The year has been a year fraught with political turmoil for much of the United States, with major changes on the horizon for many families and communities across the country. What better place to uncover and tell those stories than the epicenter of American policymaking? This year’s Reporting the Nation/Reporting New York students trekked to our nation’s capital to do it. Join us in our Washington, D.C., journeys as we confront the issues facing America’s most vulnerable communities, from sex trafficking to healthcare to the opioid crisis. Read our stories here.
Bruce Jenner smashed headlines with his revelation on ABC’s 20/20 that he would soon be transitioning into a woman. Seventeen million people watched as he, soon to be a she, discussed his history of taking hormone therapy, his failed marriages and hopes for his future. His expressed desire to help the transgender community is welcomed news to some transgender women in New York City who feel that the transgendered are targets for violence and discrimination.
Five years ago, Joy Ladin, 51 was Jay Ladin, an English professor at Yeshiva University, in Washington Heights.
“I am what we would now call transgender,” she said.
Married with three children, she planned her suicide to escape this feeling of “being in the wrong body.
When she started to transition in 2006, Ladin was placed on indefinite leave by the Orthdox Jewish university’s administration. After regaining her status through legal channels she became the first trans person to teach at a Jewish Orthodox institute.
Now she feels more alive than ever.
Claire Swinford, 41, was living in Tucson, Ariz. when she went to her designated polling location at a nearby church to vote in local elections in 2010. Swinford, a transgender woman, was in the early stages of her gender transition, and her driver’s license still bore a male gender marker.
Although Arizona required a second piece of identification, it could range from a phone bill to a driver’s license. She pulled out her driver’s license, and even though the information matched her voter registration card, the poll worker stopped her and said the ID didn’t match her voter registration card.
“The poll worker said, ‘This is not you,’” said Swinford. “Of course I protested that and said it was.”
Eventually she spoke with the poll supervisor and finally the Pima County Elections Department, before the poll worker allowed her to vote.
“That was a very embarrassing experience for me,” she said. “In retrospect, it is very worrisome to me because it is an embarrassing, difficult experience a lot of people would walk away from.”
A recent study released by the Williams Institute warned of potential disenfranchisement that could occur for at least 25,000 transgender voters in states with strict photo identification requirements, including Georgia, Indiana, Kansas, Mississippi, South Carolina, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Texas, and Wisconsin.
According to the report, 41 percent of transgender people did not have an updated driver’s license, which, depending on the state, may require a transgender person to show proof of having undergone sex reassignment surgery.
“Our main concern for trans people is the gender marker,” said Marisa Richmond, the President of the Transgender Political Coalition based out of Nashville, Tenn. who battled the state’s recently enshrined voter ID law for years.
“Although people can change the gender on their driver’s licenses, there is a surgical requirement,” said Richmond. “We’re particularly worried about the impact of that on people in the rural part of the state.”
Many trans activists view such surgical standards as antiquated and imposing medical procedures on people who may not want them, let alone be able to afford them.
“Most transgender people do not want sex reassignment surgery,” said Pauline Park, the chair of the New York Association for Gender Rights Advocacy and president of the board of directors of Queens Pride House. “Most who do want it cannot get it.”
Additionally, guidelines for sex reassignment surgeries can differ from state to state and the medical requirements can be vague, varying also on whether the person is transitioning from male to female or female to male.
Even in those states without strict photo identification, transgender voters face bias and disenfranchisement—often because of discrepancies in name.
“It’s very narrowly construed,” said Dr. Jody Herman, the author of the Williams Institute report. “It’s an underestimate of what could happen. I had to limit my analysis to IDs that had a gender marker. We didn’t have name change to look at.”
Kit Yan, 28, a slam poet living in Brooklyn said he continually faced bias at the polling booth in Prospect Heights, even though New York does not require a photo ID in order to vote.
“The poll worker did not believe that the name was not mine and made a scene out of it,” said Yan.
“It felt pretty humiliating at the time,” said Yan. “It was disruptive to the voting process for everybody else there at the time.”
Voting is just one part of a complex network of bureaucratic and legal issues that transgender people face when trying to change their name or gender on required identification documents.
“It’s complicated in this country because we have a very decentralized system of governance operating on the local, state, and federal levels with multiple agencies,” said Park.
In order to change their name or gender marker on documents, transgender people must to go to different government agencies, such as the DMV, the Passport Bureau, the U.S. Post Office, and others in order to make the required changes.
“In the state of New York, there are judges who will say you have to come back with sex change proof for name change, but there is nothing in New York State or City law that prevents someone from changing their name,” said Park. “You can change your name to an absurd one like Napoleon Bonaparte.”
Often, local officials are the ones who exercise discretion in bureaucratic matters.
“ID is extraordinarily arbitrary,” said Park. “It’s about who you encounter at the DMV or the judge.”
In an effort to raise awareness among transgender voters and poll workers, the National Center for Transgender Equality launched an initiative called “Voting While Trans.”
“We started to understand that people did not understand the nature of the challenge,” said Mara Keisling, the Executive Director of the National Center for Transgender Equality. “We wanted to make sure people really understood what could happen.”
“Anytime you have a societal or civic function that requires identification it’s going to disproportionately affect trans people,” said Keisling.
Due to the highly personal nature of the interaction between a poll worker and voter, many advocates, including the NCTE, are attempting to educate poll workers.
Swinford, who now lives in Missouri where she is the Director of Trans Haven, a trans advocacy group based in St. Louis, tried to get her organization to be a part of a local training for poll workers. Even though they were denied for scheduling reasons, she also has encouraged transgender people to become volunteers at the polls themselves.
“By having volunteers as the poll workers there’s kind of an informal training process, we believe that will help,” she said.
Many transgender rights advocates like Swinford believe that it is lack of understanding rather than ill will that underlies these interactions.
“I really don’t think that poll worker was being malicious,” she said referring to her experience in Tucson. “I think there’s a lack of training on gender identity. There are ways directly and indirectly we can build that awareness.”
At her Las Vegas commitment ceremony to her partner Jamie last year, LeAnna Bradley wore a white floor length gown with lace trimming and a beaded train. Her red hair was coiffed in an updo, crowned with a tiara. The fact that her sheer sleeves did little to hide her many tattoos, or that her carefully set curls imperfectly disguised a partially receding hairline did little to dampen her grin. Bradley, a 37-year veteran of the armed services, likes to say she feels like someone 20 years younger.
But Bradley hasn’t always been so carefree. For most of her life, the highly decorated Lieutenant, born Donald Daryl Alfred, felt like a woman trapped in the body of a man. For six decades Alfred struggled with feelings of confusion and isolation associated with the gender struggle. Two failed marriages and a pair of Purple Hearts later, Bradley’s struggle culminated in her 1997 gender reassignment surgery, an operation that resulted in the completion of Bradley’s “real self.”
Performed in Thailand, the surgeries — including various implants and facial reconstructions — were like the resetting of Bradley’s biological clock. “I really felt that I was a woman all those years,” Bradley said. “I really wanted to be a female.” And finally, at the age of 60, she could say she truly was one.
Although now content with her new life, Bradley’s childhood and early military service was riddled by molestation and abuse, both at the hands of family members and servicemen. Her parents refused to recognize her identity struggles, adding to her confusion by writing off any youthful effeminacy as merely a fad.
“I really didn’t know which way I was going or which way I was headed,” she said. “Twice in Vietnam I thought about suicide. By the time I retired [from the military] I was pretty well beaten up and bullied.”
Bradley’s experiences are shared by more American veterans than either the public or the military publicly acknowledges. While exact numbers have not yet been determined, Monica Helms, president of the Transgender American Veterans Association (TAVA) estimates that just as 13 percent of Americans in the U.S. are veterans of the armed service, approximately the same percentage of this country’s transgenders are veterans as well. She added that at transgender gatherings and conferences, veterans constitute a far greater than 13 percent of the attendees.
Helms said there are several reasons why transgender or transsexual people could be attracted to the military in proportionally higher numbers.
“Some transgenders join the military to “get cured,” Helms said. “They think, ‘The army will make a man out of me.’ Or women will join because you can do things that are more masculine. [Transgenders] can hide who they are or be able to express who they are in a society that accepts those types of behaviors.”
Following the recent, yet not fully enacted repeal of the military’s ban on gay and lesbian service members, advocates like Helms are trying to shift the focus to the ‘T’ (for transgender) in the LGBT alphabet soup. He considers this the final frontier in terms of military discrimination; transgender status and “gender identity disorder” are still automatic disqualification from military service.
Helms said that in her capacity as a leader and co-founder of TAVA, she fields numerous complaints about the treatment of transgender veterans, especially by the Veterans Association Health Department.
“Transgendered people are discriminated against by the VA,” Helms said. “They are denied service, misgendered on purpose. Just a whole series of things happen.”
The VA declined to comment.
A 2007 study commissioned by TAVA and The Palm Center, a Southern California public policy think tank, found that of the 827 respondents, nearly one third reported “having experienced some form of discrimination in the workplace.”
In addition, “Respondents reported organizational discrimination at the VA in a lack of clear and consistent practice, with little support of gender transition. …there were many reports of interpersonal discrimination, via lack of respect from VA doctors, non-medical staff and nurses.”
Denny Meyer, spokesperson for TAVA as well as a longtime activist for gay service members, said even as the military prepares to open its doors to openly gay men and women, transgender individuals remain locked out in the cold. Those that do manage to join up, he said, risk “both emotional isolation and physical danger.”
“While gay service members have been able to be increasingly open among their peers in the past 10 to 15 years, transgender troops have remained largely closeted and isolated, with no ‘renaissance’ of understanding at all,” Meyer said. “There are endless stories of transgender vets being discriminated against. I get calls every week.”Helms, like Bradley, is a veteran, was married, had children and is a transexual, But unlike Bradley, she has not yet elected for gender reassignment surgery.
Helms, who has been living as ‘Monica’ since 1997, said transgender veterans —who were generally overlooked during the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell debate — now need a voice more than ever.
“The media doesn’t seem to care,” Helms said, adding that until the major, heavily funded LGBT rights organizations like the Human Rights Campaign switch their focus, the issue will continue to take a back seat. “[Organizations like the HRC] pretty much run the show in Gay Inc. Most of the people who donate to them are rich white gay men. They get to call the shots.”
Yet there are signs that some people are beginning to rally around TAVA’s pink and blue standard. Columbia University hosted a debate this February on whether to allow Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) — banned for more than four decades — back on campus. Raucous protesters heckled veterans who spoke in favor of ROTC programming.
Protesting student Sean Udell specifically mentioned the treatment of transgendered people as a reason to continue the ban. “Transpeople are part of the Columbia community,” Udell said, as reported originally by the New York Post.
Still, Helms remains unconvinced. “Until I start seeing progress, I can’t really say [when change will come],” she said. “I can’t give false hope to people.”
During her decades of service, Bradley herself sometimes found hope hard to find. She battled depression and substance abuse as well as the persistent questions about her own sexuality. Now, Bradley harbors no ill will towards the U.S. Navy and her partner is herself a transgendered, 15-year veteran of the U.S. Air Force.
Bradley managed to have her military record officially changed to recognize her gender transition, something few others have been able to accomplish.
“All my paperwork has been changed,” Bradley said. “I went through a board of review and took me three and half years. The government and the military recognized that I had exhausted all ways and means of what my sexuality was. I’m one of the rare few.”
Immediately following her gender assignment surgery, her local VA center in Miami, Fla. refused to treat Bradley at the female clinic, yet Bradley maintains her positive outlook on her years of service.
“I don’t blame the military,” she said. “I’m very proud of what I did. More so now than I was before.”
On the warmest, sunniest day so far of spring, Coy Gordon, 42, sat in her West New York apartment with the doors locked and shades drawn. She lives in constant fear of unknown enemies who know where she lives, what she looks like and — should it provoke them — that she is a transgender woman.
Gordon is set for a court hearing today in West New York for a recent prostitution arrest, part of citywide crackdown on the local sex trade. But for many activists — and transgender women living private lives — this trial has become much larger than Gordon herself.
Gordon feels her safety has been jeopardized because of the way the arrest was covered by a Jersey City-based tabloid, the Jersey Journal. Questions meanwhile have resurfaced about the ethical limits of tabloid sensationalism in the coverage of transgender women and the real-world harm it can cause them.
Steven Goldstein, president and CEO of Garden State Equality, called the story “an abomination in reporting.”
In the Web version of that Feb. 27 article, gender pronouns such as “he” and “his” were used to describe Gordon, who has lived as a woman for the past 30 years. But careless copy errors — which were later corrected at the behest of Gordon’s legal representation — were only the tip of the iceberg.
The article listed Gordon’s address along with an interactive Google map, offering a paint-by-numbers guide to her home. Advocates argue that the mere disclosure of Gordon’s gender identity as a “transsexual” in the headline and in the phrase “transsexual sex romp” was gratuitous and exploitative.
“This arrest had nothing to do with the fact that this person was transgender,” Goldstein said.
This sort of coverage would appear absurd and discriminatory in the context of any other minority or ethnic group, according to Babs Casbar Siperstein, director of the Gender Rights Advocacy Association of New Jersey.
“If this had been a Jewish or Italian girl, would they have written ‘a Jewish or Italian sex romp?’ ” Siperstein said. “They are obviously picking on us because they think we are politically impotent.”
But editorial staff at the Jersey Journal fired back at critics.
“All of a sudden we are now the big bad newspaper who are a bunch of cavemen,” said Ron Zeitlinger, deputy managing editor at the newspaper.
He admits the misuse of masculine gender pronoun was a “mistake” that “slipped through.” But he is baffled why activists are criticizing their disclosure of Gordon’s gender identity, especially because she posted her services under a heading for “Transsexuals” on the backpage.com Web site.
“We probably should have given an attribution,” Zeitlinger said. “We have no agenda on what we call people. We just try to be accurate.”
But the fact that Gordon is transgender was precisely what made the story newsworthy, he said. He compared the incident to the public stir caused by Hugh Grant’s arrest for soliciting a transgender prostitute in Los Angeles 15 years ago.
“That’s what makes it news,” Zeitlinger said about Gordon being a transgender woman. “Every group could say you write too much about black crime, too much Hispanic crime and politicians doing bad things.”
But Siperstein, a Jersey City native, said the paper’s coverage of transgender people lacks balance and instead follows a strict, bad-news-only policy. She could not remember a single positive article written recently about the transgender community — and that is not for a lack of occasion.
GRAANJ, in corroboration with local gay center Hudson Pride Connections, held a town hall meeting in 2006. It was a celebration of New Jersey’s passage of transgender non-discrimination legislation, the ninth state in the nation to do that. Last June, activists scored another milestone in state-recognized equality, when former Gov. Jon Corzine signed a bill allowing a person’s driver’s license to reflect his or her gender identity.
“Do you think the press covered that?” Siperstein asked. “No.”
In the past decade, three news stories about transgender women have been covered by the Jersey Journal, prior to Gordon’s arrest. In 1999, Janet Aiello, a Hoboken police lieutenant, filed a discrimination suit against her then-employer following a sex-change operation.
In March 2004, the trial coverage of a Bayonne transgender woman, who allegedly was sexually and physically assaulted by a Jersey City man, was hampered by questionable copy. The paper consistently referred to the plaintiff as a transsexual, even though by the article’s own disclosure, she had never received a surgical procedure. According to the report, the alleged assailant “pulled down a thong and realized the victim was male.”
“There is a clear difference between transsexual, transvestite, transgender and drag queen,” said J. Marshall Evans, communications and outreach manager at Hudson Pride Connections.
“Transsexual” is a medical term that describes a person who has undergone hormone therapy or gender reassignment surgery, Evans explained.
Nonetheless, he thinks tabloids like the Jersey Journal prefer the term transsexual, instead of the umbrella term “transgender,” because it is a way “grabbing readers” while disregarding accuracy.
But according to one longstanding, openly gay copy editor at the Jersey Journal, “inflammatory words” are just the nature of tabloid writing.
“We are not trying to be the Washington Post,” said John Crittenden. “Our style in covering crime is to go more for the jugular than the brain.”
In his 30-year career at the newspaper, Crittenden said he has seen the newspaper go through “several incarnations of taste.” But the transgender community, in the context of crime reporting, is painted with the same “tabloid” brushstroke as any other community.
Crittenden, who also edits the newspaper’s “Letters to the Editor” section, faults activists for not once voicing their criticism directly to the newspaper.
“If you care about this issue — if you think the only ballgame in town should not be a tabloid — then write a letter to the editor,” Crittenden said. “The world is full of opinions; never be afraid to express one.”