“Guess what? I am a transgender woman and I am just like everybody else.”
Keri Abrams was addressing an audience of about 35 people at the “Ask a Trans Person” panel at Chesterfield Central Library earlier this week. Equality Virginia — an advocacy organization for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Virginians — hosted the event to facilitate transgender visibility and inspire community building by inviting questions from the audience.
The discussion included inquires about how to gain confidence being trans, choosing a gender-affirming name and how family and friends can offer support. The panelists discussed their different experiences, including coming out and transitioning. The audience was first encouraged to write anonymous questions on notecards and later to ask questions in front of the group. Most of the questions were about opportunities to support the transgender community or questions regarding the panelists’ personal experiences.
A recurring topic was the lack of legal protections for transgender people in Virginia. In January 2018 Gov. Ralph Northam signed into effect Executive Order Number One to ensure equal opportunity in state government. The order prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, sex, color, national origin, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, age, political affiliation or against persons with disabilities.
This year, several nondiscrimination bills failed to pass the General Assembly. These included HB 2067, which would have prohibited discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity in public employment, and SB 1109, which would have categorized discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity as an unlawful housing practice.
“A lot of people don’t know that we are not protected,” Abrams said. “They assume that, you know, everybody else is protected. But we’re not. We can lose jobs, we can be denied jobs, we can be denied housing, we can be thrown out of housing, and we won’t even get in to homeless shelters.”
Panelist Zakia McKensey said she experienced discrimination while trying to find an office space for Nationz Foundation, a nonprofit organization she founded to help the LGBTQ community have access to health resources and education. She said her inquiries into available spaces were repeatedly denied without an explanation after visiting.
“We should be protected, we should have the same rights, same opportunities,” McKensey said.
Panelist Andrew, who asked to be referred to only by his first name because he fears being fired, said he wants more protection in university housing, more inclusive high school sports policies and recognition of the significance of pronouns.
“Imagine being in a lecture hall of 250 people and the professor calls you by the wrong pronoun in front of all your classmates,” Andrew said.
In 2014, the Virginia High School League approved participation in public school sports by transgender athletes, but they would be required to have undergone sex reassignment surgery and hormone therapy. VHSL has since updated the policy to allow transgender athletes who have verified medical documentation as having a consistent identity different than the gender listed on their birth certificate or school registration to participate.
Andrew said the VHSL almost prevented him from playing sports in high school.
All three panelists also said that health care is a difficult system for transgender people to navigate.
“So many times we go into places needing health-related services, and we end up teaching medical practitioners what we need,” McKensey said.
Health care access, workplace protections and housing protections are all on Equality Virginia’s “checklist” of important issues to address for the LGBTQ community. The list also includes inclusive schools, public accommodations and a conversion therapy ban.
Conversion therapy, the practice of trying to change an individual’s sexual orientation, is still legal in Virginia, though there have been attempts to limit the practice. Three Virginia boards that advise mental health professions — the Board of Psychology, Board of Counseling and Board of Social Work — all voted to prohibit the practice on minors. These boards do not need legislative approval to create regulation and take disciplinary action against offending practices.
According to the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, 16% of Americans say they know someone who is transgender. Equality Virginia Program Coordinator Thalia Hernandez said she hopes the panel gave attendees who might not know a transgender person a greater understanding of the issues that face the community.
“We’re making that larger social change as well in these everyday interactions, and so the small things can really build a world of difference,” Hernandez said.
Equality Virginia will host more “Ask a Trans Person” panels on Nov. 21 and Dec. 17 at Hampton Public Library in Hampton, on Dec. 10 at the East Suffolk Recreation Center in Suffolk and on Dec. 12 at First Congregational Christian Church in Chesterfield.