Breaking the binary in a transitioning America

On June 9, 2014, actress Laverne Cox became the first openly transgender person to be featured on the cover of Time magazine. This monumental occasion for the LGBTQ+ community was preceded by the actress’ Emmy award nominated performance in the popular Netflix original comedy-drama, “Orange is the New Black.” A day later, on June 10, 2014, transgender woman Zoraida Reyes was found choked to death behind a Dairy Queen in Anaheim, Calif. Reyes’ death was one of five transgender homicides in the month of June, four of whom were transwomen of color. Recently, this was recreated in February 2015, as the murder of Penny Proud, 21, who was found shot multiple times, marked the fifth transwoman of color to lose her life to violence in February. This disturbing trend of violence against transgender people continues to climb as prejudices pile up higher and higher. Many people are left asking the question: “What can be done about this?”

Combatting the oppression faced by the transgender community is a long and arduous journey, considering the lack of education and awareness among the general population in relation to transgender issues and terminology. In many of the reported homicides listed above, media outlets misgendered the victims, referring to them as their assigned sexes rather than their true identities. Such was the case of Lamia Beard, a transwoman found shot to death on a sidewalk, where the Norfolk paper, The Virginian-Pilot, described the victim as “male.” New Jersey’s Star Ledger used Eyricka Morgan’s given name rather than her true name and Cleveland’s The Plain Dealer reported what victim Cemia Dove wore the night she was killed, referring to it as “odd” and “strange” – a detail showing the pervasive bias in regards to the transgender community. In addition, this article made references to possible criminal history. This directly counters the journalistic standard toward the treatment of transgender people, especially victims, supported by the Associated Press and The Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD).

Rowan Sheehan, a transwoman and senior at the College, disscusses the prejudices faced by the trans community on a day-to-day basis. (Photo by Joshua Mulvaney)

Rowan Sheehan, a transwoman and senior at the College, disscusses the prejudices faced by the trans community on a day-to-day basis. (Photo by Joshua Mulvaney)

Rowan Sheehan, a woman assigned male at birth and a senior at the College, understands the animosity directed toward the transgender community all too well. Growing up in Myrtle Beach, S.C., Rowan faced a large amount of prejudice during normal day-to-day activity. She said, “In Myrtle Beach I used to be fearful for my safety … I’ve been attacked and have faced a lot of police problems, too. I couldn’t really walk outside. I would have things thrown at me and people would come up to me and say very aggressive things.” Sheehan explained that transwomen are often seen as “deceiving” or trying to “trick” people, as opposed to simply being who they are.

This kind of violence and prejudice directly relates to the alienation suffered by the transgender community through various laws and expectations found within our society and government. Being transgender is classified as suffering from Gender Identity Disorder (GID), which is labeled as a mental disorder by the American Psychological Association. This extends to the military, which defines it as a medically disqualifying condition, not only banning transgender men and women from serving in our armed forces, but potentially discharging those in active duty who are suspect of being transgender or caught wearing their preferred clothing. Presently, 31 states have no laws prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity, with another three protecting discrimination based on sexual orientation but offering no protection toward gender identity. This allows employers to freely fire people based on their preferred gender or sexual orientation. Sheehan explained, “In background searches for job applications, your previous names are always shown, so your employers know that you’re trans.” This can spread fear, promoting negative repercussions for those who wish to identify as themselves, with no legal protection aiding them in a majority of states.

The lack of job security and protection against discrimination leads to many issues of financial security, especially given the high cost of hormone medication, voice therapy  and  surgeries used to overcome gender dysmorphia, many of which are not covered by major insurance companies. Scarcity of jobs, lack of insurance and general prejudice leads to incredibly high poverty and homelessness rates among the transgender community. According to the National Transgender Discrimination Survey, conducted by the National Center for Transgender Equality and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, 97 percent of those sampled received harassment and mistreatment at their job while 47 percent were either fired, denied promotion or never hired based on their gender. Another 15 percent live with incomes under the poverty limit (near double that of the rest of the population), and 19 percent are or have been homeless. Sheehan notes that the financial insecurities suffered by the trans community negatively affect them in more ways than one would think, describing a society that legally favors transmen and women proportionately to how well they pass, which, given the standards set for them, is incredibly expensive.

(Photo by Joshua Mulvaney)

The trans community is often targeted for their identity, resulting in alienation and isolation. (Photo by Joshua Mulvaney)

These prejudices faced by the transgender community reflect an increasingly high suicide and attempted suicide rate. According to a study conducted by the Williams Institute and the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, 46 percent of transmen and 42 percent of transwomen have attempted to commit suicide, which is10 times higher than the 4.6 percent national average. This statistic only increases with sexual assault, homelessness and job discrimination – all problems represented within the transgender community.

Sheehan also explained the problematic nature of bathrooms, describing them as “one of the most horrifying things for trans people.” She recalled that the first time she decided to use a women’s restroom, she was greeted by a police officer upon exit who asked, “What are your genitals?” Sheehan said, “They kept telling me what I did was wrong, that ‘you can’t go to that bathroom, you must be a pervert, you’ll only be able to go in there once you get the surgery … and to this day, I’m still petrified of bathrooms.” The College of Charleston has recently decided to implement gender neutral bathrooms thanks to the efforts of College of Charleston Senior Isabel Williams and the Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA) and SafeZone organizations here on campus.

These contributions to campus safety and acceptance are the first steps on a long road to equity, one that is rife with the confusion and misinformation so often associated with transgender issues. While certain mainstream success sheds positive light on the trans community, the facts represent a stunning display of issues that extend concern to those in the LGBTQ+ community, as well as everyone else in America. As we move forward in our country’s history, more and more people are coming to terms with who they really are, while new tools and organizations like Charleston’s Trans Love Fund and the College of Charleston’s GSA are helping with transition and support. These organizations urge everyone to use support to replace the alienation, to replace the prejudices that hurt and isolate, and most of all, to create a society that is safe for all types of people, no matter who they are or how they identify themselves.

This article was first published in the April issue of The Yard.

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