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Turning the Spotlight on Transgender People

Published:Thursday | June 18, 2015 | 6:00 AMJaevion Nelson, Contributor

There has been a lot of talk over the last few weeks, especially in social and mainstream media, about transgender(ism), which is an umbrella term referring to persons whose gender identity is different from their biological sex. Biological sex is determined by an individual's anatomical, hormonal and chromosomal make-up and is not the same gender (we'll get to this later).

Kudos to 63-year-old Caitlyn Jenner who recently announced her transition as a transgender woman and appeared on the cover of Vanity Fair. For those who don't know, Jenner is an American television personality and former Olympic track and field champion. As a teenager, Jenner has had to deal with gender dysphoria, which describes the discontent one experiences with their biological sex (male, female or intersex) and gender (man, woman or genderqueer). She has also done some amount of hormone replacement therapy to change the balance of her sex hormones in an individual's body before she took the bold and courageous step to announce to the world that she is a woman.

Yes, Dr Garth Rattray, those 'hot chicks' are 'chicks'! A biological female does not have a monopoly on who gets to identify as a woman because of her genitalia. Gender identity refers to one's personal, individual, internal experience of attitudes, feelings and behaviours associated with their own, or a different biological sex. The American Psychological Association has provided an excellent online resource at apa.org/topics/lgbt/transgender.aspx for our edification.

The trans-community has much to celebrate. I am delighted that we are now talking about such an important issue one that has traditionally not been spoken of enough when we discuss the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) persons. I wish, though, that within the hoorah about Caitlyn Jenner, we would pay attention to something profound that she said. Her experience as a rich white and popular trans-woman will be much different from the vast majority of women and men like her. Transgender people face many challenges. They require specialised medical, psychological and social services that are not available in the vast majority of countries. They are often unable to find decent work and pay and, like the 'Gully Queens', often end up being displaced or permanently homeless. The experiences of the trans-community are not homogeneous.

 

'IT' IS UNACCEPTABLE

 

In addition to homelessness and displacement, unemployment and underemployment, and inadequate access to health care, locally transgender persons are physically and verbally abused almost on a daily basis. Transgender persons are often denigrated and dehumanised, with little to no regard for their personhood.

It is against this background that I am concerned that Talia Soares, the host of TVJ's pre-recorded entertainment programme, 'Intense', and Miss Jamaica World contestant, found it acceptable to refer to Caitlyn Jenner as 'it' and that the producers allowed such a highly offensive and dehumanising reference to be made about a person on national television.

Perhaps Talia did not mean to disparage Caitlyn and other trans-people, but she has to recognise 'it' was problematic and offensive. I am going to assume Talia didn't understand how this might make transgender persons feel 'less than' or subhuman, and how it might make fans of the programme believe it is acceptable to refer to people as 'it'.

Talia, may I suggest that you speak with human-rights defenders or transgender women like Tiana Miller who understand these issues and would be willing to have a conversation with you. You might also want to consider issuing a public apology and underscore the fact that it is unacceptable to refer to a fellow human being as 'it'.

Admittedly, transgender issues are complex. It's not easy to understand, and somewhat new for us in Jamaica. Despite this fact, let us all commit to being respectful of each other and using appropriate terms that celebrate our dignity and humanity regardless of who we are, how we express ourselves, who we love, the type of work we do, where we live, who we vote for or where we worship.

- Jaevion Nelson is a youth development, HIV and human rights advocate. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and jaevion@gmail.com.