Thursday, December 10, 2009

Fantasia Fair Keynote

“The Coming Out Party Is Over. Where Do We Go from Here?”

Mona Rae Mason

Keynote Address
Fantasia Fair
October 24, 2009
Provincetown, MA

For Loubriella

Good afternoon, everyone. My name is Mona Rae Mason. Just so you have an idea of my background, I’m from New York City, where I recently completed work on an NIH funded study of the male to female population in the NY Metro area. It was a 5 year, longitudinal study, with almost 600 volunteer transgender participants. That’s a huge number for this type of study, and The Transgender Project to date stands as the most in-depth and complex study of it’s kind.

600 transwomen. Not an easy task recruiting 600 transgender volunteers---just think of how much trouble it is getting any two or three girls to agree on what club to go to, or what time, or what to wear and you’ll have an idea. It was much akin to herding cats! But we got it done, and collected some really incredible data about our community. And it was the most personally rewarding work I have ever done.

I’m also on the Bd. of Dir. of Transgender Legal Defense and Education Fund, and participate as often as possible on various committees of Transgender Health Initiative New York. I am also on the Community Advisory Board of Callen-Lorde Community Clinic, which is the LGBT health clinic in NYC.

Last year I was invited by the NYPD to help in the re-writing of the training manual for the NYPD Police Academy on matters pertaining to transgender. A major step by the NYPD in transgender awareness and sensitivity training, and I am very proud to have been asked to participate in that effort.

And as my pet project and labor of love, I’ve also organized several food and clothing drives to benefit homeless transgender kids in NYC. It’s something that I am extremely concerned about.

And just for the record—I am not gender dysphoric, I am gender euphoric. And I do not have a gender identity disorder. Society has a gender identity disorder!

Ok, enough about me. I came here talk about all of us—me, all our sisters and brothers, and especially you.

I have heard, as I am sure you have, people speak of ‘the transgender phenomenon’.



What IS a phenomenon is the enormous upsurge in our public presence and presentation, especially in western countries. We’ve been having a HUGE coming out party for the past 10 – 15 years or so. I believe that in large part the internet has had much to do with that. Communication has and always will be the key. Maybe some of you are old enough to recall the old underground tabloid type papers with classifieds ads? That was about the only real communication between and amongst ourselves that was available at the time, not so many years ago.

We are of all races and ethnicities, all cultures, countries and societies. We come in all shapes and sizes. We come from all walks of life. We are an incredibly diverse community. And we are OUT! Out in the streets, out at work, out in the clubs and restaurants. We are OUT IN PUBLIC and not in the closet anymore!

In my work with The Transgender Project, we interviewed 600 male to female transgender women from the NYC metro area, and it was my great privilege to meet so many sisters that I am very certain I would never have met in a million years otherwise.

I suggest ‘never have met’ because we, as human beings, tend to stay in our social ‘comfort zones’. It’s basic human nature to do so—you socialize with people much like yourself, of your own age and background, in rather tightly circumscribed social settings, and we tend not to leave these social comfort zones—at least not very often. I was most fortunate to have been allowed to cross over many of these social boundaries, meet with various subgroups of transgender women from different economic, cultural, generational and ethnic backgrounds, and I was welcomed in all. I stand in absolute awe of our diversity, and I say again, what a truly great privilege the past few years have been for me to have met so many wonderful sisters and brothers.

I have met and gotten to know some transgender women who have PhD’s, and Masters degrees; and some with very little or almost no formal education at all. I have interviewed transgender women who are plumbers, professors, a NYPD detective, construction workers, accountants, musicians, lawyers, a major university president, a published author, a law professor, a West Point Cadet, and even one who is a monk.

I have met sisters who have transitioned successfully at home and in the workplace, and some who have lost everything-- family, friends, and income as a result of their transition.

And I have also met with sisters who have never had a job, and in all probability may never be able to secure a steady a job, or a job at all for that matter, and are forced to engage in sex work, prostitution, as their only option to survival.

I have discussed and shared experiences with transgender women who have found support and acceptance from family, and others who have been both verbally and physically abused, and in some cases, sexually abused—usually followed by being expelled from the home altogether.

This is the next generation of our transgender sisters and brothers, I am talking about. These are our kids, our family, being thrown out of the home and placed in harms way in the streets—because they are different, because they didn’t meet their parent’s expectations of what a boy or girl is.

Let me take you back, a little bit.

There was one young girl, a transwoman. 20 years old as I recall. For reasons I’ll explain in a bit, let’s just call her Vanessa..

Vanessa was one of the sweetest, kindest girls I had ever met. She certainly had her own share of problems, yet was always concerned about others. She was about 5’2”, very slim and very attractive—some of us older women here would call her a natural. She found us one day, just showed up, she was not recruited.

While Vanessa was more of a lady than I, or many of us, can ever hope to be, she also had a dark side. She too, had been kicked out of her family’s home-because she was different. She had been living, quite literally, on the streets of NYC since she was 15. Anyone who really knows NYC is all too well aware that it can be a very hard and cruel place. She had left school because of all the constant and persistent harassment she got there.

She never had a watch. She never kept a calendar or date book. She had no phone—not even one of those pay as you go, disposable cell phones. She never had a permanent address or even a mailing address, yet she always showed up-on time-for her follow up interview appointments.

Somewhere in the years before I met her, she had been introduced to street drugs. She used them as a coping mechanism, in some sort of futile attempt to help relieve her sadness and depression. She had been using heroin for awhile before I met her. Vanessa would, from time to time, just come by the office very early in the morning, usually after being out, working the strolls all night I would always give her something to eat and find a place for her to take a ‘nap’. She was just that kind of person, one you never felt put upon by helping out. She was, in every sense of the word, a sweetheart.

One Friday, my research partner Monica asks me if I have seen Vanessa, as she is over due for her next appointment. We both decided that she would show up sooner or later, and sure enough, there she was, bright and very early the following Monday morning, with her wonderful little smile, but looking a bit worse for wear.

Seems Vanessa had just gotten out of Rikers that morning. She had done 60 days for boosting. I said, “Baby, judges take a very dim view of stealing shit”. Vanessa responded with her little smile and said, “Yeah, I found that out”.

We talked for a bit, I let her sleep for awhile. She told me she felt pretty good as she hadn’t done any drugs while in jail—which surprised me as many people tell me the BEST drugs are found in jail. But she had a little sparkle in her eyes, and they were clear, and I believed her. 60 days clean! We talked about the show she wanted to do, she was working on an act for the clubs that she was very excited about. She left me that Monday morning with a smile and big hug. She was on her way to meet someone else who was interested in getting this show running. I was happy for her, and most importantly, she was happy for herself. She had some real confidence in herself for a change. As a reminder, I gave her my business card with her next appointment and her study ID number, which is something I did for all the girls in the study.

Tuesday evening I got a call from the office; a N.Y.C. detective wanted to talk to me. I called the detective from home, and he explained that they had found a young transwoman dead in Morningside Park, and the only ID of any kind she had was my business card. He told me there was a date and number written on the card. I told him I didn’t keep any files at home as all our work was highly confidential, and could I call him in the morning from my office?

I got to the office at 7 the next morning, and immediately called the detective. He described the person and told me the number on the card. I scrolled down the list on the computer and ………..

Oh fuck.

I started to cry.

I suppose I ‘bent’ some of the rules of research confidentiality that day. I explained the complexity and extremely serious nature of research subject confidentiality to the detective, and that these rules apply even after death. I gave the detective her non-legal, ‘adopted name’ and told him that I thought her mother was alive, but I did not know where. We talked for some time, both of us dancing, verbal sparing, and tip-toeing around the issues of confidentiality. At some point, we both agreed that if he checked into recent prisoner releases at Riker’s Island, he may find some information there. He thanked me. He also said he was very sorry for my loss.

About 2, maybe 3 hours later the phone rings, it’s the detective again. Can I do him a favor? Could I go to the coroner’s office and ID the body?


He explained that he had contacted Vanessa’s mother, but she was ‘too busy’ to drive to NYC from Phil. The only other family member in NY was a cousin, who told the detective, “I don’t want nothin’ to do with that little faggot.” I asked and the detective confirmed that that is what they had said, exactly.

“Too busy”, “that little faggot”

So, here I am, on my way to the coroner’s office. This was turning into an absolutely stellar day! When I saw Vanessa, I could clearly see that she had been punched, or hit with something, in the mouth. The coroner explained that she had been found in a ladies room at the park, and she had overdosed.

Vanessa had been beaten, and she ran to the only comfort and escape she had ever really known. Her drug accepted Vanessa for who she was, her family did not. “Too busy” “that little faggot” Because she was different.

For only a very few of us, being transgender has not been too calamitous an issue. But for many of us however, it’s a constant ‘life negotiation’, and sadly for others, being transgender makes life an ever-constant struggle for their very existence.

I am sure you will agree that public awareness of transgender people has never before in history been greater than it is right now. And yet how we are perceived by the vast majority of society, and even our own families, is all too far from the truth. And the family, seemingly, should be a persons most important support network We’ve been analyzed, pathologized, typologized, dichotomized, marginalized, stigmatized, trivialized, sensationalized, and even Jerry Springerized—and STILL people don’t get it.

How did this happen? Why can’t we just be accepted for who we are? Whose fault is this? Maybe our own? Maybe we should all go back and come out all over again, because it seems we really did a bad job of it, at least as far as societal perceptions are concerned.

Coming out - The Great Leap of Faith! For many of us, it’s that point in time where we say to ourselves, as I did, “I’m just too old to have to worry about what others may think. I have paid my dues!” Or, “I need to see where this takes me. I need to live my dream. I need to be true to myself.”

And we all go about our ‘coming out’ in many different, and often rather unique ways. Maybe you waited—until the safety of nightfall, of course---got yourself dressed to the nines in all your finest, and with all the courage you could muster, snuck out to the car and took a drive—in the dark. How bold of you! Hey, I know, I confess, I did it too. A baby step, but a step nonetheless.

Or maybe you located a transgender support group. You thought about going, but decided to wait for the next monthly meeting. And of course, after agonizing about, 3 or 4 months, or even 3 or 4 years, you finally went. Or maybe you heard about a club where a lot of ‘t-girls’ go and just sort of dropped in one night to check it out, all the while praying no one there would recognize you. Hey, I understand, I did all that myself!

And most of us take a few baby steps, testing the waters in many different ways, until we reach that point where hiding who we are is no longer an option. And you know full well you can’t wait for the next Halloween to role around, because that’s not really who you are and what you wear is no costume. And you know you MUST meet others like yourself. You NEED that validation and acceptance from your peers—‘because you’re not getting it anywhere else. And so, you finally push yourself out the closet door and get out into fresh air of disclosure.

I remember my coming out night. September 25, 1999. I was going to make it a real party! I found a makeup person who had worked with some other transwomen. I found a photographer who was sympathetic to the cause—because God knows we MUST have our pictures! It’s an unwritten law isn’t it? You can’t be transgender if you don’t have pictures?

At the salon I got dressed, got my nails and makeup done. I was so incredibly nervous, but I took a step outside to have a cigarette and I caught my reflection in the shop window. Hey, I look pretty good! And as I stood there in the cool, fresh air, I could quite literally feel the weight coming off my shoulders. All the years and weight of collected angst and guilt, the shame and embarrassment, the self doubt, were all leaving! I knew right then and there-- I was where I was supposed to be and I was who I was meant to be. It was an awesome night! That was 10 years ago, and I’ve never looked back.

And so it was, I started up on the party circuit. Always meeting other transwomen, getting to know them, and of course, partying! Now don’t get me wrong, no one loves a good time more than I, but I soon realized that there was more, much more, to being a transgender person than going out and carrying on. After all, there’s a LOT of serious shopping that needs to be done. But seriously, I watched as other girls tried to go fulltime. Or come out at work, or even just come out to friends and family, and I saw so many who were having disastrous results. And as I expanded my social network, as I talked about earlier, I discovered our young transpeople, our transgender kids, and younger trans brothers and sisters. And certainly not to make light of anyone here who has had little or no acceptance for being transgender, and has faced scorn and abuse, let me just say that these kids have it many, many times worse.

These young ones I talk about; the kids like Vanessa-- they are the ones who came out very early in life and went to live the dream. The dream of just being able to be who they really are, and they pay a heavy, heavy price. And not that we all don’t, regardless of age, but the effects on these young ones is most often devastating, and depression, major depression , soon becomes evident.

In the Transgender Project, we saw that 78.1% of us had reported transgender related psychological abuse and harassment, and 50.1% reported actual transgender related physical abuse at some point in their lives. And during adolescence, it’s the parents or other family members who are primarily responsible of delivering both these types of abuse.

Is it any wonder then, that in this study, The Transgender Project, the lifetime rate of major depression was 54.3%, which is THREE TIMES HIGHER than the corresponding estimate for the general population?

Is it any wonder then, that in this same group, suicide ideation was at 53.3%, again, THREE TIMES HIGHER than the rest of the nation? Half of us sitting here have thought about suicide as the answer!

And is it really a surprise when actual suicide plans and attempts measured at 35.0% in the younger half of this group, and 27.9% in the older half. And that my friends, is SEVEN TO TEN TIMES HIGHER than the National Comorbidity Survey estimates.

With no or precious little family or societal acceptance, and facing almost constant verbal and physical abuse, we are wasting ourselves-offing ourselves- cashing our own checks-killing ourselves-- at a rate that is 7-10 times higher than the rest of our country!

And if we’re not killing ourselves, we are being beaten and murdered. And so many of our younger sisters are forced to prostitute themselves to survive, and homeless rates of transkids are sky high. And we see HIV+ rates at 48 and 49% in the Black and Latina transgender communities, respectively. And we all face discrimination every minute of everyday,

But what is really important, the key and vital issue, the burning question of the day, and all anyone can seriously worry about is--- which bathroom am I’m going to use?

And so here we are. Out. Out at last! We are out in incredible numbers with more of us coming out all the time. And societal awareness of transgender has never in history been greater than it is right now, but the perceptions of us are ALL WRONG.

Earlier I asked if maybe this was our own fault and frankly, I think in large part perhaps it is.

When you consider just how many of us there are, all the thousands and thousands of transgender people out there, why is it only a relative handful are politically involved? Why is it only a very few of us actively try to correct the horrible, negative perceptions of non-transgender people?

And so where do we go from here? How can we, individually and collectively, begin to educate and demonstrate that we are not the bathroom predators, invaders, and sex monsters many see us as? Or the ‘for a good time, call’ party girls we are often seen as?

Let me toss out a few ideas here.

Our Community of Women
Our Breasts
Our Family of Transgender Kids

Our Community of Women:
We want to be women, or at least as much like women as we can be. Let’s take up some women’s issues.

We have all suffered some verbal abuse and many of us here have endured physical abuse as well. In almost every area of this country, there are women’s shelters for women who have also suffered physical abuse—abuse so bad they had to leave their homes, often with children in tow. These women and their children need help. Why not start up a food and clothing drive for them? We all have clothes we never wear, or you can collect them, and there are women and kids who need them desperately. It’s a good thing to do no matter who you are, but as a transgender person making this donation and taking the time and making the effort, its all the more memorable and notable. And if you really want to make a positive statement, notify the local papers. We make for great press and photo ops —let’s make it positive press for a change.

Our Breasts:

How many of you here are taking hormones? Breast cancer. Hey, we wanted them, we’re growing them, let’s take care of them. And let’s start to join in the numerous ‘walks’ to raise money for breast cancer research and cures. Avon Corp., for one, sponsors breast cancer marches all over the country. MARCH! And you can talk and teach while you are doing so. And don’t be surprised if you make a lot of new friends along the way.

Our Family of Transgender Kids:

This is very important. In most if not all of our home communities, is our alarmingly large population of homeless transgender kids-the Vanessa’s of our community. Many are unseen and unknown, and let me tell you, they are desperate for our help. In New York, where I am from, there is a shelter for homeless and runaway LGBT kids called Sylvia’s Place. It is ‘shelter’ in its most basic definition. Located in the basement of a storefront church in a horrible area of the city, as many as 40 kids gather in about 800 square feet and sleep on a concrete floor. There is one toilet. A single shower sometimes works as does this thing they call a stove. They eat whatever may be available, and hope for clothing donations for something to wear.

These are our kids I am talking about, our transgender kids. The next generation of transgender. My kids and yours. This is our family. We cannot and must not let our young brothers and sisters go by the wayside and left forgotten.

Over the past couple of years, I organized and promoted several food and clothing drives for the kids at Sylvia’s, but it wasn’t enough. So this past Christmas, I told my wife and family that I was going to make Christmas dinner for these kids and wouldn’t be home Christmas day. I just wanted to show these kids that someone cared.

Now, maybe my family was glad to have me gone for the day, I’m not sure, but I was really surprised by the positive reaction I got. Some in laws even made food donations! I coerced a few friends into helping and I started pre cooking and prepping what I could a few days before. My poor refrigerator!

Christmas morning I spent a few hours with the grandkids, opening presents and such, and then loaded up the car. I asked my wife one last time if she minded, and she said, “No, not at all. Don’t worry about it. Go feed those kids, it’s important.” And I kissed her goodbye for what turned out to be our last Christmas together.

Now, I’ve always fancied myself as a bit of a shrewd promoter. And I had been thinking about how I knew many transgender women who have had some measure of success in their lives, and who have transitioned and maintained jobs and some security in their lives. But many of these same otherwise successful women have been separated and estranged from their families, and here it is Christmas, and no matter what religious affiliation you may have, there is something about Christmas that makes it probably the single most important family day there is, the worst possible day to be alone, and here we are, fairly successful, mature, transgender women—and we have no where to go; no one to spend Christmas with.

Do you remember earlier I talked about ‘social comfort zones’; ‘expanding social circles’? Well, I decided to do some expanding. I invited my successful friends to come join me Christmas and meet and have dinner with the kids at the homeless shelter. I figured that this encounter would put a real face on the homeless transgender crisis, and the kids would get a chance to see that there CAN be a life for them other than prostitution and living on the streets. It was a pretty awesome sight! Transwomen, some 30 and even 40 years older than the kids, were sitting and talking with the kids, sharing their stories, their hopes and dreams. They talked about school, jobs, sex, hormones, partners, friends, families, and just about everything else you can think of. What we all had in common in our lives far outweighed any social or generational differences, and if just one of those kids set the bar a little higher for themselves that night, then the experiment was a success.

And so, the coming out party is over. Where do we go from here? Well, it seems we could certainly use a makeover—a public perception makeover. Right now in this country, laws are being passed that give us certain protections, and anti-discrimination laws are being adopted locally and statewide. But laws alone certainly do not change how we are seen and thought of by the public. And how do we change these perceptions? That will be up to us, you, me, and all transgender people everywhere. Because like it or not, be it right or wrong, we are judged everyday, in everything we do, and how we live our lives from this moment on:
How we live
How we love
How we help
How we give
How we nurture
These are the things that will change our neighbor’s hearts and minds and lead to the acceptance we all long for.

We must watch each others back and lift each other up Because if we don’t help each other, no one else will. And I really don’t want to make any more trips to the morgue.

It’s up to us.

“Go feed those kids; it’s important”

1 comment:

Jen Robertson said...

Thank you so much. Your story brought tears to my eyes and inspired me as well. My daughter is transgender and we always encouraged her to be exactly who she is no matter what. It's easier for her as she came to her realization very early in life, but we still face numerous hurdles. One day at a time! I believe the more stories that are told the more hearts and minds will open.