Sunday, May 8, 2011

A Community without a Home


I came out in 8th grade. I was outed to my parents that same year. I remember, my mother called me into the kitchen, and there on the table was my yearbook open to one of many signatures. One of my friends signed off her message “to my best gay friend ever!!!!” and my mother read it. That was a tense ten minutes, but an honest ten minutes.

My parents were accepting as was the town I grew up in. Even the all-male Catholic high school I attended was accepting. Admittedly, there were moments when I felt imperiled because someone blasted the word “faggot” right in my face. Luckily, I was equipped with two powerful weapons. One: the knowledge that my parents, sister and friends would support me. Two: because I was out of the closet, I could response to such comments with, “yes, what about it?”
           
I didn’t realize how lucky I was. Sure, it was a struggle at times. Puberty is always a struggle. Perhaps it was a little bit more challenging for me because every guy I liked was (typically) heterosexual.

For obvious reasons, around this time in my life the “sexuality” topic started making frequent appearances. So, in order to understand myself better and meet open guys, I joined my school’s gay straight alliance and encountered my first transgender (trans hopeful) person…
           
Person, guy, girl… I’m typically a strong speaker, but the terminology surrounding that friend was ambiguous, difficult, impossible and made me bungle.
           
“Can I address the GSA with my typical, ‘hey guys,’ if he… if she is in the group? Is that offensive?” I wondered things like this whenever he and I were in the same room. At the time I called him just by his given name.
           
You’ve probably noted two inconsistencies here. One being, how can there be a transgender person going to an all-boys Catholic school? He wasn’t transitioned yet and wasn’t going to go through the process until after graduation. The other inconsistency is summed up pretty well by something someone asked me in a meeting which was the inspiration for this article.
           
I said in the meeting I was the student-leader of the GSA at Saint John’s Prep. He said, “a GSA… at a Catholic school?!” I’ve already said this a few times, but I will say it again – I grew up in an environment that fostered my development as a person regardless of my sexual orientation. I really have to thank the headmaster at the time for sticking it to the various pressures (student, parent, teacher, Catholic institution) and sticking with Always Our Brothers and Sisters.
           
My point is this: when she [I will use this pronoun from now on] was in the room I was confused. I wanted to be tolerant and accepting and understanding, but I found myself thinking “how could you want to do this to yourself?” I admit, I more than once thought it was silly and unnecessary. Furthermore, I knew intuitively that making the transition would bring a lot of pain on her. My reasoning was pretty simple; I thought I’d had a pretty hard time of it (I hadn’t yet realized my luck) and I was “just gay.” I wasn’t in the “wrong body.” I wasn’t going to “spontaneously change genders.” I put this is quotes because I remember saying it. This was before I had an accurate appreciation for the breadth and width of the transition.

In order to overcome this character flaw I approached the issue from the only avenue I was equipped to approach it from – intellectually. I researched. I studied. I read blogs, essays, journals, medical dictionaries, psychology publications, and anything else I could get my hands on. But even with these I could understand.
           
After a while I just got used to it. It took me time. But for a while I reacted how much of the public reacts; I feigned tolerance, avoided eye contact, and got out of the room. Like I said, it took time. It took knowing someone to really make me understand. I think the same strategy can work to end much of the intolerance out there.
           
That was high school. So, as if it wasn’t hard enough for her at that time, she had to deal with her family’s seemingly ambiguous treatment of her. Now it’s all well and good – but there was a time when I was seriously worried that she might be booted from her home, booted from school, scalded by her friends, and disowned. She, like me, was lucky because none of these things happened.
           
Luck. Lucky to be born into an accepting family, in an accepting town with liberal views. Lucky to know what I wanted and who I was so young. Lucky, even, that my parents got a hold of my yearbook and read the entry.           
           
But is it all luck?
           
Equipped with the experiences I had in high school and oozing with existential questions like these, I began the epic quest for a college.

I loved Catholic school, but I’d wanted more in my life than just upper-middle class white boys. So, I chose an educational experience with a high level of diversity. I left home and moved 25 minutes from my hometown in Danvers to Dorchester to attend the University of Massachusetts Boston. This is the second best decision I’ve ever made, second only to choosing Saint John’s Prep High School.

UMB has a student body of nearly 15,000. Nearly all of these students work part time, many work full time, many have families and responsibilities at home. All juggle academics with “the real world.” Teachers and parents have been telling me about “the real world” since I was in preschool. This is the first time my education and “the real world” have been so inextricably interwoven.

Because of this huge diversity and because we are in such a tolerant epicenter of the US, there are all kinds of people at UMB. This is why we have such a proactive, vibrant Queer Student Center who, last semester, opened the personal narrative of transgender youth up to the school.

It was a warmish room in the Campus Center, with a projector-screen, a collection of uncomfortable chairs, a neglected podium in the corner, and some food platters on a counter in the back. After people filed in, introduced themselves, and got comfortable the stories began pouring out. These were the kind of stories that you don’t want to listen to. Their are so overpowering they actually do damage to your image of our “great country.” Unlike tearjerkers in movie theaters, these were real events that happened to real people in “the real world.”

Their personal narratives could not be anything but depressing given the subject of the meeting:  transgender, homeless youth. I wrote an article for the Mass Media on the topic and on the meeting specifically. When I turned the piece in, I described it as “the most depressing thing I’d ever written.” My editor at the time agreed. Here it is with some edits:

Many of their stories start the same way despite differences in race, gender, sexual preference, and age; upon coming out or being found out, they were all disowned.
           
One UMB student described his home life. First he was kicked out, then allowed back in after a couple week at which “the transgender issue” was strictly avoided. “I didn't know how to feel myself.”
           
After a series of comings and goings from home and climactic fist fight with his mother. Finally, words all-too-often heard by those in the LGBT community were spoken, “you're not part of the family anymore.” He was without a home for an entire summer.
           
Driven by some buried parental instinct, after the summer and after the irrevocable phrase was spoken, he was called back. Lacking any other place to go, he returned. But his parents “halted everything.” That is to say, during this period he was undergoing the process of hormone therapy to become in body who he was in mind. “Living as a female,” he said, “wasn't going to work for me.” So, while it was embarrassing for his parents to have a “daughter who was living on the streets,” they were still unwilling to accept him for who he was.
           
Others in the discussion had similar stories.
           
After being booted from their home and removed from the family the real horror story begins – they found themselves in a world without a ceiling and usually without food.

Another transgender (male to female) spoke about her experiences. Her mother died from Multiple Sclerosis and her relationship with her father was weak and inconsistent.

“One day he’d be like, ‘I don't mind helping you out.’ The next day, ‘get the fuck out.’” Now homeless since 2005, she described her whole experience.

She went through “the whole nine yards” of vagrancy. In desperation she “started prostituting in the middle of being homeless.” Prostitution gave her a house, some money and even a friend or two. Unfortunately, there were drugs and because of these, she spent a year in prison.
           
By the time she was released, she’d “stopped using.” But, she was still without a home.
           
While “house hopping,” she met the man she is currently engaged to. They sat together during the meeting, bonded by their protracted battle against homelessness.
           
What about the shelters and halfway houses?
           
She described a shelter called “the Shattuck.” Before entering the proprietors patted her and her fiancé down to make sure they weren't carrying drugs or weapons. During this, the staff member groped her inappropriately. Nonetheless, “we [had] nowhere to stay tonight.” They found a spot to lie down.
           
“They pretty much wanted to separate us,” she said, describing how she and her fiancé were treated. She had had enough. Infuriated by their treatment, she called the police and reported the abuse. The police did nothing. She described the attitude of the police towards them as, “you're fagots, so whatever.”
           
Another in the group said that he sometimes “felt more comfortable on the street” because so few shelters stop discrimination even when it’s manifested violently.
           
As if the struggle to find a shelter wasn't enough, they must struggle to find an “appropriate shelter.” Ideally, this means a place free of harassment, but typically the only option is to find a shelter where they “can hide within the crowds.”
           
There are some reliable shelters. Mark, a program director of Waltham House, stated the importance of taking a “step out of our comfort zones […] and advocating for these things that are not common practice,” such as the protection of typically ostracized individuals in hopes that he can create a “safe environment.”

Mark added, “in addition to being kicked out of home […] they're also running from the people who are supposed to be helping them.”
           
Another member of an organization seeking to improve conditions of this large population put it well, “poverty had no color, no preference.” Yet, it does not follow that those fighting poverty are open-minded.

A study done by the National Center for Transgender Equality and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force recently published a report appropriately titled, Injustice at Every Turn: A Report of the National Transgender Discrimination Survey. The survey, as the title suggests, gathered large quantities of data from transgender individuals and compiled the information in one single massive study.

Originally, when I was looking at reports in high school, I had almost no faces to put with these numbers. Sure, I had the one friend whose transition went relatively smooth. But, this report tells the story of people far less fortunate.

Let’s begin with children. Try to take into account everything they’re going through at the time of their transition or their decision that they wish to transition. In transgender respondents between kindergarten and 12th grade, 76 percent reported harassment; 6 percent reported expulsion (due to their sexual identity); 35 percent reported physical assault of some kind while 12 percent reported sexual assault specifically.

As if this wasn’t enough to upset you, these numbers can be broken down even further. Ethnicity and which direction of the transition (that is to say, male to female or female to male) also are accounted for. Even among this group of abused, there are subdivisions which clearly demonstrate a stronger bias against people of color. For example, the number of physically abused among blacks is 83 percent, 7 percent higher than the average.

But, perhaps the most criminal number is that seemingly small 6 percent. None of the other numbers give any identification as to whether or not administrative help was granted. Within the study itself, a girl who identified as gay said, “shortly after I came out in high school, I began receiving threats in my locker. The usual idiocy: ‘damn dyke, no one wants you here,’ or ,‘fucking fag’.” I would hope that such abuse, if reported, would result in the expulsion of those who wrote the note. The unique nature of that 6 percent is its demonstration that the administration of some schools not only fail to stand by gender-non-conforming students, but that they actively abolish them through expulsion. 

There is a related statistic for adults, or at least those who have held jobs. 47 percent report “an adverse job outcome such as being fired, not hired or not promoted” due to their sexual preference or identity. With a number like that, it’s not surprising that transgender individuals experience unemployment at twice the rate of “typical Americans” with “people of color up to four times the national unemployment rate.” Even if a sexual-non-conformer does manage to get a job, “90 percent of those surveyed reported harassment or mistreatment on the job.”

I’ve been told (and I’ve now looked it up) that it is, in some places, illegal in to be homeless. Many small city ordinances and state laws make it illegal, for example, to lodge in a public place, or a private area without the previous permission of the owner. Yet, it is two to four times more difficult for transgender identifying individuals (according to the numbers just conveyed) to get a job, make a stable income and find a stable place to stay. This is ignoring further discrimination in housing markets and apartment rental.

Do they have a family to go home to? “43 percent maintained most of their family bonds, while 57 percent experienced significant family rejection.” Thus, laws targeting the homeless are laws targeting transgender individuals more than anyone else.

“22 percent were denied equal treatment by a government agency or official; 29 percent reported police harassment or disrespect; and 12 percent had been denied equal treatment or harassed by judges or court officials.”

There is no end to the numbers – the statistics are staggering and there is no good reason, nor any viable excuse for the story the numbers tell.

I guess “the real world” my teachers told me about when I was younger isn’t such a nice place. It puts people in boxes, pushes them into a sweeping tide of drugs, poverty, prostitution, and pain and watches them float away with a smirk. Well, it’s not so much the world as the people who occupy it.

There is no good reason for the following statistic: “41 percent of respondents reported attempting suicide compared to 1.6 percent of the general population.”

I am lucky. I continue to gain greater appreciation for how lucky I am. But I shouldn’t have consider myself lucky. There is no reason that the way I grew up has to be the rare exception to a rule of oppression and abuse. The real world isn’t such a bad place and the most aggravating enemy opposing equality is apathy. Continuing studies like these and their publication is a crucial factor in creating a country of understanding and tolerance.  

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