by Nadira Kharmai
When it comes to talking about the LGBT community, we often overlook the “T.” Is it because we’re not as familiar with the “T” as we are with the lesbian, gay, and bisexual part of it? Is our unfamiliarity or lack of education on transgender people perpetuating the phobia against them? Grand Rapids native Jena thinks so. Jena, who transitioned from male to female, said “It seems so ludicrous to judge a person by less than a tenth of what they are.” (She’s talking about what’s between your legs!) Although her and her partner haven’t endured harassment in public, she’s experienced discrimination in the workforce. Jena believes that during her time of transition, the protection against sexual harassment that once was present at her former workplace became absent under new management. Unfortunately, she’s not alone. “90% of transgender people have dealt with some form of harassment or mistreatment on the job,” according to a survey released by the National Center for Transgender Equality and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force in 2011. Jena is working on creating a survey to learn more about transgender discrimination in West Michigan through the organization she co-founded; Transgender Education Collaboration.
Aside from looking “different” (again,“different” is subjective and often created by society) post-transition, transgender people almost always carry a new name, which can sometimes turn into even more discrimination in the workforce. “I know people who’ve applied for jobs as a male, and when it came time to show the potential employer their identification card and it was still under a female identity, they quickly got the boot,” Jena said. As she recounted her friends’ sad stories filled with blatant ignorance, it was clear: Being yourself in a time where equality doesn’t prevail can be difficult. “Going through transition is already scary enough, and to have discrimination or bullying added to it makes it feel very isolating.”
Now, you may be wondering “Well, don’t they (transgender people) want others to know they’re different? That’s not the case at all. “Being transgendered isn’t the same thing as being a drag queen. We’re not trying to get on RuPaul’s Drag Race,” Jena said. (That’s a popular reality TV show on the cable network “Logo”.) Contrary to what most people believe, transgender people want to blend in with the rest of the world. During the transitional period when someone is in the early stages of becoming who they see themselves as, it can be hard to blend in and look like the typical society-defined man or woman, Jena added. When the appearance of a transman or transwoman challenges what our culture says is acceptable, the amount of harassment can grow significantly.
“I’ve had female-to-male clients who have been gang raped or raped by guys trying to punish them,” said Dr. Matthew Clark, clinical psychologist and founder of The Clark Institute. This shocking form of sexual abuse is widespread among college campuses, “particularly those who don’t have a strong LGBT presence.” On the Grand Valley State University and Grand Rapids Community College campuses, the reports are scarce due to the active resources provided by LGBT centers. “I think there’s still a predatory nature with sexuality on college campus with some men. A handful of them still use their penis as a weapon in situations where they feel their sexuality or manhood is being challenged,” Clark said.
The list of harassment and abuse could go on, but not all of Dr. Clark’s stories are negative. The well-known psychologist has some parents come in; fully accepting and wanting to learn how to be more supportive for their teen who just came out as transgender. Although the topic of transphobia may be foreign to some, it’s key to educate yourself on the issues that many people in your own very backyard may face. Dr. Clark said it best: “I think what’s key is that in life we just accept people for who they are. We listen to them, and ask questions for understanding.” Between Websites like TransEquality.org, Facebook support pages, and education resource centers like West Michigan Pride and Transgender Education Collaboration, there are plenty of options to educate yourself and get involved in LGBT advocacy.
Let’s not overlook the “T” anymore.
Nadira Kharmai owns and operates Empress Productions; a production company that specializes in social media video. Kharmai is also a lifestyle model with the Matthew Agency. She loves the great outdoors, playing with her puppy, and spending time with family.