Poverty: The Lynchpin of Trans Discrimination

2 Mar


They say money makes the world go round. Certainly, it is a game changer for trans people. When you have money you can find housing in safer neighborhoods, you can take a cab instead of walking after dark, you can afford flattering clothes and cosmetics; you can pay for an education and skills upgrading, you can eat healthy foods, you have better access to health care, and the list goes on. These things are a struggle to nearly impossible without money.  While this is true for everyone in our society, it is especially true for a trans people, who are at increased risk of violence because of their gender identity or gender presentation (Transgender Law and Policy Institute) and need additional health care (for sex reassignment surgery, hormones etc.). For them, these financial matters are magnified beyond that of the rest of the population.  It is in financial areas that trans discrimination is both visible and reinforced. It is in the different economic realities of trans men and women where the results of educational and employment barriers are visible, as well as the causes of these same barriers.

While there have been more trans stories reported in the over the last few years, they are usually very limited in scope. Mainstream media tends to focus on violence and outright discrimination (Hate crimes and murders or  access issues) when they get it right or view as scandal and spectacle (Beauty pageants etc.  )  when they get it wrong. Economics is rarely the focus of trans portrayals in the media.  While it is very important to highlight violence and discrimination cases, or (more rarely), to have cases of happy, successful transitions, there is much more to our reality than this. This is why I was very glad to see the CNN report linked above about the staggering barriers to transgender employment, and the very real economic barriers our community faces every day.

The CNN article includes examples of stories I have heard again and again from people in the local trans community. Each of these stories highlights the fact that we need to address the systemic problem of poverty in the community. One such story in the CNN article, that of Keisha who was kicked out of her house at 16 and forced to live in a homeless shelter, is a familiar one for trans youth.  Many trans youth do not come out to a friendly environment at home and end up homeless or in shelters where they are unable to continue education. Without education a person’s economic future is bleak and we need to provide shelter/housing solutions and economic supports that allow trans youth to continue their education in a safe environment.  The story of Jennifer Chavez is also a typical story for those who come out in the workplace later on in life. Few workplaces have policies in place to accommodate transition on the job or policies to specifically address the kinds of harassment a trans person coming out is likely to face.  A huge portion of trans people I know in this situation have had to leave their jobs and take jobs at a lower base salary with less seniority and security, if they are able to find jobs at all.

Perhaps the most insidious problem is highlighted by Rebecca Juro’s case; not getting hired at all. Most of the trans people I know who end up unemployed or who are just entering the work force face this issue. Trans people will drop dozens and dozens of applications, seldom ever finding a job. As was highlighted in the article, frequently the job continues to be posted but the trans person simply is not hired. While a lack of job history or difficulty finding work references is part of the problem, but it is only one of many roadblocks. Sometimes the trans person gets to the interview phase, but for those who don’t pass well or have inconsistent gender marker on their documentation that is where it ends. It is really hard to prove discrimination in these cases because employers can usually find some excuse to say that the trans person was not the best choice or did poorly in the interview. Even when the discrimination is clear, most job seeking trans people don’t have the money to pursue legal action. This is a very real problem faced by trans people every day.  A major study of barriers facing the trans community in Ontario, the Trans Pulse project reported that “while 71% of trans people have at least some college or university education, about half make $15,000 per year or less” (Trans Pulse Project) . This statistic is so far off the general population that it is hard to attribute it to anything but bias.

I worry for my friends; I worry for the next generation of trans youth and I worry for myself. I see recent surveys that say that 97% of trans people face harassment and discrimination in the workplace (National Transgender Discrimination Survey ) and 47% experience negative job outcomes. Is that my future? Am I going to accumulate student debt for a nursing diploma only to be unemployed or underemployed? I am already going back to school in my 40’s because I have been living in poverty for over 20 years so this is very real to me. I was unable to fully transition as much for economic reasons as any other reasons and have never been in secure living situations to do so. Economic supports, housing supports, workplace policies for transition and harassment, and employment incentive programs for trans people are needed as much as anti-bullying policies in schools and gender inclusive washrooms in public places. The playing field is not level and we need public policies in place and media attention to our situation to give us the opportunities to show what were capable of. We deserve the chance to make our lives better, to succeed or fail based on our performance, not our appearance. If money does indeed make the world go round, it is time that we got the chance to be part of the trip.

(For my regular readers I want to apologize for not having blogged in a while. School has been much more work than expected and I have a new and wonderful fiancée that I will be sure to blog about in the future)

Trans Awareness Week Video Featuring Me and my Friends!

22 Nov

This is a link to a video done for trans awareness week at Western University here in town. It features me and a number of my closest friends. I would be the one with the “Out and Proud, Free of Fear, Trans and Strong” sign.


My speech at our TDOR event

21 Nov

This is my speech from our TDOR event tonight in London. I was asked to talk about my experiences with reparative therapy.

Hi, I was asked to speak to you tonight about a bit of my past. You may have heard about reparative therapy or conversion therapy on the news, or elsewhere. What you may not know is that it was practiced here in Ontario.

Even as a child I knew that I wasn’t a boy inside. This was in the 1970s’ and 1980’s so I didn’t have a lot of the language to describe myself that we have now, there was no internet and no support groups, but I knew what I was deep inside. All that I really knew was that I was supposed to be like my sister, that I wasn’t a boy like people thought I was. I would play with my sister’s old toys, try to dress a bit like her, watch the shows she liked. When I did this I was happy so I started to do this more and more often.

I didn’t hide it very well.

Soon the kids at school noticed I was different. We all know how cruel kids can be to someone who is different and I became a target for bullies. It started with the kids just avoiding me, I was pretty lonely but I didn’t have many friends to begin with so that was ok and no adults really noticed. It quickly escalated into taunting and small kinds of physical intimidation. I was clearly a lot more unhappy; and my parents and some teachers began to notice that.

I can’t say that it was all bad. I did have one escape. I could go home and I could lock myself in my room and play with my girl toys and my girl clothes, pretend I was a famous singer and just be me. This time helped keep me sane and happy, I felt alive and it gave me the energy to face the kids at school the next day.

Unfortunately things got worse at school. Some of the worst kids at school decided that they were going to beat up the “faggot”. Every day when I tried to go home they would be there and they would hit me and kick me and toss me in the mud or the snow. I could still go home and recharge by being myself but my parents and my teachers could no longer ignore the bruises, the torn clothes and wrecked homework. Something had to be done.

This was a long time before “it gets better” so they decided the problem wasn’t the bullies but the problem was me and I got sent to the school guidance counselor. He was the first person to try to “fix” me. He gave me a battery of tests and interviews and decided that the problem was me not fitting in. He gave me little speeches about how I should play hockey and stop trying to hang around with the girls and learn to defend myself.

I ignored him. I told him I would try and just keep doing what I was doing. It was fine, until one day when the kids tossed out my clothes when I went to gym class. The guidance counselor figured out I wasn’t doing what I was supposed to and decided I needed more help. I was sent to a specialist in Toronto.

Some of you have probably heard of CAMH (the centre for addiction and mental health) in Toronto. It had a different name at the time but it still had the same purpose. It is the facility that approves sex reassignment surgery for people here in Ontario and also provides hormone approval for much of the province. They also have a youth program for gender non-conforming children.  This is where I was sent.

This clinic had a doctor in charge named Kenneth Zucker, who is still there to this day. He believes in reparative therapy for transgender children.  He believes that not seeking therapy to cure cross gender behavior in kids is a “kind of emotional neglect”. To him a child ending up with transsexualism is a “bad outcome”. His solution is to try to cure it.

This is what reparative therapy is all about. It has been used for gay, lesbian, bisexual, trans, and genderqueer children for decades although recently places like California have outlawed the practice since it is condemned by most major psychological and psychiatric communities. Basically children are not allowed to have toys, play act, or have playmates, that don’t match the gender they were assigned at birth. Cross gender behavior is punished and “proper” behavior is promoted.

What this meant for me was that my toys were gone. I will never forget the despair I felt as all the things I cared about were put in a green garbage bad and tossed to the curb. I was not allowed to speak to the few friends I had either as they were girls.  I was enrolled in boy scouts, sent to hockey games, made to join sports and this generally meant more time with the kids who bullied me worst. It didn’t stop them either; they still knew I was different. All it did was took away my safe place, the place that helped me cope.

I learned a lot from CAMH. I learned that I was sick. I learned that I was wrong. I learned that I had to hide who I was and that I could never trust anyone. It took a long time to unlearn most of these habits. Basically they took a child who had it rough but could still be happy sometimes and turned them into a child that hated themselves and wished they were dead. I thought a lot about being dead. No child should ever have to feel that.

My marks fell a bit as I could no longer focus or be happy. I made it all the way to university before I finally really crashed and tried to take my own life. I was in and out of hospital for quite a while after that and my future really fell apart.

I am a lucky person though. I survived. I finally came to a place recently where I found acceptance and people in my life who would let me be myself. My feelings never went away I just learned to push them down and hide them. I finally found my happiness and became the person I was always meant to be. I lost a lot of years though, decades. Some kids weren’t so lucky. They ended up on the street, they never found happiness, or they took their own lives.

For the parents and family and friends in the audience I hope you can take one thing from what I’m saying. Please accept and love your children. I know it’s hard to see the prejudice, the bullying, the stats on how hard life can be for trans people in our society. Especially on a day like today when we read out the names of those lost to violence. You want to take that pain away from the people you love and you might think that getting them to fit in will make it better. It won’t.

That doesn’t mean there isn’t something you can do. You can help your child find themselves. Let them decide who and what they are. Support those choices. Make sure that their schools, churches, play places, and all the important places are safe for them. Don’t let them be bullied, if they need counseling make sure the counselor will validate who they are, and most of all make sure they can always come home to a safe space. If your child can learn to love themselves, get an education, and not end up on the streets I can tell you that there is a happy life out there waiting for them. We all deserve a happy life.

Thank you.

For those Christmas charity pots:

4 Nov

The Salvation Army is an extremely unfriendly organization to the GLBTQ community. Check out this and  this and  this and very much this if you want to know why I say that.

I strongly urge you not to donate to them this Christmas. There are clearly better charities to give your money too. I have also stumbled onto an interesting to campaign that give you a way to tell the Salvation Army that you are making this choice.

Give money to a GLBT friendly charity, print out a few of these, and put them in those Salvation Army kettles when you see them this Christmas. Maybe the Salvation Army will finally see that hatred of the GLBTQ community is no longer acceptable in our world.

A letter to the bathroom bigots:

26 Oct

To all of the people who don’t want me in your bathrooms Roseanne Barr ,  Rob Anders  and all the rest:

The bathroom issue seems to come up somewhere on nearly a daily basis. All of you claim to be well meaning, protecting woman from a possible danger that we could theoretically pose. You say it’s all about safety. Let me tell you a bit about safety.

I have never ever in my life felt safe. Not once that I can bring to mind. This in varying degrees is the reality for nearly all of the trans community (I would never claim to speak for everyone). It is not just physical safety either; I don’t feel economic safety, emotional safety, or social safety.

We have realities you don’t face and don’t seem to understand. In many jurisdictions we can be openly fired from our jobs or, even in the places where we can’t, we are driven out of our jobs or excuses found to fire us.  Housing is uncertain even in places where we have protections. So many times you are living with hostile neighbors, landlords who find excuses not to help you, or in neighborhoods where walking as trans is very dangerous. When we face abuse or homelessness there are huge number of shelters where we are simply not welcome or not safe. We attempt to go to school and face bullying and a curriculum which ignores us or vilifies us.

It all reinforces itself. Many of us end up undereducated, underemployed, living in poverty, with few resources and inadequate supports. Even when we miss those outcomes we still have to deal with the hostile stares if we don’t meet cis standards of proper appearance, or have to pull out an ID with the wrong gender tag on it. We often can’t even share our own past and life experiences without risking someone realizing our trans histories and treating us with scorn or worse.

I want you to think about that bathroom bigot. Imagine a life where the best case scenario is often invisibility and praying a bad outcome doesn’t occur. Imagine never feeling secure. Imagine not even being able to go to the bathroom without risk; an absolutely basic bodily function. Then you tell me that were the ones making people unsafe.

On a certain petition…

24 Oct

PLEASE NOTE: I would kindly ask that you read my entire post and my reply in comments at the end before attacking me. I very much see the other side to this issue and don’t automatically claim im right. I do want you to try to see where im coming from before you accuse me of things I am not saying though. Respectful debate is welcome, attacks because you did not fully read are not. I am also a bit sad I have to add this note.

I keep getting sent a petition online about declassifying gender identity as a mental illness. You may have seen it; it’s the one with Jenna saying trans people aren’t sick. I really do understand the intent of the petition but I wanted to bring another perspective.

Firstly, I would say that most trans people would agree that gender identity issues do bring with them a great degree of mental distress. We live in a society that does not accept us, frequently we lose family and friends, have high rates of poverty, and are often the targets of bigotry and violence. This has led to very high rates of depression, anxiety, and other mental illness in the trans community. One need only look at the extremely tragically high suicide rates to see that trans people are suffering as a whole. I think that makes it fair to classify gender dysphoria as a serious contributory factor to mental illness much in the same way that diabetes contributes to a host of associated illnesses. Having gender identity does not automatically cause mental illness but it certainly increases the likelihood that you may experience one.  That alone makes me reject the point of this petition but I have a much bigger issue that really bothers me:

What is wrong with being mentally ill?

Much of the thrust of this petition seems to imply that being associated with mental illness is something to be avoided at all costs. That is an extremely ableist position to my mind. I have dealt with mental illness for years and it does not invalidate me as a person. It is not something that makes me someone you should avoid. Being mentally ill is just a condition I live with much like I live with being diabetic. Seeing my community put out a petition that says there is something wrong with me really bothers me. I have dealt with years of stigma from being trans and I would like to remove that stigma; but it is wrong to stigmatize another community to make us somehow acceptable.

Currently there is a new push to have gender dysphoria treated like cancer, a condition that needs treatment but isn’t a mental illness, but allows us to have coverage. Ask yourself why you are making this distinction and what it says about attitudes towards the mentally ill. Perhaps instead of this petition we could put some working into de-stigmatizing both mental illness and trans identities.  Everyone’s acceptance and success is conditional till everyone is treated with respect and dignity.

Not Defined By…

17 Oct

A friend of mine started a new project I highly approve of. She calls it “Not defined by…”. It is a place for people to share their stories of mental illness and talk about how our lives are not defined by our mental illness. We get to share the difficulties but talk about how we are more than just an illness. I put my story on the site in an effort to hopefully help destigmatize mental illness and  show others that they aren’t alone.

This is the link: http://notdefinedby.org/

Here is my story that I included on the site:

I have a mental illness. According to doctor’s I actually have several.

I believe that I had depression and dissociation since childhood but my first contact with the mental health system came at the end of my first year of university. For a while I had been coming to school but didn’t go to class. I would wander around or sit in an office and just let time pass. On many of those days I did not even remember what happened. Those symptoms progressively got worse until I found myself in paces I don’t remember going too; even another city. My marks had also fallen to failing (I had always been a top student) and I just couldn’t deal with the fear and shame of what was happening. I tried to take my own life.

This is the point where I first came in contact with the mental health system as an adult (more on the child thing later). There is a lot of indignity involved in being mentally ill, especially if you get admitted to a hospital. Clothes are taken, you are monitored 24/7, you have to ask to shave and have someone watch you, you do not get to come and go as you please, and your life is scheduled at the convenience of the health care unit. Even better, it’s not like a regular illness. There is no candy delivered, there is no get well soon cards, people don’t tend to visit much, and when it is talked about in the family/friend circles it is done in hush tones. You quickly come to feel shame and disempowerment.

I was in hospital the first time for 2 ½ months. Three weeks after being released I was back in for another 2 ½ months. The second admit was particularly weird because I was in the hospital attached to my university campus so I would go to class from the ward and desperately hope no one noticed the hospital tag on my arm. In addition, if the nurses thought I was too upset I was not allowed to go that day even if I had an assignment due or a test of some sort. Thanks to this pressure I was forced to withdraw from my second year of university.

I should also mention that I got a diagnosis and it was a doozy. Schizoaffective disorder was the label. I have since been told by other therapists that it was unlikely that this was what was going on but rather some other PTSD symptoms presented as that disorder. Either way at the time it felt like a death sentence. People don’t want to discuss depression but they generally understand and are sympathetic; but with any illness that has “schizo” in the title people generally back away and treat you like you are dangerous and unstable. It is also one of those diagnoses where they tell you that you are going to have to deal with it for the rest of your life.

It became clear over the next few years the university was going to be a struggle. My meds made my thinking slow and I was tired from them a lot. I managed to get it together enough to get in most of my sociology degree but then had another relapse and another set of f’s on my transcript and was forced to withdraw. I was placed on a permanent disability which gave me just enough money to eat and get a substandard apartment and allowed me to live well below the poverty line.

Time passed a lot of it. More than 15 years I lived on disability with no particular hope or life. I gained huge amounts of weight and was 360 pounds for much of that period and my diabetes went out of control. I would get better make plans but then I would end up in the mental health system again. I got a host of new diagnosis and new therapists. Add to the list major depression, OCD, PTSD, binge eating disorder, a host of various personality disorders and gender identity disorder. The last one was important. I know it to be true and I think it has a lot to do with everything else.

The real first time I entered the mental health system was as a young child. I was not fitting in with other children at school (not fitting in means they were beating me daily, physically, this was before “it gets better”) and was insisting I was supposed to be a girl. I got sent to a fancy mental health professional in Toronto who told my parents and guidance counselor how they could cure me. The cure involved intense boy time and denying me everything I liked. I can honestly say it didn’t cure me but it did teach me the value of secrets and bottle everything inside me. I suspect that had something to do with my later illness. I should state that I don’t believe that being trans is a mental illness but it certainly is a HUGE stress life and will precipitate other mental illnesses.

About two years ago I pulled things together somewhat. I decided to transition, I lost 160 pounds and took some control over my eating; I started back to school and decided to have a future. Sitting in my apartment all day was not healthy and the isolation bred anxiety and fear to even walk outside my door. I had hit rock bottom and knew I had to do something or die. It is a struggle but it helped that I found good doctors, ones who would listen to what was really going on and treat me for the things I needed. Perhaps I just got more vocal in my own care. When you are depressed and hopeless it is hard to be a vocal advocate for your own health care.

I don’t know that everything will be ok. I have felt like I was getting on top of it before and had everything fall apart again. It feels like I have a better grasp on my needs and the ways I can control my symptoms then I did before so I am at least hopeful. I do have bad days though, really really bad days. Sometimes I feel like dying and I need to call a crisis line just to survive (literally survive, make no mistake about that). Sometimes I hurt myself and sometimes it is just all I can do to even get out of bed. It is even hard to fight through that when I know that the spectre of a relapse hangs over my shoulder.

I have learned a few things along the way that do help. I have learned that I am not just my mental illness; there is more to me then it and even at my darkest moments my hopes and dreams remained. I have also learned that it’s ok to be mentally ill. Many people will try to tell you that it isn’t, or make you feel shame about it, but it is NOT your fault. Sometimes you lose the genetic lottery and are born with a mental illness, sometimes life stresses just overwhelm you, and sometimes you just don’t know why you have a mental illness. No one chooses a mental illness it chooses you. I have also learned that there is good therapists and mental health professionals out there. As hard as it is when you are feeling depressed and hopeless it’s important to try to be an advocate for your own care.

Even if I relapse, even if my symptoms derail my future again I will try to remember all of that and not give up. I don’t want to live without hope. Even if I can’t be everything I dream of being and have to deal with mental illness I can still carve out a life worth living. I am not my illness. I am Anna and I love Anna.


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