Monday, February 19, 2007

Transmission – Pride-Race, Sex, and Society

February 17, 2007 by Jamie Tyroler
There’s so much going on in February—Black History Month, Presidents’ Day, Valentine’s Day—it has taken some time to try to come up with a column for this issue, especially with Camp coming out twice as often.
There’s not much I could say about Valentine’s Day that hasn’t already been said by Hallmark and there’s nothing positive I can say about the current president. So, once I decided on writing an article regarding Black History Month, I had to decide if I would write about some historical African-American who was either transgender or blurred the gender stereotypes (like Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton’s penchant for wearing men’s clothing) or about someone who is very active in the transgender community (like Washington, D.C. activist Earline Budd of Transgender Health Empowerment). Instead, I’m choosing to talk about some of the issues transgender African-Americans have to face. Every November the transgender community stops to remember those people who have been murdered because they do not seem to conform to gender stereotypes. Since 2002, when I first became involved, a large percentage of these murder victims have been black. Many of these murders occurred in places like Washington, D.C., and California where there some legal protections for transgender people. Clearly, legal protections in employment and housing don’t resolve all these issues. These crimes have a racial component. Members of racial minorities, at least in this country, often don’t have the same economic opportunities as whites. Transgender people also have a lot of obstacles to overcome. For example, many transgender youth don’t complete high school due to alienation and bullying—even changing clothes in gym class can be a problem. Yet as almost everyone knows, especially if you’ve seen the commercials for all the area vocational schools, education is important for getting a decent-paying job. There’s also the fact that urban and rural school districts tend to get less money from states and the federal government than suburban districts, which usually have a higher percentage of white students. In a C-SPAN2 interview with Jonathan Kozol discussing his book, “The Shame of the Nation: The Restoration of Apartheid Schooling in America,” he said that schools in the South Bronx in New York received about half as much in federal funds as schools in the more exclusive suburbs of Long Island. Since we live in one of the few industrialized nations that does not have universal health care coverage, in Missouri being a transgender person can be extremely expensive; it requires frequent doctor visits, blood tests, hormones, and surgeries. For male-to-female transsexuals, genital surgery can easily run between $10,000 and $20,000. Genital surgery for female-to-male transsexuals, which doesn’t have the greatest results, can be several times more. Insurance coverage, if you have it, often doesn’t pay for genital surgery. Financing it can be next to impossible if you can only get a low-paying job. One of the options for transgendered persons to earn extra money is in the sex industry– modeling, prostitution, films, etc. This is risky for many reasons: Prostitution is illegal in almost all of the United States. Transgender sex workers are at extremely high risk for HIV/AIDS – a recent study of transgender sex workers in Miami/Dade County, Florida showed an infection rate of between 65% and 70%. Those infected have a myriad of other health care costs that can push any transgender-related surgeries further out of reach. Then there’s transphobia: the violence that often results when a person “discovers” that a sex partner is a transgender person. The reason for the quotes around “discovers” is that the perpetrator often knows the person is transgendered but becomes violent when others find out about the relationship. Male-to-female transgender people are often sought out as sex partners because people think we’re easy. And as long as the transgender woman takes the traditional female role, the man can still reassure himself that he’s heterosexual. Transgender people, regardless of race, have a difficult life even in the best of circumstances. When you add inequalities in education and economic opportunities, life can be indescribably difficult. There is no easy way to make it easier for them. The disproportionate murder rate of black transgender people can be attributed to the murderers’ racism, sexism, the depersonalization of transgender people, and the fear of being labeled gay, among many other explanations. Although it does help to have laws that protect transgender people from being discriminated against in employment, housing, and access to public spaces, people will still die as a result of other people’s emotions. So: We need to change how people think. We need to make nontransgender people more aware of our issues. We need to allow others to know who we are—not much different from everyone else. Laws help, though only to a small extent, by penalizing blatant mistreatment. Some people will remain closed-minded, and there will always be the possibility that someone will react violently to someone else solely because that person is in some way different. But the less we interact with others, the more difficult it is to change their views. We need to be willing to educate other people about our lives. We need to be open about how and what we are. When relationships are built, it’s more difficult to dehumanize others. If you have friends of a different race, for example, you are less likely to make racial generalizations about people of that race. When you think about Black History Month, don’t just think about people and events of the past. Think about how that history has affected you and your perceptions of others. Think about the present and the future. If you feel there is room for improvement, work on it. Work on it within yourself and the people you interact with. If you hear someone tell a racist joke, for example, speak up and say something. Otherwise, you give the impression that you approve of racist comments and jokes. To improve society, we have to take a more active role in society.

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