Transgender community faces unique challenges in Memphis

Leah Walton received the Women of Achievement Award for Heroism in 2016 after choosing to live her truth as a young trans woman in Mississippi.

At 15 years old, Kal Dwight knew he was different from other girls his age.

He felt more comfortable wearing boy clothes, and he had more in common with the other boys at his school. Yet biologically, he was a girl.

Five years later, Dwight began living his truth as a man without the support of his family.

“I never really fit in with other girls, and because I lived in the South, fitting in was everything,” he said. “When I made my decision, my family pretty much told me I had to go. It was a weird feeling to have, and I didn’t really know what to do.”

Dwight is not alone. Forty percent of the homeless youth serviced by agencies identify as transgender, and they are four times more likely to live below the poverty line, according to the Williams Institute. Though resources in Memphis are available to the transgender community, financial, relational and medical roadblocks still impact daily life.

Audio piece by Michael Robinson

To help, Dwight started a group at the Memphis Gay and Lesbian Community Center five years ago called Gen Q, which is a support group for young people. Even though he moved to California, the group still exists, and he keeps in contact with the members as a frequent visitor back to his hometown.

Dwight said one of the issues that Gen Q deals with is how young people approach their parents and family members about the decision to change their gender. Dwight said after five years of trying to get his biological family to understand, he left them and found a new one. He reached out to members of the Memphis lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer community, who accepted his gender identity.

In an interesting irony, Dwight said some members of the gay and lesbian community find it difficult to relate to someone who is questioning his or her gender.

“For a long time, the leaders there were not sure how to handle a young trans person. Or any trans person for that matter,” Dwight said.

Within the LGBTQ community, transgender people are sometimes further ostracized by their peers who do not understand their experiences, he said. For those seeking help, groups such as the gay and lesbian center and the Gen Q group are vital, he said. They also help a transgender person live comfortably with  their decision and deal more effectively with discrimination.

Other obstacles are more basic for the transgender community. For instance, should a person change his or her first name? Dwight decided not to.

“It’s important to put emphasis on the fact that physical transition is only as important to your identity as you let it be,” he said.

Video by Lexi Kinder and Gabrielle Washington

Kayla Gore, a transgender services specialist at the Memphis Gay and Lesbian Community Center, said she knows first-hand the obstacles members of the transgender community face.

“Every other community center is open to gay people; however, they don’t have a transgender representative there who can actually relate to what that other person on the opposite end of the table is going through,” Gore said.

Infographic by Michael Robinson

Gore’s organization steps in to help. In 2015, the center logged in nearly 5,000, according to figures released from the center. Of that number, 497 visitors — or 10 percent — identified as a transgender or a non-cisgender identity. Gore said the percentage grows every year, and it is most likely because people at the center can relate first-hand to the obstacles visitors face.

Carson Lloyd, a 22-year-old certified nursing assistant, is one of those visitors.

Lloyd said he did not receive the support he had hoped for from his father when he decided to change his gender.

“It’s almost as if he thinks if he ignores it, it will go away,” Lloyd said. “It weighs heavy on one’s emotions when you have to spend the day convincing others to see you how you see yourself.”

Dwight said it is his goal to help other’s like Lloyd realize there is a light at the end of the tunnel. He sees a growing recognition and acceptance of the community, which is positive. “I never once regretted my decision, and I want to be there for others (going through this), so they can be just as happy with theirs.”

Michael Robinson, Gabrielle Washington, J.T. Mullen and Lexi Kinder also contributed to this story.

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About the Author

Amanda Hrach

Mandy Hrach is a senior journalism student at the University of Memphis. She has spent many semesters reporting and copy editing for The Daily Helmsman, the student-run newspaper on campus. Hrach has been awarded various awards for her written work, including being named the best news writer at the Southeast Journalism Conference in February of 2015.

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