Transgender activists face multiple challenges

by David Crary

Associated Press

Friday February 4, 2011

Many transgender Americans face intolerance in almost every aspect of their lives, contributing to high levels of homelessness, unemployment and despair, according to a comprehensive survey being released Friday.

The National Gay and Lesbian Task Force and the National Center for Transgender Equality say their survey of 6,450 transgender people is the largest of its kind. It details discrimination encountered "at every turn" - in childhood homes, in schools and workplaces, at stores and hotels, at the hands of doctors, judges, landlords and police.

"Their lives are just a crapshoot," said Rea Carey, executive director of the task force. "They don't know from one interaction to the next whether they will be treated with respect and dignity. It's not the way people should be living their day-to-day life."

The report comes at a sobering time for transgender community.

While their gay-rights allies celebrated the recent Senate vote that will enable gays to serve openly in the military, transgender people were left out of the debate and remain barred from service.

Efforts to pass a federal law barring workplace discrimination based on gender identity and sexual orientation failed in the previous Democratic-controlled Congress - gender identity was a key stumbling block - and the new Republican-led House is considered more hostile.

Uncertain of prospects for progress at the federal level, activists hope to make headway through lawsuits, corporate diversity programs, local anti-bias ordinances, and public education efforts. They hope the survey will buttress those efforts; some of the data had been released in preliminary reports, but the final version contains new details and is prefaced by an emotional plea for Americans to rethink their attitudes.

"It is part of social and legal convention in the United States to discriminate against, ridicule, and abuse transgender and gender non-conforming people," the survey says. "Nearly every system and institution in the United States, both large and small, from local to national, is implicated."

According to the survey, 41 percent of respondents reported attempting suicide, 26 percent said they had lost a job due to being transgender, and 19 percent reported being denied a home or apartment. Almost one-fifth said they'd been homelessness at some point.

The survey found that complaints of discrimination were particularly pronounced among blacks.

In an e-mail, Ja'briel Walthour of Hinesville, Ga., detailed the difficulties of growing up in the 1980s and `90s as an African-American boy in the South who began to identify as a female. Neither her church nor rural community offered acceptance, she said.

"I felt there was not an ounce of compassion or empathy for individuals who may be displaying atypical gender roles," and by 17 she was contemplating suicide, she wrote.

"I got into a place where I wanted to just not be here anymore," she said.

Walthour, now 34, eventually became a school bus driver while deciding to transition to female and pursue a degree in social work.

Transgender activists say future progress for their cause may depend on more people like Walthour choosing to speak out.

"We need more trans people telling their stories," said Diego Sanchez, a transgender aide to U.S. Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., at a forum last weekend. "We need to represent ourselves, and not let others represent us."

The forum was convened to address the frustrations of some transgender people who feel marginalized within the broader gay-rights movement. The movement has for years adopted the initials LGBT - lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender - but transgender activists at the forum wondered if the "T" instead meant "token."

"We've become second fiddle, maybe third fiddle to LGB rights," said Meghan Stabler, a transsexual businesswoman. "We're a minority inside of a minority ... Right now, we're a small `t'."

Mara Keisling, executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality, said the LGBT movement - by sheer force of numbers and financial support - was inevitably going to focus on the agenda of gays and lesbians rather than transgender people.

"But the relationship has helped out," she said. "We have a shared history, shared friends and enemies."

Looking long term, Keisling expressed optimism.

"The people who just plain hate us - they're dying out," she said. "There is not a reasonable person left in United States who doesn't understand that transgender people exist, that it's a legitimate aspect of the diversity of nature."

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