Representation and Respect: Addressing Transgender Rights at UAB and Beyond

On Thursday, September 13, the Institute for Human Rights had the opportunity to host Joan Rater and Tony Phelan, parents to actor and student Tom Phelan; and Brianna Patterson, a transgender activist, veteran, former firefighter and UAB health educator. Joan covered her journey as a parent supporting her transgender son and advocating for trans representation on television, while Brianna shared her story of being a transwoman from the South, moving from social isolation to embracing her womanhood.

Brianna, Joan and Tony Engaging with the Audience. Source: UAB Institute for Human Rights

 

Joan opened with a presentation titled “Transforming My Family”, where she spoke about Tom’s transition that began at 17 but addressed his once reserved feelings about his gender. Tom was very confident as child, but this withered with his teens, becoming suicidal and even briefly moving from Malibu to Boston with his family so he could receive outpatient treatment. One day, after his mental health improved, while being dropped off at school, Joan and Tony received an email from Tom as he walked to class. The email was Tom’s proclamation of being transgender, at the time using they/them/their pronouns, while including resources for his parents to better understand. Usage of the internet and technology has proven to be a positive resource, not only for people in the transgender community to communicate, but to inform allies about the transgender experience, allowing to amplify these traditionally marginalized voices.

A year into his transition, with support of his parents, Tom pursued “top surgery” which is the process of removing one’s breasts through medical procedure. As soon as he had his doctor’s approval to workout, he began jogging without a shirt, feeling a sense of liberation. Soon after, Tom debated the idea of hormone therapy that would ultimately change his voice, becoming a compromise between his options as an actor and happiness. Tom chose the latter, eventually leading to a role as a trans teen, Cole, on ABC Family’s The Fosters. Once Joan saw her son’s role validating the experience of transgender fans, she saw it was her and Tony’s obligation, as television producers/screenwriters, to amplify such voices through media representation. This led to emergence CBS’s Doubt, including Laverne Cox as Cam, a transgender law graduate from Yale University who often litigated for underrepresented clients, contributing to the mainstreaming of complex, genuine transgender identities.

She then demonstrated the importance of voting in support of transgender rights and, if possible, donating to people and organizations who fight injustice professionally. Joan closed by insisting that when facing transphobia, we must be brave and cannot allow intolerance to go unchecked.

Brianna Patterson, an Alabama native and current health educator at UAB’s 1917 Clinic, shared the challenges and accomplishments throughout her journey, including her transition that began in 2012. Brianna expressed the first time she “felt different” was in 1st grade, not knowing how to identify these feelings and consistently using the girls’ restroom. Also, with being raised by strict grandparents, Brianna claimed to have been disciplined violently when caught experimenting with her grandmother’s clothes. At the age of 14, Brianna experienced her first suicide attempt, followed by self-isolation in high school, poor grades and an immediate retreat to the United State Marine Corps (USMC) at 17.

Brianna felt her new home in the USMC gave her the unconditional love she didn’t receive back home. Although, she described having internalized transphobia because she didn’t feel masculine enough. However, after serving her term in USMC, which included tours during the Somalian civil war, Brianna, still, didn’t feel masculine enough. This led to her joining the fire service at a local department in Alabama, which she served for 23 years. Toward the end of this career, Brianna pursued hormone therapy, but was first refused care by nine different physicians throughout the state, demonstrating the discrimination transgender patients experience in the health care field. One day, after producing her driver license with her new name, following a traffic accident, the local officer spread the word about Brianna’s identity. As a result, two years before being eligible for retirement, the city council voted to demote Brianna’s Captain status, highlighting how Alabama doesn’t provide protections for the transgender community.

Soon after, Brianna finished her Master’s in Public Health, first working for Planned Parenthood and now representing UAB’s 1917 Clinic, a job she loves because she gets to address vaccine education, recruit research participants and address health issues salient to the transgender community. Although there was a silver lining in Brianna’s story, many don’t include such an ending, demonstrating the need for local, national and international protections for the transgender community.

Following Joan and Brianna’s presentations, the guests, alongside Tony, fielded questions from the audience, including insurance coverage for gender confirmation surgery, internet support networks, advice for coming out and how to be a genuine ally to the transgender community. Brianna responded to the latter by confidently saying, “The best way to be an ally: Treat everyone like a human being. Educate yourself. And if you wouldn’t ask a cis woman that question, you shouldn’t ask a trans woman that question.”

Identify: An Olympic Spotlight on Transgender Athletes

The Olympic rings modified with male and female gender symbols
Sex LGBT Olympics. Source: Nevit Dilmen, Creative Commons

The Olympics are often heralded as a celebration of international cooperation, but they also reflect the current political and cultural moment in which the games take place. Explained in the book The Games: A Global History of the Olympics, the first modern Olympics in 1896 were only composed of white males, mirroring those who had sole power in society. As the decades passed and the world changed, other races, women, and those with disabilities were added to the Olympic competition roster. This path of progress wasn’t free of setbacks, but the addition of these athletes put out a signal to the world that these groups were to be seen as Olympians; on equal footing as those who had come before. This process of inclusion is still ongoing, and within the past few years a new set of competitors have been given approval to go for gold.

In July 2017, the Olympic Channel launched a new original series, Identify, following the stories of five athletes in the US who identify as transgender, defined as “a person whose gender identity differs from the sex the person had or was identified as having at birth.” Those interviewed ranged in level from a Division III college volleyball player to a professional hockey player, but each of their stories share common threads in terms of their deep passion for their sport and the difficulties of navigating the regulations around being a trans competitor.

The choice to produce the show did not come out of a vacuum. As addressed at the beginning of each video, text appears reading, “In 2016, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) advised that transgender athletes can compete without undergoing surgery, making history in the sports world.” This sentence is referring to a meeting that took place in late 2015 aimed at revising the previous rules on transgender athlete eligibility. Dr. Richard Budgett, Medical Director of the IOC, describes that prior to the new ruling, the IOC policy recommended that in order to compete as a trans man or woman in their desired category the athlete must undergo full lower surgery with internal and external modifications.

Chris Mosier is the first transgender athlete to compete for Team USA. The old policy did not permit him to race at the Sprint Duathlon World Championship so he decided to challenge the ruling. “My whole thing was that I qualified for Team USA just like the rest of the guys on the team, and I knew that I belonged at the starting line representing our country. What it did was position me as a name and a face to say ‘I’m a real athlete who is not able to compete because you’re asking me to modify my body in a way that I don’t want to.’” Pushed by his advocacy, the International Olympic Committee reconvened with their medical advisors to review the current scientific literature, and from the session drafted the “IOC Consensus Meeting on Sex Reassignment and Hyperandrogenism”.

In the document, there are three categories of athletes covered under the new recommendations. The first category addresses transgender men and states that “Those who transition from female to male are eligible to compete in the male category without restriction.” This allowed Chris to be able to join his team at the world competition, but also opened the door to other athletes profiled in the series, such as Schuyler Bailar.

Schuyler Bailar speaking at 2017 Pride and Prejudice Conference
Schuyler Bailar. Source: Wymzee, Creative Commons

For his piece in the Identify series, Schuyler begins by recounting how ever since he was little he has been in the pool. “I’ve just always loved being underwater… and it’s always that kind of moment of ‘This is the only thing I’m supposed to be doing right now, this is the only place I need to be.’ That brings me a lot of peace I think that I don’t have in my daily life.”

An injury in high school afforded him the space he needed to process his identity outside of swimming, and soon after he began identifying as transgender. However, he says that “It took me another year until I told most of my friends and asked them to call me male pronouns and refer to me as a boy and solidify the idea of ‘Oh, this has actually always been me, and I’m not actually changing myself, I’m just presenting the truest part of myself.’”

When he’s not at practice for the Men’s Swimming and Diving Team at Harvard, Schuyler can be found speaking in front of audiences about the experiences he has gone through as his public sport’s career and personal identity have intersected. “I love motivational speaking because I’m really invested in sharing my story, and sharing the possibility for this kind of happiness and this kind of peace with yourself, especially with something so complicated as being transgender, but also so simple as just wanting to be happy.” Introduced as the “first openly transgender athlete to compete in any sport on an NCAA Division I team,” Schulyer takes the stage and begins speaking to a crowd of administrators, sharing with them how important a role his teachers and coaches have played in supporting him throughout his life.

As trans men, Chris and Schulyer are both now free to compete for a spot on Team USA just like any other male athlete, without restriction. For trans women however, the rules become more complex. The IOC consensus states that a trans women is allowed to compete in the female category as long as she 1) agrees to make permanent her female gender identity for a minimum of four years, 2) shows that her testosterone level is not above 10 nmol/L at least 12 months prior to her first competition, and 3) submits to testing of these levels.

The focus on testosterone is one which has been hotly debated around the discourse surrounding the inclusion of trans athletes, and it stems from the fear that trans women will have an advantage over other women in competition. The only episode in the Identify series to follow a trans woman featured Chloe Anderson, a Division III volleyball player for the University of California, Santa Cruz. Out of the five episodes posted on Youtube, she has the largest dislike ratio, coming in at just under 50%. One comment sums up the negativity towards her by stating incredulously, “So, basically they allow cheating in the form of men competing versus women but steroids are an ‘unfair advantage’?”

When closely examined however, the general assumptions on what makes a man “better” than a woman in sports, or even how to properly define those categories, becomes much more nuanced and mired in legal battles. Aside from the discussions on whether nationally funded training programs, genetic variations, and economic privileges give some athletes a competitive advantage over others, a recent dispute over testosterone levels in women’s sports shows how difficult it is to pinpoint a single variable for developing a winning athlete.

Dutee Chand bites her medal on the left while standing with her three teammates.
Dutee Chand, Srabani Nanda, Himashree Roy And Merlin Joseph Of India (Bronze Winners). Source: Athletics Federation of India, Creative Commons

Dutee Chand is an Indian sprinter with hyperandrogenism, defined by the Gale Encyclopedia of Medicine as an “Excessive secretion of androgens (male sex hormones).” The New York Times reports that Chand was “barred from competing against women in 2014 because her natural levels of testosterone exceeded guidelines for female athletes” by the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF). This decision to draw a line in the sand as for what constitutes a female athlete caused anger in the sports community, and after the court ruled in Chand’s favor by allowing her to race in the qualifiers for the 2016 Olympics in Rio, the decision-making panel released a statement remarking that “Although athletics events are divided into discrete male and female categories, sex in humans is not simply binary… As it was put during the hearing: ‘Nature is not neat.’ There is no single determinant of sex.”

The IOC specifically addressed this ruling during the consensus meeting, and the discussion around the ruling also sheds light on the reasons the IOC amended its policy on transgender athletes. Trans women are now beholden to the limit of 10 nmol/L of testosterone, within the range of the average female competitor, even though there may be other women who may match or exceed that level. Chloe gives a personal description of what it was like transitioning, disclosing that “Transitioning is like going through puberty backwards, the other direction, twice as far. There’s a noticeable difference in my athleticism… It was pretty challenging at first, just having all my muscle basically melt off my body.” With the legal decision and the current body of evidence, the IOC and the IAAF have both come to the conclusion that opening the female division to trans women who have not undergone surgery still meets the requirements of an equal and level playing field.

While the door has opened wider for transgender athletes to join Team USA, there will be no openly trans athletes competing in PyeongChang this month. However, should you still like to support the LGBTQ+ community at the Winter Olympics, the Human Rights Campaign has made a detailed list of several athletes to cheer for on their website, including skier Gus Kenworthy and figure skater Adam Rippon. Good luck you two!

The Transgender Military Ban, Part 2: Costs to the American Transgender Community

A bathroom sign titled "All Gender"
Asheville’s response to NC Bathroom Bill. Source: Bradley Griffin, Creative Commons.

On July 26th, 2017 President Donald J. Trump tweeted the following:

“After consultation with my Generals and military experts, please be advised that the United States Government will not accept or allow… Transgender individuals to  serve in any capacity in the U. S. Military.  Our military must be focused on decisive and overwhelming… victory and cannot be burdened with the tremendous medical costs and disruption that transgender in the military would entail. Thank you”

The Real Cost to Transgender Americans

Transgender individuals, many of whom already face daily harassment and discrimination for their gender identity, have been shown to actively avoid situations where hostile confrontations may arise.  In 2016, after a political storm erupted out of North Carolina and the then-governor Pat McCrory’s “Bathroom Bill”, a landmark study on the lives of 27,715 transgender persons documented several startling changes that occurred in the lives of transgender persons.  These include:

  • 59% of transgender persons avoiding bathrooms for feared confrontations
  • 12% report being harassed, attacked, or sexually assaulted
  • 31% avoiding eating or drinking to avoid needing to use public restrooms
  • 8% contracting a kidney or urinary tract infection as a potential consequence for avoiding the use of public restrooms

Similar studies also document the prolonged and repeated stress endured by transgender individuals, when using public restrooms, after the “Bathroom Bill” was proposed.  Situations in which their minority status is negatively highlighted or emphasized, such as the use of public restrooms, are loaded events for transgender individuals. Until recently, the link between a culture of antagonism towards issues related to transgender individuals and the subjective experiences of these individuals themselves has been suspected but unsupported. A study published earlier this year in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology examined the gravest mental health crisis experienced by transgender persons: suicide.

Transgender individuals, as compared to the general public, are 14 times more likely to think about committing suicide and 22 times more likely to attempt suicide.  This horrifying trend holds in countries outside of the United States, and these rates may even be higher in transgender adolescents.  With this new data and analysis, the role of culture, across 2 different theoretical models, was shown to significantly impact the rate of suicide ideation in transgender individuals.  Suicide ideation was significantly predicted by factors such as victimization (specific attacks on an individual for their status as transgender), rejection (social reluctance to engage with transgender individuals), and non-affirmation (the active reminding of a transgender individual their gender identity is not accepted or validated).  To restate the findings, transgender individuals were more likely to seriously contemplate suicide, or wantonly envision a future in which they are not alive, if surrounded by a culture characterized by isolation, discrimination, and outright antagonism.  An important caveat remains: researchers will never be able to interview transgender individuals who have completed the act of suicide.  The ‘edge point’, or the final motive impelling a transgender individual to successfully end their own life, can be hinted at but will never be known with absolute certainty.  However, combining previous research on the statistical likelihood of suicide and suicidal ideation in transgender individuals, coupled with the recently supported theory that culture is a major implicator in the suicide risk of transgender individuals, presents the concerned public with startling information.  For these victimized individuals, a culture of transphobia can exacerbate a predisposition for suicide, potentially resulting in a public health crisis with deadly results.

a spray painted sign of Trans Lives Matter
Source: Dimitra Linardou, Creative Commons

Culture, according to Riane Eisler, is in constant flux.  People choose both their internal response to the forces of culture around them and their externally exertion of control over culture in future interactions with others.  According to Eisler’s Cultural Transformation Theory, a culture of transphobia (the ignorance, fear, or outright hatred of transgender individuals) can change to a culture of empathy, partnership, and mutual understanding.  Likewise, a culture of tentative acceptance can be quickly reversed to one of arbitrary discrimination and empowered domination.  One way a pro-social Eislierian cultural transformation for transgender persons can occur is through the creation, maintenance, and protection of human rights for transgender individuals (Eisler, 1988).  In the United States, transgender rights have a high degree on variance, mostly along state or jurisdiction lines (a graph displaying specific issues related to transgender rights in the US can be found here).  The scant federal rulings on the rights of transgender persons have involved only a few aspects of life for transgender persons, including discrimination in the workplace, marriage equality, and conversion therapy.  The rights of trans persons are still in flux, and the Trump Administration may indeed roll back these protections as their time in governance continues.  Rollbacks of trans rights might, as is supported by Testa et al.’s and the National Center for Transgender Equality’s research, create a public health crisis for transgender persons.  Creating a culture accepting of and empathic to the needs of transgender persons must include comprehensive human rights legislation protecting this vulnerable group without fear of retraction from a hostile administration, such as the Trump administration.

President Trump, under the guise of “medical costs” and unit “disruption”, attempted to used his public platform to instill a culture of blatant disregard for the patriotism, self-sacrifice, and protection of freedom offered by transgender persons who volunteered, volunteer, and may yet volunteer to serve in the United States Armed Forces.  The costs he associated with transgender persons serving in the military are non-issues, and a sober analysis of his proposed logic illuminates a stunning disconnect from the actual militaristic consequences of allowing transgender persons to serve in the US Armed Forces.  The literature, including both personal and academic accounts, reveals a population within America severely prone to self-harm, suicidal thoughts, and suicide attempts in the aftermath of public controversies regarding a fundamental part of their very identity.  The oppression of the transgender community has been shown to have far-reaching and oftentimes permanent consequences for trans persons- such as suicide.  The cost to the trans community from attacks such as these far outweigh the illusory costs to the Trump Administration in allowing trans persons to live a life unencumbered by blatant discrimination.

 

If you or someone you know is contemplating suicide or self-harm, here are resources to contact:

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (press 1 if you are a US military veteran in crisis): 1-800-273-8255

Trans Lifeline: 877-565-8860

The Trevor Project (youth service): 1-866-488-7386

GLBT National Help Hotline: 1-888-843-4564

 

Call 911 if you believe there is an immediate threat to your and / or someone else’s physical safety and wellbeing.

 

References

Eisler, R. (1988).  The Chalice and the Blade.  San Fransico: Harper.