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|Trans Atlanta: A look inside an evolving community|
|Written by Dyana Bagby|
|Friday, 12 November 2010 00:00|
As a black man living in the South, Dana Prosser knows he faces certain prejudices — racial profiling, people crossing the street to avoid walking past him on the sidewalk, women locking their car doors when they see him in a parking lot.
That’s why his driver’s license still identifies him as a woman.
Knowing he faces possible repercussions for being a black man, especially by police, having that “F” on his license ensures that, for example, if he is sent to jail, he would be put in with the female population. A trans man locked up with other men in jail could be in real danger, he said.
“On paper, I’m still female,” he says. “I’m a realist.”
Prosser, 35, of Atlanta, began his transition seven years ago, has had top surgery (breasts removed) and takes testosterone. He lives his life as a man, identifies as a man, but knows he still must take precautions.
But now his outer appearance matches what he sees inside his mind, he said. And for that Prosser has Atlanta’s transgender community to thank.
“I come from Columbia, S.C., and would visit Atlanta all the time on the weekends. I didn’t know it was an option until I moved to Atlanta, where you have more of a trans community,” he said.
Struggling with his gender identity put Prosser into a deep depression that resulted in a stay in a psychiatric hospital. There he met a psychiatrist who helped him understand what he was enduring and come to grips with his true identity.
“It was a deep struggle within myself,” he said. “But transitioning was the best decision I made in my life. I’ve been happy ever since.”
As a member of Atlanta’s leather community, Prosser said he found a home long ago while still struggling with his gender identity because in the leather scene there is no strict binary code. People can identify however they want, offering a freedom not always found in other communities, he said.
“There are a lot of transgender people in the leather community because there is not that judgment. Everyone is more accepting,” he said.
Prosser acknowledges he doesn’t go around telling everyone he is a trans man. But if asked, he will be honest.
“It’s about opening people’s eyes. I want people to know there are different people walking amongst you,” he said. “I am who I am.”
Trans people, issues emerging from shadows
Max G., 32, remembers watching Phil Donahue when he was 12 and learning about transgender women. But it wasn’t until seven years ago that he realized there were people like him — men trapped in women’s bodies.
“It wasn’t until I met someone like me that I knew,” he said of his meeting of another trans man. “It feels like there are so many of us in the community willing to be out. I just wish I had figured this out when I was 17.”
Nationally and locally, trans people are more visible than they were then.
This year, Atlanta Pride partnered with TransQueer Nation, founded by trans man Tristan Skye and his wife, Sicily Skye, to hold the second annual Trans March that attracted dozens of trans people and allies who marched through Piedmont Park during Pride to ensure visibility.
Atlanta Pride Executive Director James Parker Sheffield is an open trans man.
Vandy Beth Glenn of Atlanta sued the Georgia legislature after she was fired from her job as a legislative editor in 2007 when she told her superiors she was transitioning from male to female. She won her case, but it’s being appealed.
Outsports.com recently broke the story of the first trans player in the NCAA Division 1 college basketball league — Kye Allums, who plays on the women’s basketball team for George Washington University.
Chaz Bono, formerly Chastity Bono, is now the son of gay icon Cher, and has put a very public face on transgender people.
Talk show hosts and reporters such as Barbara Walters, Oprah Winfrey and Tyra Banks have also interviewed transgender guests, including young people.
The documentary “Southern Comfort,” about trans man Robert Eads, influenced Max to pursue living as a man. He’s had top surgery and a hysterectomy as well to lessen his chances of contracting cancer while taking testosterone.
He recently married his partner, Jamie, and they are legally married as a man and a woman because he was able to change the gender marker on his Connecticut birth certificate from “F” to “M.”
It wasn’t an easy decision, though, because he and his wife know so many of their gay and lesbian friends still cannot be legally married.
“But we’re going to be having kids in the next couple of years and Jamie’s parents aren’t very supportive so if we have to go to court this would give us extra protection,” he said. “But really, what’s more queer than me and Jamie getting married?”
Transgender Day of Remembrance
Transgender people are often victims of violence. Four men killed Gwen Araujo, 17, a transgender woman, in Newark, Calif., in 2002 after they discovered she was transgender.
In 2009, a Colorado man was convicted of a hate crime after being found guilty of killing Angie Zapata, 18, a transgender female.
In Atlanta, the 2003 murder of Precious Armani, a transgender woman found shot in the head, remains unsolved.
“The Atlanta Police Department considers the death of Precious Armani an open investigation and we are currently following active leads,” said Carlos Campos, public affairs manager of the APD.
It is these kinds of deaths from around the world that have led to the annual Transgender Day of Remembrance, where people gather to remember those who have been killed or otherwise died because of who they are. This year TDOR is set for Nov. 20 at the State Capitol.
The theme this year is “Justice and Equality for All,” said Tracee McDaniel, 43, founder of the trans activist organization Juxtaposed Center for Transformation that is organizing the annual event.
“It’s important to remember them because many of them do not have someone to remember them,” she said. “They are part of our community. And because so many in our society see us as disposable, we want to remember.”
And when some LGB people try to erase the “T,” McDaniel said they are doing nothing more than erasing a part of their own history.
“It boils my blood when I hear we don’t belong,” she said. “We were there at Stonewall, we have been there since the beginning.”
McDaniel also sits on the newly formed GLBT Advisory Board for the Atlanta Police Department and hopes to inform and help train officers about working with transgender people.
“It’s not up to you [officers] to humiliate us by addressing with incorrect pronouns,” she said of a common complaint trans people have with law enforcement. “We just want to be treated with basic human respect.”
Campos also said that McDaniel’s seat on the board should be useful when training officers about trans issues, and with two LGBT liaisons on the force, there is work being done to ensure trans people are treated with respect.
“The APD recognizes there is a need to require meaningful transgender issues training for its officers, including those new to the force and those already serving,” Campos said in an email.
“Our GLBT liaisons are working to develop such a curriculum to begin offering such training soon. They just recently met with officials of Someone Cares, Inc. [an organization serving trans people] for their insights,” he added.
Health issues for trans people
With more physicians, psychologists and psychiatrists in Georgia specializing in treating transgender people as well as performing sex reassignment surgeries, trans activists say there is definitely a movement to meet the health needs of a growing population in Atlanta.
Clinical psychologist Eli Budd, 60, who has lived in Atlanta since 1975 and practiced since 1981, said today’s society is more open to transsexuals than several generations ago.
“People my age are typically not finding ways to come to terms with who they are until later in life. But I’m currently treating a 17-year old who wants to transition [to male] and one client who is 62 who had surgery to transition to a woman,” Budd said.
Budd says he has seen a dramatic increase in people who identify as transgender seeking help than in years past. But because he has been practicing so long, there is no telling how many gay and lesbian patients he came across just 10 years ago who were actually dealing with gender identity issues but simply not aware of it.
“People are starting to come to terms with this. When there is room to explore, people will be more honest with themselves and live more authentic lives,” he said.
Proper health care is crucial for those seeking hormones and surgery, and a psychiatric evaluation is required before people can begin hormones and get clearance for sex reassignment surgery if so desired.
There have been many voices of discontent by transgender people and allies over the years to get gender identity disorder removed from the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic & Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, so that a doctor’s note is not needed to get the hormones or surgery a person may want.
Until that happens, Budd said transgender people must be patient with their psychologists and psychiatrists and understand the risks they are taking.
“Very often when I’m contacted people just want that letter and often resent having to come in for a visit. I have a certain level of understanding of this,” he said.
“Doctors put their practice on the line. I can see someone and know in the first visit they qualify for hormones, but for others it takes time to work through other emotional issues,” Budd added.
Building beloved community
Sir Jesse McNulty, 43, a trans man who has been a part of the community for more than a decade, believes Atlanta has taken great strides in its acceptance of trans men and women. “But a lot more ground needs to be gained,” he said.
People talk about hetero-centrism — those who can only see the world through a heterosexual viewpoint, he notes. But in Atlanta, there is also still a sense of gay- and lesbian-centrism, McNulty said.
That’s why he works at YouthPride, leading support groups for trans youth ages 13-24. He is also a member of the Georgia Safe Schools Coalition that recently produced a documentary about how trans students can be safe in schools.
“People don’t always understand that when you come out trans, you’re usually coming out a second time,” he said. “And when you come out a second time, some people give you a hard time and will say something like, ‘You can’t make up your mind,’ like you are unstable,” he said.
McNulty, who has had top surgery but does not take testosterone due to health concerns, said language is what saved him when he was learning to deal with his trans identity — and language is what is making it easier for young people to understand who they truly are.
“I didn’t have the words when I was their age. They have the words,” he said.
For years he identified as a butch lesbian, but he knew deep inside he was “beyond butch.”
As a man who was raised female, McNulty remains a staunch feminist.
“I was accused of asking for a social promotion because men are more valued in society than women and was asked, ‘How dare you cross over?’” he remembered.
But he said he needed to have top surgery to be comfortable in his body.
“My feminist identity was strengthened,” he said. “I needed to do it to live.”
Living out of ‘a bag and a bush’
Cheryl Courtney-Evans, 58, moved to Atlanta from Kansas City in 1979 thinking she had a job with the now defunct Southern Bell. But the job did not pan out for Evans, who had transitioned from male to female in 1974.
“They said I was ‘unsuitable’ for the job,” she said of that interview 36 years ago. “In those days it wasn’t acceptable to be out as gay or lesbian.”
She moved to Atlanta not only for the job but because during a vacation in the city she heard from other “girls” in a club about a doctor who would prescribe hormones without a psychologist’s report.
“Psychological tampering is what I call it,” she said. “And as long as you had the money you had your shots and prescriptions for hormones.”
Evans said she was on the way to the popular gay club Backstreet one night when she stopped to light a cigarette.
She said she was immediately arrested for loitering and she ended up in jail for 15 days.
While in jail, she met other “girls,” as she calls them, who told her how she could make a living through sex work.
She’s not proud of those days, she said, but did what she had to do to survive.
“There were many weeks when I just lived out of a trash bag and a bush,” she said.
But she eventually met Dee Dee Chamblee of La Gender, an organization that helps mostly transgender women of color. Wanting to help women like her and use her personal experiences for good, Evans recently founded Transgender Individuals Living Their Truth (TILTT).
“The community at large has come to understand a little bit better the differences between transgender as gender identity as opposed to sexual orientation,” Evans explains.
While most people will say “LGBT” to try to ensure all segments of the queer community are included, these letters don’t really fit, Evans said. Instead, she prefers “gender non-conforming,” saying it’s more inclusive and unifying. After all, she explained, two women holding hands are definitely breaking typical gender roles.
Making the world safer for trans people
Jamie Roberts, 38, is originally from Griffin, Ga., and now lives in Newnan. She is a public defender in LaGrange and wants nothing more than to be known as, “Jamie Roberts, that fucking awesome trial lawyer.”
“But if people know me as Jamie Roberts, the transsexual lawyer, I’m OK with it,” she says.
Roberts began therapy while in law school at the University of Georgia when she was 26.
“It was the mid ‘90s and I was finding other trans people on the internet and 11 years ago I started going to AGE meetings (Atlanta Gender Expressions). This helped me become more comfortable in my skin,” she said.
Roberts believes Atlanta is gaining a reputation as queer-friendly, but many people still believe transgender means “men in dresses.”
“There is still a certain hostility toward trans women because we weren’t socialized female and will never really be women. I disagree with that,” she said. “Many trans men I know are more consciously feminist than some women I know.”
Living life as a woman means being her whole self, Roberts said. But as part of such a small minority she believes it is not wise for the “T” to be separated from the “LGB.”
“It would be a disaster because there are not enough of us to make a pitch for equality. We’re a small minority within a minority,”
While Roberts has taken many leadership positions within the LGBT community, she believes living her life truthfully in rural Georgia is a form of activism as well.
“It’s my way of making the world safe for trans people,” she said.
Biological sex, sex: a term used historically and within the medical field to refer to the chromosomal, hormonal and anatomical characteristics that are used to classify an individual as female or male.
Cisgender: Definition for those whose gender identities match with the gender assigned at birth.
Crossdresser: a person who, on occasion, wears clothing associated with another sex, but who does not necessarily desire to change his or her sex. Many crossdressers identify as heterosexual but can have any sexual orientation.
Drag king / drag queen: a performer who wears the clothing associated with another sex, often involving the presentation of exaggerated, stereotypical gender characteristics. The performance of gender by drag queens (males in drag) or drag kings (females in drag) may be art, entertainment and/or parody.
FTM (female to male), transgender man: terms used to identify a person who was assigned the female sex at birth but who identifies as male.
Gender: a set of social, psychological and emotional traits, often influenced by societal expectations, that classify an individual as feminine, masculine, androgynous or other.
Gender binary: the concept that everyone must be one of two genders: man or woman.
Gender expression: The outward manifestation of internal gender identity, through clothing, hairstyle, mannerisms and other characteristics.
Gender identity: the inner sense of being a man, a woman, both or neither. Gender identity usually aligns with a person’s sex, but sometimes does not.
Gender dysphoria: an intense, persistent discomfort resulting from the awareness that the sex assigned at birth and the resulting gender role expectations are inappropriate. Some consider gender dysphoria to be a symptom of gender Identity Disorder, a health condition recognized by the American Psychiatric Association. Many transgender people do not experience gender dysphoria.
Genderqueer: a term used by some people who may or may not identify as transgender, but who identify their gender as somewhere on the continuum beyond the binary male/ female gender system.
Gender-nonconforming: behaving in a way that does not match social stereotypes about female or male gender, usually through dress or physical appearance.
Gender role: the social expectation of how an individual should act, think and feel, based upon the sex assigned at birth.
Gender transition: the social, psychological and medical process of transitioning from one gender to another. Gender transition is an individualized process and does not involve the same steps for everyone. After gender transition, some people identify simply as men or women.
Hormone therapy: administration of hormones and hormonal agents to develop characteristics of a different gender or to block the development of unwanted gender characteristics. Hormone therapy is part of many people’s gender transitions and is safest when prescribed and monitored by a health care professional.
Intersex: a health condition, often present at birth, involving anatomy or physiology that differs from societal expectations of male and female. Intersex conditions can affect the genitals, the chromosomes and/ or other body structures. People with intersex conditions should not be assumed to be transgender.
MTF (male to female), transgender woman: terms used to identify a person who was assigned the male sex at birth but who identifies as female.
Post-op, pre-op, non-op: terms used to identify a transgender person’s surgical status. Use of these terms is often considered insulting and offensive. Surgical status is almost never relevant information for anyone except a transgender person’s medical providers.
Sex reassignment surgery (SRS): any one of a variety of surgeries involved in the process of transition from one gender to another. Many transgender people will not undergo SRS for health or financial reasons, or because it is not medically necessary for them.
Transgender or trans: an umbrella term used to describe those who challenge social gender norms, including genderqueer people, gender-nonconforming people, transsexuals, crossdressers and so on. People must self-identify as transgender in order for the term to be appropriately used to describe them.
Transphobia: the irrational fear of those who challenge gender stereotypes, often expressed as discrimination, harassment and violence.
Transsexual: a person who experiences intense, persistent, long-term discomfort with their body and self-image due to the awareness that their assigned sex is inappropriate. Transsexuals may take steps to change their body, gender role and gender expression to align them with their gender identity.
Sources: Lambda Legal, “Bending the Mold: An Action Kit for Transgender Students”; “Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity” by Julia Serano.
Top photo: Dana Prosser is an Atlanta transgender man who wants the community at large to know ‘there are different people walking amongst you.’ (by Bo Shell)
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