The education and policy needs of transgender individuals.
Similarly, Trevor was harassed out of school because he identifies as "genderqueer." Trevor was born female but is presenting mostly as a guy, which has made his thoughts of suicide subside. Trevor, like Keisha, faces harassment on the street. Although many might think he would be safer looking like a boy, people can see he was born female and this puts him in danger.
Keisha and Trevor are both transgender--an umbrella term used to describe a wide range of identities and experiences. It refers to many types of people, including transsexual people, crossdressers, androgynous people, and genderqueers. Other gender non-conforming people identify as transgender because their appearance or characteristics are perceived to be gender-atypical. In its broadest sense, "transgender" encompasses anyone whose identity or behavior falls outside stereotypical gender expectations.
It is important to understand, however, that some people may identify as transgender but not fall into one of the subcategories discussed here. At the same time, many individuals, despite the fact that they may appear transgender to some, do not consider themselves to be transgender. We must not label people transgender based on our perceptions, but instead use the words they use to describe themselves.
Transgender people like Keisha and Trevor face numerous challenges. Many of these difficulties could be eliminated by increasing the number and quality of resources available and making minor shifts in policy, from ensuring that people have support in dealing with harassment, to working to eradicate the discrimination and harassment they face. One does not need to be transgender or an expert on transgender people and issues to make these changes. By caring about transgender people, devoting time to policy changes, and helping to develop new resources, we can all take part in creating positive change.
TRANSGENDER ISSUES AND EXPERIENCES
Transgender people face situations that negatively affect very basic needs, and cause ongoing problems. They may face constant danger of emotional or physical harm, encounter workplace discrimination; they may be asked to show identification that doesn't match their identity; or they may be obliged to use unsafe public restrooms several times each day.
Transgender youth experience many of the same issues that transgender adults face, and then some. Transgender youth often do not have the same access to resources as adults do, and may depend on adults who do not approve of their being transgender. As a result, transgender youth can find themselves in scary situations. Some of the most pressing issues transgender people face include:
Harassment. Transgender people are often harassed. Harassment can make a workplace unwelcoming, and it can cause students to leave school. Ninety percent of transgender youth feel unsafe in school because of their gender expression, according to the GLSEN 2001 National School Climate Survey. Skipping school, dropping out, and suicidal thoughts are common.
Discrimination on the job. Transgender people experience pervasive discrimination. Those seeking employment, whether young or old, are often rejected simply because their gender identity does not match their assigned sex at birth. Whether an applicant "looks" transgender or presents a driver's license or educational/work history that reveals his/her transgender background, transgender people are consistently denied the opportunity simply to make a living.
Transgender youth often begin with restricted job opportunities because of the negative experiences they have already faced in school. Many transgender youth skip so much school, as a result of harassment, that they lack the educational experience, high school degree, or opportunity to go to college that their peers have had. Add discrimination to this mix, and it can be nearly impossible for a transgender person to find work. Unfortunately, in major urban areas, huge numbers of transgender youth opt to make a living in the only ways available to them: by engaging in dangerous criminal behavior such as sex work or trading drugs.
Access to medical care. Transgender people are routinely denied transgender-related health care, even when they have medical insurance. Insurance policies typically exclude all sex-reassignment surgery, and some also exclude hormone therapy and counseling related to being transgender. Youth, whose parents typically make medical decisions for them, and who may be too young to qualify for the handful of programs set up to help transgender individuals get transgender-related care, are typically unable to get the care they need. The inability to get health care through doctors and insurance leads many transgender people, including many transgender youth, to buy black-market hormones, the use of which can be dangerous without medical supervision.
Accurate identification documents. Transgender people who live as a gender different from that of their birth typically need to update their identification documents to reflect their new status. While names can often be changed for a fee, it may be too high for a transgender youth to afford. Parents may also interfere with their transgender child's efforts to change names.
Changing the gender on a driver's license can be relatively easy or it can be impossible, depending on the state. Some drivers' licenses can be changed with a letter from a counselor or doctor explaining that a person lives as, and should be considered to be, an individual of a new gender. Other states require proof that a person has had sex reassignment surgery. For transgender youth, getting their gender changed on the license even in the "easy" states can feel impossible, especially if the youth does not have access to counselors or doctors to write the letter or does not have supportive parents. In places where surgery is required, it is actually impossible for young people to get their drivers' licenses changed because surgery is only available to those over 18.
Not having identification with one's correct name and gender can make it nearly impossible to do things such as getting a job. It can also pose a danger when police ask for ID and a transgender person is outed in that process.
The bathroom. Like everyone else, transgender people need to use public restrooms, but often their appearance can make others believe they are in the "wrong bathroom." Transgender people can be arrested, or disciplined, for using the "wrong" restroom when, in reality, they are simply trying to use the safest and most appropriate restroom. Rigid rules about people having to have sex reassignment surgery before using the restroom of their new gender make life extremely difficult for transgender people. Genderqueer youth are especially in need of unisex restrooms where no one will hassle or arrest them for being in the "wrong" place.
HIV and other sexual risks. Transgender people are disproportionately affected by HIV and other STDs, primarily as a result of engaging in sex work to attempt to make a living (unsafe sex pays better than safe sex). Furthermore, trends favoring abstinence-only-until-marriage programs over comprehensive sexuality education leave young people, including transgender youth, ill-equipped to protect themselves from HIV and other STDs.
RIGHTS ARE RAPIDLY INCREASING
At the beginning of 2002, only 6.5% of the country (by population) was covered by anti-discrimination laws with language clearly covering the transgender community. Now, approximately 25% of the country is covered. Four states--California. New Mexico, Minnesota, and Rhode Island--and more than 70 cities and counties have transgender protections clearly written into law. Another five states have court or administrative rulings that provide strong transgender protections, taking the percentage of the covered population up another 10%, to 35%.
These laws are passing in conservative and small places, as well as the urban centers. Covington, KY, for example, passed such a law with a 5-0 vote. In the last few years, two developments have spurred the fast passage of these laws: (1) the transgender movement has become more organized, coordinated, and sophisticated, and (2) non-transgender allies have really begun to roll up their sleeves and get to work passing these laws and policies. In the past few years, the transgender movement has become significantly stronger, not only because more people are living openly as transgender and advocating for themselves, but also because numerous allies have joined the fight. These changes lead to increased social acceptance, which then allows more people to live openly. Additionally, the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender movements have increasingly come together into the LGBT movement, whereas before the last few years, most LGB organizations did not address transgender rights at all.
A good example of how these advances have led to results is the safe schools bill that passed in New Jersey in 2002. This law now requires that all school districts have a written anti-bullying and harassment policy and defines harassment to include incidents based on "gender identity or expression," the language needed to cover transgender students. This story is particularly uplifting because the bill, as originally introduced, did not include gender identity or expression. The Gender Rights Association of New Jersey (a new transgender organization) decided to make changing that bill its first legislative project. Several dedicated individuals became key to moving this legislation along, including a retired school psychologist who spoke to legislators about the damaging effects of harassment on students, explaining that students who are harassed suffer from depression, lack of concentration, and low self-esteem. After hearing from transgender people and educators, and seeing the support of many allied groups, the sponsors of the legislation amended the bill in both the Senate and Assembly education committees by adding the phrase "gender identity or expression." The bill passed unanimously, 74-0 in the Assembly and 38-0 in the Senate and became law in September 2002.
WE CAN ALL PLAY A ROLE
Transgender people are coming out at ever younger ages. Students are openly living as transgender, even in elementary school. Young transgender people need support. They need laws to give them rights. They need teachers and administrators who make sure that the school environment is safe. They need additional safe places and spaces.
In education and politics, simple actions can make a big difference. The following is a brief list of simple ideas and suggestions:
Help a Gay-Straight Alliance. Gay-Straight Alliances can give transgender students a safe place to be. Help support the GSA at a local school and make sure that the programming of the GSA is trans-inclusive. If a GSA does not yet exist, help found one.
Implement a curriculum on transgender people. If out transgender people are being harassed at school, it may make sense to have course content on transgender people. This material could be included in sexuality education or in a "current events" class. Or perhaps it is the teachers who need an education. No Dumb Questions, a short video showing young nieces of "Aunt Barb" getting the answers to their questions when their uncle becomes an aunt, is a good resource for educating both students and staff.
Support an LGBT youth organization. These organizations save kids' lives by providing safe spaces after school and on the weekends, and helping kids who have been kicked out or have run away from unsupportive homes. Volunteering for the board of one of these organizations, or starting a new organization in a community where none exists, can make a huge impact on young people.
Create knowledgeable counselors. Having someone supportive to talk to can do wonders, but school counselors need to be up to speed in order to support transgender students. An educational campaign aimed at school counselors can help ensure that when the time comes, they will be able to help by knowing what the term transgender means and by being aware of the resources that are available for their students. Simple things help, too: "LGBT" Safe Zone stickers on doors and windows, for example, let students know that supportive people are nearby to help them.
Stop harassment at school. Transgender students complain that teachers and other staff don't come to their aid when they are harassed. Not only should staff immediately help a targeted student, but schools should consider developing stronger anti-harassment policies and procedures. In many cases, the entire staff needs anti-harassment training, and students need to be reminded of the policies against harassment.
Design gender-neutral bathrooms at school. Bathrooms are a major headache for transgender students. Males who are not gender-conforming are often beaten up in the boys' restrooms, but aren't allowed to use any others. Genderqueer people are not safe in either restroom. Having at least one unisex restroom is best; that way, every student can be safe.
Eliminate the gender-specific dress code. If there are dress restrictions based on sex, eliminate them. These codes cause transgender students, who are often disciplined for violating them, significant pain. Besides, should schools be in the business of enforcing sex stereotypes? If schools don't want boys to wear skirts, then maybe girls shouldn't be wearing them either.
Pass a law or policy. Sometimes passing laws or instituting policies is necessary to help transgender people be treated with respect. Adding "gender identity or expression" to the school's or school district's anti-harassment policy, or working to pass a statewide safe schools or anti-discrimination law will go a long way toward making the environment more supportive of transgender people. If transgender people have the right to go to school without harassment and to be judged fairly on their work performance, things would be much better.
Measures like these have helped Keisha and Trevor. Both get support from the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender youth support organization where Keisha is working toward her GED. The local HIV/AIDS clinic in town has just begun a program where transgender people can get hormones. Keisha is desperately waiting for her 18th birthday to be eligible for the program; she knows that buying estrogen on the streets, and injecting silicone, isn't as safe as having doctors prescribe and monitor it, and she only has 5 months before she can go that route. If she were younger, and if this program didn't exist, she would probably do what many of her young transgender sisters have done, going the route of unsafe silicone or hormones on the black market. Trevor, on the other hand, knows he wants to take testosterone eventually, but isn't sure how far he wants to go with it--he is still figuring that out along with whether or not he should go for a GED. Having the support of the LGBT youth program is a lifesaver for both of them.
RELATED ARTICLE: TRANSGENDER: THE BASICS
The following definitions are designed to provide some basic concepts and terms often used to describe transgender people:
Gender identity. All people have a gender identity. Gender identity refers to a person's internal sense of being male, female, or something else. For most people, one's gender identity matches the sex assigned to them at birth--for example, a person born female typically identifies as a girl, and later, as a woman. For many transgender people, there may not be a match.
Gender expression. All people also have a gender expression. Gender expression refers to all of the ways that people express their gender (or gender identity) to the outside world, such as dress, appearance, and behavior. For many transgender people, their gender expression doesn't match what society expects.
Transsexual. Refers to individuals who identify psychologically and emotionally as a gender different from their assigned sex at birth. Transsexuals may desire to modify their bodies through hormones and/or sex reassignment surgery in order to bring their physical appearance into line with their gender identity.
Transition. The process of identifying and living in one's new gender is called "transition." It may or may not include surgery and/or hormone treatment. Many people who would like surgery to alter their bodies cannot afford it or are not medically able to have it.
Cross-dressers. Cross-dressers are people who dress in clothing stereotypically worn by the other sex, but who have no intent of changing their gender. Cross-dressers typically cross-dress on a part-time or limited basis.
Androgynous. Androgynous people and those who identify as "genderqueer" typically have gender identities that are somewhere between what is stereotypically considered to be male and female. Other terms include "femme queens," "bois," "butch bois" or "drags." They may be born as male or as female, but now identify as neither, or as a bit of both.
Gender non-conforming. Gender non-conforming refers to people whose gender expressions do not match stereotypes of how girls/women or boys/men are "supposed to" look and act. In reality, almost nobody is perfectly masculine or perfectly feminine. In fact, most people do not meet all gender expectations and stereotypes. The reason gender non-conforming people are included in the list of transgender people is that there are some people who identify as transgender but are not transitioning gender, and do not consider themselves cross-dressers, androgynous, or genderqueer.
Transgender women. Refers to transgender people who were born male but now live as women.
Transgender men. Refers to transgender people who were born female but now live as men.
It is important to realize how much people can differ from one another when it comes to gender identity or expression. Also, class, race, and religious differences may mean that some transgender people use different classifications and different terminology to refer to themselves. For example, some Native Americans use "two-spirit" as the preferred term for a transgender person. Other people identify as "bi-gendered," the meaning of which is different for different people.
What is abundantly clear is that no two people experience their gender, gender identity, or gender expression the same way. Moreover, language relating to gender identity and expression is constantly changing. For now, "transgender" is a broad term that is good for educators, policymakers, and caring professionals to use.
Lisa Mottet, J.D.
Legislative Lawyer, Transgender Civil Rights Project
National Gay and Lesbian Task Force
Lisa Mottet serves as the Legislative Lawyer for the Transgender Civil Rights Project of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force. She provides assistance to activists working to pass or implement transgender-related laws and policies.
To receive assistance from the Transgender Civil Rights Project of the Task Force, email Lisa Mottet at email@example.com or call 202/639-6308.
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|Date:||Sep 22, 2004|
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