By Cory Alexander Haywood
Social media is still coming down from the high attached to Caitlyn Jenner’s 2015 debut on the cover of Vanity Fair Magazine.
Formerly a White male, Jenner’s sudden and highly publicized coming-out-party has quickly elevated her to the role of ambassador for the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender) community.
Jenner’s transparency has raised skepticism among her critics. They believe her picture perfect story is fool’s gold—that she is protected by the insulated walls of Hollywood and White privilege. This isn’t the case for many other transgender women, particularly those of color. For them, life is an unsteady road of hardship and discrimination.
“I don’t know of any transgender who has not been arrested, raped or made to suck a policeman’s ,” asserts Dr. Wilbert Jordan, founder and director of the OASIS Clinic and AIDS Program at the King Drew Medical Center in Los Angeles. “All of my clients have told me that this stuff has happened to them. [Jenner] has never walked down the street and (had) eggs be thrown at him. His journey is not typical at all of transgenders. He’s making a mockery of the whole thing. To give him an award is an insult.”
Jordan added angrily, “What group of people are more isolated than transgenders? Ninety-nine percent of my clients have been abandoned by their families. I have two clients in jail now because they got into a fist fight with people who were laughing and mocking them on the bus. They go through hell. Bruce Jenner will never go through the bull— my clients have gone through.”
In a 2013 report by the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs, it was reported that 72 percent of victims of anti-LGBT homicide were transgender women, and 89 percent of victims were people of color.
In 2014, there were seven reported killings of transgender women of color in the United States: Kandy Hall in Maryland, Zoraida Reyes in California, Yaz’min Shancez in Florida, Tiffany Edwards in Ohio, Mia Henderson in Maryland, an unnamed woman in Michigan, and, just recently Alejandra Leos in Tennessee.
Many of the women’s causes of death have not been released, but from what is known, the victims were shot, burned, or stabbed to death, reports The Huffington Post.
“If White America has a cold, and Black America has the flu, then Black transgender people have pneumonia,” says Amorie Robinson, a clinical therapist based in Detroit, Mich.
“They’re at high risk for many psycho-social stressors. Discrimination against transgenders intersects with social class which can, and often does, affect access to employment and other important resources. It even effects their educational advancement.”
Robinson continued, “As we look at Ferguson and other traumas in our community, we fail to even realize that it is Black transwomen who are disproportionately being assaulted and verbally abused. They’re also victims of violence from their own family (not to mention) police. Our own communities have been attacking transgenders. These are our brothers and sisters. We cannot afford to sacrifice the strength of our unity because of these petty differences.”
Results from the National Transgender Discrimination Survey, published in theroot.com, show that Black transgender women are disproportionately discriminated against and overrepresented in several categories, including poverty (34 percent earn less than $10,000 annually—twice the rate of transgender people of other races), housing (41 percent experience homelessness, and 38 percent have been refused housing because of bias), employment (26 percent unemployment rate, and 32 percent job loss due to bias), medical care (21 percent have been refused medical care due to bias), and HIV-positive status (20 percent). Half of respondents said they have had to resort to sex work and the distribution of illegal substances in order to survive.
Data collected by local health departments and scientists studying urban communities show high levels of HIV infection and racial/ethnic disparities. According to these reports, 73 percent of the transgender women who tested HIV-positive were unaware of their status.
Higher percentages of newly identified HIV-positive test results were found among African American transgender women (56.3 percent) than among White (16.7 percent) or Latino (16.1 percent) transgender women; and self-reported HIV infection in studies made up predominantly of Black transgender women (30.8 percent) was higher than similar studies comprising mainly White transgender women (6.1 percent). Studies also indicate that Black transgender women are more likely to become infected with HIV.
“Many will end up prostituting to make money to buy testosterone blockers and estrogen pills [drugs that enhance femininity] because they don’t have the money to buy it in the first place,” explains Jordan.
“They don’t buy these drugs from a pharmacy. They aren’t prescribed by a doctor. They get them off the street and the Internet. It’s black market consumerism.”
He continued, “[transgender women] often purchase watered down drugs from Mexico. Some of the drugs require a needle injection. Many of my clients have shared needles with other people. That’s one of the ways they contract HIV. When we test transgenders, more than half test positive for the disease.”
Financial instability often prevents transgender men and women from achieving a full physical transition.
“That’s why so many Black transgender women still look like men,” explains Jordan. “It’s certainly not by choice. They can’t afford genital reassignment surgery or cosmetic surgery. Those procedures cost thousands of dollars. That’s out of range for most minorities.”
He added, “The ones who don’t pass for women are ostracized the most. I have a few (who look like men) who have tried to join women’s rights organizations. They were shunned and turned away. It was as if the cause was less important than the people fighting it.”
According to published reports, there are more African American male-to-female transgenders than female-to-male (27 percent vs. 10 percent). At first glance, this disparity might appear to reinforce the notion that outside forces are contributing to the emasculation of Black males. However, there’s a simpler, less daunting explanation for this phenomenon, says Robinson.
“It’s male privilege. Men generally make more money and can afford to pay for the expenses associated with gender reassignment. On the converse end, women usually are the caretakers of the home and the children. They don’t have the mobility or flexibility that men do. These factors make it harder for women to undergo transition.”
Much about the transgender community, such as its size, remains opaque, writes Claire Miller of The New York Times.
The main reason is that the United States Census Bureau and other keepers of official records do not ask about gender identity. Also, gender identity can be fluid and hard to define in a multiple-choice list. There are now more than 50 gender options on Facebook, for instance.
Some researchers are also concerned that the population is undercounted because of a reluctance among some transgender people to discuss it with survey takers or signify it on a government form. In a study by the National Center for Transgender Equality and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, 71 percent of transgender people said they hid their gender or gender transition to try to avoid discrimination.
In 2013, the Census Bureau analyzed people who most likely were transgender, based on the fact that they had changed their name or sex with the Social Security Administration.
Since the Social Security Administration started in 1936, 135,367 people have changed their name to one of the opposite gender, and 30,006 also changed their sex accordingly. Of Americans who participated in the 2010 census, 89,667 had changed their names and 21,833 had also changed their sex.
According to the study, people are most likely to make the change in their mid-30s. But transgender women—male at birth but who identify as women—often begin transitioning later in life than transgender men.
“Gender identity is internal. Biological sex is external,” explains Robinson. “A person feels naturally that they are in the wrong body—that’s not a decision; it can’t be put into a specific category.”
Although LGBTs aren’t readily accepted by the general population, there are signs of increased tolerance on the horizon. In addition, traditional values and social norms are slowly being replaced by a greater sensitivity toward the civil rights of all minority groups. As a result, many transgender persons feel a deeper sense of security and self-confidence.
“You’d be surprised at how many men are attracted to people like me,” says Kiki Williams, who began charting a course for her transition when she was 18 years old.
“When I was in high school, the other boys didn’t ridicule me—they were too busy trying to get in my pants,” she laughed.
With a coy, self-satisfied grin, Williams proudly recalled her sexual exploits with past lovers. “Men approach me all the time. Some are married; others have a fetish for my type. I’ve been with a few who swore they would never come back. It wasn’t long before they were asking me for another b—. These guys know what I am and, they don’t care.”
Broad-shouldered, muscular, and measuring a formidable six-foot three inches tall, Williams isn’t as polished as other “passable” transgender women. She’s unmistakably male—her chiseled jaw-line and sharp features clash with her curly blond hair and acrylic fingernails. Also disrupting the illusion, Williams’ powerful legs and strapping torso wreak havoc on the delicate fabric of her clothes—a combination of pencil skirts, skin-tight dresses, yoga pants and high-heels.
Nevertheless, Williams views herself as a woman through and through. It’s a feeling she began to embrace during her youth. “I started wearing my mom’s heels when I was five,” she explained. “I would put on her makeup and steal the dresses from her closet. She didn’t like it. But she couldn’t stop me from doing what I wanted to do. No parent can.”
Despite her mother’s interference, Williams continued to veer away from the traditional behavior of an adolescent male. She was at odds with her natural gender; it became a burden over which she had no control nor could subdue.
Like Williams, others who grapple with gender dysphoria feel strongly that they are not the gender they physically appear to be.
For example, a person who has a penis and all other physical traits of a male might feel instead that he is actually a female. That person would have an intense desire to have a female body and to be accepted by others as a female. Or, someone with the physical characteristics of a female would feel her true identity is male. In more severe cases, a sex-change operation may be an option. This is surgery to change the person’s genitals. It also includes taking hormones. However, before this treatment is considered, the person will undergo in-depth psychological and psychiatric evaluation and counseling.
According to WebMD.com, feeling that your body does not reflect your true gender can cause severe distress, anxiety and depression. “Dysphoria” is a feeling of dissatisfaction, anxiety, and restlessness.
In children, additional symptoms may include:
• Consistently saying they are really a girl even though they have the physical traits of a boy (or vice versa)
• Strongly preferring friends of the sex with which they identify
• Rejecting the clothes, toys, and games typical for their gender
• Refusing to urinate in the way that is gender typical
• Wanting to get rid of their genitals and have the genitals of their true sex
• Having extreme distress about the body changes that happen during puberty
A consensus is forming among mental health professionals who acknowledge the legitimacy of gender dysphoria among children and teenagers.
“I’ve observed symptoms [of gender identity disorder] in kids as early as preschool age,” says Milton Diamond, Ph.D., director of The Pacific Center for Sex and Society (PCSS) at the University of Hawaii. “One mother told me that her autistic son took a knife and held it to his penis. She said he wanted to cut it off. At three years old, he couldn’t explain what he was feeling. But he found a way to express his gender preference to his mother. That’s a very big deal”
“In some prehistoric and early contact communities, children would be permitted to select which gender they belonged to—it’s documented in literature,” explains Sandra Faiman-Silva, professor emeritus of anthropology at Bridgewater State University.
“In Native American indigenous cultures, ‘third gender’ people were held in high regard as spiritual leaders. These practices have also been documented among African tribes, in Asia, India, and the Pacific islands.”
Faiman-Silva says that European settlers and their Judeo Christian belief system ultimately eradicated transgender worship in ancient civilizations.
“They were forced to conform to what was being imposed upon them,” she explained. “These practices disappeared by the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The Western world never adopted them.”
Due to religious prohibition and various biases, the world may never fully embrace the transgender community. Robinson says that mutual understanding is the key to bridging the gap.
“It’s not a lifestyle. It’s a life. If transpeople lived in a world where they didn’t have to hide, then we would see a lot more people coming out earlier. But the stigmas of being who they are place them at risk.”