By Paulette Niemiec
Every year, the Detroit area Transgender Day of Empowerment event held at Affirmations Community Center in Ferndale, presents educational lectures, workshops, group discussions, and business and organizational displays designed to offer information, support and hope to the transgender community.
For eight hours last Saturday, people filled two floors of the center listening to lectures, speeches and presentations given by a variety of professionals. Also present were tables, displays and exhibits of businesses, churches and organizations all promoting their support for those who identify as a gender other than their natural born sex.
One workshop stood out entitled, “Transphobia and Overcoming Intermarginalization.” A group discussion focused on the topic of how transphobia can lead to those in the transgender community feeling marginalized and left out of society, sharing ways to transcend those feelings of inferiority and have a positive experience when out in the world.
Approximately 25 people filled the second floor room to capacity for this discussion, facilitated by Dr. Sandra Samons, Dr. Stephen Rassi and Dr. Kofi Adoma. Rassi gave important advice on how people can achieve this goal. “The safest thing to do is find a therapist and have at least one person to share your fears, feelings and any negative thoughts which hold you back from becoming the best person you can be,” she said. Rassi works at the University of Michigan-Flint, Eastern Michigan University and serves on the Council of Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity Expression since 2011.
Those who participated in the “roundtable discussion” spoke of their experiences when exposed to the public and made suggestions on how to improve the current situation. “I was impressed with how many people spoke of ways to make a change, including educating the general public and other means,” said Samons following the workshop. “Last year, all the talk focused on discrimination. This year it seems many are more focused on what we can do about it.”
Several others with doctoral degrees, masters degrees and transgender specializations, provided guidance and education, including a popular workshop presented by Andre Wilson entitled, “The Affordable Care Act and Trans Community.” Wilson provided the audience with information on the impact the new healthcare law has had on those who are transgender.
“The bad news is many of the medical procedures sought by transsexuals, like sexual reassignment surgery, facial surgeries and breast augmentation are not covered by insurance companies and the ACA doesn’t force them to,” Wilson said. “The good news is, since gender dysphoria is considered to be a pre-existing condition and the ACA mandates that all pre-existing conditions must be covered by insurance companies, transsexuals can now receive basic insurance for affordable rates versus not being able to in the past.”
If lectures, presentations, workshops, speeches and group discussions weren’t enough, there were plenty of tables and booths available for people to visit and start a conversation.
“I am the mother of two transgender daughters,” said Rose Mary Priest, board member of PFLAG (Parents and Friends of Lesbian And Gays). “My philosophy is to get out there and advocate, not just for my children, but for all those who are transgender,” she added.
Priest admits it is highly unique and rare to have two children who consider themselves transgender (both desire to remain anonymous). Unlike many parents, Priest voices her pride in both of them and stated she does everything she can to be supportive. She joined the PFLAG organization, has served on the board for three years and attends as many transgender related events as she can.
As an advocate, Priest stressed the importance of getting one’s children involved in the process of transition (living full-time as the gender of identity). It’s a controversial subject in the transgender community. Many fear transition while their children are still young, worrying it could confuse them.
“I feel that education is the top priority. Introduce the topic to your children at an early age. If you are someone who is a parent and you are one of two moms or two dads, don’t be afraid to tell your children what’s going on with you,” she said.
Equality Michigan was one of the exhibitors at the event. “We know in the past we have not done the best job of advocating for the transgender community,” said Executive Director Emily Dievendorf. “However, we are recommitting ourselves to the transgender community and will, moving forward, do all we can to support the legal rights and social justice related issues regarding those who are trans.”
Dievendorf presented along with her “partner in crime,” attorney and Equality Michigan staffer Yvonne Siferd, an early morning workshop entitled “Trans Inclusion at the Table.”
Siferd echoed Dievendorf’s sentiments and reassurance that the transgender community will be more visible in the future. “I think right now more than at any other time in history, we are seeing transgender people in the media and this gives people someone to look up to,” Siferd said in reference to celebrities coming out as transgender. “This gives more people opportunities and courage to come out.”
Both Siferd and Dievendorf wanted to emphasize that as more transgender people come out – especially those who begin to transition – they become more exposed and can become victims of hate crimes.
“With increased visibility we become targets of violence and discrimination,” said Dievendorf. “That’s where Equality Michigan comes in to give support to all those in the LGBT community.”