LAUREL, Miss. — Caylee, a young transgender woman, was leaving a local Walmart earlier this month with her fiancé, Michael, when she said three “rednecks” in the lobby “said something smart.”
Caylee told the Washington Blade during a July 9 meeting of the Dandelion Project, a support group for LGBT people who live in Laurel and surrounding areas of the Mississippi Pine Belt, that the men called her and her fiancé “faggots” and asked them “what kind of sex acts we would be performing on each other that night.” She said they chased her and Michael to their car and jumped on top of it as they drove away.
“After that she wouldn’t hold my hand for a week in public and didn’t want to be around me in public because of the fear,” said Michael as he and Caylee sat on a couch in the living room of Dandelion Project co-founder Brandiilyne Dear’s small house on the outskirts of Laurel.
The trans people with whom the Blade spoke earlier this month in Mississippi, Louisiana and Alabama said they routinely experience harassment, discrimination and even violence because of their gender identity and expression.
Aiden, a 21-year-old trans man from Laurel, Miss., said during the Dandelion Project’s July 9 meeting that people sometimes tell him to “stop trying to act like somebody that you’re not.” He told the Blade that some of his classmates also harass him.
“I had people that didn’t care about it, and then I had some people that bullied me for it,” said Aiden.
Nathan Gage, a 19-year-old from Waynesboro, Miss., who came out as “gender queer” earlier this year, told his mother he was a lesbian when he was in ninth grade.
“She thought that my school did it to me,” Gage told the Blade during the Dandelion Project’s July 9 meeting. “She thought that the people I was hanging out with like that she knew turned me into being gay. She took my phone. She took everything from me. I wasn’t allowed to do anything.”
Gage said his mother has grown to accept his sexual orientation — and gender identity and expression, but he said his stepfather has become less accepting of it. He told the Blade that the pastor of a church his family previously attended once preached about trans people.
“He had these bathroom signs that were not male or female,” recalled Gage. “He would preach about how it is a sin and there was one particular scripture that he would read. When he would read it he would look my way.”
Elizabeth Anne Jenkins, president of Louisiana Trans Advocates, told the Blade during a July 13 interview at a coffee shop in the New Orleans suburb of Metairie that she received anonymous prayers and stares when she went to restaurants after she began to transition in 2008.
Jenkins at the time lived in Hammond, La., a small city about 60 miles northwest of the Crescent City. She now lives in Metairie with her partner, Donna Jean Loy, who she met on a suicide prevention website for trans people in 2009.
“I was glad to get out of Hammond and come over here,” Jenkins told the Blade as Loy, PFLAG New Orleans Co-President Julie Thompson, Mary Catherine Roberts of Equality Louisiana and her partner, Johanna Williams, listened. “Hammond’s a small town and everybody knows everybody. I was big news for at least a couple of weeks until the newness wore off.”
A trans man of color who spoke on condition of anonymity said during a July 14 interview at a beachfront mall in Biloxi, Miss., that his friends and family were not surprised when he came out in 2011. He said people nevertheless continue to use female pronouns to refer to him.
A black male security guard looked at him as the Blade took his picture in front of a sandcastle a local casino built adjacent to a group of seats and couches on which parents with their children and older people were sitting.
“I don’t make a big deal out of it anymore,” said the trans man as Jena and Jennifer Pierce, a lesbian couple from Biloxi who legally married in Connecticut last December, listened. “If that’s what they see, you know I can’t really get upset. I haven’t started any hormones or anything yet. So I just kind of go with it, but it does bother me to be called he, she or it.”
‘We were just making it month-to-month’
Mississippi, Louisiana and Alabama’s anti-discrimination and hate crimes laws do not include gender identity and expression.
The U.S. Census indicates Mississippi is the poorest state in the country, with slightly more than 22 percent of its residents living below the poverty level between 2008-2012.
Nearly 19 percent of Louisianans were living below the poverty level during the same period. The U.S. Census indicates slightly more than 18 percent of Alabama residents lived below the poverty level between 2008-2012.
Roughly 15 percent of Americans lived below the poverty level during the same period.
A 2012 report from the National Center for Transgender Equality and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force found trans and gender non-conforming people were nearly four times more likely to have an annual household income of less than $10,000 than the general population.
Ninety percent of respondents said they experienced employment discrimination. Those who took part in the survey were also twice as likely to be unemployed because of their gender identity and expression.
These economic and employment disparities are even higher among trans people of color.
Ksaa Zair, a 29-year-old trans woman from Baton Rouge, La., who identifies as demisexual, told the Blade during a July 12 interview at a local restaurant with members of the Louisiana Trans Advocates, PFLAG Greater Baton Rouge, Baton Rouge Pride and Equality Louisiana that she has “never been successful at finding a job.”
She said she is “fairly sure” potential employers have refused to hire her because of her gender identity and expression. As a result, Zair’s best friend and roommate, Sergio Oramas, works as much overtime as he can at the Sears warehouse where he has worked for two months. They pay $600 a month for a two-bedroom apartment in the St. John neighborhood of Baton Rouge.
Oramas uses blue painters tape to hold his broken glasses together because he can’t afford to fix them.
“We actually have the cheapest place in this city,” Zair told the Blade. “We effectively live in one of the top five ghettos in Baton Rouge.”
Gage told the Blade that he had applied for jobs at local supermarkets, gas stations and fast food restaurants.
He said one potential boss with whom he had spoken was “iffy about it” because of his gender presentation.
“She barely shook my hand,” said Gage.
Gage currently works at a state-run school outside of Laurel where he works with people with mental illnesses and helps them obtain employment.
“I thought I’d have a problem, but they hired me,” he told the Blade. “That day I seemed to kind of go out of my comfort zone. I wore mascara just maybe to help me a little bit because I had applied for so many other jobs before and they all turned me down. I felt uncomfortable in the interview.”
Miss Eddie, a 58-year-old trans woman living at Belle Reve, a residential facility in the Faubourg Marigny neighborhood of New Orleans for people with HIV/AIDS who also calls herself Missy, told the Blade during a July 14 interview she “discovered” last August “that I was a lady.”
She said she and her best friend, who was once her lover, lived in a run-down house in Kenner, a suburb of New Orleans near the city’s airport, for 14 years until he died in May. Miss Eddie said they used two of the four rooms for storage because the floor had sunken in and they could not live in them.
She told the Blade they tried to move after a year, but they could not afford anything over $500 a month.
“We were just making it month-to-month,” said Miss Eddie, who once worked as an Elvis Presley impersonator in the French Quarter. “We made some bad choices: Smoked some pot, spent some money there. Drank some liquor, spent money there, then cigarettes. We kind of got ourselves in a fix.”
Miss Eddie’s house had 15 inches of water inside of it during Hurricane Katrina that devastated southeastern Louisiana and the Mississippi Gulf Coast in 2005. She and her best friend stayed in their home in the weeks after the storm — and members of the National Guard along with volunteers brought them food, water and even cigarettes.
“We did not do without the whole time during the storm and after,” said Miss Eddie. “I didn’t pay no attention to the water.”
Katrina ‘devastated’ trans support services
Reports indicate that many trans people from New Orleans and other areas faced discrimination while living in shelters after Katrina.
Jenkins told the Blade she had heard one story of a trans woman of color who was arrested at a shelter outside of Houston because she took a shower in a women’s bathroom. She said the officers who took her into custody placed her with male inmates because she had yet to change the gender on her driver’s license to female.
“We were being cautioned at that time, as soon as we could in case if this ever happened again, to be able to have a driver’s license with the appropriate gender marker,” said Jenkins.
Jenkins added a number of doctors and other health care providers who treated trans people in New Orleans did not return to the city after Katrina. The doctor from which the trans man of color in Biloxi will receive his hormones is in the Crescent City, which is nearly an hour and a half drive from where he lives.
“[Katrina] absolutely devastated any kind of support you could get,” Jenkins told the Blade.
Lane Galbraith, founder of LGBT Wave of Hope in Mobile, Ala., told the Blade during a July 14 interview at a seafood restaurant overlooking Mobile Bay the health insurance plan he receives through his employer covers his hormone therapy and other transition-related care.
Access to hormones and other trans-specific health care remains a problem for those who remain economically disadvantaged.
Zair receives Medicare, but it does not explicitly cover hormone therapy because it is considered a cosmetic procedure. She pays $100 a month to an overseas website to receive her hormones.
“It is less legal than it sounds,” Zair told the Blade, noting she needs to see an endocrinologist because of side effects related to what she described as psychological problems she has. “I don’t have the information or the ability at hand to properly do it. I can’t sustain the actual levels of it.”
Jenkins and Loy each paid $12,000 to have their respective sex reassignment surgeries in Miami, where they spent a month recovering before they returned to Louisiana. Loy recently received breast implants in Birmingham, Ala.
It cost them $225 to legally change their name in Jefferson Parish, in which Metairie is located, and they were able to do it without an attorney. They simply needed a local judge to issue a judgment.
The process costs $550 in neighboring Orleans Parish in which New Orleans is located.
Jenkins and Loy had to secure an affidavit from the surgeon who performed their sex reassignment surgeries that stated they had undergone “irreversible gender surgery” when they legally changed their gender two years ago.
Alabama requires trans people undergo the same procedure and provide documentation of it before they can change the gender marker on their driver’s license. Mississippi mandates similar documentation, but the Human Rights Campaign says it remains unclear whether a “gender change” is sex-reassignment surgery.
Jenkins and Loy told the Blade that changing their gender marker with the Social Security Administration “was simple once we got it on our driver’s license.”
“I don’t think there are enough transgender people in Louisiana that the driver’s license places know what to do with us,” said Jenkins. “When we had it done, we took a copy of the law with us.”
Loy added most trans people — such as sex workers in the French Quarter — simply do not have enough money to pay for surgery or legally change their gender marker.
“We have a little bit of income,” she said. “So many of them like I say don’t have the money, they don’t have the money for hormones, they don’t have the surgeries.”
Trans prisoner denied hormone therapy
The Southern Poverty Law Center, which is based in Montgomery, Ala., in May threatened to file a federal lawsuit against the Georgia Department of Corrections if it did not allow a trans inmate, Ashley Diamond, to receive hormone therapy.
David Dinielli, deputy legal director of the Southern Poverty Law Center, told the Blade during a July 15 interview in downtown Montgomery that Diamond has received hormone therapy “for over half of her life.” He said the Georgia Department of Corrections has denied her access to these treatments once she entered the Valdosta State Prison in 2012.
Dinielli told the Blade that Diamond lived in a house with drag queens and other gender non-conforming people in a town without any LGBT-inclusive housing protections. He said local police routinely searched their home for evidence of drugs, prostitution and other crimes.
Dinielli said police arrested Diamond after she “basically one day she kind of fought back.”
He told the Blade that local officials charged her with escape when he said she ran away after taking off her handcuffs to buy drugs at a drug house for them in exchange for lenient treatment.
“The bottom line is that she led a life that many people who can’t participate fully as themselves lead where some of her behavior was not in the confines of the law, right,” Dinielli told the Blade. “A lot of her problems arose from what often times are called survival crimes.”
Sam Wolfe, an attorney with the Southern Poverty Law Center who helped launched its LGBT Rights Project, has worked with a young trans woman who remains in an adult male prison in Alabama.
He told the Blade on July 15 that a prison guard had sex with her in a bathroom. Wolfe said she was released quickly after the allegations became public.
The prison guard eventually faced charges.
“She hadn’t murdered anybody,” said Wolfe. “She’s trans. She was in an adult male facility with murderers, with violent offenders and people taking advantage of her.”
Trans Miss. woman wants state to ‘fall into the Gulf’
Many of the trans people with whom the Blade spoke in Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana remain proud of the states from which they come in spite of the pervasive discrimination and violence they continue to face.
“These are people that are hard-working and they have families,” said Galbraith. “They don’t want to move because somebody doesn’t accept them or doesn’t have tolerance or who they are and their family they’ve created.”
Caylee in Laurel, Miss., was far less forgiving toward those who have targeted her because of her gender identity and expression and the state in which they live.
“May Mississippi fall into the Gulf,” she told the Blade. “I would leave Mississippi and never look back.”
Editor’s note: Donna Jean Loy of Louisiana Trans Advocates was incorrectly identified as Donna Jean Roy in the original story. The Blade regrets the error.