The list of terms for transgender people is almost as long as the shades of grey that color the space between the male and female gender binary. The issues in both transgender communities – male-to-female transwomen and female-to-male transmen – are just as nuanced and complex.

“People still look at gender as a binary,” says Genny Beheman, the director of the Stonewall Center at the University of Massachusetts. “Even the transgender community has historically been a very binary community.” Although transgender people have quite an extensive history, it is very rare for those of us who have not been close to a transgender person to have a comprehensive understanding of their world.

Sure, many of us know about Amanda Lepore and RuPaul, we’ve seen “Transamerica” and “Hedwig and the Angry Inch,” but as far as the inner workings of transwomen are concerned there’s still a lot of confusion and ignorance out there.

Having terms and working definitions helps quite a bit: a transwoman who is attracted to women is called gynephilic attraction, a transwoman who is attracted to men is called androphilic attraction, and a transwoman who is attracted to both women and men will say they are bisexual transwomen. There are also male-to-females who have sex with other male-to-females – also known as transbians.

Beheman says the general public’s lack of education and understanding surrounding the trans community has to do with the fact that transgender people are an invisible population of sorts. “Most people today can say that they know a gay or lesbian person but few can say they know a transgender person,” she says.

And the sort of media dedicated to transgenders doesn’t help either. “People achieve celebrity status by virtue of the fact that they are transgender,” says Beheman. In television shows or movies it’s never that the character is a writer who happens to be transgender. Instead it’s that they are a transgender writer. “Transgender people become the central plot element,” she says.

Take for instance Lea T., Riccardo Tisci’s assistant and model in the Givenchy fall/winter 2010 ad campaign. Or Isis Tsunami, the transgender model from the fall 2008 season of America’s Next Top Model. Both girls made headlines and caught buzz, not because they were beautiful women but because they were transwomen.

“We make good press, we objectify ourselves,” says Mona Rae Mason, a transgender researcher, ethnographer, as well as a transwoman herself. She says that when most people think of transwomen, they expect to see someone with big hair like Dolly Parton or an over-the-top sensationalized personality.

It’s exactly this sensationalism that manages to eclipse the basic facts and understanding of the transgender community. The first most basic concept is that being transgender has to do with gender – ones self-identification as a woman, man, neither, or both. This gender identification is a completely separate issue from sexuality. Transgender people may identify as being heterosexual, homosexual, or even bisexual.

Mason says that, “So many people equate gender with sex – I have sex with men but I don’t think of myself as gay.” That’s because Mason identifies as being a woman. A tall brunette, Mason has legs that look like they stop somewhere near her neck, a warm baritone voice, and a hearty laugh that could give Julia Roberts’ signature guffaw a run for its money.

She hates her nose. She also played semi-pro football for a now long defunct Jersey Shore league in an effort to “correct” herself. “It was so semi-pro, most of us had to buy our own uniforms,” she laughs. “I would go play ball every Sunday, hang with the guys for awhile in a local bar after the games and then go home, shower, and put on a dress.”

According to Mona, this idea that one can “fix” oneself by playing sports, getting married, or joining the military is a common misconception that many transwomen suffer from.

Some transwomen like Mona live their lives full-time as women. Some of these women have breasts and a penis, some undergo expensive gender reassignment surgery, transitioning completely. Others like Genny live part-time. “I was assigned male at birth and was never comfortable being male, but I never had a burning desire to transition to being female.” Genny has had electrolysis and laser hair removal but no hormones or surgery. “I’m comfortable being someplace in between,” she says.

Regardless of their status as full or part-time, many transgender people face unemployment and job discrimination, which leads to economic insecurity that finds many toeing the line between poverty and possible homelessness.

“The whole issue of discrimination is huge, especially for transwomen, who by virtue of biology have a harder time blending in,” says Mason. “We still have a society where women experience job discrimination and for transwomen it’s even more difficult.”

In an effort to document this problem, the National Center for Transgender Equality and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force launched a national six-month data collection process, interviewing 6,450 transgender people through a questionnaire that covered topics from employment and education to health care and housing.

According to the November 2009 survey, participants experienced unemployment at twice the rate of the population as a whole, and 97 percent of those surveyed reported experiencing harassment or mistreatment on the job.

Fifteen percent of transgender people in the survey sample lived on $10,000 a year or less, and 19 percent have been or are homeless. Poverty combined with a lack of an adequate emotional support system can lead to homelessness, which leads many transwomen to turn to prostitution and survival sex.

Mason, who served as the field coordinator for The Transgender Project, a five-year longitudinal study of the male-to-female population in the New York metro area, says that prostitution starts young in the transgender community because transkids are coming out to their families at a younger age and getting kicked out of their homes earlier than previous generations.

“Hunger and cold drives people to do things they would never normally do. Prostitution very quickly becomes the means by which these young people survive,” she says. “I guarantee you that no one wakes up one day and says: ‘When I grow up, I want to be a prostitute.’”

Even more troubling than the vicious cycle prostitution propagates – depression that leads to drug use, which leads back to prostitution – is the high incidence of HIV infection in ethnic groups. According to a report on Lifetime Risk Factors for HIV/Sexually Transmitted Infections among Male-to-Female Transgender Persons, HIV was 3.5 percent among white Americans compared to 49.6 percent among Hispanics and 48.1 percent among African Americans.

The report found a direct correlation between the high incidence of HIV infection in the African American and Hispanic community, and subjects who presented themselves as women in social settings. The takeaway: expressing who you feel you are is hazardous to your health.

For Mason, the key in helping alleviate all of this is plain and simple: education. “You have to go to your schools, talk to the parents, the teachers, the community and hopefully this will create a strong support group for transgender people out there.”

In the meantime, Beheman says, media attention helps educate people. As long as people like Lea T. are out there helping give a face to the transgender community and raising public awareness, people will begin to understand more about them.

Just please, for RuPaul’s sake, don’t call them trannies.

text by: Joseph Isho Levinson

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