By ANN MARIE FLANIGAN:
“The feeling of nobody knowing the biggest thing about you, it makes you feel so incredibly lonely. That all you can see is dark and never the light.”
Jonah Spector knew he was special after blowing out the candles on his fourth birthday, right after everyone sang Happy Birthday to Jenna.
“When I was very young, around kindergarten and the early years of elementary education, I just assumed that I was a “tomboy”. That was the name that mom had put on it, and I hoped and prayed that I would grow out of these feelings of disconnectedness from my body.”
Growing up in the United States, Jonah faced the fear of being himself- a fear of living in a western society where individuals face intolerance for expressing their core identities.
“I realized during my middle school years that I would have to hide away in my own thoughts in order to survive this cruel, hateful world. I figured that I could still get married, have a family, be a decent American, and make everyone proud of me- if the only thing I had to sacrifice was my own happiness. I realized soon enough that it would be impossible for me to do that.”
Visibility is an issue for the transgender community living around the world. Being a transgender person is not an easy existence no matter where you live.
The American Psychological Association defines transgender as an umbrella term for “persons whose gender identity, gender expression, or behaviour does not conform to that typically associated with the sex they were assigned at birth.”
“I suffer from Gender Identity Disorder and experience gender dysphoria. In laymen’s terms, although my biological anatomy is that of a female, I cannot connect with the role of “woman.” Internally, I identify myself as male.”
Gender dysphoria is a fundamental unease and dissatisfaction with the biological sex one is born with that results in depression, restlessness, and other symptoms according to the World Professional Association for Transgender Health (WPATH). The diagnosis is essential to retain access to health care in the United States for transgender individuals.
After meeting with a psychiatrist, transgender people must decide what action to take regarding their level of transitioning. There are some that do not wish to completely change their appearance for risk of facing discrimination.
In western cultures young people are more likely to hide their gender identity in public and at home.
The World Health Organisation said transgender teenagers have an increased vulnerability and a higher risk of a range of health issues due to discrimination, abuse, and oppression. Like in the US, Australian transgender people aged 16-24 are more likely to disguise their true sexual identity than those in other age groups.
As an adolescent Jonah, who was still known as Jenna, used to sneak into his fathers closet to try on clothes. As the years went by his wardrobe became unmistakably male-oriented. Jonah came out as a female to male (FtM) transgender at the age of 22, and after attending gender therapy sessions he was granted hormone treatment therapy two years later.
Jonah legally changed his name after asking his parents to rename him. He later had his gender marker changed on his social security card, drivers license, and has been living legally as a male for over a year but will continue to take testosterone for the rest of his life.
“I take the hormones in my leg through weekly shots. Within the first 3 months I had small changes. After four months I had facial hair, and within 5 months my voice dropped. I looked like an entirely different person. I looked like me.”
There are a variety of different paths trans people can choose to take. The World Professional Association for Transgender Health Individuals (WPATH) gives transgender people resources to learn about available options and the effects of various medical treatments before undergoing hormone therapy and surgeries to alter their sense of self.
WPA outlines options which include taking on the appearance of the desired sex through clothing and grooming changes, embracing a new name, changing sex designation on identity documents, or undergoing medical procedures to modify the body to the preferred gender.
Medical and social costs are relatively high for those who travel down a path of transition. Social costs include discrimination that can result in losing a job or facing degrees of harassment.
Jonah believes that humiliation and outright refusals to provide care have led some transgender people to go without health care to avoid poor treatment and abuse.
“People who work in social security and [at the] Department of Motor Vehicles aren’t educated on creating a safe place. Since I changed all my stuff over when I was still female presenting, they did not try to hide their confusion.”
The National Centre for Transgender Equality and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force released a report in 2011 entitled Injustice at Every Turn, which confirmed the pervasive and severe intolerance transgender people face.
From the 6,450 transgender and gender nonconforming individuals who participated in the survey, high levels of discrimination in employment, housing, health care, education, legal systems and within their own families were reported in the United States.
Those who expressed a transgender identity while in school reported alarming rates of harassment. 78 per cent were physically assaulted with twice the rate of unemployment compared to the general public at the time of the survey.
Of the participants surveyed 63 per cent had experienced a serious act of discrimination meaning they had lost a job, were evicted, sexually assaulted or denied medical service based on their gender identity.
Administrator for the LGBT Resource Centre at the University of Colorado in Colorado Springs (UCCS), Vanessa Delgado sees her transgender clients facing discrimination in public places as well as in the work force.
“At UCCS and most public places the most latent and troublesome form of discrimination is restroom availability,” Delgado said.
Majority of public accommodation only have gender-segregated restrooms rather than gender-neutral restrooms.
Delgado says, “In the United States gender identity is not a federally protected status meaning it is currently legal in 32 states to fire someone because they are transgender.”
Trans people can be denied housing or the use of “public accommodations” such as public restrooms, gym locker rooms, and fitting rooms in department stores based on their identity status.
Higher rates of suicide attempts, smoking, and drug abuse were found in the transgender population compared to the general public by Injustice at Every Turn, with up to four times the national average for HIV infection.
Jonah’s biggest challenge growing up was knowingly being trans while living in fear of being rejected.
“My false identity has become an anchor and the world is a sea. I am drowning and I am scared. Suicide seemed like the only option to finally escape the silence. For a good year and a half, suicide was on my mind daily. I couldn’t see colours. I couldn’t enjoy anything.”
Ms Delgado believes that suicidal ideation from her lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender [LGBT] clients can stem from society at large and comes mainly from the individual’s own families.
“I think more widespread general education about this [transgender] population is necessary as well as resources for families,” said Ms Delgado. “In order to stop homophobic and transphobic ideas we first need to withdraw the taboo of being LGBT and the stigma of being a part of the minority.”
Gender roles within cultures are constructed within strong historical discourses. The term transgender wasn’t coined until 1971, but in Eastern cultures different terminologies already existed to describe a transgender individual.
India, like other Eastern nations, developed gender paradigms that go beyond the two gender roles of male and female. In non-western societies a “third gender” is tied to neither concepts of masculinity nor femininity.
In the “Encyclopaedia of Sex and Gender: Men and Women in the World’s Cultures,” Carol and Melvin Ember state that a third gender system creates a more complex set of gender-based relationships than those that are contemplated by a bipolar gender construct which derived from Northern America and Western cultures.
Hijras in India are a third gender with a history that stretches back thousands of years. The World Policy Institute estimates that nearly 200,000 transexuals or hijras live throughout India, which are comparable to Western fairy godmothers.
In ancient myths hijras were bestowed with special powers to bring luck and fertility. They played an important role in South Asian cultures and those born with the “ability” to bridge the genders were often thought to possess wisdom and skills that traditionally gendered people did not.
Despite their stigma in the ancient history, recent decades ostracise hijras. Today many suffer persecution from their own families and struggle to find acceptance in mainstream society.
Activists in India say hijras live in poverty due to their gender identity and make a living by begging or prostitution. Discrimination against hijras, is prevalent, but recent changes in the law have set a path for improvement, while America is still a cauldron of contradictions.
In 2007, Nepal recognised a third gender and Bangladesh’s Supreme Court has also ordered the government to rid laws that discriminate on the premise of gender identity.
Earlier this year Indian transgenders also gained the right of a third gender status. The ruling from India’s highest court allows hijras equal schooling, employment, and access to the same welfare schemes as other minority groups in India.
Access to health care is a major issue for the transgender community for both Indian and American trans people, and HIV risk is extremely high for trans clients in both countries. Alliance India released a report showing Indian transgender people with an HIV average of 8.8 per cent, which is several times higher than the rest of the population.
Transgender rights advocates have been seeking a distribution of rights and resources for transgender people that currently doesn’t exist.
Just this year, there has been more publicity for transgender people than ever before. A transgender political candidate in India, Bharathi Kannamma, is running for Parliament for the first time, while popular US television shows are portraying transgender characters among the ever increasing politically correct line-up.
Laverne Cox is one example of trans people in pop culture. Ms Cox is a transgender herself, and plays a gender nonconforming character in the hit series, Orange is the New Black.
The Williams Institute estimates there are 700,000 individuals in the US who identify themselves as transgender, and now social media is making it possible for them to be their authentic selves online.
Just a few months ago, Facebook started offering a new gender option for its users with up to 50 different terms people can select. The aim was to give people choices in how they describe themselves, with no longer having to classify under just male or female.
It doesn’t matter if you are living in the east or the west – people whose gender is nonconforming face numerous amounts of denial, excess costs, and a much a higher risk of facing HIV infection.
The marginalisation of transgender people in society has had a devastating effect on mental and physical health all over the world.
While coming out as a trans man in America wasn’t easy, Jonah was able to find a sense of self and confidence amidst the hardships he faced.
“We [transgender people] want to be viewed just as everybody else, so we need to learn how to take things in stride like other people. When we freak out, get defensive; become rude- we look fragile, and that is something we are simply not. None of us are fragile. We have overcome a lot of adversity, so why don’t we make it clear to everybody that we are strong.”
With the work of trans activists and the increasing inclusion of transgender people into mainstream media, people like Jonah hope to see the end of gender norms as a criterion in distributing rights and resources.
“Because a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”
Photo and video attribution: Jonah Spector