Transgender People Face Challenges, Personal and Political

Tyler, who didn't want his last name used, shows a photo from his past. He's transitioned from girl to boy. Photo by Joanna Richards
Tyler, who didn't want his last name used, shows a photo from his past. He's transitioned from girl to boy. Photo by Joanna Richards
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By Joanna Richards

As LGBT has become a mainstream acronym – for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender – the "T" lags far behind in terms of understanding and acceptance.

The first story in our two-part series explained the basics of what the term “transgender” means. Now, we take a more intimate look at some of the experiences of transgender people and their families in Northeast Ohio.

A “Coming Out” Story

Until two years ago, Keith Freund, of Hudson, Ohio, was known as Kathryn. When she was five years old, Kathryn told her mom she felt like she was in the wrong body. Ten years later, that body was developing into a woman’s, and as her mom, Ann Caruso, puts it, she was “really freaking out.”

“He came to the conclusion that he was transgender and told me and was in tears about it, and had suffered about two years of severe depression, including self-harm and several suicide attempts,” Caruso said.

Vanessa Jensen is a pediatric psychologist and part of a program the Cleveland Clinic is developing in transgender health care.  She works mostly with teens and says Keith’s story is typical.

“Every youth I’ve ever seen has come into me depressed, anxious,” she said.

Jensen said puberty is a challenging time for many kids, but it’s especially traumatic for trans kids.

“They often loathe their bodies. They feel completely out of place in the world, and feel isolated from anyone. They are in such pain,” she said.

At 15, Kathryn found a way out of her pain when “she” became Keith to family and friends. His mom was supportive. They both looked to support groups and she let him start hormone therapy. But she had her fears.

“My first reaction when my child said he was transgender was, ‘Oh no. He’s going to have to live among the prostitutes and drug dealers of society,’” Caruso said.

At Keith’s recent high school graduation party, that fearful image seemed remote.

“Can we not scream, please? Also, what happened to charades?” Keith asked, over the voices of about 15 excited teenagers, most dressed up as video-game characters.

The calm amid the storm, Keith tried to bring a little order to the cheerful chaos in his living room.  

“Okay, a couple things,” he told the crowd. “First of all, the fire is afoot. It’s not quite ready for s’mores yet…”

Keith’s mom kicked back on the couch with some other parents. As far as high school parties go, it was about as wholesome as it gets. Soda, snacks, checkers, charades – chaperones – not exactly society’s underworld.

Keith’s been largely accepted at his public high school. He has a girlfriend and is headed to college in the fall. 

But his is nearly a best-case scenario for a transgender teen. Transitions aren’t always smooth and acceptance is far from common.

Trans People Face Harassment, Accusations, Rejection

In a 2013 survey of LGBT kids, the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network found nearly all LGBT students in Ohio routinely heard negative comments. One in 10 were punched, kicked, or otherwise injured because of how they expressed their gender. 

Leelah Alcorn, a Cincinnati-area transgender teen who killed herself in December, used her suicide note to plead for more social acceptance of trans people. It went viral.

At one Cleveland City Council committee hearing, acceptance stopped at the bathroom door.

“I’m here to represent and defend my wife and my daughter,” one man began, testifying against legislation that would ensure transgender people access to the restroom or locker room matching their stated gender identity. 

In other words, someone born a man but who lives as a woman could use the women’s locker room. The idea sparked heated comments from the bill’s opponents.

“Can anybody on this council guarantee that our children and our women will not be assaulted, as a direct result of this piece of legislation?” one woman asked.

The committee tabled the proposal. Many trans people say they just avoid public restrooms.

That image of transgender women as sexual predators is one reason the trans community agrees that life is tougher for trans girls and women. Plus men with feminine traits have long faced ridicule. 

Hurdles Abound, But Signs of Acceptance are Cropping Up, Too

Bathrooms are one of many challenges for transgender people.

In health care, doctors and insurance companies don’t always accommodate their specialized needs.

They have few if any legal protections against discrimination in housing and hiring.

Finding a job is hard enough without having to explain why your old employer knew you as Donald, when your resume now says Susan.

A transgender job fair in Cleveland in November gave advice on handling those kinds of issues. It included recruiters from Marriott, KeyBank, the NASA Glenn Research Center, the FBI, and more.

Mainstream employers reaching out to transgender applicants signals some social acceptance. But the job fair’s organizers didn’t want its exact location widely advertised, citing safety concerns.  

Those mixed signals might point to a broader picture of where the transgender community stands right now.

Trans advocates hope to follow the gay rights movement’s recent successes. But for now, the “T” at the end of LGBT still trails behind.

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