In order to combat the dramatic upsurge in anti-transgender rhetoric over the past two years, many advocates agree that an increase in transgender education and ally-building is urgently required.
It was therefore encouraging to see a packed room at Lakeview's Center on Addison Sept. 22 for the third and final in a series of Thursday Trans Talk events that Center on Halsted Director of Trans Relations and Community Engagement Vanessa Sheridan hosted and moderated.
The audience was as enthusiastic as it was hungry for the insight on living openly as trans-identified individuals provided by the event's three panelists: Live Oak psychotherapist and Roosevelt University adjunct professor Kelly George, retired Chicago Department of Public Health Office of LGBT Health administrator Pamela McCann and Center on Halsted Associate Director of Behavioral Health Ing Swenson.
"For years and years I was pushing back against the forces against me," McCann said. "When I transitioned I found that I was better able to address issues, life decisions and I felt more confident in how I made particular choices."
"Having a non-binary identity, my path has not always been a straightforward one," George noted. "When I first moved to Chicago, I was part of the drag king community and being able to play around with gender and see what felt comfortable and what didn't was meaningful to me to understand that gender could be fun, creative and expressive verses binding, controlling and uncomfortable."
"Part of being trans requires a certain amount of self-reflection and self-discovery," George added. "That process builds strength, character and resiliency. Even though the journey has not always been comfortable, it has developed character and insights I wouldn't have had otherwise."
"We exist, we are human beings and we are out there in the world," Swenson said. "Just because folks aren't out as trans or gender nonconforming doesn't mean that they are not proud."
However, even the proudest trans life is one replete with challenges in every aspect of society that cisgender individuals take for granted, whether in education, the workplace or even a simple visit to the doctor.
"For someone who is accessing medical services, finding a good doctor is probably the biggest challenge," Swenson noted. "Doctors sometimes really suck in this area. Navigating that has been super hard."
"You have to be out to medical providers," McCann asserted. They have to know your biological sex. Not everybody is able or willing to provide gender appropriate responses. Gender is not biological, it is social."
McCann also described educational and employment opportunities for the transgender community as "hideous."
"For me, identifying as non-binary sometimes feels like I am trying to convince people that unicorns exist," George said. "They keep not seeing me. It's frustrating to constantly feel like I have to prove that I exist and the emotional toll that takes is a lot."
Another major theme the panel raised was the omnipresent shadow of violence under which the transgender community lives.
"Trans women of color are being murdered," Swenson said. "There are numerous folks just this year whose lives have been taken senselessly and just because [they're] trans. How do we get folks to get on board with the fact that we're humans and we need to be able to exist?"
"Having people acknowledge that we are human beings who deserve rights would immensely help with issues related to violence, unemployment, homelessnessall of these major things that significantly impact trans people [more] than they do cis' folks," George agreed. "When you look at the laws that are on place, when you look at North Carolina, Tennessee; laws about bathrooms, about doctors being able to choose whether to treat you or not are all rooted in the idea that we're not human."
"The situations in North Carolina and in Texas have highlighted that the heavy hand of regulation is not the way to achieve social change," McCann said. "The trans community needs to be able to get away from the stereotype that the only reason that somebody wants to use the bathroom is because they are a sex pervert."
George added that the weight of these issues has severe ramifications within the transgender community itself.
"There ends up being a fair amount of inter-community negativity and fighting, George said. "When you have a lot of external pressure on a community, it's going to rupture internally."
With increased visibility, those pressures may have increased. However, they have also allowed for invaluable opportunities for education such as those provided by Trans Talk.
"This panel wouldn't have happened ten years ago," George noted. "It is amazing how hard we are pushing. This month's issue of Cosmopolitan has a photo shoot of Laverne Cox celebrating her Black female heroes. It is mind-blowing that you can pick up Cosmo and there's a gorgeous photo shoot of a Black trans woman."
"The opportunity today is for all members of the trans and LGB community to have a chance to be themselves," McCann said.
"It's for us to be able to say who we are and the things that we've been able to reclaim," Swenson asserted. "That we will no longer be left behind."
For more information on Center on Halsted programs, visit CenterOnHalsted.org .