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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 (Part 2)

This is the final part of the series on FJ. Part 2 features a discussion on his identity as a transgender man, some of the challenges he faces and some of the changes he wishes to see. (First part of profile.)

What is it like to identify as a transgender man, living and working in Jamaica? What are some of the challenges you face?

I was fortunate enough to be in the minority of college graduates who acquired a job within a year of completing their studies. That doesn’t mean however, that I landed a job as soon as I began looking. In fact, that’s quite far from the truth. I had been interviewed countless times for jobs I was qualified for and more than competent to perform, but had been denied because of my gender expression.

In Jamaica, being gender non-conformist in your gender expression automatically brands you as gay or lesbian. As such you are discriminated against in the slightest or most egregious of ways. So given that I was designated female at birth, my masculine presentation worked against me in some of these instances.

You can identify such occurrences because from the moment you step into the establishment you see the reactions on their faces. You feel the stares and become aware of the faint whispers and hushed tones amongst members of staff. The interview commences. Questions are asked and you respond, but they’re not listening; not really.  I have only been on one interview during which I felt that the interviewer was genuinely interested in getting to know me and actually listening, not just hearing, to my responses. Not surprisingly, I currently work for him.

My work environment is special. The culture at the company is familial. Everyone supports each other, not only career-wise, but in their personal lives as well. They attend family gatherings such as funerals, weddings and even christenings. But despite such a congenial atmosphere, there are times when I experience homophobia. I would call it transphobia, but their motivations lie in their perception of my sexual orientation and not my gender identity.

When I first began, it was worse than it is now; especially from other persons who worked in the building that my company shares. To be fair, they were rather “polite” about it, as very few were bold enough to question my choice in attire or my perceived sexual orientation. Now they have more or less gotten used to me, but I still get the occasional quip or inappropriate look.

I’m eternally grateful for the existence of a gender neutral bathroom. You can only imagine the reactions I received from the women while attempting to conform to convention and use the bathroom that coincided with my body parts. The discomfort was too much for me to bear. I gave up on trying to appear normal, which in turn resulted in a more comfortable situation for everyone else. I always go to the men’s room in other public spaces though.

Being constantly misgendered is something I’m building my tolerance to; just as I am with the crude street harassment to which I am constantly being subjected. Some of my coworkers are aware of my identity as a transgender man, others are not. My office consists of quite a few Christians and other individuals with strong beliefs regarding gender identity and human sexuality. So while I don’t appreciate the language used, I’d rather not stir the pot if you catch my drift.

Do you have a support network? What are some of the resources that help you navigate life in Jamaica as a transgender man?

Hmm. A support network. Yes I am very fortunate to have made a family out of supportive friends and of course I can’t leave out my Twitter peeps lol. When I began owning my identity and coming out, I thought that it was only my friends that would have been accepting and supportive of me. However, I was, as I usually am when I make these assumptions in my head, so very wrong. Yes my friends accepted me with open arms, but gradually, over time, some of my biological family came around as well. I’m tempted to call her my little cousin, but she isn’t so little anymore, so I shall refer to her as my younger cousin. She is a living testament to the fact that regardless of my gender identity or sexual orientation, there will always be at least one family member (apart from my mom) who loves me unconditionally.

Growing up I learned to be self-reliant. I don’t possess strong familial ties with the exception of those I share with a few of my family members. Even so, during my turbulent teenage years, there wasn’t really anyone I could confide in that would help me to successfully navigate those stressful and trying times. Subsequently, I internalized everything and developed my own coping mechanisms; though how well they work is another story entirely. So I don’t use resources as much as I utilize exercise, work and my hobbies to keep me occupied and my friends and meditation to aid in keeping me grounded.

A group of gender non-conformists are in the process of establishing a more formal support group for persons who don’t conform to society’s gender binary. It’s an initiative I’m looking forward to being a part of and I hope tremendously that it will prove to be beneficial to those involved. Mental health is of the utmost import to trans and queer persons; especially those who experience gender dysphoria. Having a support system is just as crucial as accessing the appropriate health care that will enable queer and transgender persons to lead healthy, balanced and productive lives.

 

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

Tackling the issue of providing adequate health care services for transgender individuals in Jamaica will be an arduous task. Ideally, our framework would include comprehensive policies and procedures for providing health care to transgender persons; complete with legislation to ensure that the rules implemented receive the strictest adherence and failure to comply is met with equal retribution. Sadly injustices against LGBT persons still run rampant in our society. We have to ensure that when trans persons attempt to access these services, they are not met with the same discrimination that is already all too commonplace in their everyday lives.

I know that expanding our health care sector to cater to the transgender community might be novel and exciting to health care professionals, but we are not guinea pigs and I would hate for us to be treated as such. I believe that a concerted effort between all parties involved – medical institutions, medical professionals from various segments, insurance companies, legislators and the trans community is the only way to successfully achieve a suitable and sustainable outcome. Our services should not be the result of a doctor “trying a ting”.

I am an advocate for sensitization and training sessions for current medical personnel, as well as the inclusion of transgender specific issues in the curriculum for persons aspiring to enter the medical profession. All too often are our doctors and nurses ill-equipped to handle the nuances of delivering services to transgender people. They often misgender their patients and use offensive language, albeit sometimes unknowingly. Still, this can result in members of the trans community refraining from accessing healthcare services in the future. Refusing to use their preferred name may also be distressing, as is the inability to use a gender-neutral restroom, or at the very least the one patients prefer to use.

Usually, as soon as persons hear the word “transgender” they automatically think “surgery” and “transitioning”; but there is so much more to trans people than transitioning and their surgeries. As such, the approach to healthcare for the transgender community should be holistic and not centered solely around hormone therapy or surgical procedures.

On top of all of this, the healthcare services being offered need to be affordable. Unemployment rates for those belonging to marginalized populations tend to be significantly greater and this affects their ability to afford healthcare. Subsequently, healthcare is not usually one of the top priorities of said population. We need to work in conjunction with healthcare providers and insurance companies to ensure that this vulnerable group is able to access these services which are especially crucial to their overall wellbeing without said access adversely affecting their pockets.

Do you face any other challenges you wish to discuss further?

Retaining my sanity? Lol. I kid. On a serious note, living in an environment that can be quite hostile to LGBTQ individuals demands a magnitude of resolve that is unbelievably and undeniably hard to maintain consistently; day in, day out. Some days are better than others, but we are humans after all, not machines.

 

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

You are not alone in your strife. There are many others like you who face similar struggles. Find or build a support system if you can, even if it consists only of online interaction. Isolation is dangerous and having a support system will vastly improve your mental and emotional health. Also, in whatever you do, stay safe. We all desire full self-expression but be mindful of your social context. Visibility is important but please remain as safe as you possibly can.

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.

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.