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FERNDALE – Over thirty local transpeople and supporters came out to Affirmations on Saturday, April 25, for the second annual Transgender Empowerment Day. They met to discuss topics like how to find and help educate a therapist, how to transition on the job, and MTF and FTM health care and insurance.
This is the second year that the Detroit area LGBT community held an official celebration for this nationally growing event, which began in California three years before, according to Arlene Kish, one of the event organizers.
Though there are many challenges facing transpeople, the mood of the day-long conference was ultimately positive. Increasing public acceptance, the spread of knowledge through new technology and growing community groups and a general spirit of camaraderie made Transgender Empowerment Day an uplifting event for all involved.
For Kish, transitioning from male-to-female was a good decision. “My life was pretty good, but I was never happy,” she said. “I never thought that I could feel like this.”
Kish is also the co-facilitator for the Transgender Rap group, which meets at Affirmations every Tuesday from 7-9 p.m. She said that above all else, she hopes that people will continue to see the human side of the transgender experience. “We’re everyday people who just want to live,” she said. “We are business owners, employees, family and friends who just want to love and be loved. There’s nothing deviant about us.”
The event, sponsored by Transgender Detroit and Affirmations, opened with a presentation by noted transgender therapist Sandra L. Samons, author of the book “When the Opposite of Sex Isn’t.” Samons talked about the difficulty in finding a good transgender therapist and the importance of being patient and working with ones who may be interested in helping, even though they lack experience. “It isn’t realistic for every doctor to know about transgender (issues),” Samons said. “…they may not even realize there is such a thing, or realize there is a need for it.”
Samons recalled the time in her career when a woman from Ann Arbor contacted her for couples counseling. The couple had struggled to find a therapist because the husband enjoyed cross-dressing. The situation frustrated Samons. “Sexuality is so fundamental to the human condition, it’s hard for me to understand why any mental health professional wouldn’t be trained in human sexuality…” Samons said. “I’d never dealt with cross-dressing before, but I wanted to help. I told her I was ready to learn.”
That encounter has led to a career in transgender advocacy that has helped to change the culture of transgender acceptance. But Samon’s dedication to transgender counseling is still too rare a specialty, and most transpeople – regardless of where they live – suffer from a lack of choice in mental health care.
Samons offered some advice to that end: “If you find a therapist who is willing to learn, you should nurture that relationship and encourage them to learn more,” she encouraged. “Invite them to a transgender support group. Ask them if they are willing to read, and give them materials. See if they follow up with your suggestions.
“This is Transgender Day of Empowerment, and you should remember that,” she continued. “You’re hiring this person to work for you. It’s easy to be intimidated by someone who has a lot of education, but remember it’s like you are interviewing them for a job. You’re paying them to work for you.”
One local therapist with first-hand knowledge of the transitioning process was in the audience giving his support. Don Sidelinker transitioned in 1985 and has been counseling all types of people since 1997. He has seen over 100 clients transition either from male-to-female or from female-to-male. “This is a great day for a lot of people,” Sidelinker said of the Day of Empowerment. “What I hope, and what I’ve heard from a lot of people, is that my presence gives them courage that transitioning to male is possible. They see how I look and they can see that there is life on the other side.”
Jessica Manko and Tina Sykes held an informative presentation about transitioning while on the job, and Andre Wilson spoke about transgender inclusive health insurance and health issues. Other groups were on hand to share information, including Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays, American Friends Service Committee and Transgender Detroit.
Transgender Detroit Co-Founder Michelle Fox-Phillips introduced Transgender Empowerment Day with a message mixed with sadness and hope. She spoke about an 18-year-old transwoman from Colorado who was bludgeoned to death last year. “Colorado has the hate crimes enhancement that includes gender identity protection,” Fox-Phillips said. “This is the first transgender hate crimes case, and it took only two hours for the jury to rule against the person who killed that girl. It’s a sad case, but also important because it is the first time that our rights are being recognized.”
She encouraged everyone to take comfort in victories but to continue working toward equal rights. “We hope to see the same thing here in Michigan,” Fox-Phillips said, “especially with the anti-bullying bill.”
Samons also shared the hope that others will take up transgender causes. “Not everybody needs to be an educator or an activist, but we do need a few,” she said. “So if you’re comfortable doing that, it is very important.”