STONY BROOK, NEW YORK (TrustLaw) - “My name is Kiki. Most people call me Ed,” said the svelte young woman with a cascade of dark hair, expertly applied eye make-up, a denim mini skirt and patterned leggings.
Kiki, who declined to give her full name, is a married construction worker and father of two. She was among some 200 people who filled a Unitarian church in New York’s Long Island suburbs to bear witness to violence against transgender people in the United States and around the world in recent months.
Drawing a diverse group of people to a memorial service and panel discussion, the gathering was one of many to be held around the world this week leading up to the 13th annual International Transgender Day of Remembrance on Nov. 20, which recognises the murders of transgender people.
“Most of the (transgender) community have mixed feelings about it because it’s a reminder of how much people hate us,” said Eileen Novack, a software developer, who was born as a man but legally changed her identity to that of a woman.
According to Trans Murder Monitoring, a project initiated by the non-profit association Transgender Europe, 116 transgender people were murdered worldwide in the first nine months of 2011. Seven were killed in the United States.
Diane Freedman, a researcher on transgender issues and head of the Freedman Center for Clinical Social Work on Long Island, and others at the Nov. 13 memorial service, said the gruesome nature of the murders suggested a high level of hatred.
The methods of killing included multiple stabbing, slitting of the throat, beating, stoning, burning, decapitation, strangulation and shooting.
The number of transgender people murdered in the United States currently is lower than in other countries, most notably in Latin America, where more than 80 were killed so far this year - 29 in Brazil alone - and Asia.
But the problems facing transgender people in the United States are severe, according to a 2011 survey released by the National Center for Transgender Equality and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force.
The survey of 6,450 people found widespread discrimination at home and at work, extreme poverty and very high rates of attempted suicide. Even accessing healthcare poses challenges for transgender people. Nearly one in five reported being refused care and 28 percent were harassed in medical settings.
The stories told by panellists and audience members at the Long Island event, illustrated the myriad ways transgender people cope with their identity and the complexity of the transgender community. None of the participants at the event said they had been victims of violence because of their transgender identity, but nearly all had experienced harassment.
“I live as a man and as a woman, depending on what I’m doing,” said Cindy Hacken, a real estate executive who operates as a man at work but arrived at the event in her female persona wearing a long, flame-coloured wig and a low-cut blouse with a gold heart-shaped locket at her throat.
She said she has been married for 22 years, raised two children and has never been attracted to men sexually. When her wife discovered Hacken’s transgender orientation, therapy helped the couple to stay together, Hacken said.
Juli Owens, who presents as a man at work but appeared as a woman at the event, said her realization that she was transgender began when she was about four years old and put on her mother’s high heels. “It was a like an electric shock,” Owens said.
By the age of seven, Owens remembered getting a paper doll cut-out book in which she delighted in putting Sleeping Beauty’s clothing onto Prince Charming and feeling “really good” about it. By 13, her parents discovered their son wearing lipstick but chose to ignore it.
The difficulties of expressing as a woman defeated her for many years, Owens said. “Most trans women (men who express as women) dream of going to the prom in a beautiful dress with a corsage and going with the captain of the football team. My problem was I was the captain of the football team,” said Owens, who went on to marry and remains heterosexual in his relations with his wife of 25 years.
Eventually, Owens, like some others at the event, revealed his transgender identity to his wife and they were able, through therapy, to preserve their marriage and relationship.
“We need to take the gender out of marriage,” said social worker Donna Riley, a striking woman with long red hair, who was born as a man. “You’re in love with a person, not a gender.”
Still married after 34 years, Riley, then a banker, underwent a surgical transition to become a woman. She still recalls the humiliation she felt when, after she thought she had successfully explained her transitional situation to her superiors, she was handed the key to the janitor’s toilet.
The room was filled with people in a variety of situations - men who are sexually attracted to women and sometimes like to express themselves as women, women who occasionally express themselves as men and are sexually attracted to men, people who had undergone surgical sex changes and are attracted to people of either sex, and some who said they were still trying to figure out who they are.
“We’re not a finished product,” Juli Owens said. “As we go on, we grow into who we are meant to be.”
(Editing by Alex Whiting)