By Tiffany Ran
Northwest Asian Weekly
Part 2 of a 2-part series
Post-op or pre-op are oft used labels placed on transgenders, but for Gwen Yeh and others in the trans* community, the process of transitioning rarely centers around surgery.
“The decision to transition isn’t rooted in a medical procedure, it is a conscious personal decision in certain identity,” said Gwen Yeh, an advocate at Gender Justice League.
“I decided the gender dissonance that I’ve been living with for so long wasn’t something I could ignore. I had to do something about it, and what to do about it, I really didn’t know where to start. There was a real lack of trans representation in mainstream media and if there was, it was really negative,” said Yeh of her own experience.
Regardless of available options like hormone treatments or augmentation, a greater dissonance is felt in a society where gender identity is rarely acknowledged. Gunner Scott, director of programs at the Pride Foundation, began his transition when he was close to 30 and doing so meant a gamut of unique complications.
Prior to his transition, Scott had been in the work force for a number of years. When one goes ahead to change their gender, there is an issue of name changes and how to structure a resume when one has already worked in a field under a different name. What happens when a prospective employer calls for a reference and the old employer knows the individual by a different name?
“Something somebody who identifies as transgender have to do, which other people don’t have to do, is make that uncomfortable phone call. In some cases, people have left jobs because they either one, felt that it wasn’t going to be safe, or two, because they don’t have the support to come out. So sometimes, people would have big holes in their resumes because we don’t have a reference for that job,” said Scott.
Respondents in a National Transgender Discrimination Survey taken this year reported living in extreme poverty, nearly four times more likely to have a household income less than $10,000 a year compared to the general population. The combination of anti-transgender bias and persistent structural racism meant transgender people of color fare worse than white participants across the board. Forty-one percent of respondents reported attempting suicide compared to 1.6 percent of the general population with rates rising for those who lost their job due to bias, suffered harassment and bullying in school, had low household income, or faced physical or sexual assault.
What is significantly difficult for transgender people is what Scott calls identity management and the ability to protect their medical privacy. He points out invasive policies behind name changes and other processes that require transgenders to disclose the kind of medical interventions they have done.
Policies differ on state, local, or federal levels with some requesting letters from doctors or inquiring into whether one has had gender reassignment surgery. Privacy comes few and far between for transgenders, Scott notes. Whether it’s changing a driver’s license, birth certificates, or passports, somewhere along the bureaucratic chain, there is a clerk looking at those documents.
Yeh noted that the name and driver’s license change in Washington state had been easier than expected, but she is still having difficulties with her passport. For new immigrants or those in the process of applying for a green card, putting in a name change could jeopardize the process.
“At the end of the day, what it always comes down to is for transgender people, we almost always have to come out because of our identity documents,” said Scott.
Last month, on the week before the PRIDE Parade, Washington State Insurance Commissioner Mike Kreidler made an announcement to clarify those insurance companies in Washington state cannot discriminate against transgender Washingtonians. Advocates are prepared to work with insurers to improve policies.
A press release issued last month from the Coalition for Inclusive Healthcare stated that private health insurance policies routinely include clauses that specifically preclude transgender people from accessing medical and mental health care and gender confirming surgeries that are normally covered for other policy holders. The same press release notes that nearly all insurance plans in Washington categorically exclude coverage for transition-related medical treatment, even when that same treatment (like mental health care or hormone replacement therapy) is covered for non-transgender people.
“Having been denied hormones and doctor visits sent a clear signal that I was not equal,” said Yeh in the press release.
“The recent legal interpretation of the insurance law is critically important not just because it helps other people who are seeking corrective surgeries, but even for my own self that I don’t have to hide who I am from my coworkers, from my own insurance provider,” said Yeh. “It’s a huge load off my shoulders knowing I can go in and ask my doctor for what I need and having just full honesty.”
Aleks Martin moved to the United States from the Philippines in 1995. In the beginning, Martin was set on keeping the two parts of his life. At night, Martin became who many in the LGBTQ community know as Aleksa Manila, who came to drag fame when she was named Miss Gay Filipino in 2001. In 2003, he began working at the Seattle Counseling Service, the country’s first agency providing mental health and addiction services to the LGBTQ community, as a database manager. He went on to act as a health educator for many years, working with Project NEON to educate the community on the harmful effects of crystal meth.
“When I first started doing drag, I was very particular about the boundaries between drag and work – personal versus professional lives. I was very particular about pronouns. In fact, I avoided any drag talk while at work. I was very strict,” said Manila.
Many transgenders separate their experience of seeking to live authentically as a certain gender from those who do drag for performance. For Manila, drag began as a performance and artistic outlet which soon blossomed into a persona. It is a “true extension of my mind and heart,” she explains. Today, Manila identifies as “genderqueer” to encompass both her sexual identity and gender expression.
“Over the years, as I developed and understood myself more – I realized that my gender expression and sexual identity were integral in my sense of self. Being at a queer work place granted me a safe space to express genuinely who I was and who I am. And I recognize how lucky I am because of that,” she adds.
As sexual orientation becomes a more pervasive topic in mainstream culture, activists are hopeful the same would be the case for the transgender experience and if it did, it wouldn’t be anything new.
“There is history going back for eons about gender diversity existing. We’re not just this new thing that just started. There are cultures that have been more embracing of gender diversity, but as they become westernized, those cultures also become demonized. We need to understand that the rhetoric against us political or not has a very high price when it comes to human beings, whether it’s suicide or the violence towards us,” said Scott.
The acceptability of sexual orientation over gender expression was noticeable in Manila’s case. Her family accepted her when she came out as a gay man, even meeting her partners during that period. However, being out and proud as a drag performer was different.
“I haven’t spoken to my brothers in years. I believe this is more about the machismo culture of the Filipino male. Even though I was gay, I presented male, though flamboyant. Presenting in women’s clothes may have taken it too far for them. Of course, it’s hurtful that they don’t talk to me. I miss my nephews and nieces. But, I’d like to think I am at peace with that and that I have to accept it and move on. On a positive light, my mother is great about it,” said Manila.
Over the years that Scott has served as an advocate, he assisted many in their transition as they faced unique bureaucratic and social challenges, but current changes and attention turned to the transgender experience is a hopeful sign that their experience may someday be defined more by the journey of self-discovery than systemic oppression.
I can’t tell you how many people I meet at some point in their transition and I see them again sometime later and they’re just so happy and so calm, and are trying to do great things,” said Scott. “When somebody is able to be who they are, it’s like watching a flower blossom.” (end)
Tiffany Ran can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
*An asterisk is added behind the term “trans” to indicate an umbrella term that expands the boundaries or limitations of the word to include transgender, transsexual, gender queer, gender fluid, agender, and more possibilities within gender expression.