First Event Conference (A Review)

Our co-founder, Neish McLean, attended the First Event Conference recently held in Waltham, Massachusetts from January 20-24, 2016 at the Westin Hotel. The event was attended by over 700 persons within the transgender community and featured a plethora of workshops as well as social activities. The workshops offered participants an extensive array of gender specific topic options to choose from and catered to therapists, youth, family, transmasculine persons, transgender women and cross-dressers. In addition, there were general-focused workshops ranging from professional development to meditation.

First Event1

Each day kicked off with a new-comers orientation session. This was  a great way to start the day as it afforded the opportunity to meet other new-comers and explore what brought each person to the conference. After the orientation session, persons dispersed to their different workshops of interest.

Of particular interest was the  transmasculine track of the programme which had workshops such as ‘Masculinity and the Trans Masculine Person’, ‘Show Me Your Package’,  ‘FtM Chest Surgery Show and Tell’, and ‘New Directions in Surgical Gender Confirmation for FtMs’. One of the more impactful sessions was the FtM Chest Surgery Show and Tell as it gave a live and personal exchange between the volunteers and the audience. The volunteers were able to stand up, bare-chested and explain their procedures and experience.

Some of the general workshops included topics such as ‘Preparing a Successful Transition’, ‘Building a Support Team’, ‘Professional Workplace Transition’ and ‘The Power of Voice’. The Building a Support Team workshop highlighted the importance of creating a safe space that supports the transgender individual through their journey.

In addition to the workshops, the conference also featured a vendors’ area displaying products and services being offered by businesses and professionals for the community. In addition, Tiffany’s Closet was a budget-friendly, high quality offering of clothing and accessories for the shoppers to take advantage of.

In the evenings, there were scheduled social activities to attend. Thursday evening featured event was a Black Tie/Red Carpet Community Service Award event. Friday night featured the John Warrener Memorial Fashion Show and Saturday night’s main event was the banquet with keynote speaker – Dr. Renee McLaughlin.

First Event Conference provided a wonderful opportunity for attendees to learn, explore and challenge the restrictions that often prevent the freedom to express and live an authentic life. It afforded a safe space, especially for those who didn’t have a supportive environment, to embrace all that they are, all that they deny and to let themselves out; let themselves be. Many lives were changed over the course of the conference. Many mental barriers were broken and many lives were set free.

The Way Forward for the Jamaican Transgender Community

After interacting with individuals in the transgender community and participating in the workshops, TransWave is charged with thinking about a way forward given our local context. Jamaica has a far way to go when it comes to equality for the transgender community. However, 2015 reflected greater visibility and increased engagement with civil society and government agencies. For 2016, further collaboration with our partners such as J-FLAG, We-Change, Colour Pink Group and Aphrodite’s Pride is integral to paving the way for increased access to services for transgender Jamaicans. The work continues.

 

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.

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.

In the News – Turning the Spotlight on Transgender People

Source – Jamaica Gleaner

Published:Thursday | June 18, 2015      Jaevion Nelson, Contributer. 

There has been a lot of talk over the last few weeks, especially in social and mainstream media, about transgender(ism), which is an umbrella term referring to persons whose gender identity is different from their biological sex. Biological sex is determined by an individual’s anatomical, hormonal and chromosomal make-up and is not the same gender (we’ll get to this later).

Kudos to 63-year-old Caitlyn Jenner who recently announced her transition as a transgender woman and appeared on the cover of Vanity Fair. For those who don’t know, Jenner is an American television personality and former Olympic track and field champion. As a teenager, Jenner has had to deal with gender dysphoria, which describes the discontent one experiences with their biological sex (male, female or intersex) and gender (man, woman or genderqueer). She has also done some amount of hormone replacement therapy to change the balance of her sex hormones in an individual’s body before she took the bold and courageous step to announce to the world that she is a woman.

Yes, Dr Garth Rattray, those ‘hot chicks’ are ‘chicks’! A biological female does not have a monopoly on who gets to identify as a woman because of her genitalia. Gender identity refers to one’s personal, individual, internal experience of attitudes, feelings and behaviours associated with their own, or a different biological sex. The American Psychological Association has provided an excellent online resource atapa.org/topics/lgbt/transgender.aspx for our edification.

The trans-community has much to celebrate. I am delighted that we are now talking about such an important issue one that has traditionally not been spoken of enough when we discuss the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) persons. I wish, though, that within the hoorah about Caitlyn Jenner, we would pay attention to something profound that she said. Her experience as a rich white and popular trans-woman will be much different from the vast majority of women and men like her. Transgender people face many challenges. They require specialised medical, psychological and social services that are not available in the vast majority of countries. They are often unable to find decent work and pay and, like the ‘Gully Queens’, often end up being displaced or permanently homeless. The experiences of the trans-community are not homogeneous.

‘IT’ IS UNACCEPTABLE

In addition to homelessness and displacement, unemployment and underemployment, and inadequate access to health care, locally transgender persons are physically and verbally abused almost on a daily basis. Transgender persons are often denigrated and dehumanised, with little to no regard for their personhood.

It is against this background that I am concerned that Talia Soares, the host of TVJ’s pre-recorded entertainment programme, ‘Intense’, and Miss Jamaica World contestant, found it acceptable to refer to Caitlyn Jenner as ‘it’ and that the producers allowed such a highly offensive and dehumanising reference to be made about a person on national television.

Perhaps Talia did not mean to disparage Caitlyn and other trans-people, but she has to recognise ‘it’ was problematic and offensive. I am going to assume Talia didn’t understand how this might make transgender persons feel ‘less than’ or subhuman, and how it might make fans of the programme believe it is acceptable to refer to people as ‘it’.

Talia, may I suggest that you speak with human-rights defenders or transgender women like Tiana Miller who understand these issues and would be willing to have a conversation with you. You might also want to consider issuing a public apology and underscore the fact that it is unacceptable to refer to a fellow human being as ‘it’.

Admittedly, transgender issues are complex. It’s not easy to understand, and somewhat new for us in Jamaica. Despite this fact, let us all commit to being respectful of each other and using appropriate terms that celebrate our dignity and humanity regardless of who we are, how we express ourselves, who we love, the type of work we do, where we live, who we vote for or where we worship.

– Jaevion Nelson is a youth development, HIV and human rights advocate.