Transgender Memphians face unique socio-economic, societal barriers

Two members of the University of Memphis Stonewall Tigers hold signs in a pride march held on campus. The march was part of LGBTQ pride week.

By Sage Cotten & Arkishia Norman

Avery Vanderbilt was interested in the ideas of gender from a very young age. She first realized an observable difference between sexes around age six or seven, when a male cartoon character was dressed up as a girl by his sister.

As Vanderbilt matured, her interest in gender and instances like the cartoon sparked curiosity, but also confusion.

“Around the time I started coming of age and my peers started coming of age as well, we all started noticing the changes in each other,” Vanderbilt said. “Things started to just feel really weird for me.”

Vanderbilt is one of an estimated 1.4 million people who identify as transgender in the United States. Transgender individuals face daily roadblocks that hinder them and have been proven to be linked to drastically heightened suicide rates. These barriers include a lack of familial and communal support, harassment and discrimination, and troubles finding healthcare and insurance.

The Williams Institute study of the National Transgender Discrimination Survey, or NTDS, reported that the suicide rate among transgender people is 35 percent higher than the national average 5 percent. For transgender youth such as Vanderbilt, living in the South can elevate the consequences and hindrances faced by the community.

Transgender people who said their immediate families were supportive were much less likely to report a variety of negative issues relating to economic stability and health, such as unemployment, homelessness, attempting suicide, and deep bouts of depression brought on by serious psychological distress, according to the NTDS.

Vanderbilt is part of the minority of transgender people that are able to maintain some communication with their family. Although her father doesn’t accept her gender identity, she still is dependent on his health care plan. They do not talk about much else.

The Williams Institute found that although 60 percent of transgender people claim to have their families support, 57 percent  also claimed to have been ostracized by their families at some point.

Marta Yeremenko, Avery’s partner of almost two years, said, “It doesn’t cost anything to be supportive. It’s not like there’s specific support that transgender people need, it’s just generally being a normal, adequate, good person.”

For many transgender people, finding any sort of support can be a real challenge, especially for those who live in the South. Dr. Donna Randolph, medical director of CHOICES reproductive health center, said faith might affect things.

Finding a community where one can feel they can be themselves is essential for the mental well being of any person, transgender or not. For those born into very religious households, 19 percent left their religious communities due to rejection, according to the NTDS.

Transgender people are affected by discrimination and harassment in many adverse ways and across all facets of daily life. As a result, many transgender people feel ostracized and isolated. These problems usually stem from fear or ignorance on who transgender people are and the issues they face. For Randolph, a lack of understanding of transgender identities play a big role.

“I think it can be a lack of education,” Randolph said. “I think some people are afraid. They are afraid that it might happen to them, or they’re afraid it might happen to their children.”

Discrimination in the workplace is a huge problem for transgender individuals. Despite a report by the Williams Institute saying Tennessee is home to nearly 100,000 LGBTQ workers, there are almost no legal protections for them.

Many choose to keep their true self hidden from their employers and coworkers, and with good reason. The NTDS reported that over a quarter of trans individuals report being fired because they were transgender, and over three quarters of respondents took steps to avoid mistreatment in the workplace, such as hiding or delaying their gender transition.

“It really sucks, because it feels like you need to play a role,” Vanderbilt said. “This is the place where I spend most of my time, and yet this is where I am the most inauthentic. I feel like most trans people probably shouldn’t feel safe coming out in the workplace.”

Discrimination in schools is also an ongoing issue faced by transgender youth. The Trump administration recently revoked Obama era protections for transgender youth regarding their use of school bathrooms, despite Title IX prohibiting discrimination based on sex. According to a National Center for Transgender Equality survey, more than half of respondents avoided using a public restroom that year due to fear of confrontation or harassment.

The most important issue for many transgender individuals is their access to affordable health care or insurance. According to Vanderbilt, the cost of healthcare for transgender people is “absolutely astronomical.”

“It can cost well upward of $100,000 to take care of everything that you think you need to have done,” Vanderbilt said. “I’m probably looking at $25-30,000 after all is said and done. Normally, in anybody’s life, if they had a $30,000 medical bill dropped on them, it’s insurmountable.”

The Affordable Care Act prohibits discrimination based on gender identity, and transgender individuals cannot be denied healthcare, insurance, or excluded from coverage for transition-related care.

Vanderbilt described being transgender for those who have never experienced the confusion or isolation of being trapped in a body that one thinks doesn’t truly belong to them:

“All of your friends and family are sitting at the dinner table, and everybody is brought their dish. You get brought the same dish, but everyone else has their silverware and you don’t. You have life in front of you, but you aren’t able to enjoy it.”

The LGBTQ community as a whole faces many unique hardships on a day-to-day basis. More people are becoming accepting, but the transgender segment remains ostracized by society. They face discrimination in the workplace, from some health care providers, and even in the bathroom. If there is one thing that our sources wanted to stress, it is this: that transgender people are people too and deserve to be respected and included.

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