A new, open life for transgender people

Sarah Parlow, a 38-year-old transgender woman works on her computer at home in Pittsburgh. (Michael Henninger/Pittsburgh Post-Gazette/MCT)

(MCT) -- PITTSBURGH - The "T" in LGBT - the last letter in the acronym representing lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender individuals - is finally getting its turn in the spotlight.

The small but increasingly visible transgender wing of the LGBT movement is moving aggressively to secure the same protections won by gay rights groups over the past two decades.

In a historic move at the end of April, federal officials codified protections for transgender students under Title IX, a federal civil rights law that prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex in federally funded education programs. And Medicare just lifted its ban on coverage for sex reassignment surgery.

The Federal Bureau of Prisons now allows incarcerated prisoners to receive hormone therapy to transition to the gender they identify with, and veterans hospitals are required to provide them too. The Social Security Administration also ruled recently that survivors of transgender marriages were entitled to full benefits without extra scrutiny.

Culturally, there's been progress, too: Facebook now provides users with more than 58 gender options to choose from, and it allows three pronouns: "he, she and they." The American Psychiatric Association no longer considers being transgender a disorder. And California, always a bellwether for cultural change, requires schools to allow students to choose sports teams, restrooms and locker rooms based on the gender they identify with.

Pittsburgh's growing transgender movement will be out in force for 2014 Pittsburgh Pride, an LGBT celebration running through June 15. TransPride, a local advocacy and support group, will be hosting a series of events showcasing the artistic and musical talents of trans people. It's the most extensive spotlight on this community during the annual celebration of the LGBT movement so far, says TransPride co-founder Chance Thomas.

First, an explainer: Unlike the other letters in LGBT, transgender is about how an individual identifies, as male or female. Being lesbian, gay or bisexual is about sexual orientation.

"We like to say that sex is what's between your legs and gender is what's between your ears," said Shannon Minter, legal director at the National Center for Lesbian Rights. In 1996, Minter transitioned from female to male and has carved out a national reputation litigating on behalf of transgender people.

Despite TransPride's growing membership, "There really aren't any strong political advocacy groups for trans people in Pittsburgh," said Michael David Battle, a transgender male who founded the Garden of Peace Project, a nonprofit outreach organization for marginalized groups.

The LGB population is larger, of course - 4 percent, or 9 million American adults identify as lesbian, gay or bisexual, compared with about 700,000 identifying as transgender, according to demographers at the Williams Institute, a research center for LGBT issues at UCLA. The numbers may be higher when accounting for those who do not disclose their transition.

But the uptick in national attention is undeniable.

This year, Jared Leto won an Oscar for portraying a trans female. "Orange Is the New Black" actress Laverne Cox, a trans female, is on this week's cover of Time, which calls the transgender movement "America's next civil rights frontier." And Barneys New York ran a groundbreaking eight-page advertisement in the February issue of Vanity Fair using 17 trans male and female models.

"The trans community will say they're about 20 years behind LGB groups in terms of storytelling and public awareness," said Bobby Clark, spokesman for the Gill Foundation, a Colorado-based anti-discrimination group.

That is changing dramatically, said Mara Keisling, who heads the National Center for Transgender Equality in Washington, D.C. "I know people like to say that, but I don't think it's true anymore. We have really made progress in the policy arena."

The fight for same-sex marriage has brought "more conversation about the LGBT community into living rooms and kitchen tables," said Masen Davis, executive director of the Transgender Law Center, also in Washington.

"Before the Internet, many of us were disconnected, grew up not knowing other people like ourselves," said Mr. Davis. "For many of us, we were the first trans person anyone had ever met."

As with any burgeoning civil rights movement, there's been infighting: about language, about who gets to define the meaning of being transgender, about those who want to "pass" as one sex or the other and assimilate themselves, versus those who reject the binary he/she social construct of gender. Many younger people don't feel the need to declare themselves as conventionally "masculine" or "feminine," and Facebook's myriad gender options reflect that desire for ambiguity or a wide spectrum of gender identity.

But many transgender people still prefer to conduct their personal lives in private, says Donna, who serves as an informal advocate and mentor for other trans individuals. The 58-year-old resident of the Pittsburgh area asks that her last name not be used because she worries she'd lose her job as a property manager if she revealed her true gender identity.

"By day I'm a man, but the rest of the time I'm a woman. It's been hard, but I've learned to live with it."

In 29 states it's legal to fire someone or not hire them for being lesbian, gay or bisexual. That includes Pennsylvania, the only state in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic without a statewide employment nondiscrimination law. But in 33 states transgender people can be fired or denied employment.

Slowly, transgender groups are getting states that protect LGB groups to backpedal and include them too. Delaware, in 2013, followed in the footsteps of Massachusetts, which, after a six-year battle by local activists, passed the Massachusetts Transgender Civil Rights Law last year. A similar effort in New York has stalled.

Still, there is widespread mistreatment and discrimination in schools, prisons and workplaces. In Texas, a transgender teacher was recently banned from the classroom after parents complained. State prisons routinely house transgender inmates in solitary, arguing that it will protect them from harassment, although legal and medical experts say solitary confinement is akin to torture. The military prohibits transgender people from serving - although Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel hinted recently that that may change. And in custody cases, parental rights are often terminated without any consideration of a trans mother's or father's fitness as a parent.

While Title IX's language now includes gender identity among its anti-discriminatory protections, lawsuits are winding through the courts - including one between the University of Pittsburgh and a transgender student - about such issues as locker rooms. Under this revised federal law, does a student get to choose which gender locker room to use or, as Pitt is arguing, is a unisex facility sufficient? The court has yet to decide.

One of the biggest issues facing the trans community is identification papers - driver's licenses, bank accounts, birth certificates and other government-issued documents needed to work, to vote, to live.

While the Social Security Administration now allows trans people to change their gender marker without proof of surgery, it had a rocky start, said Battle, who showed up at a local office in East Liberty last summer, two months after the federal requirement of proof of surgery was eliminated, only to be told no.

"I essentially found myself training the staff," he said, noting that they were nice "but people just hadn't been trained at that point."

Pennsylvania recently eliminated its requirement for proof of sex reassignment surgery before changing gender on a driver's license - a difficult hurdle for many trans people who cannot afford or have chosen not to have the surgery. But in Nebraska, Alabama and some other states, surgery is still mandatory.

Want to change your name, now that you've transitioned? Nationally, every transgender person - any person, for that matter - must obtain a court order to do that, something that can be intimidating for someone worried about his or her job.

In some states, such as Ohio, birth certificates cannot be changed, but more and more states are allowing it, including Pennsylvania, which requires only a doctor's letter - but in that letter, the doctor must attest to "irreversible changes" even if the trans person has opted not to have hormone treatments or surgery.

That's also a deterrent for many trans individuals, Battle says, who are fearful that a judge might interpret that as a requirement for surgery.

While BNY Mellon, Reed Smith and PNC provide lawyers who work free to help them through the name-change process, "most trans people don't know about that," he said. "So they hesitate, because there's one person, one bureaucrat, standing between you and getting your name change. You don't know if they will have had a bad day, or an argument, and take it out on you."

Veterans who transition after leaving the military are particularly challenged, since the Pentagon requires that discharge papers show their assigned gender at birth, not the one they identify with.

Chance Thomas, a former Navy military police officer who served in Afghanistan, Iraq, Kuwait and Guantanamo Bay, was discharged in 2005: In 2010, he transitioned from female to male.

Today, Thomas, 33, is unemployed. While state and federal laws have allowed him to change his birth certificate, driver's license and Social Security information, the military refuses to remove his name or his original gender identity from his discharge papers.

"People see that on my transcript, and that's it. I just don't get hired," he said.

Keisling, of the National Center for Transgender Equality, says her group has been in talks with the Pentagon, which argues that discharge papers are a historical document. But employers almost always ask veterans for discharge papers, she says, which essentially "out" people who are transgender - who are then denied employment.

Davis, of the Transgender Law Center, has one name on a Social Security card and a different one on a U.S. passport and California driver's license. Davis was born in Missouri and legally changed his gender after moving to California years ago, but his Missouri birth certificate still says female. "I would have to come out whenever I apply for a job or enter an academic program," he said.

"There's a reason why I don't live in Missouri."

While younger generations of trans males and females are encountering more acceptance by families, teachers and classmates, a large study in 2011 found that more than half of all transgender people report being bullied in school, 61 percent were physically assaulted, 64 percent were sexually assaulted. Suicide rates are 26 times higher than the national average, and transgender people were four to five times more likely to be unemployed and living in extreme poverty.

"People think we have three heads," added Thomas. "In fact, trans people are the nurses, doctors, firefighters who serve you, they're your sons and daughters, your neighbors and friends. You just may not know it."

Progress is never linear, as this group has learned as it struggles for justice and the right to live authentic lives.

But, Davis says, "The more visible we are, the more those who don't understand us will understand us. We are not going away."