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The High Cost of Awareness

In late September of 2009, I came to a critical decision point in my life. At that time in my life, I was a very unhappy father and husband, and I did not see a future. The decision that I was faced with was whether and how to tell my wife of 18 years that I wanted a divorce because I needed out of the marriage to protect myself from being a target of irrational bouts of anger and occasional violent behavior. Upon making the decision to end the marriage, I was instantaneously presented with a new decision. You see, for about 40 years, I had kept a secret that I swore I would take to my grave. That secret was that since at least six years of age, I’d known that I was not a boy, and without the pressure of having to worry about how it would affect my marriage, I was suddenly free to do something about it. My story is not unique, and this post is not about me. It is about the rest of a community of millions who struggle every day against seemingly insurmountable obstacles to just be happy.

Over the years since, I have had the honor of working with hundreds of people like me. People who have grown up, or are growing up, knowing that they too have felt the same as me. They also have almost universally come to me in a state of fear. Fear of what doing something about this would mean for their life. Fear of how of how it would affect their relationships with family and friends. Fear of losing their sometimes-lengthy careers, income, and prospects for future employment. Fear of being marginalized, othered, and many times, fear of violence that they may experience just for coming to terms with who they truly are living an authentic life.

In the time since I came out and began living my life fully as a transgender woman, our community has experienced explosive growth. Thanks mostly to social media, people finally had a vehicle to share their experiences, to learn about what they have been going through, and to find their tribe. Prior to the advent of the Internet, this just was not possible. Social media and changing social attitudes have given many people the green light to pursue their personal dreams, but it is a double-edged sword. Increased exposure begets increased attention and that attention is not always positive.

Each year, from November 13th to 19th, our community celebrates Transgender Awareness Week. This is a week set aside for community members and advocates to take action to educate the world about who we are by sharing our stories and experiences, advocating for equal rights, and exposing the challenges that our community experiences. It’s a week when we share not only the joys of living authentically, but also the trauma of self-loathing, family rejection, social rejection, poverty, homelessness, and discrimination in virtually every aspect our lives. Some of us are fortunate enough to live in areas, like Erie County, where discrimination is banned on the basis of gender identity and expression in employment, housing, and public accommodations. But, 70% of our community nationwide do not enjoy these protections. For these people, every day can be a struggle. Every day can be a fight for your safety and your life. Every day is traumatic just by virtue of knowing what they must face just to live life.

Between 2008 and 2016, our government went to great lengths to “see” us and in fact stated so on national TV. For the first time in our history, our government was on our side and for the first time, we felt a sense of safety and hope. Then the 2016 election happened and everything changed. This is not meant to be partisan, but simply a statement of fact. Our government turned on us and began an all-out assault on our very right to even exist.

Virtually all of the protections that had been put in place during the previous years were systematically undone and new efforts were begun to further erode our ability to live, work , and play without fear. On the very first day of the current administration, every single mention of LGBTQ people was erased from the websites of the White House, the State Department, and the Department of Labor. You can view the entire history of this erasure of protections for all LGBTQ below by viewing “The Discrimination Administration.”

The current state of affairs for transgender people is bleak. Just this past week, the FBI released a report stating that hate crimes hit a 16-year high and the transgender community alone experienced a 41% rise in hate-based crimes, and this number is, in fact much lower than reality due to underreporting and failure to recognize transgender people’s identities in media and law enforcement reports. The government recently took steps to allow doctors to discriminate against transgender people if caring for them violates “sincerely held religious beliefs.” The future state of employment for transgender people and the LGBTQ community as a whole, hangs in the balance at the mercy of the Supreme Court. Our Federal government has been hijacked by a religious right hell bent on erasing us from every safe space and conversation through alliances with organizations like Alliance Defending Freedom. In a recent Texas custody battle over whether an 11 year-old child has the right to live her life authentically through social transition has become a rallying point for conservative candidates, and several southern states have begun efforts to make allowing minors to receive medically-necessary affirmative care akin to child abuse, even though every single major medical and mental health organization has affirmed the long-term benefits of social transition and medically appropriate medical interventions for minors who consistently, insistently, and persistently wish to express their true gender identity..

This all leads us to the day after Transgender Awareness Week. November 20th, Transgender Day of Remembrance (TDOR), is a day set aside each year to honor the lives and work of transgender and gender non-binary people who have lost their lives due to anti-transgender bias and violence. TDOR was begun in 1999 by transgender advocate Gwendolyn Ann Smith in response to the murder of a trans woman named Rita Hester. Gwendolyn stated, "Transgender Day of Remembrance seeks to highlight the losses we face due to anti-transgender bigotry and violence. I am no stranger to the need to fight for our rights, and the right to simply exist is first and foremost. With so many seeking to erase transgender people -- sometimes in the most brutal ways possible -- it is vitally important that those we lose are remembered, and that we continue to fight for justice."

Trauma is an ever-present condition in our community. We suffer traumas of the past that we were not even a part of, we suffer the current trauma of being denied the most basic necessities of life and the right to live lives free of hate, and we suffer the ongoing trauma of efforts to erase our existence going forward. We grieve for these we’ve lost, while continuing to do the work to make it all stop through education, advocacy for public policy, advocacy for culturally-competent healthcare, housing, employment, etc. In 2020, we will be fighting for our very existence, and that thought alone is debilitating to many people who have fought so hard to move the needle even just a little.

So, what can you do? Make a conscious effort to get to know transgender and gender non-binary people where you live. Learn about their fears, their struggle, and their victories. Attend their events and let them know that you see them and support them. These days, loving and supporting a transgender person is a revolutionary act, so let’s work get this revolution back on track.


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