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New York Association for Gender Rights Advocacy
24 W. 25th St., 9th floor New York, NY 10010 Tel: 212-675-3288, x266 Fax: 212-675-3466  

Transgender - A walk of life
AsianWeek, March 23-29, 2001

By Joyce Nishioka

At one of San Francisco’s most exclusive restaurants, *Natasha greets customers clad in one of her own designs. The fitted, spaghetti-strapped dress shows off Natasha’s ample breasts and svelte legs. The color, brown with a gold accent, matches her long, thick hair, highlighted and curled to perfection, and her dark eyes, which seem to draw patrons in. Her manners — and looks — make her one of the most popular waitresses at the night spot, earning on average $200 per shift.

Thanks to the job, Natasha has been able to pay for school. She graduated from college last year and has her sights set on the high fashion world. Eventually, she would like to start her own business. She is young, beautiful and talented. Nevertheless, at times even she battles episodes of depression, questioning herself and wondering if she made the right decision. Natasha was born male.

Though internally she’s at peace, externally Natasha deals with discrimination, both overt and covert, as well as the constant and nagging stress that she will be “clocked,” or found out.

Though the media often plays up the glittery drag queen image, most transgender women dress up to avoid attention. When Natasha goes out without make-up on, in jeans and a T-shirt, people do stare, she says. Most of the time, however, she spends more time in making herself “look better,” by putting on eye-shadow and lipstick and styling her hair, so she can pass. Fearing her alto voice will give her away, she also avoids talking in public.

“It’s very seldom that I get clocked,” Natasha says. “When it does happen, I get paranoid about it. I just want to get out of there. I feel really ugly, like everyone’s looking at me … You go through that every day. People just feel they need to show you that they know. There is definitely a lot of anxiety about getting attention.”

Hard Realities

The media has glorified male-to-female transgenders in recent years with critically acclaimed films such as The Crying Game, Ma Vie En Rose, and more recently, The Iron Ladies, and with the larger-than-life personalities of Dame Edna Edwards and Ru Paul — but those images mask the ugly truths of “transgenderphobia.”

For Natasha and others in the transgender community, the statistics are a glaring reminder of all the problems, inextricably intertwined. In 1996, the San Francisco Department of Public Health conducted a study that included 397 male-to-female transgender individuals in San Francisco.

The results were alarming: 80 percent had at one time or another been involved in sex work; 34 percent had reported injection drug use; 65 percent reported a history of incarceration; 52 percent had no health insurance; 13 percent were homeless; 32 percent attempted suicide.

Advocates say that for the transgender community, life is a catch-22. Many report losing their jobs when they “transition” from male to female. Others say discrimination is so rampant it’s nearly impossible to land a job in the first place. Some turn to sex work for survival and as a means to boost their self-esteem. Drugs help them escape, but if they become hooked, they have to continue to sell their bodies to support their habits.

“It is really looked at as a ridiculed community,” Nikki Calma, community events specialist for San Francisco-based Asian & Pacific Islander (A&PI) Wellness Center, said. “It’s an oppressed community. Validation is hard to get from family, friends and society. People are seeking any validation they can get. In sex work, you’re considered as a novelty. You’re being paid for sexual favors, aside from getting money. They are validating what you have. Someone wants you.”

Arguably, their problems cut deeper than wounds suffered by any other community. Consider this: 83 percent have suffered verbal abuse; 46 percent faced unemployment discrimination; 37 percent had suffered abuse within the last 12 months, and of those, 44 percent reported it was by a partner; 59 percent reported a history of rape.

National statistics are just as sobering. It’s estimated that transgender men and women are 16 times more likely to be murdered than the average person in the United States, and they face a 70 percent unemployment rate, compared with 4 percent in the general population, according to Marcus Arana, a discrimination investigator with the San Francisco Human Rights Commission.

“Problems are real; they are not inflated,” Arana says. “We see them in the streets. The realities are that when one transitions, they lose their jobs, they lose their job histories. They have no place to go.”

Their plight has gotten so little attention that A&PI Wellness Center, which provides HIV/AIDS services, calls them “among the most invisible and marginalized” API groups.

Defining an Identity

The term “transgender” describes both male and female cross-dressers, transvestites, pre-operative and post-operative transsexuals, as well as masculine-appearing women and feminine-appearing men. Even those who feel they are the opposite sex, but don’t express it outwardly, are considered transgender.

“It’s about statement, more how you feel inside,” Calma says. “It’s not about physical appearance, but how you want to identify yourself to other people.”

Because the term transgender encompasses many diverse groups, it’s difficult to estimate just how many transgender people there are. No comprehensive study has been conducted to determine the population in the United States, but the San Francisco Department of Public Health estimates that 1 percent of the city’s residents — 15,000-18,000 people — are transgender. Statistics haven’t been broken down to ascertain the number of Asian Americans, but Arana says, “it’s high from our experience, in proportion with San Francisco’s API population.” Considering an estimated one-third of San Franciscans are of Asian descent, the API transgender population may be as high as 6,000.

Says Calma: “There is a sudden emergence of the transgender community in San Francisco. Suddenly, the issues are coming out. The number is there. You can feel it.”

Like many in the Bay Area API transgender community, Natasha is an immigrant. However, she’s managed to avoid the pitfalls that trap so many women.

Natasha, 24, immigrated from Manila, the Philippines, eight years ago. She “transitioned” from male to female two years ago, but her identity crisis began much earlier. A “daddy’s girl” and the baby in the family, Natasha remembers when she was five or six years old, she would powder her face like she had seen her mom do, and climb into her father’s lap when his friends visited.

“I would feel pretty and then I would go mingle,” she says. “It didn’t bother my family because I was young and spoiled. The whole time, they thought it was a phase.”

Natasha recalls dressing up in women’s clothing as a child. Her mother, who worked as a seamstress, would line the walls of their house with her creations. When she left the house to run an errand, Natasha would pick one out and try it on. She would dance and twirl, she recalls.

“I guess I was just feeling like a princess because the dresses were always too big for me and it felt like an evening gown,” Natasha says laughing. “Back then, it felt so nice. I just wanted to be like a girl I saw on TV or a girl in general, being pretty in dress.”

But kids can be cruel. Natasha would routinely come home from school crying. Other children would tease her because she was feminine and all her friends were girls. “My parents were getting mad at me,” Natasha says. “They were afraid of me being hurt and told me, ‘If you are going to come home crying everyday and are always getting in fights, you should stay home.’”

As a teenager, when Natasha attended Catholic boys’ school with her brother, she began to feel she should “hide” her femininity and “act as a guy.”

It was “non-stop trying to please everyone else,” Natasha says. At every moment, she was conscious about the way she spoke and moved, continually questioning herself, “Is this the male way of doing it?” During her first year of high school, she didn’t ha6e any friends and dared not approach the gay clique.

In the end, she couldn’t change.

“For me, it’s impossible,” Natasha says. “It’s something in me and it’s what I am. I can’t click it on and off.”

When Natasha was 17, she immigrated to the United States and lived with her parents. She worked in retail and attended a community college. Realizing she could support herself, she decided “it was time to move on.” Four years later, she moved to the Bay Area with her brother. A year later, he married and she moved to her own place. At that point, she began her transition.

“When I was living as a guy, I never felt comfortable living in my skin,” Natasha says. “As a guy, I was very feminine so I was very androgynous. People didn’t know how to address me and look at me. I would be in the grocery store wearing a sweatshirt and baseball cap and they would say, ‘She’s next.’ They would think I’m a girl. In a way, I just never felt attractive.”

Before transitioning, Natasha sought advice from other transsexuals. She educated herself on what to expect, physically and emotionally. One thing others suggested is that she find a boyfriend “who’s going to accept you no matter what.” Natasha found someone and for a time, she says, “it was perfect.”

“We would go out, with me as a girl, and he would say, ‘Oh, you’re so beautiful,’” Natasha explains. “But he would see me in the house as a guy and he would say, ‘It’s still OK, you’re still beautiful. You’re not ugly. It’s OK if you don’t wear make-up all the time.’”

Natasha also felt support from her family. She’s especially close to her mother and brother. Her father, she describes, “is civil about it.”

“My mom told me he’s always talking about that, saying he was really worried about me and worried about what I’m doing,” Natasha says. “It’s as hard for him as it is for me.”

She adds: “His main concern is for me to be OK because for parents, all in all, that’s what their concern is. They don’t want their children to be unjustly treated. Their main concern is that nothing bad happens to me. And since I live this life, I’m more prone to things like that — people are going to be mean to me.”

A Cycle of Risk

Most transgender people will tell you discrimination occurs on a daily basis. The persistent fear of violence, for no other reason than people don’t like the way you look, nags at the soul. “It’s like you’re bait when you’re going out,” explains Chi Chi La Woo of A&PI Wellness Center. “You have to watch yourself. You have to constantly present yourself. You have to watch what you do, how you carry yourself. If you’re going to get clocked, people are going to make fun of you or worse, they could hurt you, mentally or verbally.”

In 1996, the San Francisco Department of Public Health’s Transgender Community Health Project assessed HIV risk among male-to-female (MTF) and female-to-male (FTM) transgender individuals. The study, which included ten focus groups, found that unprotected sex, commercial sex work and injection drug use were common. According to the report, participants described sex work as “survival sex.” For many, it was the only option because of the severe job, housing and education discrimination, the study said. Participants also explained that society’s view of the transgender community takes an enormous toll on their self-esteem, and can contribute to self-destructive behavior.

Faced with numerous and daunting obstacles, the transgender community also exhibits high risk for HIV infection.Of the API participants, 27 percent were HIV positive. The rates for other minorities were equally disturbing: 29 percent for Latinos; 63 percent for African Americans. Twenty-two percent of white participants also tested positive.

“A lot of people don’t realize they can do better, because the community is infested with drugs, too,” Calma said. “Unfortunately, to make people feel good about themselves, they often turn to alcohol and other substance abuse.”

For APIs, barriers to programs and interventions include linguistic and cultural barriers, according to a report for the President’s Commission on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders authored by Pauline Park and John Manzon-Santos.

A&PI Wellness Center is a beacon for providing support. One of the only organizations to provide API culturally specific programs, the center provides a bimonthly social and educational forum called Club Euphoria. Topics covered include legal and immigration concerns, domestic violence, harassment and employment opportunities.

New Organizing

Community organizations are also leading the way for increased public awareness, and the movement is gaining momentum. Many groups are building coalitions and joining with gay/lesbian/bisexual organizations.

Transgender activist Pauline Park helped found the New York Association for Gender Rights Advocacy (NYAGRA) in 1998. At the time, there was neither a citywide nor statewide advocacy group working in the legislative arena for transgender civil rights. With discrimination and violence against transgender people all too common in the state, Park’s organization is committed to advocating at state and local levels for self-determination in gender statement and identity.

Currently, NYAGRA is heading a campaign to amend New York City’s human rights ordinance to protect transgender people from discrimination in employment, housing and public accommodations. The city transgender civil rights bill, Park explains, would broaden freedom of gender identity and statement for all. For example, under current law, a lawyer could not be fired because he is gay. However, theoretically, his superior could terminate him if he felt he was too feminine to meet with clients. The NYAGRA-backed legislation would automatically criminalize such actions.

“This legislation embraces transsexuals and lesbian/gay/bisexual people,” Park explains. “It benefits society by allowing everyone to be expressive of their own gender.”

She added: “This is part of a larger effort to empower the transgender community by [encouraging them] to further educate themselves, and to actively seek legal redress and a larger social change. In the process of moving forward the legislation, we have helped to educate policy makers and the public.”

Already, 33 jurisdictions have adopted non-discrimination laws that explicitly include transgender people. Minneapolis was the first to add such language to their human rights laws in 1975. Most of the change, however, came in the 1990s, when jurisdictions such as Cambridge, Mass., Toledo, Ohio, Louisville, Ky., and DeKalb, Ill. passed similar laws.

In many ways, San Francisco is heading the transgender movement. Since 1994, those with diverse gender identities have been protected in the city’s human rights law. Theresa Sparks is San Francisco’s first transgender appointee to the Human Rights Commission. Not only is the commission in charge of investigating and mediating discrimination complaints, but it has also worked to inform the public about transgender issues through training and forums. According to investigator Arana, one of the commission’s next projects is to provide sensitivity training for the police department.

“Locally and nationally, half of violent crimes committed against transgender people are committed by enforcement officials,” Arana said. “It’s a very military setting. It’s a manly kind of world. People perceive a transgender person as a man in a dress.”

San Francisco is also poised to become the first city to provide medical benefits for city employees seeking to change their gender. The health care plan, under which transgender benefits is one component, is expected to be approved by Mayor Willie Brown and the city’s Board of Supervisors.

Supervisor Mark Leno has spearheaded the effort to pass the legislation. Leno emphasizes that the health plan does not include elective surgery, such as facial reconstruction or breast augmentation, one of the biggest misconceptions of the proposal.

“The benefits we are moving forward will come as a result of a medical diagnosis of a condition known as gender identity disorder,” Leno says. “There are prescribed, known effective treatments for this disorder, which include psychological counseling, hormonal treatment, and sometimes surgery … The theme here is equal benefits for equal work. All city employees should be considered equally. That’s what this is going to do.

“The more people know, the more they understand, the less they fear. That will be a side benefit of our moving forward. It will immediately affect only 14 self-identified transgender employees, but it raises consciousness locally and has even initiated debate on the subject across the country. So, that is a very positive aspect of this process.”

A&PI Wellness Center also has been at the forefront of the San Francisco transgender activity. Executive Director Manzon-Santos says his organization is a “stakeholder in how the city enacts legislation to make sure Asian and Pacific Islanders are at the table.” Because of systemic discrimination, he says, it has been difficult to find funding for the center’s transgender programs. Political advocacy is therefore imperative. “You can’t do one without the other.” To that end, the center hopes to educate the public by increasing the community’s visibility. And this summer, it will sponsor and host the first national meeting for the API transgender community.

API transgender persons often face unique problems, Manzon-Santos says. For example, many are rejected by their parents.

“It is very difficult to watch families that are locked into traditional gender stereotyping, or are concerned of fitting in and being part of a U.S. dream,” he says.

Ironically, Asian societies, at different points in history, revered various transgender communities. In Chinese Taoist mythology, for example, the male deity Kuan-yin transforms into the goddess of mercy, who is still esteemed today. Korea also has a long history of transgender culture. In the 7th-century Silla Dynasty, the Hwarang warriors included the Flower Boys, who dressed as women and wore make-up, while training for battle. More recently, the paksu mudang shamans of Northern Korea dressed as women to perform sacred rituals. With the advent of communism, however, the culture was eliminated.

In India, Hijra male priestesses and the goddess of Bahuchara Mata were highly regarded, as were the transgender priests and priestesses of the Babain culture in the Philippines. But Hijras lost social prestige under British occupation and in the 1800s, Catholic missionaries destroyed Filipino Babain culture.

“With the rich history of multi-gender people in Asia,” Manzon-Santos says, “it’s important for Asian and Pacific Islanders in San Francisco to be open to our own. Transgender culture has been part of the API community forever, and so we should take leadership against transgender discrimination in our community.”

Typical Life

For Natasha, there are ups and downs, but in general she lives a simple life. She works four days a week at the restaurant. During the day, she does chores around the house and she’ll take time out to enjoy the outdoors, driving around without planning.

Though Natasha has had success, she worries about the future like other transgender women. Asked how she does it, Natasha responds: “Honestly, I’m dealing with the same problems.”

She has already applied for two positions in fashion production. In both cases, she says, the interviewers were suspiciously “careful.” When asked what she felt was important in a work environment, she replied that “one of the most important things is respect as far as employees and their superiors go, especially with how I am. I wouldn’t ask everyone to accept my lifestyle, but I would want to be respected as a person.”

Looking back, Natasha says with a rueful laugh, “Both people who interviewed me had this look on their faces that, ‘Hmmm, we better be careful with her.’ I was thinking they just didn’t want to offend me; they were just trying to get rid of me in a way.”

Natasha has not let those experiences get her down, though, and says she will do everything she can to reach her goals.

“If it means going through 10 or 20 job interviews and just finding someone to give me a chance, I will do it. It doesn’t always boil down to being transgender, that that’s the reason they don’t want me.

“If you have that frame of mind, then you’re going to be unemployed forever. I think every opportunity makes you a better person. I’m the type of person that tries to move on.”

Her dreams are simple: She would love to own her own business, she says, but beyond that just wants a “comfortable life and not have to be worried about finding a job and money. I don’t need to be rich, but I want some security.” She would also like to support her parents, explaining that they sacrificed to send her and her brother to good schools.

For now, she is content, saying she is finally comfortable with herself.

She adds: “Everyday, I’m trying to make my life better, knowing that it’s not going to be easy. I have to save up and be prepared for certain circumstances, like if I lose my job. Everyone goes through that, but it’s more intense for me.”

* Natasha's name has been changed to protect her privacy.

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