With the incandescent arrival of Caitlin Jenner, ablaze in victory and captured in her moment by Annie Leibowitz, it seems like 2015 is finally the year that the world gets around to accepting transgender people, and we can all go home now. The work is done, and everyone lives happily ever after.
Except that behind Caitlin’s beautiful arrival there lies an ugly history of the exclusion of transgendered people from all walks of life: from medical care, political office, jobs, schools and even public restrooms. Gender reassignment is costly and either only partially covered or completely ignored by medical aid schemes and governments.
In South Africa, despite shining protection by the Constitution, transgender people face an unwilling and ignorant medical community, especially in the public health sector. In a survey of South African transgendered persons by Gender Dynamix and amfAR titled “Transgender access to sexual health services in South Africa”, many of the respondents were asked humiliating questions about their sex lives and anatomy by doctors and nurses, and their stated identity often ignored.
There is a little hope though, in that the private sector experience is a great deal better, even though many can’t afford medical aid. In the South African Medical Journal, in an article titled “Transgender issues in South Africa, with particular reference to the Groote Schuur Hospital Transgender Unit”, it is noted that The Groote Schuur Transgender Unit is under immense pressure. It only has the funding to do 2-3 gender reassignment operations annually, with monthly referrals of 3-4 clients. As it stands, there is a waiting time of up to 20 years for surgery. At undergraduate and postgraduate level, there is not enough attention being given to transgender issues, restricting the number of carers. As for the rural areas, there is a horrifying lack of facilities for trans patients.
Murder of trans people for their identity has become commonplace enough that an organisation called the Trans Murder Monitoring Project exists, under the aegis of Transgender Europe. They can only monitor reported murders, which suggests that the numbers might be much higher. 78% of the 1 350 reported trans murders since 2008 took place in Central and South America. So when someone does rise above these horrors, and makes the transition, or even approaches something close to it, it is often against insurmountable odds.
Cerenha La'Croa'n is a 32 year old nurse, formidable at 6 foot 5. She began her life as Gustavo, a boy working in the sugar fields in northern Argentina, with a machista father who beat him regularly for his femininity. It was only a chance meeting with a social worker who was openly gay that Gustavo began to realise that, despite his mother’s claims, he wasn’t ill, not at all. Gustavo moved alone to Buenos Aires, determined to live in the cosmopolitan city. He began working hard at a variety of small jobs; selling candy, books and wallets and cleaning houses.
The first moment that Cerenha began to emerge was the moment Gustavo received a purse from a friend. Gustavo adored the object, and began to add more female accessories and elements to his persona, until in 2009, Gustavo the cocoon was shed to reveal Cerenha La'Croa'n. The first name comes from an Argentinian soap opera character in “Don Juan and his Fair Lady”, and La’Croa’n is a shuffling of Cerenha’s last name to create a new one.
Emboldened in her new gender, Cerenha decided to become a nurse, even though being trans would be a huge obstacle to finding work. In Argentina, most trans persons turn to sex work due to the discrimination they face. Cerenha earned her nursing degree from a high-ranking Catholic nursing institute, Profesorado Padre Luis de Tessa, and set out to find work as a nurse. She works as a volunteer at J.M Ramos, the hospital she was admitted to after a car accident broke both her legs. She returns to the hospital each day after finishing her paid work, caring for a 93 year-old man with Alzheimers. With her unstoppable energy and incredible compassion, she helps the nurses by bathing patients and tending to them, while also restoring their looks, using her knowledge gained as a beautician in her pre-nursing years. Sadly, though, even after a year of this service, Cerenha is still waiting for a job.
In Argentina, it is illegal to discriminate against transgendered people in the workplace, but it still happens. But there is still a chance for Cerenha: the author of her story Meredith Hoffman wrote that:
When I talk to the J. M. Ramos supervisor she claims a number of jobs have just opened up, and predicts that La'Croa'n will soon get hired.
"I'd be very proud, because she'd be our first transgender nurse," says the supervisor, Alicia Noemi Marchiorre. "She has a great sense of etiquette, and aesthetics. She's intelligent, cordial and pretty."
Cerenha is one of hundreds of thousands facing discrimination, abuse and violence across the world. But the tide is turning, though it does so slowly. Look at Laverne Cox, who plays Sophia Burset on Orange is the New Black. She also produced and starred in her own show, TRANSForm Me, making her the first African-American transgender person to star in her own show. She attempted suicide at the age of 11, bullied for not behaving as befitting her birth gender. She has since gone on to advocate for the rights of trans people, and has received multiple awards for her contribution to trans rights, as well as topping the World Pride Power List and the OUT Power 50 List.
Chelsea Manning, who bravely disclosed nearly three-quarters of a million sensitive military and diplomatic documents to Wikileaks, was born Bradley Edward Manning. Suffering from gender identity disorder since childhood, Bradley joined the army in the hope of confirming his identity as a male. But it was in the sharing of the Wikileaks information that Chelsea found kinship and comfort outside the military, and announced the day after her sentencing that she had felt female since childhood. Her reason for sharing the data was to reveal the nature of American warfare, including helicopter attacks on civilians and Guantanamo Bay files on prisoners. For her whistleblowing, Chelsea Manning was sentenced to 35 years in prison, where she is undergoing hormone replacement therapy and writes for external publications. She also tweets as @xychelsea.
And finally, the story of Jazz, a 14 year old girl who is the face of a foundation for trans kids called Transkids Purple Rainbow. Founded by her parents to help other families with transgender children, Jazz first faced discrimination when she tried to join her state’s girls soccer team. After a long legal battle, the United States Soccer Federation lifted the ban, creating a policy encouraging the inclusion of transgender athletes. Jazz is an author, and starred in the documentary I Am Jazz: A Family in Transition. The TKPRF mission is to create a safer and more inclusive society for transgender children, including curriculum changes in schools and medical universities. They also reach out to homeless trans youth.
Across the world, transgendered people face challenges no human should ever have to face. But there is some hope, as we see legislations change all around the world to accept LBGTIQA people. The change comes with time, but it will also happen faster with pressure from the people who care. It is grand to see the welcome Caitlin received (even if some pundits were terrible about it) – if such a welcome could be extended to all trans people, then maybe we could truly say that we’re living in the future.