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posted Friday, October 22, 2010 - Volume 38 Issue 43
Transgender quality of life in Seattle 'very good ... getting better'
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Transgender quality of life in Seattle 'very good ... getting better'

by Shaun Knittel - SGN Associate Editor

More than half of Transgender and gender non-conforming people who were bullied, harassed, or assaulted in school because of their gender identity have attempted suicide, according to just-released findings from the National Transgender Discrimination Survey, conducted by the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force (NGLTF) and the National Center for Transgender Equality.

'From our experience working with Transgender people, we had prepared ourselves for high rates of suicide attempts, but we didn't expect anything like this,' said Mara Keisling, executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality. 'Our study participants reported attempting suicide at a rate more than 25 times the national average.'

In truth, 41% of all respondents reported that they had attempted suicide, compared with national estimates of 1.6%.

'These shocking and disheartening numbers speak to the urgency of ending bullying in our nation's schools and ending discrimination in our nation's workplaces. We know from the recent rash of suicides among young people who have been bullied just how critical it is that we act now and act decisively to save lives,' said Rea Carey, executive director of NGLTF.

The National Transgender Discrimination Survey is the most extensive survey of Transgender discrimination ever done. It includes responses from more than 6,400 people from all 50 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, Guam, and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

Among those who had been bullied, harassed, or assaulted while they were in school, half reported having attempted suicide. Most notably, suicide attempt rates rise dramatically when teachers were the reported perpetrators: 59% of those harassed or bullied by teachers, 76% of those who were physically assaulted by teachers, and 69% of those who were sexually assaulted attempted suicide.

Of those who reported that they had to 'leave school because the harassment was so bad,' 68% said they attempted suicide. Fully, 61% of respondents who expressed a Transgender identity or gender non-conformity while in school reported significant abuses in educational settings. From elementary through graduate school, the survey showed high levels of harassment and bullying (59%), physical assault (23%), sexual assault (8%), and expulsion from school (5%), all on the basis of gender identity or expression.

Other findings include 35% of the participants who had been bullied, harassed, assaulted, or expelled because of their gender identity or expression while in school said that they used drugs or alcohol to cope with the effects of discrimination, compared to 21% of those who had not had similar experiences in school; 25% reported that they were currently or formerly homeless, compared to 14% of those who did not report mistreatment in schools; and those who reported they had to 'leave school because the harassment was so bad' had an HIV infection rate of more than 5%, which is more than eight times the HIV infection rate for the general U.S. population.

THE MISSION OF THE TASK FORCE 'The Task Force's Mission - to build the grassroots power of the LGBT community - is what first attracted me to the organization,' said Marsha Botzer, a Seattle-based Transgender icon and founder of the Ingersoll Gender Center. 'This powerful survey of discrimination against Transgender and gender non-conforming people is a terrific example of how the Task Force really does use its talent and resources to make change in our world. I'll be carrying copies of this into every legislative and policy meeting from now on!'

Botzer, who served as co-chair of the Task Force's national board, says that the Task Force was the leading national organization to welcome Transgender people into full leadership. 'I can report that this objective of service to all in our community is absolutely built into the daily work of the Task Force,' she said.

'Over decades I've seen the destructive reality of transphobia and discrimination up close and in real lives,' said Botzer. 'We know it happens, we see it, we fight against it, and yet without big-picture numbers and solid research, the struggle is 10 times harder. That's why this Task Force and National Center for Transgender Equality report is so important; it truly will change lives for the better.'

Botzer says that 'Seattle is a great place for Transgender people to live, to grow, and to thrive.'

According to Ingersoll Gender Center officials, the Transgender population in the Greater Seattle area is well in excess of 3,000 people. That puts Seattle as the second-highest concentration in the U.S. after San Francisco, California, and may be higher per-capita.

Ingersoll was founded in 1977 by Marsha Botzer as a spin-off of programs held at Seattle Counseling Service. Ingersoll was formed when there were few resources available to people who questioned or felt uneasy with their birth-assigned gender. According to Botzer, there were few, if any, doctors or therapists who were trained and supportive. The early mission of Ingersoll included seeking out and training supportive professionals and educating officials about the needs and concerns of the community. Currently, Ingersoll Gender Center supports Transgender people toward growth and wellbeing by providing support, education, advocacy, and information resources for people interested in gender identity issues, and for service providers, employers, families and friends as well, in order to promote understanding, awareness, and acceptance of gender diversity.

'The size of the Trans community in Seattle is a function of the positive environment here,' said Breanna Anderson, co-president of Ingersoll Gender Center. 'The positive environment here has multiple components. Seattle is generally progressive with a laid-back culture. In addition, we have a strong and progressive Queer community.'

'Very importantly, the Trans community has long been well integrated in the life, culture, and activism of the Lesbian and Gay communities. We were one of the first communities to officially integrate Bisexual and Transgender into the official titles and charters of many of our now-LGBT organizations and institutions,' she said. 'I believe that this is a direct result of the investment and commitment of key leaders in the Trans community being invested and involved in larger LGBT activism and concerns. This common cause has ensured that Transfolk have generally been embraced and included in the progressive legal and social causes that have benefited our community in general.'

The result has been a virtual cycle of improved conditions, social support systems, immigration, and further involvement and investment by Transgender people in the life of the community and the internal education and exposure that results, said Anderson.

'The presence of consistent and high-quality support organizations such as Ingersoll and the culture of service that has grown around it and folks who have come through that system are representative of this principle,' she said. 'In large, otherwise progressive cities where the Trans population and leading organizations are not well integrated and embraced by the Lesbian and Gay power centers, I have not seen a positive or parallel progress. In many areas, there has grown up an entrenched antagonism between Lesbian, Gay, and Transgender organizations that has not served either well, but particularly Trans groups and people.'

From June 2006 to June 2007, Ingersoll conducted 'Perspectives Northwest,' a needs assessment and community survey. Seattle officials learned that, although quality of life is generally better for Trans people in Seattle than other major metropolitan cities, we still have a long way to go.

Survey results include:

o Economics: 39% of respondents have an income below $20,000 per year.

o Employment: 41.5% report being denied employment, being fired, or discriminated against based on gender identity and expression.

o Housing: 14.7% report being homeless or losing housing due to gender identity or expression.

o Hate crime: 30% of respondents indicate being the victim of a hate crime, with 65% believing it was or was likely to be due to their gender identity or expression.

HOW TO FURTHER IMPROVE

'I would cautiously characterize the climate for Transgender persons living and working in Seattle as very good and progressively getting better, as a result of persistent and focused efforts to make it so,' said Anderson. 'I want to be cautious in making that statement because the experience of Transfolk in Seattle, as anywhere, is extremely personal and highly varied. Depending on personal circumstances such as personal opportunity, race, ethnicity, and family environment, individuals may experience a wonderful acceptance support and low levels of personal discrimination, or tremendous personal, emotional and economic distress.'

The big question, of course, is what to do about the continued discrimination, harassment, violence, and more subtle social suppression that continue in Seattle and region.

Anderson said she believes that education and visibility, legal protections and good social policies, with solid enforcement and integration into support systems in schools, health, social services, and employment programs are key.

'Visibility and personal familiarity have been critical factors in improving the social acceptance and personal experience of Gay and Lesbian people,' she said. 'We absolutely see that the same principles apply to Transgender people. This principle of visibility and education spans from the very personal coming-out process through media portrayals, public visibility campaigns in schoolrooms and places of faith, to educating law enforcement, health care, educational institutions, and prisons. The matter of non-conventional gender identity and expression simply does not cross the mind of most people for whom it is not an issue or has not touched their lives. At first consideration, most would consider it to be lurid and bizarre until they are actually introduced to the 'everyday Transsexual,' after which it loses its power to shock and appall.'

Anderson said that while legal protections don't change minds, 'they send important signals and provide tools for handling the most difficult cases of discrimination.'

'Integration of Transgender issues and concerns specifically through involvement of Transfolk in education, social services, employment, and healthcare can have tremendous tangible benefits in making lives healthy and productive,' she said.

Despite the work that still needs to be done, Anderson says the greater Seattle area, particularly urban Seattle, is an amazing place to live and thrive as a Transgender person. 'Seattle is a major magnet for Transfolk from across the country - and the world, for that matter. Our institutions are some of the strongest and our culture one of the most inclusive that I know.'

'For all this progress, discrimination persists at the individual level at degrees somewhat less than in other areas of the U.S., but still to a degree that demands our constant attention and effort,' she said. 'Transgender people continue to have great difficulty finding good jobs and gaining equitable promotion. Employment discrimination is pervasive and almost impossible to prove. Discrimination in insurance coverage and health care abounds. Families regularly disown Transgender people, most tragically when they come out young. Taunting gender non-conforming peers is still common in schools in urban, suburban, and rural areas alike. These fundamental and very personal levels of discrimination are both profound and difficult to make progress against.'

Anderson concludes that success can be reached by adopting the successful strategies of visibility, community building, collaborating with like-minded communities, cultivating and supporting strong leaders, and integrating 'ourselves into the life of the larger community we can continue to improve conditions. Though this is a major metropolitan area, our community is still generally best served by making existing institutions more inclusive and supportive of the needs of Transfolk rather than building Trans-specific standalone services and organizations.'

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