The inability to acquire accurate gender markers on documentation — such as driver’s licenses — can result in challenging situations for transgender and nonbinary people, according to members of a March 28 panel held at Cabell Library.
Only four states, Oregon, Washington, California and New York, and Washington D.C., recognize a third, nonbinary gender. Panelist Austin Higgs said having proper documentation validates the identities of nonbinary people. Higgs works at Richmond Memorial Health Foundation, which funds local initiatives addressing racial and health inequality.
“For me, [my gender identity] is a huge part of who I am and I want everything that’s associated with me to reflect that,” Higgs said. “I don’t want to be misunderstood. I don’t want to be stigmatized. I don’t want to be shrouded in mystery and part of that is making myself visible.”
According to a 2017 report by GLAAD, a media-monitoring group formed by LGBTQ people, 12 percent of Americans between the ages of 18 and 34 identify as transgender or gender non-conforming. Higgs said awareness of the size of the population could give more power and leverage to transgender people.
Sociology professor Liz Coston said a lack of documentation, in addition to inconsistencies in gender markers in documentation, makes it hard for transgender and nonbinary people to navigate health care and criminal justice systems.
“It’s really important to have those identities validated,” Coston said. “Of course it won’t prevent every problematic interaction that trans and nonbinary people might have with those institutions, but it would be a good first step.”
Zakia McKensey, the founder of the Nationz Foundation — a Richmond organization that provides education on health and wellness, including HIV prevention — said medical providers are not usually informed about the needs of transgender people. McKensey, who implemented the Transgender Clinic program at the Fan Free Clinic, said it’s important for transgender people to build a “network” so they know which facilities to go to for care.
This network wasn’t available to McKensey in Richmond when she transitioned more than 20 years ago. She said she had to go to Baltimore for hormone therapy and then to Atlanta for surgery.
“You have to find those resources,” McKensey said. “If you don’t find those resources then create those resources.”
Panel members also noted the importance of intersectionality; transgender people of different races and economic backgrounds have varying experiences.
“If we’re looking out for supporting the Black community, the Muslim community, the disabled community, all of those intersect with the trans community,” Higgs said.
Coston said it’s important to recognize White individuals have traditionally been at the forefront of the LGBTQ rights movement. As a result, issues like marriage equality were dubbed more important than those of homelessness and unemployment.
“I do think that we can challenge ourselves to say,‘What have we overlooked by centering the voices of White, cis people,’” Coston said.
Panelist Shabab Mirza, a research assistant for the LGBT Research and Communications Project at Center for American Progress, said transgender people, like other demographics, still have to “do the work” of unlearning bias and racism.
Mirza also said the stress of being a minority or impoverished can make things more challenging for transgender people.
“If you’re in a family that’s experiencing poverty, if you’re dealing with the indignities of being a racial minority in this country over and over again … and then you find out that one of the children, or one of the parents, is LGBTQ identified, is a trans person, what does that added stress do to the family dynamic?” Mirza said.
Familiar rejection leads to other issues, like homelessness and unemployment, which are responsible for the higher levels of police interaction with transgender people. According to a 2011 survey by the National Center for Transgender Equality and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, 21 percent of transgender women have spent time in jail or prison.
Detention is an issue for the transgender community in other contexts, too. A Center for American Progress report found that 60 percent of reccommendations for release of LGBTQ immigrants were overridden by ICE in 2014, compared to 16 percent for the general population. According to the same report, 90 percent of LGBTQ immigrants were put into detention by ICE, despite the fact that detention was only recommended for 18 percent.
“Even when they’re harmless, they’re being kept in detention unnecessarily and that puts them at extremely high risk,” Mirza said. “When you think about the bullying that happens to queer kids in schools, imagine a horrible parallel within the prison system.”
The question of how to better support the transgender community was brought up by audience members during the panel’s Q&A session. Panel members encouraged individuals to point out offensive language when they come across it and use their privilege to educate other people in situations where the voices of transgender people might not be listened to.
“It doesn’t matter what your expertise is, what your field is,” Mirza said. “It’s about finding what is your entry point into this work and starting from there.”
Georgia is a sophomore double majoring in print/online journalism and Spanish with a certificate in Spanish/English Translation and Interpretation. She’s an editorial intern at Richmond Magazine and hopes to one day work as a foreign correspondent in Latin America. In the little free time she has, Georgia enjoys reading and admiring her perfect eyebrows.