, “To Wong Foo, Thanks For Everything! Julie Newmar,” but had no concept of transitioning, which is when a transgender person physically transitions into the gender with which they identify through hormone replacement therapy and, sometimes, surgery. It wasn’t until Laura Jane Grace, lead singer for the band Against Me!, transitioned in 2012 that the idea hit home that Rose could transition, too. She said it highlights the importance of transgender representation in media.
“It made it tangible for me to see them go through that and realize that it’s a real thing that people do, not just something you see in movies or hear about in tabloids,” she said.
Dr. Cate Carabelle is a clinical psychologist who has treated transgender people in Southeast Texas since 2004. Prolonged gender dysphoria can lead to a transgender person feeling cut off from society, Carabelle said.
“They don’t feel they’re living their authentic self,” she said. “Their identification differs from their external appearance. Most of the time it’s something that starts very early in life and there’s a feeling, at first, of not feeling OK, not feeling quite right. As the brain matures and we mature socially, it becomes clear that their gender identity is different from what they were born with on the outside. A lot of times that leads to experimentation with cross-dressing and a lot of unhappiness, a lot of confusion — feelings of isolation and lots of depression.”
Riley, who requested his last name not be used for reasons of privacy, said transgender people are often ostracized due to their visibility. He said he felt especially isolated in high school.
“My business was everybody’s business,” he said. “We all knew each other, so word spread really quick. I didn’t experience as much resistance from the students as I did from the teachers. As far as it went with my classmates, it was just kind of awkward because people didn’t know how to talk to me. I was suddenly like this outsider, I guess. I wasn’t a girl and I wasn’t a boy. I was other.”
The targeted discrimination of transgender people often takes the form of “misgendering” the transgender person, or intentionally referring to the person by the wrong gender. This can cause feelings of dysphoria and distress.
“It’s pretty awful, especially if you know the person,” Nathan, who asked that his last name not be used for reasons of privacy, said. “Like, you’ve already come out to them, you’ve been out to them for months, maybe even years, and they still misgender you. You feel like you just got your heart ripped out of your chest.
“There’s a lot of dysphoria that goes along with it, too. It’s like, ‘Oh, am I not acting manly enough? Am I not portraying myself masculine?’”
This is done, often times, because the harasser knows how much work goes into the transition, Carabelle said.
“Sometimes, that’s the easiest way to lash out at something you don’t understand or something you feel negative about,” she said. “They misgender purposefully to hurt the person because unless they’re a stranger, they know a transgender person has worked very hard to get where they are.”
Riley’s parents are Muslim, and while his mother is understanding, communicating with his father can be difficult, he said.
“My dad is more traditionally Muslim, and every time I talk with him it always gets heated and we can’t have a normal discussion,” he said. “With my mom, it’s easier, because she’s very open and she doesn’t think I’m going to hell. Our lives are kind of able to exist without clashing because my mom has her beliefs, and I respect that.
“Being told I was going to hell if I identified a certain way, that didn’t scare me straight — it just made me a very anxious child.”
Other than at school and at home, another place Riley ran into discrimination was at work, he said. Part of the discrimination arose because Riley is “queer,” which is defined as having a non-binary sexual orientation.
“I was out at work as both queer and trans, and my boss took it upon himself to tell my parents that I had a girlfriend because he is also Muslim, like my parents,” Riley said. “He thought my parents should know so they could stop me. So, he told my parents I had a girlfriend when my parents didn’t know, and that caused me a lot of problems at home. It was a bad experience. I just don’t bring it up at work or school anymore.”
According to Brynn Tannehill of the Huffington Post, 40 percent of trans people attempt suicide. This isn’t because the person is trans, Tannehill writes, but is a combination of factors that naturally raise the chances of suicide, such as rejection, discrimination, physical abuse, internalized transphobia and “intersectionality.”
Payshunz Nagashima, educational chair and volunteer at PFLAG, an organization for parents, friends and families of the LGBTQIA community, said intersectionality is when multiple minority identities interact, such as being a Muslim transman or a transgender woman of color. These intersecting identities can lead to social disadvantages and, as a result, a lower quality of life due to discrimination and pay inequality.
“Gay men, from an economic standpoint, are on par with straight males in income potential, and as (gay male) couples, tend to have a slightly higher income than a heterosexual white male, but that’s because a heterosexual white male is married to a woman who doesn’t have the same economic opportunities,” Nagashima said.
“Transwomen of color live on less than $10,000 a year. Being trans, being female, being black — that’s why I talk about intersectionality.”
So far in 2016, 21 trans people have been murdered in the United States, most of them transgender women of color, according to the Human Rights Campaign. Riley said that violence is one source of anxiety and is one reason trans people keep quiet.
“We’re definitely in a society where it’s like, you live in a place where there’s so much violence around people like you, that you don’t want to speak up about being who you are, you know?” he said. “I’m scared for my safety. Constantly. I know it would be worse for me if I was a trans girl, because transwomen face more violence on average than transmen. My family, just because we’re Muslim, we’ve faced hate crimes before, so I know what that’s like.
“I’m only really vocal about my gender identity with friends. It’s scary hearing stories on the news about what happens when people don’t think your gender identity is valid. It’s definitely scary.”
This is why a support system is important, Nagashima said, to combat violence and to be an outlet through which trans people can reach out to others who understand them.
Small schools don’t always have Gay/Straight Alliance organizations for LGBTQIA youth. Riley said this is one reason he felt isolated.
“There were like two queer people,” he said. “When I decided to come to Lamar, the first thing I did was look into queer organizations because that was something that I always wanted to be a part of. I joined the Lamar Allies and it’s been a drastic change in my life. For the first time, I’m surrounded by people who understand me and don’t treat me like a separate class of person.”
Dr. Pamela A. St. Amand, an obstetrics and gynecology specialist at Legacy Health Community Services in Beaumont, said that it can be critical for a community to support transgender people and all members of the LGBTQIA community because they are at risk.
“If there’s not support, it can be very dangerous,” she said. “Some kids, especially young adults, might even stop taking the hormones because they’re not able to live peacefully in their job, at school or with their parents, causing so many issues that they stop the hormones even though they really want to transition.”
This is why seeing a therapist can be helpful, St. Amand said.
“Most of the time, what I tell my adult patients is that it’s helpful to see a counselor, not because you’re trans, but because the rest of the world isn’t,” she said.
Nagashima, who identifies as transmasculine, said that organizations like GSAs, PFLAG, GLAAD, Beaumont Pride and Lamar Allies are important because people often confuse sexuality with gender identity.
“We try to educate people, and the simple way to do it is, ‘Gender is about who I go to bed as. Sexuality is about who I go to bed with,’” he said. “Every month, when we have our meeting, we start off with an educational portion before we go into our support groups. Typically, I try to address whatever is going on currently so that I can provide additional information aside from what people already read about.”
The November meeting, for example, discussed the Transgender Day of Remembrance, so we’ll be discussing topics like that.
Carabelle likened the “Bathroom Bill” furor from earlier this year to bullying the transgender community, which is relatively small in comparison to the larger LGB community.
“The ‘Bathroom Bill,’ and everything that’s covered by the media is sort of an anomaly, because this is a group of people that just want to be themselves,” she said. “They don’t want to have a spotlight shown on them, and they don’t want an issue made of the bathroom, and they don’t want an issue made of their lives. They want to live their lives the way they feel they need to live. I see it as really bullying a very small community that doesn’t want to be in the spotlight.”
Trans people transition into the gender they identify with through injections of either estrogen or testosterone. Getting hormones can be difficult and can present many obstacles, Carabelle said.
“In situations like that, a lot of people will do things that are dangerous, like buy online, and their care isn’t monitored by a doctor,” she said. “It’s also stealth. When you live in a rural area, or even in Jefferson County 10 years ago, it’s safer emotionally to buy online. It’s not safer physically, but it’s hidden.
“Personally, I think that people have a great fear that their doctor will say, ‘That’s nuts. That’s not right,’ or even, around here, we have doctors who are opposed to things like that because of a religious belief. That’s where a support group becomes really helpful.”
Rose said the trans community is the reason she received her hormones, and for that, she’s grateful.
“If I hadn’t had the very positive and healthy trans community behind me, it would have been a lot more difficult,” she said. “I had a situation, when I had first started hormones, where something ended up falling through and it looked like I wasn’t going to be able to continue hormones because I didn’t know where else to get them. The community came together and said, ‘Well, no, you can get them over here.’”
The hormones are crucial, St. Amand said, because her patients often go through a positive transformation once they are in the body with which they identify.
“Once you start them on the hormones, they usually present you with a reduction in stress, anxiety and depression, because they can be who they are and be seen as who they are,” she said.
Nathan said the physical transformation, while positively uplifting and a source of renewed self-confidence, can take some getting used to.
“My voice has definitely deepened,” he said. “I have increased body hair, my face slimmed up — it’s not as round, it’s more defined — and I’m starting to lose my hairline, which is weird. I have a little bit of facial hair. I have to shave for work, but I’ve been off for a few weeks, so there’s a little bit. I shave at least once a week, which is huge for me, because I never ever had to do that before, like, ‘This sucks.’”
Despite the transformation, Riley said his mother has a hard time letting go of who he once was.
“No matter how long I identify a certain way, or if I’ve been on testosterone for 10 years and look completely like a man, I feel like they’re going to still call me by my birth name and call me a girl,” he said. “That’s how they see me. That’s what my mom said. She said, ‘You’re like my baby girl and I don’t want to lose you.’”
Carabelle said she thinks the transgender community is brave, because there are so many trials and tribulations to go through.
“There are a lot of sacrifices they have to make, and it’s not a choice,” she said. “I think that’s important for everyone to understand, that it’s not an, ‘Oh, I’m gonna wake up one day and I’m transgender!’ It’s not like that. It’s a very hard path to take. But on the other side of it is almost always increased personal happiness and confidence, and a whole new life.”
Nathan said one of his biggest supporters has been his mom.
“She’s done so much research,” he said. “She’s gone to support group meetings with me, and she’s become one of my biggest supporters by educating herself, and she also educated others around her.
“It was hard at first, but it’s blossomed into this beautiful thing.”
Nathan said he would extend his definition of family to cover the trans community because of all the support they’ve given him.
“They have really become like my chosen family, my second family, and I would not be where I am today had I not had the support of them,” he said. “I have received nothing but love and support from every single one of them. I mean, I’ve grown up here my whole life. I think it’s a great community, and I think Southeast Texas in general is a great community. People tend to write off transgender people before they’ve met them, so reach out. Be open-minded and educate yourself.”
For more information, visit glaad.org, transequality.org or wpath.org. Those in need of crisis prevention should call the Trevor Lifeline at 1-866-488-7386.
Local organizations such as PFLAG, Beaumont Pride or Lamar Allies may be reached through their Facebook pages.
UP Managing Editor