Transgender and gender non-conforming New Yorkers have hopes and chase dreams. They go to school. They have careers. They raise families. And they deserve the basic civil rights protections that others take for granted.
Consider the following people's stories to get better a understanding of why GENDA matters.
Kym Dorsey was born nearly a half-century ago – but, she says, “Kym” is really only five years old. That's because Kym lived most of her life as Kenny, “a pretty gay boy” with curled hair and long eyelashes. “Growing up, I'm thinking, I'm just human. I didn't start embracing the word ‘transgender' until age 40. I was just this pretty boy, with Kym trapped inside.”
Kenny came of age in the 1970s, when blurred gender lines and sexual androgyny were pop media staples. “I was always mistaken as a girl, treated like a girl, called ‘miss' and ‘ma'am.' I spent my life growing up saying no, I'm a boy.” But unlike many of the transgender young people Kym now counsels through In Our Own Voices, an Albany-based social-service agency, Kenny had the unflinching love and support of his grandparents and his siblings, who helped him when cousins teased about “manning up” – or when his mother got angry when his grandmother called him “Kym,” as she did every day.
Kenny often asked his grandmother, “Why do you call me that?” She routinely answered, “That's your name, baby.” The mystery deepened until Kenny was 15 and his grandmother showed him a birth certificate with his birth date, and the name ‘Kym Dorsey.' Kenny had been born with male and female genitals, she said. The doctor chose to surgically ‘correct' his gender to male – without informing the family.
“God don't make mistakes,” Kenny's grandmother told the confused teenage boy. “You are cut from the finest cloth. You are God's child.”
Kenny grew up and earned a degree in early childhood education; he worked as a substitute teacher and for 8 years, a director of a day camp. But he always felt something was “uncompleted” in his life, as if a puzzle piece was missing.
In January 2007, he found it.
“You need to be who you were meant to be,” Kenny's mother whispered to him, minutes before her death.
Stunned, Kenny realized that what his grandmother had always said was true. That next Monday, he found a doctor, started hormone therapy, and began his transition to Kym.
Taking on a feminine identity after living for four decades as a boy and man was difficult for Kym. People accepted Kym – but still called her “Kenny.” On a whim that she describes as “courageous and kind of foolish,” Kym moved to Hollywood in winter, 2009. “L.A. was where I really found Kym. I was able to shed Kenny and live Kym.”
But life in L.A. was expensive; Kym's plan for gender reassignment surgery was put on hold. Even so, she grew stronger in her transgender identity, volunteering at the Friends of La Brea counseling center -- and wondering whether she might do similar work, one day, back in Albany.
Kym learned the importance of owning her transgender status in Los Angeles – but says that being transgender is all part of her essential humanity. “I am all for putting a human face to transgender issues. But I come to the table as a human being first. I want someone who is struggling, who has this feeling in their soul, to understand: You are human.”
In L.A., Kym dated local men, who professed love in private, but spurned her company in public, preferring life on the “down low.” One encounter crossed the line into physical assault when a dinner date turned into date rape. Kym fought for her life. She is still recovering from the violation and its repercussions.
“Being a trans woman trapped in the wrong body, I understand the political agenda,” Kym said. “I know we have to bite our tongue and tippy-toe. But I ask, why? The baseline is, we are all human. We bleed the same. We are taxpayers – we have sisters, mothers, brothers, uncles. I just don't get it: Who decides who's better, who's more deserving of humanity?”
Today, Kym's STYLE support group for transgender youth gives young people social and emotional support, often in sharp contrast to their loved ones' negative responses. The youngsters Kym counsels have been ostracized by their families; they've turned to drugs and to random sex – for money, and for the illusion of love, Kym says.
“They have succumbed to thinking they are only here for the sex, the abuse, the negativity – they've comfortably wedged themselves into that niche,” Kym said. “I say to them, you have a purpose. You are not society's freak – you're not this back-closet sex deviant. You have a purpose in your life.”
Postponing surgery inadvertently gave Kym time to deeply consider life-altering questions.
“I told myself all my life that if I had a vagina, I'd feel complete – but now I realize, it's not about the mechanics. I'm going to be ok with having the body part that I have. Maybe I'm the one who is ‘comfortable enough.'
“I'm here for a purpose, too. For the next 50 years, I get to embrace what my grandmother taught me: God don't make no mistakes.”
Times Union photo by Cindy Schultz used by permission. See more at “Transgender: Faces of Change,” http://www.timesunion.com/transgender/
Kathryn has lived and worked full-time as a woman since 1999, but because of an extensive cardiac history, she cannot take the hormones that are crucial to male-to-female sexual reassignment surgery.
“My gender is female, my name is legally female, but my biological parts are male,” Kathryn said.
In December 2011, Kathryn was treated at the Albany Medical Center for acute respiratory failure. In the emergency room, she was given a hospital wristband with her correct (female) name and gender. After a long wait, Kathryn was moved to a room with a female roommate. But the nurse there told Kathryn that since she had not had surgery, she would have to be relocated to an all-male room, which was unacceptable to Kathryn, who has lived as a woman for more than a decade. As part of the nurse's evaluation, the nurse asked Kathryn whether she had any rashes or sores, and requested that Kathryn lower her trousers for a visual inspection of Kathryn's groin area. Kathryn, who was ill, did not want to appear uncooperative. She complied with the nurse's request, which Kathryn found exceedingly difficult and embarrassing.
Kathryn was permitted to remain in the room to which she had been assigned, but an hour later, the nurse returned with a new wristband, identical to the first save for a change of gender, from F to M, for male. When she demurred, Kathryn was told to express her concerns to the patient assistance department.
“Listing me as male on all paperwork made each doctor, technician, nurse and orderly entering my room overtly aware that I was not a ‘normal' woman,” Kathryn said. “I had to correct pronoun usage with almost everyone; I find this degrading.”
Kathryn is a female member of Blue Cross/Blue Shield insurance; it is unknown if the hospital's claims, made on behalf of a male patient, were denied, based on incorrect gender.
Source: ESPA's Transcribe Project
Moshay Moses grew up in Lynchburg, Va. – home to Jerry Falwell's Liberty University. She came to New York in the 1980s, as a scholarship student at the Fashion Institute of Technology. The city was a refuge to Moshay, and a gateway to her future:
“Where there's numbers, there's more of your community, which equals more power to express yourself,” she said.
From a family of three children, Moshay knew she was different from other boys, but she knew she couldn't talk openly about her identity. Her parents sensed their son was different, but “they wanted me to be a boy,” Moshay recalls. “My mother knew the world could be a cruel place.”
In grade school, Moshay says, “we had a Lil Sis Club. We'd go into the woods and dress up. Even in second and third grade, we had to live back in the closet.”
Even in a church-going town like Lynchburg, there was a neighborhood “mother” for boys who questioned their gender expression – someone who had transitioned years earlier to living as a woman and who guided Moshay and his club-mates as they grew into their teenage years.
“This is a small town,” the “mother” said when Moshay was in eighth grade. “If you're going to do it” – live life as a woman – “do it with class, and get your education.”
Moshay's parents, devout Christians, feared for the son they loved, but they agreed he could leave the South for New York, especially since he was offered a scholarship.
“I knew I had to protect this little girl in me,” Moshay said.
In New York, Moshay gradually transitioned to living as a woman.
“It was like heaven,” she says of the thriving gay social scene and her first forays into weekend drag shows and late nights at Studio 54. Soon, she began hormone therapy and took the name Moshay. Now, she counsels transgender youth at the Positive Health Project in Manhattan, in addition to her spiritual work as a reverend of the Holy Apostle Episcopal Church.
“My being transgender is part of my experience of being human,” Moshay says. “I see the many faces on the one tree.”
As she became more active in the transgender community, where she offers workshops and support groups for young adults who are transgender or questioning, she began an inward, spiritual search, culminating in her 2007 ordination as a reverend of the Holy Apostle Episcopal Church.
“My transition is based on a spiritual journey,” she says. “I learned how to transition inward first. The gift is your body – you can do what you want.”
She has since returned to Lynchburg, where, to her delight, she was welcomed into the church.
“They had to accept all of me, as an African-American woman of transgender experience, despite being male-body-born,” she said.
But life hasn't gotten significantly easier for the generation that's coming up and coming out now, even in New York City.
“Lots of my clients don't have regular housing or places where they can live freely,” Moshay said. “One trans client was outed by her landlord, who harassed her until she left the building. Other girls can't get apartments, or even use a bathroom when they need to, without someone embarrassing them. Others go back to living as men, the fear is so great.
“Trans people, we have been so much targets, just trying to survive. Especially people of color: We have not had a chance to really live and enjoy each other.”
Anna, a mother of four, says that she always knew her second son, Ethan, was different than his big brother, Mark. Ethan never liked Mark's “boy” toys. At day care, Ethan always chose princess costumes and high heels from the school's costume bin. With neighborhood playmates, Ethan swapped his toys for other kids' castoff dress-up gear.
“We had no ‘girl' things,” Anna says, “but Ethan was finding a way to acquire them.”
The family soon grew to include two daughters, and a wardrobe of girls' clothing. By the time Ethan started kindergarten, in the fall of 2010, Ethan chose to wear two layers every day: girls' clothes over school clothes of T-shirts and jeans.
For Halloween, the school had a traditional costume parade. Ethan struggled in the costume aisle, his mom said, because he wanted a costume from the “girl” side, but understood, somehow, that he should be choosing from ”boy” costumes. Finally, he chose a Cinderella costume – and then, agonized at home as to whether he could wear it to school. But his male kindergarten teacher, alerted by the family, made sure there would be no teasing, and Ethan wore the costume.
“The kids all knew,” Anna said. “Anyone who knows this child knows.”
Within two weeks, Ethan was only wearing girls clothes to school. But Ethan was still Ethan, a boy in girls clothes. And that's when the teasing began.
“It was awful,” Anna said.
Calm prevailed in the schoolroom, but the school bus was another matter. Children teased Ethan, “Why are you wearing girls clothes? You're not a girl!” Parents called the school principal, saying that children shouldn't be allowed to dress in opposite-gender clothing. One PTA member threatened to report the parents for child abuse. The family began receiving anonymous hate mail and threatening phone calls from adults who said, “You're going to ruin his life!” But Ethan was happier as a girl than ever before.
The family sought therapy and was advised that Ethan should transition fully to life as a girl – and soon.
“Was it a shock? No,” Anna said. “Was it what we wanted to hear? Not really.”
She said her husband grieved the loss of his son, and they have concerns about the future, for their family and their child. Yet, both parents understood how hard it was for Ethan to live as a boy while so fiercely wanting to be a girl.
“There was a way to fix it,” Anna said. “Let her be a girl. He's not a boy who likes to pretend being a girl. He actually is a girl.”
That summer, Ethan took a new name, Olivia, and grew her hair long. Her parents met with the school to seek to change her name and gender.
Initially, the principal resisted formal changes – and expressed concern about what other parents might say, and which restroom Olivia might use, come September. But at a second meeting, the principal said that she had changed the child's name and gender on her school record.
“The issues are taken care of,” the principal told the parents. “If there's a fuss about it, I'll take the heat.” And Olivia was ready to enter first grade, where she has since been thriving.
Sam moved to New York at 18, to attend a women's college near Ithaca. Neither the college nor a last-ditch effort to identify as female worked out, and Sam eventually settled in the Hudson Valley, where he is a farmer.
“I work from sun-up to sundown, in all kinds of weather. I have a wonderful life,” Sam says.
Among Sam's many encounters with discrimination, one stands out: A few winters ago, Sam had a bad case of bronchitis, and sought treatment at a local walk-in medical clinic.
At the time, Sam's legal name was distinctively female – but he did not look conventionally feminine.
“My appearance was confusing to people,” Sam said, including to the clinic receptionist.
When Sam's name was called, the receptionist asked why Sam was there. Sam explained that his chronic asthma had triggered a bout of bronchitis, meaning that he needed antibiotics.
“Well, we can't help you,” the receptionist said. “We don't know where to put you.”
“Are you too busy to see me today?” Sam asked.
“We don't treat people like you here,” the receptionist explained, sighing with impatience. “We don't know where to put people we can't place.”
Suddenly, Sam realized that the issue was not his health, but how he looked.
“You don't want me here because you can't tell if I'm a man or a woman,” he said. “Unless you have gender-specific exam rooms or something, I don't know why my appearance is a problem. I just need some antibiotics.”
Others in the waiting room heard the conversation; Sam heard whispers and chuckles, and felt as if people were taking apart his physical characteristics like a parlor game: Guess My Gender.
Eventually, Sam was seen by a doctor and received antibiotics, which did not resolve his bronchitis and required a return visit to the clinic. But Sam's initial experience was unforgettable.
“All I was asking for was treatment for a routine medical problem,” Sam said. “But my appearance was so out of the routine that I was treated as a medical anomaly – as if my right to literally breathe were offensive.”
Source: ESPA's Transcribe Project
Tracy, a transgender woman, wanted to ride the A train in the New York City subway. When her subway card malfunctioned, she asked a transit employee for help. Instead of helping Tracy, the employee started calling Tracy names, yelling epithets about transgender people, and went on a long tirade, making vulgar, harassing and discriminatory remarks about transgender people in front of other subway riders. When Tracy finally boarded the subway, two individuals who had heard the transit employee's rant followed Tracy and verbally harassed her until she left the train.
Source: Bumpus v. N.Y.C. Transit Auth., 50254(U) slip op. (Sup. Ct. Kings Cnty. 2008), available at http://law.justia.com/cases/new-york/other-courts/2008/2008-50254.html.
In November 1999, shortly after she made the decision to live as a transgender woman, Joann Prinzivalli testified before the Westchester County Legislature in support of a proposal to establish a county human rights commission. Portions of her testimony were broadcast on the local Fox station's evening newscast.
After the news of her televised testimony reached her employer, Joann was twice summoned before the company's board of directors. Less than two months later, Joann was fired from her job as chief underwriting counsel for a Texas-based title insurance company. She had worked with the company for more than six years; her good reputation was consistently confirmed in a series of positive job performance reviews.
Her termination was finalized on Jan. 15, 2000. The company did not specify a cause for firing her.
“I was essentially fired for appearing on TV as a transgender person,” she said.
After being fired, she struggled to secure steady employment. Joann found temporary work to make ends meet until she landed a job at a small title agency, earning about half of her previous salary.
Joann, born Paul Prinzivalli, knew from the age of four that her true identity was female. She transitioned in her late 40s. The change cost her more than her job. She also lost her spouse, her children and her home.
More than a decade later, Joann has settled into a happy life. She is still working as title insurance attorney and is part of lawsuit challenging a New York City policy that requires people to undergo sex reassignment surgery and receive a post-surgery evaluation before they can change the gender on their birth certificates.
Joann's birth certificate still identifies her as a male named Paul, which can unnecessarily complicate life and lead to uncomfortable encounters. A clerk at a DMV once repeatedly addressed Joann as “sir” because of the information on Joann's birth certificate.
“Suddenly everybody was staring at me,” Joann said. “The clerk was just trying to single me out.”
On balance, Joann says most people treat her respectfully.
“Every once in a while I get a disapproving stare,” she said. “But generally people treat me well.”