Wah Yuh Know Bout Human Rights?

There aren’t many of us who haven’t heard a lot about the term “human rights” bandied about recently. Whether it’s about African and Middle-Eastern refugees in Europe, African-Americans in the United States, or children in Jamaica, whether it’s termed “migrant rights”, “civil rights”, or “children’s rights”, all of these fall under the human rights umbrella.

What are human rights?

The United Nations Human Rights Commission defines it as, “[the] rights inherent to all human beings, whatever our nationality, place of residence, sex, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, language, or any other status.” We don’t have to do anything to deserve these rights.

All UN member states, among which Jamaica is counted, ought to have and enforce laws which encode these principles, as enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). However, trans Jamaicans, as well as other groups, know that the reality–both legally, and in daily life–falls far short of these ideals. Is the gap irreparable? Do we have no recourse? Absolutely not.

Many activists and civil society groups push for law reforms that are informed by the principles set out in various regional and international treatises. (Voices for Equal Rights and Justice is one example of a coalition doing just that: SOA Review (PDF).) Indeed, Jamaica is a signatory to most of them. The first step towards claiming the rights due to us is to know what they are! Here are three major examples.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights

The American Convention of Human Rights

This is the Organisation of American States’ international human rights treatise. Jamaica, as an independent state in the Americas–the Caribbean along with North, Central and South America–is a member and signatory. The Inter-American Commission of Human Rights is the OAS body which promotes and enforces the rights set out in the convention. Coupled with the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, it promotes and enforces human rights in the Americas. The rulings from the court are advisory.

We know the treatise is a lot to take in (link). The American Declaration on the Rights and Duties of Man is a more digestible version (link).

In 2014 a Rapporteurship was created to handle LGBTI rights. Tracy Robinson, a Jamaican, is the current rapporteur.

Yogyakarta Principles

A varied group of international human rights experts met in Yogyakarta, Indonesia in November 2006 to adopt and present the Yogyakarta Principles. This is not a new human rights treatise in and of itself, but a guideline which ably shows how broadly accepted documents like the UDHR apply to persons of all sexualities and genders. With it one can demonstrate how our own constitution–specifically, the Charter of Fundamental Rights and Freedoms–can protect the rights of all LGBTI persons; highlight how any prejudicial language or clause inserted contradicts its spirit; and justify amendments and supportive legislation.

This vid on the launch of the Yogyakarta Principles in Brazil gives great insight into its genesis and purpose.

After all this, you may wonder if there is a point to such organisations if they have no hard power to force states to obey all such laws. We can look to our own lives as the answer. Peer pressure has its own influence. In the society of nations, if enough consensus forms around a particular issue, it is likely to spread. There are reasons that even nations with the most questionable track records make great effort to participate and protect their image. These organisations and the materials they produce also give advocates on the ground effective tools in which to help articulate their message.

HIV/AIDS & Human Rights in Jamaica: Reality or Rhetoric?

HIV/AIDS is a communicable disease that we’ve heard about for decades. It used to be considered a death sentence until better research, education and advances in treatment improved quality of life for persons living with HIV (PLHIV). Coordinated efforts among international donors, the government via the National HIV/STI programme, and civil society groups, make HIV/AIDS one of the most supported public health issues. Does the LGBTQIA community, and specifically trans persons, benefit from this bounty?

First, here’s a 7 minute video that explains in simple terms what HIV/AIDS is and the treatment involved.

If you can’t see the vid here’s an alternative resource: HIV Basics.

What’s the situation in Jamaica?

International aid as it relates to disease control and reduction has shifted towards more partnership with local government and civil society groups to implement programmes. In (i) July 2015, the Ministry of Health recently announced that The Global Fund–an international financial institution created to combat HIV/AIDS, TB and malaria–will invest in Jamaica’s National HIV/STI programme for the next three years. PEPFAR (United States President Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief) will also fund the programme. At that press briefing, and recently at the World Learning Caribbean Grant Solicitation Management (CGSM) Programme, Ferguson placed the government’s mission within the framework of human rights — he was committed to reducing stigma and discrimination. In naming vulnerable groups, it’s important to note that he acknowledged the transgender community specifically:

“In addition, men who have sex with men and their female partners accounted for almost 40 per cent of new infections in 2012. I want to further note that MSM who reported being involved in sex work reported an HIV prevalence of 41 per cent, transgender women 45 per cent, and transgender populations in sex work reaching as high as 56 per cent.”

In the (ii) JIS report, JFLAG, along with the National AIDS Committee, and Eve for Life, are listed as groups in partnership with Nat HIV/STI programme.

These are important steps — for far too long there has been no targeted research of the trans community. Trans women, especially, were grouped under MSM, leaving the problem obscured. However, prejudicial laws against sexual orientation and gender identity remain in such critical documents as the constitution; the Sexual Offences Act; the Offences against the Persons Act; and, in relation to (iii) sex work, the Constabulary Act and the Towns and Communities Act. This prevents the government from creating and implementing a truly comprehensive policy that would enable all Jamaicans to access the best healthcare possible. As we are stigmatised or invisible in the eyes of the law, it follows elsewhere.

Released in 2014, the (iv) National HIV/STI annual 2013 HIV epidemiological profile conflated sexual orientation with sexual practices. Risk behavioral factors are described as “heterosexual practice” versus homosexual or bisexual. This limits the usefulness of the data. If persons felt comfortable enough to provide more accurate personal data, government and civil society groups could create better profiles of the various sub-groups in the population and modify plans to better address and target their needs. Indeed, “44% of men reported with HIV (and 41% of men reported with AIDS)” did not disclose their sexual practices, which was partly attributed to such a reluctance.

There is no data provided on female “homosexual practice”.

As it relates to gender, the situation is worse. TransWave is still trying to find the source of Minister Ferguson’s statistics as it relates to transgender persons, for only “male” and “female” are covered in the MoH 2013 profile. (Is it local or international data?) There is a strange column in the sexual practices data table for “Unknown Gender” but the term is not defined. Without reliable data we cannot expect to get the best value from the millions donated.

Groups like J-FLAG, Colour Pink, and Jamaica AIDS Support for Life (JASL) work to identify key population groups like the transgender community and collect data which can help to fill in the gaps.The Health Policy Project (funded by PEPFAR & USAID) run training workshops in the Caribbean to equip medical professionals to best serve transgender health care needs. However, the reality is that the government is the major provider for health care in the island. Civil society groups — who progress in an environment which hinders rather than enhances their efforts — can only work in complement to and not act as a sufficient substitute. Our regional medical universities, partly-funded by CARICOM, ought to be at the forefront of research in this area.

While TransWave applauds the government’s support of civil society organisations who address such marginalised groups as LGBTQIA and sex workers, its tendency to only address such groups within a HIV/AIDS narrative only helps to “other” the community as victims and creates associations with issues perceived as “societal problems”. It promotes  stigmatisation. (It’s a common complaint among trans activists groups in the region that they can only get funding for HIV/AIDS projects.)

The government should take its human rights agenda to heart. Once Jamaica commits to respecting and honouring the inherent dignity in all citizens, everyone can be empowered to do the best work for it and each other.

For counselling, support or info on how to get tested:

J-FLAG Social Services: (876) 754-2130

JASL: (876) 925-0021/2; email: info@jasforlife.org

Sources

(i)”Jamaica Gets Millions in HIV Funding” – Ministry of Health

(ii) Health Minister Commits to Reducing HIV/AIDS Stigma and Discrimination – JIS News

(iii) Resources and Publications – JASL

(iv) HIV Epidemiological Profile 2013, Facts and Figures (PDF) – National HIV/STI Programme

Trans Profile – Jessica, Part II

(This is the final of a two part series. Part one focused on Jessica’s personal journey to becoming the “ultimate” her. Part two focuses on health care issues facing transgender persons in Jamaica and how she plans to change it. This interview was edited for length and clarity.)

First part of interview

Do you plan to remain in Jamaica?

I’ve thought about it. One of the things I look at is the treatment cascade. The treatment cascade is services provided by the government in the public health system. You have an entry level which is when you get tested (for everything: diabetes, HIV, STIs etc), then you move from treatment to medication. You may need to be referred to a psychologist by a social worker.

Is this in relation to HIV treatment or transitioning?

No, just in general. The health system is supposed to provide you with a minimum package. There are some issues. Accessing the treatment cascade is a problem. For some persons even walking to a health centre can be a problem. If you don’t look as feminine as society requires you to look you might fraid seh somebody run yuh down. This means you have to take a taxi instead which is expensive. [To fund that] you need to work and you may lose your job if you go to work dressed as how you are. You may then have to start a business, likely supported by the LGBT community. All of this depends on money! That’s why I say that when you face the question on whether or not to transition you need to take a lot of things into consideration. You need family and friends. If you don’t have a family, try to mek one.

So how does the transgender community gain access?

They’re not going out to the health centres. One or two of us may be at a workshop. Where transgender persons do come out is at the big gay parties. But when they’re there they don’t want to be tested. [It’s uncomfortable to face] in that environment. I am one of the lucky ones who got tested.

If you manage to enter the treatment cascade, as a transgender person wanting to transition, there is nothing there. Just a doctor, if you have one, to do regular check ups, and maybe a psychologist who doesn’t really know how to deal with transgender issues. The doctors are reluctant to prescribe the hormone medication because of the country’s prohibitive environment. They don’t know anything about the treatment, they don’t know if it’s against the law, if it’s against their practice. They have to consult with others before they treat you.

The treatment cascade here is also not designed in a way to make transgender persons feel comfortable. I may want some linguistic skills to make my voice more feminine, and transgender men (female to male) may want techniques to help lower the voice etc. If you look at women like Caitlyn, they look beautiful, but they still have that male voice. There’s nothing in the treatment cascade for that.

You have to go abroad.

Yes. However, I did apply for a grant to help me develop a treatment cascade for the Jamaica health system — to create a treatment cascade for transgender persons. It will not be the best, but I want to at least allow for access to hormones and linguistic skills development. And we need to get psychologists on board because going through all of this is a big process. Even [as a transgender woman] to move from the male to the female bathroom….

I spoke to someone about that and it was a big issue for them. Regardless of which one they chose it was uncomfortable.

Moving from one to another is like a whole new world. When I went into a female bathroom for the first time I gasped because there were no urinals. [laughter]

Yeah, we don’t necessarily need those.

And then you start to look within yourself and think, Am I looking at the women in any way…? Do I fit in with them? For me, now, it’s not a problem. Others may not look as feminine and so other women using the bathroom get uncomfortable. Why dis man come in the bathroom dressing like a woman? Many don’t mean anything by it, they just have security concerns. Is this person an impostor who intends to rob me? So a lot of trans persons think twice. I know a lot who wait until they reach home to use the bathroom.

Doing that may cause health problems, though, like UTIs and kidney infections.

Yes. So the referral manual I want to create for the treatment cascade will be Colour Pink’s first TransHealth project that targets the transgender community. It will also involve educational plans for sexual reproductive health plus gender and sexuality to learn about the terminology. When transgenders are out they should be able to firmly articulate who they are.

We are grateful for the time spent with Jessica and look forward to working with her on future initiatives. Please like the Colour Pink Facebook page to keep current with its activities and learn how you can help.

Trans Profile – Jessica

(This is part one of a two part series. Part one focuses on Jessica’s personal journey to becoming the “ultimate” her. Part two focus on health care issues facing transgender persons in Jamaica and how she plans to change it. This interview was edited for length and clarity.)

Hi Jessica! Thanks so much for being a part of TransWave’s Transgender Profile Series. After meeting you, and watching a video of you at the Larry Chang Human Rights symposium, I knew we had to feature you on the site. Could you share with us a bit about your family background?

Thank you. Okay..let me take a deep breath. I was born in Kingston & St. Andrew. I was raised in a Christian family: father, Jehovah Witness, and mother, Pentecostal. Growing up as a very poor family but [we] try to mek ends meet, and all of that. I attended school when we had money.

Any siblings?

Yes, they were bigger than me. I was the youngest.

When did you first start to identify as female? Do you remember or was it just a gradual thing?

As far back as I can remember when I was two…two to three…playing with dolls. I knew within myself that I was different from everybody else. At first I think that everybody was one until you do things like purple touch. I saw that she act effeminate but then she has an organ that is different from mine. As kids even when you bathe together…you realise that she has a different organ but I could relate to her…whereas with boys their gender expression was different from mine.

Was there a moment that you decided to accept yourself as a woman or did the difficulties in that respect spring more from without than within?

I lived my life pleasing other persons. Even when I identified [I hid it] because the idea of being transgender is recent. We never knew about those things back then. If you’re effeminate you’re gay. When I started to go out and meet other members of the LGBT community and I act effeminate, they’d say, “So why you have to act so girly? Why you can’t be more masculine, why you can’t act more masculine?” I didn’t understand so I tried to accommodate them.

I remember a time there was this house lyme and they bluntly told me not to come because my gesticulations, how I am, would cause tension. When I said I wanted to get married and have children, they were saying, “Why you want fi change how God made you?”

Gay men, specifically, said this?

Yes. The community also had a journey to make [to accept transgender persons] and it hadn’t crossed that bridge yet. They didn’t understand.

The first time I found someone I could relate to was when I saw Laura. When I saw her I said, “Look at that nice lady.” Someone turned to me and replied, “No, she was a man.” They didn’t understand either because at that time people didn’t know the right terminology to use. I found out she was biologically male and transitioned to female. I could relate to her. Each time I saw her I asked her how she did it. I wasn’t in that capacity as yet. You have to know your surroundings before you start. If you want to cross [transition] but you don’t have the support network , the finances, it doesn’t make any sense. You have to wish and pray that one day you can become the ultimate you.

I considered for a long time whether or not I would just be a woman and not transition. It wasn’t until I did a training workshop in 2014 with Latoya that I learnt about transgender[ism]. We did the gender and sexuality talk. When I mapped myself it came back to transgender. I ripped up the paper, throw it away, did it again, throw it away…I got so frustrated until I decided to accept it. It was just really time to be myself, to evolve.

Now that I’ve started the transition, I’ve realised how stigmatised you can be. [Being seen as] gay, is one discrimination. Then being HIV positive. You get it from the wider society and within the LGBT community because no one wants to get involved with you because you are positive. If you’re doing sex work, that’s another thing. And now transitioning is another! Sometimes I am even afraid of those within the community. I went to a KFC once when an employee there recognised me. She told all her coworkers that I was a man. I was so disappointed. She was putting my life at risk. But I just stood my ground. Other times, they pass me on the street and bawl out, “Jermaaaaaaine!”

That might just be an inadvertent slip. It can take time to make that transition, too, into treating you as Jessica.

Yes.

Is it easier, in that sense, to move around in the wider society because they accept you based on your gender expression, whereas, those who knew you from before have to adjust to how you are now?

Yes. The first will see me and pass and go bout dem business. When I do my business at the bank, or with various companies when doing my bills, they would have known me as Jermaine. I’m okay with that. When I interact with their employees and they address me as Jermaine, I say, “No, my name is Jessica.” It’s a challenge for them so I have to educate them. They’ll say, “You don’t look the same as your ID photo. We have to call you by the name on the ID.” I tell them, “No, I’m giving you permission to address me as Jessica. It doesn’t matter what’s on the ID — I’m telling you what to call me.”

How long have you been out as transgender?

I took my time. You have different steps. If someone asked me how long I’ve been a transgender, I could say from I was a child. How long have I been living the life of a transgender? Not just identifying as transgender but living it: dressing as a woman, using the female bathroom…it’s two different things. I always tell persons it’s like learning to drive: moving the gear stick is one thing, but going on the road, keeping the vehicle steady, it’s another. It’s very difficult. I’ve been living the life for two months. The actual wearing of female clothing and so on, is about two weeks.

It takes a lot of courage. It’s not something where you wake up one day and say, “Today, I’m gonna put on female clothing!” You have to start off gradually. Maybe you start by wearing panties, then you start wearing shorts, you start dressing unisex, you know? I would advise other transgender persons to take their time and do it properly. Sometimes people rush. I’ve spoken with transgender persons living overseas. Maybe they’re in an environment that is more enabling so they rush and do the sexual reassignment surgery. But they didn’t start with hormones, they didn’t start to use the female bathroom. Maybe they didn’t go to a qualified surgeon. Some hear the word “transgender” and think it means you have to transition, when you don’t. They go through with the surgery then later regret it.

For Jamaicans, I say, take your time. Think about it. Jamaica is not an enabling environment. If you rush it you may have to leave your family, your community, and end up marooned in a place from which you can’t move. Fortunately, I am at a level where I am capable of managing it. I am blessed because I can wear female clothes to work and I can use the female bathroom at work. In my own right, by being me, I am an advocate. I educate: sitting down in my female clothing, talking and commanding persons. I say, “Listen, my name is Jessica, not Jermaine.” Then they go home and tell their families, their children, “I have a transgender at work.” [chuckles]

Part Two continues here.

Bounty Killa and the Case of the Funny (as in “Funny”) DJ

He’s not a funny guy but him have some funny behaviour.

In Bounty Killa we may have found a future spokesperson on  matters relating to gender and sexuality. I would not have thought so myself, until I happened on Winford Williams’ On Stage interview with Tony Matterhorn. Please watch the video clip — the relevant portion ends at 2:42.

Here’s a quick summary. For years, Bounty Killa believed in Tony Matterhorn’s heterosexuality, despite all alleged evidence to the contrary — his gender expression. Bounty could tolerate the wigs, the animated body language, and lady-like gibberish (aka “woman attitude”). What he could not tolerate was a fan pic circulated on the web in which Matterhorn posed with two young women who, to someone’s eagle eye, appeared to be *drag queens.

That was too much! Somewhere you have to draw the line. He stated, emphatically, “Man nuh act suh. That is feminine gender!” **Almost, Bounty, almost! Let’s review your presentation and see what can be refined.

Gender – Right: Bounty’s mini-lecture demonstrated how gender is determined by social norms: how much we fall within a culture’s parameters of what is to be a man or woman. Wrong: Sorry, Bounty, but those parameters should not be allowed to limit those who don’t wish to fit within them.

Sexual orientation & gender expression – Bounty was right! There is a common misconception that how you present your gender in social settings — body language, speech, clothes etc. — dictates which gender you are attracted to. Therefore, a man who likes to wear skirts, or is too well-groomed must be a homosexual;  a grubby Levi’s aficionado, who would never take the front seat in a coaster, even if it could save his mother’s life, must be hetero.

One has nothing to do with the other. “He’s not a funny guy him just have funny behaviour”, is simply an on-the-path-to-enlightenment way to communicate that there is no set gay, bi, lesbian mode of gender expression. Rather, it is connected to gender identity: a transgender woman with a cisgender man would consider herself to be in a heterosexual relationship.

Bigotry & sexual orientation – “Suh wah, him a open closet….If him nuh prejudice, him open den.” Bounty Killa implied that if one was not prejudiced against LGBTQI persons then one must be numbered among the same. Wrong: Many of us have hoped and prayed that this was true but, alas, it is not so — we have many allies in Jamaica who remain that and nothing more.

Rather, there have been too many headlines about prominent anti-LGBTQI public figures  who were themselves more “open” than expected. Best to abandon this one, Bounty.

It will take some effort to get Bounty Killa fluent and ready to educate. TransWave is a safe, open, learning space. We’re here to help. For a brief primer on gender expression and similar terms, read our first post.

 

*A drag queen or king is someone who dresses as the other gender for performance purposes. Watch this great ABC News video for the definitions of that and similar terms. TransWave does not know whether the women pictured fit that definition. It’s not our business. 

**Kind of.

Trans Profile – James*

A riveting interview that shares the life experience of a queer transsexual Afro-Trinidadian. 

Hi James*, can you tell us a little about yourself?

I am a married, Afro-Trinidadian man in his 30s and lives on the east coast of the United States. I was born, bred and fed in Trinidad and Tobago and left at age 20 to study at the tertiary level. I have a doctorate and work full-time. Both of my parents are alive and well and are happily married. I have two siblings, both of whom no longer live in Trinidad. I am also a queer transsexual man. I use the word transsexual (as opposed to transgender) intentionally because it describes how I see myself; I am changing my sex characteristics and female aspects of my body. I am a man, regardless of what packaging I may or may not have. I identify as queer because I am attracted to all types of people, regardless of their gender identity.

How did you identify in your childhood/teenage years?

As a child, I didn’t think much about my gender or sexual identity. I was assigned female at birth so my family raised me as a girl. I didn’t have to question it much because I was a tomboy who was sometimes allowed to do whatever stereotypically boyish things I wanted (except when it came to formal events like church, family parties, etc. Had to rock a dress, ribbons, baubles, frilly socks and shiny shoes). I hated the name my parents gave me because I found it too “girly” and not reflective of how I saw myself.So, I made my friends call me “Sam” or “Alex;” those names followed me into secondary school and my best friend even used to buy me stickers with my preferred names. As I approached puberty, I had a more difficult time with my body and the changes I experienced. I think I started menstruating at age 10 but didn’t tell my mother (she found out two years later). I was angry and confused because I had to start wearing training bras and started getting puberty talks in school. This was when I had to confront my gender and “accept” that I was a girl. Everyone started having their primary school crushes and I was no different; my first crush was at 8 but I found myself attracted to an older girl who was one of the lead sopranos in my school’s choir. I knew that it was “wrong” to like another girl so I didn’t talk to anyone about it. I made up these imaginary boyfriends to fit in with my peers and convinced myself that because I spent so much time playing with this one boy, I must like him.

My teen years are mostly a blur but from what I remember, I really struggled. Everyone was growing out of their “tomboy” stage and my masculinity was becoming more pronounced and solidified. At 13, I came out as bisexual to my secondary school best friend (with whom I was madly in love) and really started to shy away from thinking of myself as a teenage girl. For some reason, being a teenage girl did not fit with my self-concept and I was having a hard time liking myself. I spent a lot of time in online chatrooms as an escape and found out about testosterone patches and their side effects (e.g., increased body & facial hair, increased muscle mass, deeper voice). Something clicked and I knew that that’s what I wanted my body to experience. For the first time, I felt like something made sense but there was no way I could explore this or access testosterone in Trinidad. So, I went through adolescence with the secret of being attracted to women, feeling less and less like a woman as I aged, and pretending to be feminine so people would stop treating me differently and teasing me. It wasn’t until I left secondary school that I embraced my masculinity and attraction to women. At that point, I was labelled a gay woman but that still did not feel right. I gave up on trying to make sense of my identity and spent a year of partying hard, drinking heavily, and smoking to numb my pain. I didn’t think about my gender when I was drunk so I just functioned like a machine.

What was it like growing up in Trinidad and Tobago?

I always think of growing up in Trinidad and Tobago as a love/hate story; the education I received was phenomenal and laid the foundation for me to thrive during my tertiary years. I enjoyed time spent with my family and friends, the cultural experiences of Christmas, Carnival, Easter and sometimes, the ritual of church (I was raised Roman Catholic). I was loved and respected because I was a solid student (when I wanted to be), a musician, a writer, a footballer, a cricketer. But I hated growing up there because I learned that there were aspects of who I was that were not accepted or celebrated. How could I love a country so much that didn’t fully love me back? It felt abusive and one-sided. I felt disingenuous living in Trinidad and felt like I was in a fog for most of it. I knew being a girl did not fit but there was no way I could question it, particularly when Trinidad was even more conservative when I lived there. Also, there was no language related to gender identity; you were either gay or straight. I grew up hearing anti-LGBTQ songs like “Boom bye bye” and “Bun out the chi chi,” listened to family members and friends ridicule gay people, and for years, I internalized those negative messages. I found myself disgusted and feeling unlovable throughout adolescence and my early 20’s because I was similar to those people they hated. I kept my mouth shut about my gender expression and decided that if I felt this tortured by age 25, I was going to kill myself.

Throughout school, I was teased by some of my peers for “acting like a boy.” I confided in one of my friends that I wanted to cut my hair and start openly “tracking girls.” When she threatened to tell my mother about my “nastiness,” I pretended that I was joking. After that experience, I created this person who would fit in with other girls. I had boyfriends who were more my friends rather than romantic partners. I would purposely dress in hyper-feminine ways but felt ugly and exposed whenever I did. When I completed secondary school and started working, some of my coworkers had the same reaction as my school friends; I wasn’t womanly enough and was “weird.” On the other hand, it was the first time that some of my male coworkers started treating me like one of the boys and that felt…natural. It was at this job that I had my first girlfriend. Our relationship was a secret to all but a handful of people who we told after being together for over a year. Even with the secrecy, I felt liberated because I was finally living part of my truth. But living your truth comes with a major price, which for me, was my extended family.

My family knew I dated women when I lived in Trinidad but no one talked about it; they just started treating and speaking to me differently. And I was okay with that because it made it easier to distance myself and feel less ashamed of who I was. While living in the US, I came out as a transsexual man and that caused major rupture in my family system. My parents accepted me as a person but they did not understand. My siblings were in disbelief and my brother said I would always be his sister. Those are the reactions that I was able to handle. My extended family’s vitriol, however, really cut me deep. My aunts, uncles and cousins verbally attacked me and said the most vile things about me, and my parents’ child-rearing; they told me that I was going to hell and that my parents should have beaten it out of me. They do not care about what I’ve accomplished over the years and I do feel sorry that they would never know how great of a person I am.

What were some of the challenges you faced while living in Trinidad and Tobago?

I truly struggled reconciling my religious beliefs with my understanding of my gender and sexual identity. I wanted to explore my identity but couldn’t because I learned that in my faith, acting on any sexual feelings toward someone of the same gender was sinful. But my challenges were not limited to sexual attraction; I was in a society that had no framework for transsexualism other than sex workers. I struggled with my appearance; what I wanted to wear, what I wanted my body to look like, the sound of my voice, my mannerisms…all of these contradicted the expectations family, friends and society had of me. The older I got, the more harassment and violence I experienced. I had people threaten to beat me up or offer to “show me how to be a woman.” I had police officers ridicule me as I was minding my business and walking through the street. One time, I went on a boat ride and they divided patrons into men and women. I went into the women’s line and had people loudly ask, “What that is? That look like a man. Wam to it boy?” I had security guards not want to touch me or let me into venues because of my appearance. I frequently went to well-known gay club in Woodbrook and one night, we had the pleasure of people throwing bottles into the venue and screaming homophobic epithets. People hated me for assuming I was gay but I knew they would hate me more if I told them I was a boy. When I left the country at 20, I felt broken. I am fortunate that I have never experienced serious physical violence due to my gender expression; trans women in the Caribbean are not that lucky.

Did you find it difficult accessing healthcare while in Trinidad?

Yes and no. I did not medically transition until I left Trinidad therefore, I have no experience with healthcare in Trinidad. However, I was sexually involved with women when I lived there and never once disclosed my sexual history to my doctor (who had been my physician all my life). I lied and said I was not sexually active because I could not deal with the stigma of being a woman who slept with women. My first girlfriend encouraged me to go to a particular gynecologist, as she knew him to be open-minded. When discussing sexual history, I disclosed that I had sex with women and he automatically said, “Oh. So you’re a lesbian?” I replied, “I didn’t say that. I said I have sex with women.” Again, I did not have the language to say “I’m a transsexual man” but to me, the distinction made sense.

How has your identity, sexual orientation and sexual expression changed or progressed through your adult-life?

The biggest change was not feeling like I have to play pretend any more. I lived two lives for a long time; there was the side of me that was the tomboy who lied to family and friends about not wanting to date because I was so focused on school. Then the other side of me was the Trini living in America who dated women, wore whatever I wanted, and started to do research on gender identity. This back and forth became exhausting and painful because it felt like constantly putting on a mask. I was miserable and immersed myself in my studies. I figured if I were the best student, when people eventually found out that I was a transsexual man, they wouldn’t care because the content of my character would be established by my academic and professional successes. After coming out to my extended family and being rejected by most of them, I realize how faulty that line of thinking is.

I am still attracted to women (and married to one!) but I no longer feel ashamed to admit that I also find men attractive. For me, asserting my manhood meant adopting really toxic aspects of masculinity, like internalized homophobia. “Real men can’t like men” or “Real men like sports.” Well, I am a real man who likes men and most sports are still boring to me. My version of manhood is not based in this stereotypical hyper-masculine trope often seen in Caribbean men and I’m okay with that.

How has your access to healthcare changed since living in the USA?

The only reason I have been able to medically transition (i.e., be on hormones, have gender affirmation surgery) is because I left Trinidad. Being in the US has helped me obtain resources that were not available to me when living in Trinidad. From what I gather, more people are aware that trans people exist in the Caribbean but they mistakenly think it’s the same thing as being gay so there are no health initiatives for people like me. Hormones and surgery are medically necessary for trans people and should be something that is incorporated in health care.

What are some of the changes you wish to see regarding the accessibility to healthcare for transgender men and women in the Caribbean?

First off, I want there to be a campaign to explain the difference between the LGB and T in the acronym. Trans people are not some hybrid or morphed form of gay and our medical issues are different. I want medical professionals to receive training to increase their awareness and enhance cultural competence, while learning how to keep their religious and moral beliefs out of their clinical practice. I want medical professionals to receive training on evidence-based practices with the trans population (e.g., hormone replacement therapy) and I want to see initiatives that create safe spaces for trans people. Look at what is happening in Jamaica with the trans women who are forced to live in the gullies and can only engage in sex work to survive. We are quick to mistreat our own countrymen who do not fit in these restrictive categories.

What advice would you give to transgender men and women living in the Caribbean?

Most people may not understand what it means to be trans but that does not mean your existence is any less valid. Find at least one ally who may not understand what being trans is but still sees and honours your humanity.

Live in your affirmed gender but be safe and strategic.

Always remember your value; no matter what external voices say, you know who you are. Do not let other people try to convince you otherwise.

Being trans isn’t “abnormal;” it is simply less common. Uncommon things are not automatically bad. Embrace your difference.

*Name changed upon request.