Transgender Rights are Human Rights

Today, December 10, 2015, we celebrate Human Rights Day under the theme “Our Rights. Our Freedom. Always”. Human Rights Day commemorates the day on which, in 1948, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly.

Jamaica has since incorporated the principles set forth into Chapter III of our Constitution at the time, and now have adopted and amended the principles to make our own Charter of Fundamental Rights and Freedom.  As set out in the Charter of Rights, all Jamaicans have several rights afforded to them by law.

However, the right to freedom in Section 2(i) which makes specific reference to the right to freedom from discrimination on the grounds of – (i) being male or female; (ii) race, place of origin, social class, colour, religion or political opinions does not adequately protect transgender persons from discrimination.

The Charter of Fundamental Rights and Freedom neglects to fully protect all Jamaicans regardless of gender identity or sexual orientation. This failure to protect all Jamaicans makes the following outlined in section 3 debatable with regards to their coverage and protection of transgender and gender non-conforming Jamaicans. Section 3 states – (a) the right to life, liberty and security of the person (c) the right to freedom of expression.

Ban Ki-moon

One cannot have the right to life, liberty, security or freedom of expression when the right of freedom from discrimination does not adequately cover transgender persons. Transgender rights are human rights. The amendment of the Charter of Fundamental Rights and Freedom to include the right to freedom from discrimination regardless of gender identity or sexual orientation would be a step in the right direction to securing the rights and freedom for transgender and gender non-conforming Jamaicans. Our rights, our freedom, matters.

Nelson Mandela Human Rights

The video below highlights the reality of the lives of transgender people across Asia-Pacific. It’s quite a similar reality that many transgender Jamaicans face. Our hopes for the future are the same. Have a watch.

 

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.

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.