Whether it’s a rise in hate crimes against trans people or struggling with employment or homelessness, there are many challenges transgender people are fighting against. Some in the trans community believe it comes down to a lack of visibility and people being afraid of what they don’t understand. In time for International Trans Day of Visibility, various locals are discussing what it means to be transgender.
Like many trans teenagers, 15-year-old Kristina Hernandez just wants people to accept her for who she is. “[Trans people] don’t have an agenda or an allegiance,” she says. “We are just being honest and open about who we are.”
Hernandez says growing up she was an androgynous kid, so people assumed she was gay. In sixth grade, after seeing a therapist, she realized she was transgender and began transitioning while in school.
“Being a trans teen is really tough,” she says. “I was often ostracized and made to feel like I was an alien.”
But the school year ended and, for a little while, Hernandez was free from the anxiety and stress she endured from being out. In a new year at a different middle school, Hernandez decided to go stealth, meaning nobody but her principal knew she was trans. However, she didn’t keep that secret for long. “I told one friend, and it seemed by the end of the day everyone knew,” she says. “The [school] administration was fine when I was stealth. They weren’t so keen when I decided to come out.”
Because of the struggles faced at school, Hernandez has gone back and forth from online education to traditional school. She is currently being homeschooled after a rocky freshman year of high school. However, she thinks this is for the best. “I’ve done more in this last year than I’ve been able to do in my entire life,” she says.
With her new school schedule, Hernandez is able to spend time being vocal about her journey as a trans student and speaking out about the issues the community faces. The perky teenager has even been critical about the lack of a comprehensive sex/gender-diverse policy within the Clark County School District.
“I transitioned at the right time,” she says. “I transitioned when things started to happen. That’s when we started becoming more visible.”
But even in her youth, she knows there are many battles ahead.
One of the bigger obstacles facing the trans community is the misconception and fear associated with them. “I think it’s less about people hating us and more the fear of the unknown,” she says.
It took Frankie Perez, 31, a little longer to realize his identity as a trans man.
Growing up in Las Vegas, Perez just assumed he—when he identified as female—was gay. However, none of the terms people assigned him felt accurate. “These were labels like lesbian, stud, butch, queer,” Perez says. “They are all beautiful labels for those who associate with them. They didn’t really fit me.”
Serving in the United States Air Force, Perez went forward with his life.
It was in the middle of his deployment in Africa, while talking to a Las Vegas–based doctor via Skype, that Perez, 28 at the time, realized he was transgender.
“[Knowing this] made me feel more confident,” he adds.
Perez carried out his mission. When he finally returned to Las Vegas a few months later, he began to medically transition. “Life is pretty amazing now,” he says. “I just want to continue fighting for the younger trans and nonbinary folks who are coming up.”
For Perez, having a Trans Day of Visibility is sad. “It reminds me of all the work we still have to do,” he says. For example, accessing the bathroom is still an obstacle for many. “There are folks out there who want to connect pedophilia to trans folks, even though there are still zero incidents of a trans person attacking a cisgender person,” he adds. “It’s more frightening for us to go into the restroom. It’s awkward being a trans man with a beard going to a women’s restroom. We are fearing for our safety.”
As a UNLV student, he sometimes is late to class because he’d rather walk to another building just to find a bathroom he feels comfortable in. He adds that even within the trans community, there are subjects that need to be addressed.
Locally, Perez wishes various trans organizations worked closer together instead of being disconnected. Looking more broadly, Perez, a self-prescribed Chicano, wants to see more inclusion of people of color (in both the trans community and the larger LGBTQ community). The lack of diversity means some stories go overlooked.
Recently, Perez received an email from someone who is both trans and undocumented trying to change their gender markers. “And I never thought about what they have to go through,” he says.
Not everyone is out and open.
CR (an abbreviation for his name) is a local transgender man who is still not completely out because of fear and the threat of violence. His story is still the reality of many trans people in America.
“Sometimes I wish I could be out and proud, but I don’t want to be looked down on or treated differently,” he says. “There is also the component of working from the inside out.”
In groups, if people only think of CR as a cisgender man and not a trans man, he is better able to advocate discreetly for the community. “Otherwise, people question your motives,” he says.
A child of the ’80s, CR says he was 3 years old when he knew he was trans. “I remember sitting in a kiddie pool and thinking, ‘I’m a boy,’” he says. However, he grew up trying to please everyone else. “In order to survive, you have to go along to get along,” CR adds.
Throughout school and even through his military career, he would put on his uniform, as he calls it: curled hair, a little makeup and pants that were deemed feminine (he didn’t do dresses). It was all a false persona, one he had to keep because of military policies toward LGBTQ personnel. CR served from 1995 until 2010 and began transitioning once he left the military.
Currently, he calculates where he goes and who he tells his story to so he can remain stealth until he is more comfortable (though he has been outed in some social settings even by other trans people).
He adds that being black and transgender means it’s hard to find his niche.
“It’s called intersectionality,” CR says. “You can be both trans or gay and be black at the same time.”
Oftentimes, he says, the trans community—and the larger LGBTQ community—lacks stories or experiences of people of color. Within the black community, he says, he still often hears transphobic and homophobic statements.
“It’s like I’m a person without a community,” he says.
While some come out earlier in life, sometimes it takes time for others to come to terms with who they are.
Joining the military before her transition, Annamarie Walsh, 75, hid her identity through a mixture of work, drinking and masculine stereotypes. “I masked it really well,” she says. “I was macho and loved to fight people.” It was all a lie. From the time she was 8 years old, Walsh knew she was trans (though didn’t know the word for it). For more than 50 years, she buried her feelings under constant alcohol use, a habit that began even when she was a pre-teen.
Through high school football, a 20-year military career and her marriage, she was an alcoholic. “If I didn’t have alcohol, I probably would have committed suicide,” she says.
Then, in the late ’90s, Walsh got sober. Without the help of booze, she was forced to face her identity with the help of her then-wife. “My wife told me that she knew I wasn’t a man,” Walsh remembers. Though her wife remained supportive through the transition, the two eventually divorced.
Coming out relinquished Walsh of the anger she had long felt in her life. “I felt like I was born again,” she says. “I felt like I was free.” For her, she says, it’s much better that she transitioned later in life. “I didn’t have to worry about trying to find a job,” she says. “That’s one of the issues people in the trans community struggle with: employment.”
She began wearing dresses in the early 2000s and started hormone therapy in 2005. Though it took time from some in her family to accept her identity, they are slowly coming around.
Whether it’s her story or any trans person’s story, Walsh hopes people know one thing: “We are the same people,” she adds. “We have the same blood that runs in our veins.”