The Trans Experience on Long Island
While the nation moves ever toward a progressive future with pro-gay marriage legislation happening in more and more states, many have allowed themselves to think that equality is finally arriving – or even, for some complacent GLBT people and their
allies, here already.
The reality of the GLBT community’s current place in society is in stark contrast to this idea.
Issues like homelessness, healthcare, workplace discrimination, immigration rights – are just some of the steep obstacles the movement toward equal rights currently faces, and no demographic is more at risk today than the transgender community.
These injustices, paired with the often insulting, sometimes horrific portrayal of trans people by the media, have been overshadowed by the successes of the gay and lesbian community.
The Transgender Day of Remembrance (November 20) reminds people of the harsh reality that our trans sisters and brothers face every single day. A few months ago in Harlem, 21-year-old Islan Nettles was brutally assaulted one evening as she and her friends were walking home, leaving her comatose for several days before she was removed from life support. Nettles died a tragic death, and yet the assailant was freed on just $2,000 bail.
Nettles’ case is just one of many instances in which a transgender individual is the victim of violence. She is an illustration of a staggering fact: that one in 12 transgender women will be murdered for her identity, especially if that woman is of color.
And so each year, the Transgender Day of Remembrance commemorates Nettles and all transgender individuals like her who have lost their lives due to violence and hatred. Since its creation in 1998 by activist and Living Out columnist Gwendolyn Ann Smith, the Transgender Day of Remembrance (TDOR) brings attention to the continued hatred and violence the transgender community endures around the world.
In today’s world, the awareness the event brings is critical. The Transgender Law and Policy Institute states approximately 2 to 5 percent of Americans identify as transgender, and almost all report feeling some degree of gender dysphoria – a distressing feeling that their assigned gender or physical body does not match their gender identity.
Between dysphoria, discrimination, and rejection from loved ones, it comes as no surprise that trans individuals face a number of difficulties most Long Islanders do not have to think about. In New York alone, one of three transgender people have been homeless, two of three have experienced discrimination at work, and 30 percent have faced serious physical or sexual assault.
According to the Williams Institute, seven cities and three counties in New York have enacted local ordinances prohibiting discrimination based on gender identity in at least some private sectors, such as private sector employment, housing, and public accommodations. While New York is actually the first state in the nation to enact a Human Rights Law – hailed as a success in protecting workers from all different prejudices – the law does not explicitly prohibit discrimination based on gender identity.
As a result, protections for transgender individuals vary across the board. While New York State prohibits discrimination against transgender employees in state employment and the Dignity for All Students Act contains specific protections from discrimination and bullying on the basis of gender identity and expression in the state’s public schools, on Long Island, only Suffolk County has an ordinance prohibiting gender identity discrimination. Furthermore, Suffolk County does not cover protections from government services and public education. Nassau County is still without any kind of ordinance protecting the trans community.
Just as there is no across-the-board protection, there is no standard experience on what it means to be trans on Long Island – just like there’s no standard experience in coming out as gay, lesbian, or bisexual. The difference is that transgender issues do not receive the mainstream attention and support that other members of the community do.
One such individual is 67-year-old Barbara who has been living on Long Island for years after she happily retired from a 40-year career in aviation. Barbara shares that she played sports and dated girls throughout her youth and even spent four years in the heteronormative Air Force. As a result, some transgender individuals live the majority of their lifetime in secrecy until the guilt that comes from hiding one’s true identity becomes overwhelming.
After going to war, she returned and was soon after happily married with children. Though she presented herself on the outside with typical male behavior, Barbara shares that she felt something was wrong. She secretly cross-dressed all her life, but the secret was quickly becoming a burden.
“About seven or eight years ago, my world was imploding on top of me. My wife and I were not doing well and the sanctuary of the job was falling apart. My life was at its absolute lowest,” Barbara remarks.
Barbara shares that after months of thinking of how to tell her family about her true self, she wrote a letter to her loved ones, hoping that she could speak most freely through writing. Unfortunately, she was not met with the acceptance she hoped would come from her family and friends.
To this day, Barbara reflects that no one has accepted her. In fact, one of her sons has completely disconnected himself and his family from Barbara.
“I found out there is no such thing as unconditional love in my family,” she continues. “In order to see my family and my grandchildren, I have to cross-dress back as a male […] and that is becoming more difficult every time.”
“I have to say I’m the happiest I’ve ever been about me, but if my family would accept me, my life would be perfect. There is always a pain in my heart not being accepted by the people I love just because of who I am,” Barbara shares. “I truly believe my faith in God has got me through it all. I’m sure someday He will grant me my prayer and give me back my family but until then I couldn’t be happier. Barbara is alive and well.”
Like Barbara, many trans women choose to come out later in life: fear of losing their jobs, spouses, or children keeps many in the closet. Luckily, despite the challenges they face as part of being their authentic selves, most report that same happiness.
Joanne, a retired engineer and SAGE-Long Island attendee from North Woodmere,
shared that her experience
of “coming out” was always accompanied by a “paranoid-like fear” – that people would point at her and laugh. Having worked in a male-dominated industry, she remembers being what she calls a “part-time” woman until just five years ago, when she mustered the courage to present as a woman “full-time.”
Joanne had no concrete plan in her “coming out” process, though she did recall hiding her true self from her children and her neighbors by getting dressed secretly in her car to avoid harassment. While she admits that ultimately each step in her transition brought happiness to her life, Joanne notes that her decision was more of a “biological imperative” to express her true self, an inner drive that forced her to venture into the public.
Despite her happiness, her experience has not been perfect. Joanne shares that she was once the victim of violence based on her identity.
“Transgender people are a violation of white male heterosexual dominance—it’s sexism. Sexism is the root of homophobia and transphobia. These phobias affect most adults, especially people of color.”
Luckily, living as her true self has outweighed the hardships: “It was a good decision because I am now euphoric,” Joanne shares.
Like Barbara and Joanne, when many trans people who come out to their family, they often find themselves feeling forced to cross-dress or act a certain way in order to spend time with loved ones. Twenty-one-year-old Chris of Bay Shore shares that same experience. Before coming out as a transgender man to his parents, he would sneak out wearing different clothes and even wore a hood to cover his hair and face.
“I never understood why I felt the way I felt. After I came out, I cut my hair shorter and wore whatever I wanted,” Chris reflects.
Having come out a year ago to his parents and two years ago to his friends, Chris experienced a variety of reactions from his loved ones. Like Barbara, Chris wrote a letter to his mother explaining how he felt.
At first, Chris remembers, she did not fully understand what Chris was disclosing, thinking that Chris was “coming out” as a lesbian. To make matters worse, his father, a religious person, pried at Chris relentlessly until Chris finally said he was transgender, which put a strain on their relationship for some time.
“They soon came to realize how important it was for me [to be true to myself] and started extensive research to try and understand what I was going through,” Chris shares. “A huge triumph in my life is how supportive my mother is now.”
Chris is not actively pursuing hormone replacement therapy (HRT), a medical treatment that helps many trans people transition from one gender to another by modifying secondary sex characteristics. Luckily, he notes that he has not been misgendered much when presenting as male in public.
“My father is still coming along in his own way – a positive way,” Chris continues. “I feel so much better now, but I still go through dysphoria because I am not fully out to everyone so I still live a ‘dual’ life, which is hard on me.”
The transgender umbrella, however, consists of identities more than just male and female, and those labels can be difficult to navigate: Vinny, a 25-year-old resident of Huntington, discloses that he self-identifies as genderqueer and that most of his struggles with his identity seem to be internal.
“I doubt myself constantly – that I don’t pass well or no one takes me seriously in this part of my life,” he remarks.
Though he came out at 21 to most of his friends, a majority of his family does not know that he is trans. A formative experience Vinny reflects on is when he came out during a TDOR presentation at his college.
“I was talking about knowing a good friend of mine prior to and during his transition and said how it helped me realize that I was also transgender,” Vinny continues. “It was the first time I had said it out loud and in front of anyone, let alone these strangers.”
The feeling was validating: After years of doubt and insecurity, he finally admitted to himself who he was and started on the road to self-acceptance.
While coming out during college is difficult, coming out during high school years – a time difficult enough for most teens – can be even more daunting. Joel, a 17-year-old student from East Hampton, was nervous at first in being out as a young trans man to the 200+ students in his year.
On coming out at his school, Joel thinks that it actually made his life easier and taught him a fun way to look at life. He jokes, “Once you can get past all the ignorant idiots in high school, you can make it anywhere!”
Joel shows pride in his identity by serving as the president of his high school’s Gay Straight Alliance and a youth leader with Long Island Gay and Lesbian Youth (LIGALY), and because of his involvement, he has found himself part of a very supportive social circle and school community. The school’s administration has supported and elevated Joel through his experience.
Support, especially during a youth’s formative years, is especially critical to combat the transphobia and violence that runs rampant. Despite the generally positive personal accounts of those interviewed, all acknowledged that there is much work to be done, and that a startlingly disproportionate amount of violence toward transgender women of color is the most important issue to address.
At home, 19 percent of transgender individuals experienced domestic violence at the hands of a family member – at school, 12 percent experienced sexual violence, with 15 percent of trans women and 10 percent of trans men experiencing sexual assault. Fifty percent of transgender people experienced harassment by someone at work, and for undocumented, noncitizens, there was three times the risk of being sexually assaulted at work. Eight percent of transgender people have been physically attacked or assaulted at public service offices, including doctor’s offices, government agencies, and other public venues.
A startling 29 percent were harassed or treated disrespectfully by police officers, with transgender people of color reporting much higher rates. Of this percentage, 20 percent were denied equal services and 6 percent were actually physically assaulted by police officers.
Earlier this year, the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) was reauthorized to include survivors of the GLBT community. Loree Cook-Daniels, the policy and program director at FORGE, an organization devoted to providing peer support to transgender individuals and their loved ones in Wisconsin, states that what is important to understand about the statistics on violence against transgender people is that other forms of violence are emerging.
“While we now have data showing that trans women of color are the most frequent victims of hate crime murders, the statistics show that domestic violence and sexual assault is rampant among both the trans-masculine and trans-feminine populations, regardless of color.”
The work that FORGE and organizations like it do, nationally and here on Long Island, will not be done overnight: The road to acceptance, support, and understanding for trans people will take time, but we must still demand change now.
As the personal accounts by Long Islanders illustrate, every person’s transition experience will be different, and many will be met with support while others will be met with rejection.
What unites these folks every November – the solemn Transgender Day of Remembrance – is what could unite our entire Long Island community every day of the year.
Perhaps by remembering the struggles and hardships that our trans brothers and sisters face, we can empathize in solidarity and stop the violence that kills so many members of our community, person by person, day by day.