Guest post: Working toward healthy lives for Wisconsin’s trans community

The following post was written for the Capital Times by Z! Haukeness, former board member and frequent volunteer with GSAFE.

Click here to read the original op-ed in the Capital Times.

Z! Haukeness: Working toward healthy lives for Wisconsin’s trans community

Everyone is identified by a gender at birth when the doctor looks at their anatomy and says, “It’s a boy!” or “It’s a girl!” Sometimes people are identified as “intersex” when they are born with aspects of both male and female bodies. As people grow older, they sometimes feel their gender doesn’t match the category they were given at birth and they begin to identify as “trans.” Trans (sometimes written as trans*) is an umbrella term used for people who do not identify with the gender they were assigned at birth. There are approximately 17,322 trans people in Wisconsin and 750 in Madison, according to The Williams Institute.

Some trans people choose to take action to live more in line with who they are, regardless of their birth assignment. Called “transition,” these actions can range from changing their name or the pronoun they use for themselves, to dressing differently, taking hormone medication, having laser hair removal, or having other gender-confirming surgery.

Violence and discrimination continue to block trans people from living full and healthy lives. In June of this year, celebrated as Pride Month nationwide, four trans women of color were killed in different parts of the country due to their gender identity. One, Zoraida Reyes, was an activist with undocuqueer/undocutrans, a group of queer and trans immigrants working for LGBTQ and migrant justice. Other trans people are pushed to extremes through bullying and isolation, as well as the economic struggles of surviving job and housing discrimination.

A Madison high school student who was aging out of the foster care system and facing homelessness committed suicide last year. Her death helped inspire the Gay Straight Alliance for Safe Schools, a Wisconsin organization that supports LGBT and allied youth through school groups around the state, to increase their trans youth programming. The group has raised funds to hire a trans youth organizer to lead support groups and mentoring programs.

GSAFE has helped pass 11 gender nondiscrimination ordinances in school districts in Wisconsin. Brian Juchems, co-director of GSAFE, says, “These districts are updating their nondiscrimination policies to include the language that protects students who are transgender or gender nonconforming, and anyone based on their gender identity.” He says if implemented properly, the policies create an environment where teachers use trans students’ preferred names in class, call students the correct pronouns, make sure they are safe when using the restroom or locker room that fits them best, and do not restrict clothing choices based on perceived gender identity.

The need for gender identity protections extends beyond our public schools and is crucial in places like jails, detention centers, prisons and homeless shelters. Groups like Operation Welcome Home suggest that the best solution to the issue is to make housing a human right, and find alternatives to incarceration for all people. Wilma’s Fund, a project of south-central Wisconsin’s OutReach LGBT Community Center, located in Madison, raises funds to support people to fulfill temporary or long-term housing needs and address the disproportionate rates of homelessness for trans and LGBT people. Groups such as Freedom Inc., Briarpatch and Operation Welcome Home work with homeless trans people to offer support, resources and leadership development to make social change around these issues.

While housing insecurity is a health concern for many trans people, adequate health care continues to be a major concern as well. Another local effort is being led by trans people and allies working for improved accessibility for trans health care in the spirit of universal health care coverage for all. Nyle Biondi is part of a trans health group and a local mental health provider who works with many trans people. He explains, “When a person feels congruent physically and mentally, meaning their body and gender presentation match with their feeling of who they are, it undeniably contributes to better physical and mental health.”

Health needs for trans people include mental health care as well as hormone therapy and a variety of gender-confirming surgery options. The group is encouraging health insurance providers to offer trans-inclusive plans, and urging businesses, nonprofits and government agencies to request trans-inclusive care for their employees.

Though there’s clearly much work to be done before all trans people can have a safe and healthy future, it inspires hope to see the progress being made by Madison organizations.

Z! Haukeness is a community organizer working with various organizations for social justice rooted in racial justice

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