What does it mean to be transgender in America today? The San Diego Press Club recently hosted a panel of six transgender activists to discuss the topic at Urban Mo’s Bar and Grill in Hillcrest. The event was part of the larger series LGBT In The News, started in 2013 by noted southern California journalist Thom Senzee.
The event sponsors included Urban Mo’s, SAG-AFTRA (Screen Actor’s Guild, American Federation of Television and Radio Artists), the Gender Illumination organization, Dr. Bronner’s Organic Liquids and Soaps, Skyy Vodka, Baja Betty’s Mexican Restaurant, Gossip Grill, and the Fabulous Hillcrest Neighborhood organization.
April Harter Enriquez, President of the San Diego Press Club, opened the forum. Thom Senzee served as moderator. The panel included the following individuals:
- Kristin Beck, former US Navy SEAL. Her 2013 memoir Warrior Princess detailed her transgender journey and was brought to the screen in the subsequent CNN documentary “Lady Valor: The Kristin Beck Story”. https://www.facebook.com/theladyvalor
- Connor Maddocks, Director San Diego LGBT Center’s Project Trans.
- Vicki Estrada, landscape architect and San Diego civic leader. www.estradalandplan.com/
- Terrence K. Miller, Black Lives Matter youth leader and trans-activist. http://blacklivesmatter.com/
- Ariel Vegosen, founder of education and advocacy organization Gender Illumination http://genderillumination.com/index.html
- Sam Moehlig, transyouth, whose story was detailed this past April in the San Diego Union Tribune “Transgender youth begins new life as a boy”. http://transfamilysos.org/
What is the transgender experience? Each panelist offered very personal and powerful observations. Kristen drew on her own military experience and says that when transgender people try to blend in and “pass” as cisgender people, “We’re all operating behind the [enemy] lines. We have to cover ourselves in order to survive….Stealth is taught as the goal…[But] we need to stop making this our goal, we need to be happy with ourselves”. She also calls attention to the fact that transpeople can be fired or denied regular jobs, virtually forcing many into the sex industry just to put food on the table. Vicki spoke movingly about the lengths transgender people go to in order to avoid public ridicule. When she started transition to female, she says “Whenever I heard anyone laugh, I thought it was at me…I couldn’t take being called a dude in a dress anymore”. So she spent over $40,000 on facial feminization surgery. Terrence, an African American transyouth, told of how he strove to be the stereotypical black male: “But the closer I got to it, the farther I got away from myself”. He tells us that all people, even transgender ones, are raised with heteronormative ideas about gender roles. These cripple our imagination. Ariel sees being trans in a more political context “Your existence is resistance”- being transgender challenges social norms and furthers the process of social change. Connor reminds us that being trans and figuring out one’s own sexuality first starts with self-acceptance: “How do you know who you love if you don’t love yourself?” And Sam, a transyouth age 15, spoke about the human cost of growing up transgender: one of his transgender friends around the same age committed suicide this past year. But, Sam reminds us with a wisdom beyond his years “Just because you lost them doesn’t mean they’re gone”. (It is estimated that the trans-community has a 41 percent rate of suicide or attempted suicide).
How does the society view transgender people? Here, the panel members made some very forceful criticisms. Ariel says “When little boys put on dresses and makeup, people freak out. Why? It’s basically hatred of women”. Terrence says “Kids are cruel, but they inherit it from their environment-Adults need to take ownership of that”. Vicki notes that most of “straight” society’s introduction to transgender is in a sexual context, through pornography, prostitutes and fetishwear. It’s no surprise most cisgender people miss the larger world of transgender and see it as a just a perversion. Sam tells us that trans-bullying isn’t just confined to schools. He tells us of his own experience with Medical professionals who misgendered him as a patient, either out of ignorance or inattention. Connor sees the problem as one of social ignorance “People muddle it…they just can’t see that sexual orientation and gender identity are separate”. He also sees transphobia as a larger social problem: “Our society is sick in that we’re concerned with how people look. All the bullying, harassment, and violence comes from people having no sense of self-worth, so they have to put it on others”.
Transpeople of color have a particularly difficult life experience. Terrence tells us “There are so many chains that need to be broken,” reminding us that racial issues often eclipse or overshadow transgender ones. He notes the US prison industrial complex, which many believe to be both a profit-making enterprise as well as a tool of social control. Most significantly, he says of relations between people of color and law enforcement “Every move we make is the wrong one”.
It’s obvious that transpeople are threatened, demeaned, attacked and discriminated against by the larger society. But sadly, transpeople do the same thing to each other within their own community. Connor says “I deal with our community every day. We are so marginalized, and we turn around and do it to each other. I wish our community could stop the bickering and infighting”. He goes on to say “When we hear someone in the community tearing someone down, we need to start standing up and stopping it. Raise each other up, don’t tear each other down!”. Kristen adds that the problem can be one of perceived competition for scarce resources. “We have this weird idea that we’re limited in resources and we fight each other”. She adds “We are NOT 501 ( c ) (3) people”, meaning that we shouldn’t see ourselves as little organizations, focused only on getting our own slice of the pie and not caring about anyone else.
Given all that’s been said, what can the transcommunity do about it? First, Terrence reminds us “We’re all growing at a different rate”, meaning that we need to keep in mind that each one of us has their own unique perspective. He also advises us “Don’t exclude allies. Trans people shouldn’t tell cisgender allies ‘we don’t need you’. Ariel warns us that “We have to acknowledge that in certain parts of our country, being visible is a death sentence. Doing this on our own is not possible. I’m only here because people mentored me”. Connor says “What we need to do is step out of our comfort zone and get involved in the bigger community. If you have a hobby, join that club as an open transperson. We have to put ourselves out there”. Vicki has done just that, as a member of the boards of nine different civic organizations. And Kristin, in a conversation with this writer after the event, offered this suggestion: The community would be strengthened if it had more of a Chain-of-Command. She has learned many useful life lessons in her military career, one of them being that a community that’s advocating for itself needs to be focused, organized, and responsible.
Perhaps Ariel made the most illuminating observation about the transgender experience, saying “I wasn’t born in the wrong body. Society was born in the wrong mind”.