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BY AJ TRAGER
Descriptions of suicide could be offensive or disturbing to some readers.
YPSILANTI – Kevin Werner, 35, has been an LGBT activist and advocate for 20 years, working with gay-straight alliances, Affirmations, Jewish Gay Network, Transgender Michigan, the Equality Research Center at Eastern Michigan University and now the National Trans Lifeline.
Werner was raised in a half-Jewish, half-Christian household in West Bloomfield and has one younger brother. His journey started in high school where he came out as gay, but later, after attending college for awhile, Werner realized that he was trans and needed to transition to living authentically as himself.
He says he isn’t the usual case of a person who is transgender. He has never once had to worry about being disowned by his family, or being denied access to healthcare and transition-related care. And he was fortunate to work for a company that covered his surgery.
“After I finished my transition in 2005, I started thinking that I wanted to help the trans community. I wanted to do what I can,” Werner told BTL. “I call myself Transpa, like a trans grandpa. I’ve helped several people in my personal life be able to transition. I’ve helped a family friend realize that she was first gay, and then she came out as trans. I helped two ex-girlfriends be able to transition as well. But I wanted to do more. I don’t want to necessarily say because of privilege guilt, but I figure I have the privilege to be able to be comfortable with myself, be able to speak openly and honestly with people, and listen to people to understand where they’re coming from. I’m able to help someone be able to come out or access care — (help them) figure out where they identify and if they need to transition.”
Werner was looking for ways he could help the trans community. He volunteered for the Jim Toy Community Center for awhile but decided to pursue another route and started volunteering on the National Trans Lifeline, working a few hours a week.
The National Trans Lifeline has been providing services since November 2014 and has well over 100 people answering calls across the country. Werner was ready to begin answering calls after attending an online training session in September provided by the National Trans Lifeline staff; he also met with people in Chicago who are roommates with the co-creators of the Lifeline.
Werner enjoys the semi-anonymous nature of the Lifeline and recognizes that the Lifeline provides a lot of people with a service that is greatly needed for the trans community.
“I love it. There are some challenging calls. In the trans community there are more issues with mental illness than the heterosexual community, and many calls are if someone feels trapped and helpless and doesn’t have access to change. There’s a never ending circle of helplessness if someone doesn’t pass and tries to be seen as something that they know they are and feel they are, but everyone else sees them as something they’re not,” Werner said.
He takes into consideration his vocal tone and phrasing when answering calls. If the caller is a trans woman, Werner will raise his voice a little higher because he wants to make them feel comfortable and knows that a masculine voice can be seen as threatening. His history of theater and performance has helped him with voice alteration and articulation which he uses to make the caller feel more at ease.
On an average week, Werner will put in a minimum of two, possibly three hours of volunteer time. In a typical hour he’ll receive anywhere from one to four calls. All types of calls come into the Lifeline, Werner said. The topics that he covers range from transitioning and coming out to the more intense issues like self-harming and suicide. Some people are looking for resources in the area. Some people are looking to talk and process what’s happening in their life. But some callers are at the end point in their life, having just swallowed a bottle of pills and wanting company.
“I’ve done support groups before, I’ve been a peer mentor at Affirmations and I’ve done speaking panels for the past 20 years. I can get resources. But talking to someone who is ending their life or thinking about it, those are the hardest calls. And you need to be in a good mental spot for those calls,” Werner said.
National Trans Lifeline policy states that operators are not permitted to intervene because that would be interfering with the caller’s process and could be stepping over the lines, even if its well intended, Werner told BTL. There’s also no way to guarantee what is happening from a remote phone call. Operators are trained to encourage the caller to hang up and dial 911, but sometimes people don’t want to hear even that. But even so, Werner’s heart breaks.
It’s at that point that Werner will stop and take a break.
“If I get one of those calls, no matter when that is, I’ll take myself off of trans lifeline. I need time to readjust and say, ‘I did everything I could, I did what I know how to do, I handled it the best I could,'” Werner said.
Werner’s favorite trans celebrity is Laverne Cox and would like to see more famous trans people be role models for the trans community to follow. He believes visibility is paramount.
“To have a powerful, beautiful, intelligent trans woman of color, who plays a trans woman of color on a TV show that is getting rave reviews, is a sign of progress. That gives other trans women, in lesser positions of privilege, the ability to say, ‘If she can do it, so can I.’ Even if they don’t know her backstory, they see her face, know her name, know she’s openly trans and not ashamed of it and that hopefully will help so many people,” he said.
Werner has a very Harvey Milk philosophy and believes that if everyone were to come out, homophobia and transphobia wouldn’t exist. But of course, he recognizes that it isn’t safe for everyone to do so.
“I encourage people on the trans helpline: if the are in a position to come out, they should come out,” he said. “Not only because of the representation but also for mental health. If you don’t come out, you cannot transition. And coming out helps so many people have mental health improvements.”