Visibility is power

I’m not here for people who are against Caitlyn Jenner’s transition and coming out, for whatever reason. I am here for the people who care that the publicity surrounding her have drawn attention to trans* people, locally and internationally.

Photo courtesy http://heavy.com/entertainment/2015/06/caitlyn-jenner-bruce-jenner-sex-change-gender-reassignment-vanity-fair-picture-photo-article/

An April 4, 2014 photo of Bruce Jenner (left) shows him next to the new June 1, 2015 Caitlyn Jenner (right).

For those who don’t know, Caitlyn announced her transition and new name in an interview with Diane Sawyer and on a Vanity Fair cover recently. This is news mainly because she’s part of the Kardashian family and is a world-famous athlete. There are better role models for trans* people of colour in my opinion, including these eight women, and these others.

Also, it should be noted that Caitlyn’s experience is not that of most trans* persons, as stated on the ACLU blog:

“Telling her story with care means using the right name and pronoun, but it also means highlighting the extent to which it is not the typical trans story. Her story can only be told by also telling the stories of the trans people who are struggling to survive systemic discrimination.”

“Health care for transgender people remains highly stigmatized and largely unavailable for the majority of trans people. Both private (i.e., employer) and public (i.e. Medicaid) insurance plans continue to have blanket bans on coverage for health care related to gender transition. Even where there has been progress on coverage generally, insurance coverage for care that trans women need is still elusive.”

Similar comments are made in an article about the reaction of actress Laverne Cox, another well-known trans* woman, to Jenner’s coming out. Trans* women of colour especially tend to be victims of violence and lack the funds to do the procedures to ‘pass’

Aside from the hateful messages after Jenner’s transition, the call for a look at wider issues affecting the trans* community seems to be the overwhelming response. Cox said on Tumblr:

“Most trans folks don’t have the privileges Caitlyn and I have now have. It is those trans folks we must continue to lift up, get them access to healthcare, jobs, housing, safe streets, safe schools and homes for our young people. We must lift up the stories of those most at risk, statistically trans people of color who are poor and working class.”

Two trans* women tell their stories in this article, Stories of Transitioning When You’re Not Rich, Famous, or Caitlyn Jenner.

Katrina Goodlett, one of the founders of the Trans Women of Color Collective, a group working to uplift the stories of trans* people of color, said in an interview:

“Trans women of color are historically objectified by mainstream media with this basic narrative around genitalia and surgery. I believe this “exposure” could be better served towards issues that affect marginalized community; poor, disabled, incarcerated, undocumented trans people of color. We know eight trans women were brutally murdered within the first 60 days of 2015 with no media outrage or outcry, no Diane Sawyer interviews.”

That interview also spoke to media erasure of trans* people of color and the hijacking of their stories by white celebrities:

“The media wants to maintain the status quo of capitalism and white supremacy. Bruce’s story is based on privilege. Despite Bruce’s internal truth seeking, [Jenner] will have access to health care, housing, jobs etc. Many trans people of color I know don’t even have access to safe and affordable health care or housing. Mainstream media wants to prop up this narrative of “transition” when for many trans folk that is not the goal!”

“As a trans woman of color I don’t think we are seeking anything other than a fair chance to survive and live our lives. We want a future with the fair opportunity to live healthy, prosperous lives with homes, and families that love us to fill every room. We want jobs where we are respected for who we are. We want to walk on streets and not be harassed by the police due to our appearance.”

Photo courtesy Loop Jamaica

In this April 4, 2014, photo, homeless youths hang out at the entrance of a sewer pipe along a trash-strewn canal where they live beneath a busy road in Kingston, Jamaica. They are part of a small group of young gay and transgender Jamaicans who mostly sell sex to make money.

There are trans* people living in the Caribbean, who have been encouraged by the publicity surrounding this celebrity, and in my opinion this now opens room for dialogue about and with trans* people surrounding their lives and experiences. It has been a polarizing moment, with some persons declaring her as being deviant and ugly, others mum, and still others supporting her decision to live her life as she wants to. This article makes a good case for why Caitlyn Jenner matters to straight people, and here comedian Jon Stewart criticizes the media for their treatment of her, but not the way you’d think. A friend said that her mother has now been inspired to re-think her position on trans* people, whereas she used to be casually transphobic. A lot of people have been saying that this is an American thing, but the truth is that there have been trans* people in public life in T&T and the Caribbean for years.

The tales told by trans* people in the Caribbean tend to be ones of prejudice and fear (yeah I know it’s a Cracked article, it’s still pertinent!) The most recent and famous case is that of Dwayne Jones, who was murdered by a mob in Jamaica while at a party.  A trans* woman told me, on condition of remaining anonymous,

“I was living in the Caribbean, Jamaica to be specific. The discrimination there is very high for transgender women especially. There is no access to health care there. You cannot change your name legally there nor your gender markers. It is next to impossible to be hired there, unless you look somewhat “normal” and people do not know you are transgender.”

Here in Trinidad and Tobago, we have one openly transgender person, Jowelle de Souza, who is running for public office on an independent ticket. Much has been made, in traditional media and social media, of her gender identity, but she’s not the only trans* person living here.

Photo courtesy AZLAN MOHAMMED and Trinidad and Tobago Newsday SMILING JO: National Awardee Jowelle De Souza strikes a pose after receiving the Humming Bird Bronze medal for community service at the National Awards held at Queen’s Hall, Port-of-Spain on Sunday. De Souza, a San Fernando hair-stylist who shot to the spotlight when she became the first person to undergo sex reassignment surgery in Trinidad, was awarded for her work as an animal activist.

Others have different experiences, including facing physical and verbal abuse, the threat of being fired, evicted and in some cases, assault and corrective rape. Many trans* persons I know leave the island as soon as they can so that they don’t have to face the negative attitudes and live in fear.

I personally know trans* teens who live in fear of having their families throw them out of the house should they come out or change their gender expression, in addition to dealing with the mental issues of trying to understand why they feel like they do, in a society that does not place value on young people or mental health.  This leads to many trans* teens taking their lives, and it is hoped that increased visibility will decrease these statistics.

Articles about Caitlyn being delusional and trans* people suffering from a mental disorder, written by anti-gay activists, devalue the lived experiences of trans* people, and often used false or twisted science to underlay their claims. I’ve seen these articles being paraded on social media as ‘proof’ that trans* people are deviant and wrong for being who they are. The mental disorder article was actually opposed by the World Professional Association for Transgender Health and the Human Rights Council.

As this article about trans* activists and allies states, we need to be careful that we don’t fall into the trap of saying trans* people can only be accepted if they make us feel comfortable. My hope is that here in the Caribbean, as elsewhere, Caitlyn Jenner’s transition will be the launchpad for some people to re-think their positions and the opening of conversations which will allow trans* people to be accepted for who they are when they come out.

Generation Change: Speaking about LGBT Rights in the Caribbean

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3 thoughts on “Visibility is power

  1. very insightful look at the Caribbean perspective. however, i wondered whether it might not also be useful to engage in a call to action? what might be the appropriate response, in your view? is there something you believe that Caribbean people need to be doing other than what currently obtains? how might they?…just curious still. notwithstanding, as i said, very insightful column! thanks!

  2. As a Trinidadian Trans woman. Thank you for writing this. It’s been extremely difficult these past couple weeks, because it feels that before Caitlyn revealed herself, things were a bit better here. Now, the amount of trans phobia, hate speech and just plain ignorance runs rampant in Trinidad. But hopefully someone sees this and gets some insight, maybe change a perspective or two. I was wondering if you might be interested in writing about Feminists issue and Trans women issues (similarities)?

    • You’re welcome. I just commented on FB that before Caitlyn’s coming out people were ignorant or feigned ignorance of trans* people. But now it’s being shoved in their faces, and as could be expected, they aren’t reacting well. I will do some research about the similarities and you can send me an email with any points you want to discuss and just to talk if you want.

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