To judge by popular culture, it might appear that transgender people are finally gaining acceptance in mainstream society. Laverne Cox, known for her role in the Netflix drama “Orange is the New Black,” recently made the cover of Time magazine, next to the headline “the transgender tipping point.”
Janet Mock made the New York Times bestseller list with her book “Redefining Realness,” a memoir of growing up a trans girl.
But according to local transgender activists, the current reality for most is far from that experienced by celebrities like Cox and Mock. For anyone whose gender doesn’t conform to the traditional image of male or female, the barriers to success — even to basic survival — are everywhere. That’s why the city of Minneapolis is convening a “Transgender Equity Summit” on Sept. 25.
Many trans youth face rejection from their families, forcing them out onto the street to fend for themselves. Their situation is complicated by their photo IDs. A transgender woman with a driver’s license that identifies her as a man faces huge barriers to both employment and housing.
“I had to take a young woman to the Greyhound recently because she’d lost her housing,” said Roxanne Anderson, who worked for years with homeless trans youth as the director of TYSN — the Trans Youth Support Network. “She moved in with somebody she thought was her friend, and was there less than a month when her friend said, ‘we’ve been evicted.'”
Anderson said that’s a common story, but unfortunately most trans youth don’t have someone who can bail them out.
“They couch hop, and then that gets old and then they just don’t have any place to go,” Anderson said. “It happens over and over and it’s not just young folk — it happens a lot in the trans community. It’s an issue we don’t talk about a lot and it’s kind of an unseen number in the count. We count homeless people in Minnesota and often trans folks get left out of that count because they’re invisible.”
Many transgender youth find going to school particularly painful. Garrett Hoffman, who is working on his doctorate at the University of Minnesota, said while he is thriving in the academic environment, he’s the exception, not the rule.
“When I work with trans students, there are a lot of compounding issues that might limit students access to higher education, particularly financial, and particularly if the student is looking to medically transition because that costs a lot of money,” Hoffman explained.
Hoffman said he sees students who have been disowned by their parents and have to apply for financial independence from their parents to quality for appropriate student loans.
“I’m also working with students who are needing to drop out to transition because they can’t keep up with their course work when they’re going to work and their professor is calling them by a different name than the one they had explicitly told them they wanted to be called by,” he said.
In addition to the barriers in education, housing and employment, transgender people are often isolated from their community. Until only recently their stories were rarely told in mainstream media. Many see that invisibility as one of the barriers to improving their rights and their lives. It also has an enormous psychological impact.
“One of the biggest killers in our community is isolation,” said Katie Burgess, a performance artist, juggler and outspoken community activist. “The only place I saw trans folks growing up was on Jerry Springer. I was 18 the first time I met another trans woman, and that changed my life.”
While Burgess is critical of pop culture and mainstream media, she still recognizes the powerful impact of trans celebrities like Laverne Cox and Janet Mock, and how their fame is channeling attention to trans issues.
Andrea Jenkins, who has been “out” as a trans woman for more than 20 years, works as a policy aide for Minneapolis City Council Member Elizabeth Glidden. Jenkins said she was deeply moved by seeing Laverne Cox on the cover of Time, not just because Cox is transgender, but because she is a woman of color.
“But what I’m not hearing are the stories of people who died from complications of AIDS, and the struggles that transgender women — particularly women of color — face, in terms of isolation, stigma, the dual realities of racism and trans phobia,” Jenkins said. “Those are the stories we need to hear more about, in all forms of media. There’s some powerful determination and resilience in those stories and they have a universality that transcends just the sensationalism of being transgender.”
While the transgender community is working to break down stereotypes and raise awareness around issues like housing, education and health care, it is still plagued by internal battles. Some are disappointed over how transgender people are treated by the gay and lesbian community, even at events such as the annual Pride parade.
Performance artist Jaime Carrera said such disappointment is not new. Even something as simple as language has can divide trans people along generational lines, he said, noting that words such as “tranny” and “faggot” are triggers for some, but for others part of their community’s history.
Carrera points to the popular show “Ru Paul’s Drag Race,” which has recently taken flack for its language.
“I love the word tranny; I don’t think it’s offensive,” Carrera said.. “I use those words to empower myself. So I feel like [this language debate is] kind of a waste of time, and it’s taking attention away from things that are far more important. We need to make sure people don’t murder us, and that people actually go to jail for that. Fighting over a drag queen saying ‘tranny’ to me is the stupidest thing.”
Kelly Brazil, a sculptor and case manager with the GLBT host home program, said pop culture has an all-too-powerful influence on people, and it’s important to stay focused on issues that matter.
“I spend less time encouraging homeless youth to pick up Time magazine or watch TV than to actually sit and have a conversation about what they really need,” Brazil said. “Often it’s going to the government center with them to get their ID changed, or going to HCMC to go to a doctor for the first time. It’s about struggling with the systems and the bullshit every day. And really attempting to help them the gain the confidence to do what they want to do. Because often times they can’t get a job because they don’t have an education. They don’t have an ID. They don’t have supportive adults that will help them get up in the morning — so what’s the point really?”
For all the hardships that trans youth experience as they look for acceptance and stability, some say they think things have improved over the years for the trans community. Carrera said he has faith things will continue to get better.
“I’m envious of the youth of today. I’m not saying all our problems are gone — I don’t think they’ll ever be gone,” he said. “People don’t like to hear this, but racism is always going to exist, trans phobia is always going to exist, homophobia is always going to exist, sexism is always going to exist. We’ve just got to find a way to make our society function a lot better with those things, knowing that they’re going to be a constant. It’s human nature. We can’t make people love us, but we can make them know that we have a lot of power, just like they do.”
Toward that end, the Transgender Equity Summit on Sept. 25 aims to help the transgender community claim some of that power.