Queer Issue 2014
On paper, this city is one of the most welcoming places in the United States for transgender people. The legislature expanded Washington State's civil-rights law in 2006 to ban discrimination for employment, housing, and public accommodation based on gender identity. And in Seattle, we took that law further. Our city council banned employers from refusing to hire—or choosing to fire—an individual based on gender identity. It's also against the law here to deny restaurant service, housing (including temporary shelter), insurance transactions, or credit loans simply because someone is trans.
Those are important victories.
But despite those laws, high rates of violence and discrimination can still make Seattle downright hostile to trans people.
The Ingersoll Gender Center, a bedrock organization of the local trans community, conducted a survey in 2007 that found 41 percent of trans respondents in the city have been denied a job or experienced discrimination at work. Another 14.7 percent of those surveyed reported being homeless or losing housing due to their gender identity.
Which is one of the reasons that Sid, a trans activist who asked that we omit his last name, recently launched King County's first resource guide for transgender people, along with nine local trans activist groups. Activists see an opportunity to better connect trans people to each other and to services that help reduce some of the problems that trans people face. But many in the trans community acknowledge that there's a long way to go when it comes to alleviating their hardships—everything from outward discrimination to more subtle forms of bias.
Sid points out, "Trans people are more likely to face poverty, incarceration, trauma, abuse, and exploitation," and that sort of discrimination begins when trans people are young.
For example, on a national level, children and teens who express transgender identity or gender nonconformity in school report "alarming rates of harassment (78 percent), physical assault (35 percent), and sexual violence (12 percent)," according to the 2011 National Gender Discrimination Survey.
Trans individuals I interviewed reported suffering everyday indignities like being shouted at in restrooms (because their genitals don't match the crude stick figures drawn on bathroom signs), being denied service in bars (because the gender listed on their ID didn't match the gender they expressed to the world), being physically, verbally, and sexually assaulted, and even being treated callously by medical professionals who aren't adequately trained to compassionately service diverse trans populations.
Trans people are also the targets of hate crimes. Take Tea Lopez, the woman who was walking to a bus stop on Capitol Hill in April when she reported being maced by a man shouting transphobic slurs. Lopez reported the crime, but many victims don't.
"When trans people experience violence in the world, a lot of us are not comfortable going to the police or looking to the very systems that cause us harm to protect us and keep us 'safe,'" explains Jesse Benet, a spokesperson with the trans advocate group Gender Justice League.
Mike Hogan, an attorney with the King County Prosecuting Attorney's Office, says that no felony bias charges involving trans victims have been filed this year, which could be a result of them going unreported.
Here is another story that illustrates why. Theo, a 35-year-old trans Seattle resident, who asked that only his first name be used, watched in 2011 as his boyfriend, also a trans man, tried to convince cops that the brutal beating he'd just received on public transit, while being called "pussy" and "faggot," was motivated by hate. Instead, Theo says, since his boyfriend's cell phone was stolen during the beating, officers decided the crime was a simple theft.
Then, just one month ago, Theo was sexually assaulted by an acquaintance near his home. When a police officer arrived at his hospital bed at Harborview Medical Center to file a report, the officer noted under "scars, marks, and tattoos" that Theo was "pre-operative, with vagina intact." "How the police responded was pretty horrific," Theo says. "I was never asked if I thought this was a hate crime... I could tell when [the officer] was sitting across from me in the exam room that he was unsure, uncomfortable. When I saw the report—I don't think they were maliciously trying to hurt me or say things that were untrue or problematic—it was just clear that they don't know what they are doing or know how to talk about trans people's bodies in a respectful way."
There's no simple fix. But King County's new 2014 Trans* Resource & Referral Guide could help alleviate some of these struggles. The 40-page guide, which is listed as "a community draft project" to indicate that it is evolving, lists everything from employment support and elder services to social opportunities and legal services. When taken together and printed in one handy place, activists say, the guide could help trans individuals feel less isolated. Since its May launch, Sid says that schools and medical centers across and outside King County have requested copies. Sid, Jesse, and Theo all agree that better training for first responders and human service workers should start making institutional changes that accommodate the needs of trans people.
"I think that the need for basic information and the connection to others was a lot bigger than any of us imagined," Sid says. "Especially for families, for youth—they really want to be connected."