This past May I anxiously boarded a flight to San Francisco to undergo genital reconstruction surgery. Upon landing, I was greeted by my mother who flew in from Florida. In her hands she carried the bedazzled binder I mailed her weeks earlier with all the information she would need in the coming days; the binder cover read “Operación de Joanna.”
I spent 15 days in intense recovery, of which my mother could only be there for five. The remaining time a girlfriend of mine thoughtfully tended to my needs. Upon returning home I was blessed to be cared for by my roommate.
For transgender people who pursue a medical transition that includes surgeries — sometimes multiple surgeries — planning to take care of yourself and cover your financial responsibilities while unable to work takes some serious creativity. The month prior to my California voyage a blessing in disguise came in the form of a layoff: I was given the opportunity to collect unemployment while recovering through this life changing moment. This enabled me to fully focus on healing and not how I was going to pay rent.
Unfortunately, my situation is not reflective of most trans people. Many within the trans community do not have the privilege to take weeks off work to recover from a medical procedure and, due to the pervasiveness of family rejection, our familial constructs are often not recognized by employers or the state. This places trans people in a precarious and vulnerable position.
As Washingtonians, we pride ourselves on having some of the most progressive LGBTQ policies in the country. The interpretation of Mayor Gray’s 2014 Bulletin on Nondiscrimination in Health Insurance on the Basis of Gender Identity or Expression has, to date, been the most progressive trans-inclusive healthcare policy in the nation. However, implementing that policy is a battle many are still fighting.
In the midst of this struggle by trans health activists, local legislation was proposed just this week that may have significant impacts on members of the transgender community. The Universal Paid Leave Act of 2015 would ensure that anyone living or working in D.C. could take up to 16 weeks of paid leave when caring for the health of themselves or their loved ones, or when welcoming a new child. The bill defines family broadly but we’ll likely still need to push for it to include chosen family, the people our community often turns to first for care.
With this groundbreaking policy, D.C. would join the ranks of every industrialized nation and lead the way as the only U.S. city to provide paid family and medical leave. The implications for the transgender community extend beyond benefits for those who undergo medical procedures. Paid family leave is a reproductive rights issue too. Trans people and same-gender couples are all too often overlooked when it comes to building our families, whether through birth, surrogacy, adoption, or foster placement. D.C.’s paid leave program supports us by providing gender equal parenting leave for all. Reproductive equity is essential to any paid leave program.
On May 27, I woke up to my mother’s warm hand on my forehead. In the coming days she tended to me as if I was a newborn experiencing life for the first time: She helped me walk, use the bathroom, and, yes, even changed my diaper. The love and support I received when I needed it most and the time I had to focus on getting back on my feet is not an experience that should be reserved for the privileged few. It should be a basic human right for all.
Joanna Cifredo is a writer and health equity advocate. Reach her via joannacifredo.com.