In the kitchen of a small colonial house in Springfield, Mass., Edanry Rivera and Louis Mitchell do-si-do around a coffee maker, handing off the creamer and reaching for a refill.
“Coffee is the lifeblood of my very existence,” says Louis Mitchell, 57, a bald transgender man with a graying goatee.
Mitchell owns this home. Rivera, a 27-year-old trans woman, rents a room. Many days, to avoid scoffs, stares and physical threats, Rivera never leaves the house.
“Once I step out there, it’s war, sometimes, with people,” Rivera says.
Like the day recently when Rivera came under attack, in the grocery checkout line, from some other Puerto Rican women. They left, telling Rivera, “you better watch out when you go outside,” she recalls. Rivera works from home, as a marketing writer, to limit such encounters.
Rivera says her experience is common for transgender women. A poll conducted by NPR, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health confirms her perception. It finds that 84 percent of transgender Americans believe discrimination against transgender people exists today. But the roots of that discrimination are in dispute. The variable is age.
More than half of LGBTQ Americans older than 50 say the larger problem is discrimination from individuals. Younger generations say biased laws share the blame.
The poll results resonate with Rivera. When she does go out, Rivera does not try to convince strangers or her Puerto Rican family members that it’s OK for her to wear a skirt, a cherished choker necklace or her favorite coral lipstick.
“I can’t change people who are so deeply rooted in their values,” Rivera says. “So the only thing I can do is to focus on policy and legislation. We’re always going to have a bias, but we need policy in place to reflect our values now in 2017.”
Rivera lives with the pain of trading contact with her family for the joy of being herself among her peers. Rivera says her generation is becoming transgender-friendly.
“So policy’s lagging behind,” Rivera says. “There’s this kind of inertia. Government needs to catch up.”
“Yeah,” says Mitchell, nodding as he leans back into a leather office chair in the living where he and Rivera are reviewing the poll results.
Mitchell, a United Church of Christ minister, agrees with a lot of what Rivera has been saying, but he wants to make sure she understands why older trans men and women are more focused on individual prejudice.
“We’ve actually been around to see some policy changes, and we’ve also seen where the policy changes have not necessarily made all of us safer,” says Mitchell, who is African-American.
Take the Civil Rights Act. Mitchell has story after story of discrimination based on his race. In the late 1990s, as he transitioned from a black woman to a black man, it got a lot worse.
“I was probably pulled over 300 percent more in my first six months of transition than I had been in the previous 23 years of driving,” Mitchell says.
He forces himself to drive under the speed limit, to avoid being stopped, especially when he is with his ex-wife or daughter, who have pale skin. When Mitchell is alone with his 5-year-old, he is often terrified that “he’ll end up being a chalk line on the ground” and “his daughter would hold on to feeling responsible for that in some way.”
Civil rights laws are vital, says Mitchell, but they are no guarantee of protection, at least not yet.
“In the meantime,” says Mitchell, “I want to work on every heart I can find to say: ‘Hey, it’s me. You loved me yesterday; why are you not loving me now?’ ”
These different views, based on age, are familiar to groups pushing to end discrimination. Older LGBTQ adults have lived for decades without legal protections.
“So for people over 50, the battleground was the personal battleground,” said Rea Carey, executive director of the National LGBTQ Task Force. “Who are my friends and neighbors and family and are they going to support me when I come out?”
But Carey says coming of age in the past decade or two is completely different for LGBTQ Americans.
“Their experience has been framed by working to get legal protections,” she said.
Today, advocates say they fight for, as they describe it, both lived and legal equality.
“The findings underscore the fact that our approach to achieving equality has to be a ‘both/and’ strategy,” said Sarah McBride, a spokesperson for the Human Rights Campaign. “We have to open hearts and change minds while at the same time pushing for laws that protect LGBTQ people from discrimination.”
There’s one more reason Rivera says many transgender 20- or 30-somethings focus on government: They rely on it for health insurance, employment assistance and student loans.
“So, our dependence perhaps on the government is making us much more in tune as to the laws and policies in place that have put us there,” she said.
Which Mitchell says leaves Rivera with “more dependence on the government and a less dependable government.”
Mitchell and Rivera do agree that after years of progress, they’re now fighting to hold on to legal and lived rights they thought were secure.