The Visibility Campaign

Four beautiful people came together to lend themselves to a campaign which aimed to promote transgender and gender non-comforming visibility. It was a collaborative effort with J-FLAG, who funded the event, and TransWave.

The campaign was launched during Transgender Awareness Week (#TransWk) which was recognized from November 14-20, 2015.

The kick off for the campaign was a Trans Gallery display at PRISM, a social and cultural event hosted by J-FLAG for the LGBT community, on November 15th. With over 300 persons in attendance, PRISM presented the opportunity for the community to get its first look at the campaign while the talents were on hand to answer questions and give feedback. One highlight of the event was the opportunity to address the audience, introduce the talents and speak a little about the diversity within the transgender and gender non-conforming community.

Trans Gallery
Trans Gallery viewing

After PRISM and the resulting buzz, the campaign hit social media. TransWave featured one person from the campaign each day (Monday to Thursday) and highlighted the group shot in honour of Transgender Day of Remembrance on Friday.

Here are some of the feedback from social media:

IMG_20151121_151858 IMG_20151121_151830 IMG_20151121_151638 IMG_20151121_151728 IMG_20151121_151929 IMG_20151121_161929

We are heartened by the support we received. TransWave is committed to highlighting the needs of the community, creating spaces to share, engage in conversations, and mobilise to improve the health and well-being of the community.

We’d also like to thank Dexter Pottinger for his styling expertise; Lance for the great shots; and Madeline, from Quick Fyah Marketing, for the campaign edited shots.

 

Trans Profile – FJ

This is Part 1 of  a two part series on FJ. Part 1 focuses on FJ’s personal journey from childhood to adulthood and how his gender identity and gender expression evolved through the years.

Hi FJ can you tell us a little about yourself?

Hello Internet! 🙂 My name is F.J. and I am a young man in his mid-twenties with high aspirations and the brightest of futures. I hold a B.Sc in Computer Science from the University of Technology and am hoping to pursue my Master’s within the next year. I’m an introvert with a few extroverted tendencies and I enjoy reading, working out (I wish I was more consistent), coding all manner of apps and playing video games.

How did you identify in your childhood/teenage years and what were some of the challenges you faced with your gender identity throughout your youth?

As a child, I never really gave much thought to who I was or how I identified. The only thing that I knew for certain was that I was different from the other children. I didn’t identify as a girl as I could not relate to them and my perceived notions of femininity, but neither was I accepted by the boys as one of the guys. This resulted in me being in a sort of identity limbo which left me isolated from my peers.

However, it wasn’t until after I had had my first sexual encounter at 16 that I embarked on a journey to explore my gender and sexuality. Initially, I identified as a lesbian as it was the only term I knew that could begin to describe who I was. I started doing a lot of reading about the LGBT community and when I came across the definition of the word “transgender” I knew I had found what I was searching for.

I could relate to the dysphoria experienced by some trans persons unequivocally. My body had never felt like it belonged to me; so much so that there were parts of me that I deliberately ignored when I looked at myself in the mirror; parts of me to which I had no attachment; parts that felt foreign; whose very presence on my body caused me severe discomfort.

Even so, I didn’t begin to identify as transgender immediately; I feared that I would never be able to live my life fully self-expressed here in Jamaica. I figured society would never accept me, I’d never be safe and that my mother especially would have the hardest time accepting who I am. I decided that transitioning wasn’t worth risking the mental and physical health of my mother; that my happiness was not as important. Because of this I gave up my desire to transition and live the life I’ve always envisioned myself having.

After one of the great crises in my life, I was faced with what would be a pivotal point in my life. It was at this point that I began embracing my identity as a transgender man, rather than continuing to run away from it. The first few steps out of the closet were quite refreshing. Though I had always tended to be masculine in my presentation (save school uniforms and church wear), I had always harboured this version of guilt because of it. I knew I was not behaving the way I should have been. I was not even remotely interested in makeup, dresses or other “feminine” things; and I was definitely not interested in romantic relationships with boys. This resulted in an internal conflict between me being myself or conforming to society’s binary, and thus, extremely restrictive gender roles.

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

When I began accepting myself in my mid-twenties, I felt empowered. I regained a sense of control over my life that I had long lost in the chaos of my teenage and young adult years. I grew to love and appreciate myself more; my sensitivity, sentimentalism, preference for video games and chill over a night out on the town; my love for books and insatiable hunger for knowledge.

I finally cut my locs after a year of contemplation, and for the first time in my life, I felt like I was beginning to actually see myself being reflected whenever I looked in the mirror. I had always preferred male clothing and my apparel transformed into one of the most wonderful forms of self-expression that I could possess. My garments became one of the ways in which I affirmed who I was daily and it is one of the ways I use to remind myself that I am a man of my own design and no-one else’s (Local clothiers won’t let my wardrobe be great though 🙁 ).

My sexual attraction has remained constant throughout my life, though the name given to my sexual orientation has changed a few times. Identifying as a lesbian made me a homosexual, but after claiming my gender identity, heterosexuality was the name of the game. Funny enough, I’ve always told my peers that I was straight. They always thought I was merely being humourous.

Now I’m heading into my late twenties and I feel more grounded than at any other point in my life since hitting puberty. I own my gender identity, my gender expression and my sexuality. These are no longer things people can make me feel ashamed about.

Your blog gives the reader a very in-depth and personal view of your life. Tell us some more about the reason and motivation behind your blog?

About 10 months ago I met a young man; his name is Sean. Sean was the first “out”, self-identified transgender man I had ever met. Gradually, our friendship flourished and as I got to know him, I became aware of some of the struggles he faced; one of which was the lack of a support system. Sean’s struggles – which it is logical to assume many other trans men share – prompted me to attempt to provide these men with a medium through which they could garner support, or at the very least, realize that despite however they felt, they were not alone.

Almost a decade ago – when I first realized I wanted to transition – I thought about documenting the process in the form of a blog which would aid in informing other persons who might want to do the same, or those who were simply doing some research. I’ve contemplated many times whether or not the very personal nature of my blog was a reckless move on my part, but in order for people to identify with it, it’s the only way it can be. It also aids in spreading awareness about the everyday realities of other transgender men and myself.

There is a lack of visibility of Jamaican trans men and I hope that in stepping forward, I inspire other men live their truth. Being trans (gender dysphoric or not), or gender non-conformist, carries with it it’s own unique set of struggles; and regardless of the severity of them, no-one is ever worse off with additional moral support. I also utilize the platform to highlight social issues, provide what education I can and (hopefully) generate discussion on these topics. The blog is still young, but I harbour high hopes for it.

I have found that writing can be therapeutic for me; which is ironic because I used to detest it. Albeit, since I began writing about my life and my experiences it has helped to provide closure for many of the unresolved issues I have had in my past; some of which I never even knew I had. A lot of my experiences have affected me negatively, but now given my increased level of introspection, I’m better able to deal with their effects.

Part Two continues here.

Check out FJ’s blog here

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

Transgender Mental Health

There is no doubt that mental health is important for everyone. Furthermore, there are additional considerations for transgender persons as they navigate their internal struggles along with the external stigma from friends, neighbours, co-workers and strangers. Transgender individuals face additional burdens that remain unresolved for an extended period of time due to the unavailability of mental health providers who have the capacity to address these issues.

Mental health is defined as a state of well-being in which every individual realizes his or her own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to her or his community.

Source: World Health Organization

There are two major issues that are specific to the transgender community when it comes to mental health – gender dysphoria and the transitioning experience. Let us first discuss gender dysphoria.

Gender dysphoria is the significant discomfort and dissatisfaction with the biological sex one is born with. For transgender persons, this is normally the root cause of depression, anxiety and other symptoms of mental illness.

Gender Dysphoria

Imagine looking in the mirror and hating what you see. The image reflecting back at you does not match up with the way you see yourself. There are many people who face this problem with regards to insecurities but gender dysphoria is different in that a transgender person hates their body so much that they want parts of it removed permanently. They desire a drastic change that goes beyond biological and physical. The inability to align one’s biological sex with their gender identity and gender expression is a cause for great despair for many transgender persons and is something some transgender individuals deal with throughout their childhood into adulthood. Many transgender individuals experience suicidal thoughts or attempts at suicide.

In order to alleviate and eventually eliminate gender dysphoria, many transgender persons proceed with transitioning as the solution. The transitioning experience is another major cause of mental discomfort within the transgender community. While this process might be something that a transgender person has been looking forward to for their entire lifetime, it is still a scary, anxiety causing process that can result in disappointment for the individual.

While the decision to transition can be exhilarating, there are some issues that can cause great concern for the transgender person – such as anxiety about hormone therapy and surgery. There are additional frustrations such as attempting to update one’s legal documents to reflect your new gender assignment or even fears that one can be identified as transgender and hence face discrimination. After the transitioning is completed, the transsexual is faced with coming to terms with their new bodies and the realigning what they thought they would look like with their actual physical reality. Sometimes, there is disappointment with the transitioning as the changes seen might not reflect the image the transgender person had prior to their transition.

Transtition Process

The process or decision to transition, ideally starts when the individual gets counselling from a mental health provider. This is key so that the transgender individual can receive therapy to navigate their feelings and to receive information and guidance that will help them through the transitioning process. Therapy is an integral part of the process, regardless of the transgender person’s ultimate decision to transition or not.  Many health care providers in Jamaica are not equipped with enough knowledge about the issues affecting transgender persons and thus might not know best how to support or treat the transgender person. Also significant is the fact that trans-sexual health is not a part of the medical curriculum in Jamaica and as such medical professionals are not equipped with the tools or skills to provide treatment specific to the transgender community.

These hurdles are significant to the transgender community and are cause for concern as they try to navigate their own feelings while attempting to improve their quality of life. Certainly there is much need for change to the healthcare policy in Jamaica so that it is more inclusive and supportive of the transgender community. A policy change is needed so that transgender Jamaicans can update their legal documents such as their driver’s license and/or passport. In addition, healthcare providers need more training in order to address the needs of their patients who are transgender so that the mental health support needed can be met.

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.