‘We are not drag queens’: For transgender people in 2019, a conflicted reality of breakthroughs, barriers

2019 is the year Ash Penn, a passionate transgender resident of Spartanburg, South Carolina, was able to “come out as a whole” and feel the warm embrace of acceptance.

It has been a year that saw a wow moment in politics when transgender rights popped up in platforms of the Democratic presidential candidates.

But 2019 is also the year in which transgender people were barred from the U.S. military.

And it has been a year in which at least 22 transgender or gender-nonconforming people have died in unsettling acts of violence.

This is the conflicted reality for the transgender community: progress and acceptance amid the old haunts of hate.

“There is a mix of incredible opportunities and advancement and also increased regression and hostility,” said Ineke Mushovic, executive director of the Movement Advancement Project, a think tank that researches LGBTQ issues.

The visibility of trans people as backbones of communities has been remarkable in the past year, said Taylor Brown of advocacy group Lambda Legal. “We are people doing normal things. We are not drag queens. We aren’t doing this part-time.”

Yet while it’s significant that candidates are talking about civil rights, she said, “It’s odd that we have to even have this conversation.”

Supreme court cases: Justices divided over gay, transgender job bias in civil rights case to be decided during 2020 election

Where transgender people live

A MAP report released Tuesday on the eve of Transgender Day of Remembrance – a day honoring transgender victims of violence – shows the diversity of the trans community, which numbers 1.4 million people in the U.S. or about .6% of all adults.

And it puts a spotlight on the community’s presence, particularly in rural areas. “Trans people are ordinary people who mow the lawn, do the dishes, walk the dog – and want to have a normal life,” Mushovic said.

About one in six, or 16%, of all transgender people live in rural areas, according to the report, which thwarts misconceptions of where pockets of discrimination may be sown.

Some of the report’s findings:

• The South has the most transgender residents at 567,000; the Northeast has the fewest at 212,000.

• Rural transgender residents are more highly educated than their rural neighbors: 39% have a college degree compared with 22% of all residents.

• Transgender people are routinely denied health care by insurers, particularly transition-related surgery – 69% of trans people in rural areas vs. 55% of all transgender adults.

‘Shocking numbers’: Half of LGBTQ adults live in states where no laws ban job discrimination

The struggles in rural areas mirror those elsewhere.

About 27% of rural transgender residents have been harassed when their identity documents don’t match their gender vs. 25% of all trans adults; 8% of rural trans residents reported being physically attacked in the past year because of their identity vs. 9% of all trans adults.

The report’s findings flip stereotypes of rural areas as breeding grounds for bias, said Logan Casey, author of the MAP report. But there is a ripple effect in a rural setting that can be amplified and cause harm. “If you are in an urban area and you are harassed at a club or restaurant you might not ever see that person again,” he said. “But in a rural area you might see that person over and over.”

‘Love being from the South’

Penn, 34, a poet and motivational speaker devoted to LGBTQ advocacy work, left the U.S. military after eight years in 2016 “so I could live my life as myself.”

Ash Penn, of Spartanburg, works with Pride Link, a non-profit dedicated to improving the life of LGBTQ people in Upstate South Carolina.

Rooted in a religious family background, Penn struggled with transitioning in younger years. “I didn’t know any nonbinary black people. I thought: Is this a real thing?”

A licensed minister, Penn was the “preacher of my family, telling the story about Jesus … But I started preaching more about individuality and being true to yourself. I went to my pastor and said ‘Hey, I don’t think I’m going to hell.'”

The pastor thought differently and soon exiled Penn for their identity: “I was kicked out of my church on a text message.” 

When Penn fully came out in the past year, acceptance in the rural community of Spartanburg was overwhelming. “I thought I’d be in this box again. But I got so many personal messages from friends, family, people I served in the military with. It was amazing … I love being from the South.”

A state ‘where they have our back’

Mattee Jim, 47, a Native transgender woman in Albuquerque, recalls growing up “in an era when transgender was not a term.”

Jim, who came out at 24 and has done transgender advocacy work for more than two decades, lives in a state with protective laws and a community with programs that offer everything from financial help for gender name changes to housing assistance and “trans 101” classes for law enforcement.

There are occasional incidents of discrimination and oppression, Jim said, and the Native population can face challenges such as housing and jobs. “But we have politicians and people to support us. They would have our back.”

Mattee Jim, of Albuquerque, was one of six people who did a test run in October of New Mexico’s birth certificate law that allows gender marker changes.

2019 became a special year for Jim, who in late October, joined several other transgender individuals in a “test run” as the state’s first residents to take advantage of a new law aimed at making it easier to change gender designations on birth certificates.

“I did my legal name change and my gender marker change that day. All my documentation matches,” Jim said. “It feels wonderful. It feels whole.”

On the streets, vulnerable to violence 

The dark side of life for the transgender community is chronicled by the Human Rights Campaign, which tracks violence resulting in death. Of the 22 trans deaths so far in 2019 – not far from last year’s tally of 26 – most were women of color.

Transgender people without access to stable housing and employment and left out on the streets are most vulnerable to violence, said Sarah McBride of HRC.

There is a need for improved law enforcement training, better reporting of hate crime data and passage of non-discrimination protections such as the federal Equality Act, she said.

A jarring turn: The young are considered the most tolerant generation. Why results of this LGBTQ survey are ‘alarming’

“There is no silver bullet to address the violence,” McBride said. “But there are few greater contributors to dehumanization than the divisive political rhetoric and policies of the last several years. It puts a target on the back of trans people.”

Still, McBride sees reason for optimism that the bloodshed can be stemmed. “Every single time there is an attack, we have a conversation with this country. I think there is resilience there.”

A focus on trans youths

The Trevor Project, which provides crisis and suicide prevention services for LGBTQ people under 25, received more than double the amount of contacts from trans youths after President Trump first tweeted about a transgender military ban, which took effect last spring.

And crisis service calls nearly doubled in 24 hours after a New York Times report that the administration was working to redefine the legal definition of gender.   

It is obvious that policy rhetoric and decisions have direct mental health consequences on young transgender people, said Alexis Chavez, the organization’s medical director.  

Stonewall Forever: 50 years after the raid that sparked the LGBTQ movement, monument goes digital

“Every day they have to hear these terrible things. They are less than a person, they can’t count, they can’t use the bathroom of their choice, they can get fired just for being who they are,” she said.

Protesters and supporters gather in front of the U.S. Supreme Court on Oct. 8, 2019, as the justices heard three challenges from New York, Michigan and Georgia involving workers who claim they were fired because they were gay or transgender.

The Trevor Project’s research has shown some disturbing results: More than half of transgender youths have seriously considered suicide; 78% reported being the subject of discrimination because of their identity.

For young trans people, the challenges can be staggering, Chavez said. Their biggest concern is “things will never get better, they will never be seen for who they are, they will never be able to be a person in society – and only be seen as trans.”

Still, Chavez has seen encouraging shifts as attitudes change and peers become more accepting, even if adults aren’t. Trevor Project counselors help troubled young people find “sources of hope,” she said. “If a youth has even one supporter it reduces the suicide rates by 40%.” 

When young people speak up 

It is young people who might be the ones to forge a future for the transgender community, advocates say.

Katherine Fuchs stood up to support Aimee Stephens, a fired transgender woman whose case went before the Supreme Court in October.

It was young people, however, who were the loudest voices for trans rights. “Students got up and spoke to the school board. They made counterpoints for adult arguments on the other side of the aisle,” she said.

The outpouring was not a surprise. Boulder has had an active trans community for years, said Out Boulder’s executive director Mardi Moore.  “We are seeing allies step forward in different ways.” 

‘A long way to go,’ but ‘hopeful’

Lambda Legal’s Brown, a black transgender woman, said the visibility of the transgender community in 2019 can’t be denied. “Trans people are in your community. They are lawyers and doctors, they are the same as everyone else.”

Brown knows firsthand the challenges the community faces. She came out at 18 and became the first person in her family to graduate college, then law school.

First gay president? Will Pete Buttigieg be the first gay president? Older LGBTQ Americans celebrate his run

Despite her successes, navigating her identity, especially in younger years, was “very difficult,” she said. “I was fired when one employer found out.”

How distant is the goal of full equality?

“We have had a lot of wins … but we have a long way to go. But I’m hopeful, very hopeful. And proud.”