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.

 

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 – 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.

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.

Boy or Girl?

In Western society, gender and sex are presented as synonymous, static concepts. I remember viewing pictures of a Girls and Boys Day that a friend took at the private pre-school his children attended. As you can do doubt guess, the girls were dressed in pretty pastel coloured frocks, wore tiaras, had tea and pastries. The boys rough and tumbled it outside in the yard, made toy vehicles with juice boxes, and ran around in their pants and shirts. It was a clear, if extremely limited, example of Jamaica’s take on gender: what is to be feminine vs masculine. It’s social.

Sex seems simpler. We are born, the doctors identify us as male or female by our external sex organs: penis or vulva (the outer part of the vagina). As we physically develop, our chromosomal and hormonal make-up will cooperate, and we’ll have the deepening voices or growing breasts that our parents, peers and general society expects. We take off from there, everything aligned from birth to death, with space for little variation.

That is a popular perception but it is not the reality. Our understanding of gender and sex is evolving but there are many facts that we do know.

Fact 1
Biological sex includes external and internal sex organs, as well as sex chromosomes and hormones. Some persons internal structure may not match the external. Others may be born with ambiguous genitalia: neither obviously male nor female. For others, such variations aren’t detectable until puberty. It’s not really a surprise to learn that, biologically, humans fall along a spectrum. For those who fall somewhere along the middle of the spectrum, the catch-all term is “intersex”.

Fact 2
For many of us how we feel and think about our gender matches our biological sex. For many, it doesn’t. It is even possible that one may not feel wholly male or female. This is called our gender identity. Transgender persons most obviously fall under this concept. One does not have to be intersex to be a transgender person.

Fact 3
How we present our gender to society is called gender expression. One may identify as a man but behave or dress like a woman as it is understood by one’s particular culture. We all express ourselves as a particular gender, to varying degrees. Gender identity is internal while gender expression is external.

Fact 4
Finally, there is our sexual orientation: who we are sexually and romantically attracted to. Those attracted to the opposite gender are heterosexual. (By this definition, a transgender man attracted to a woman would consider it a heterosexual relationship.) Those attracted to the same gender are homosexuals. Pansexuals are those who are attracted to all persons regardless of gender.

Here’s a useful visual aid for illustrating what’s known as the gender spectrum. Imagine it as a numbered scale from 10 – 0, left to right. Spend some time to consider where you would fall. (Feel free to share in comments!)

Biological Sex

Female <————————————–> Male

Gender Identity

Woman <————————————–> Man

Gender Expression

     Feminine <————————————-> Masculine

Sexual Orientation

Heterosexual <————————————–> Homosexual

All of this may be confusing at first. Learning a new language about how we relate to each other can be a hurdle for LGBTQI persons as well :-). It establishes how complex and beautiful an experience it is to be human. We excel at envisioning different ways to be on the earth. This is our right — and it’s a pretty harmless way of exercising it! However, we are aware of how others see this as disruptive, chaotic and “against nature”. Transgender, more so than other groups, bear the brunt of this stigma. TransWave is focused on presenting this trans* experience in all its complexity.