Transgender group harnesses visibility, wants acceptance for all

Transgender group harnesses visibility, wants acceptance for all

Friday, November 29, 2019

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The final in a four-part feature written by the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV and AIDS (UNAIDS) Jamaica team ahead of World AIDS Day — December 1 — this is a precursor to the Jamaica Observer 's special series exploring the virus, 36 years after it was discovered. Check out the extensive coverage in your Sunday Observer on World AIDS Day.


“I am still scared.”

After several seconds of silence, these were the words uttered by Renač Green, associate director for policy and advocacy at TransWave Jamaica, when asked if it is safe to do her work.

“I don't like to go to certain spaces. If anyone wants to participate in a campaign, we explain the risk. You don't know what kind of backlash you can experience,” she said.

Donique Givans, who is the community liaison officer for TransWave Jamaica, knows this all too well.

She had not been “up front” about her gender identity with her father when she began becoming more visible in her advocacy work, and now he wants nothing to do with her.

“He told me, 'You have to go. Don't come back to my house',” she said, her voice shaking a little. “So we do let persons know they might have difficulties.”

Homosexuality and homophobia in Jamaica have long been discussed. Transgender identity and transphobia, however, are relatively new conversations. TransWave, Jamaica's first transgender organisation, was formed in 2015 after a lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) health and gender-based violence training. That programme was conducted by WE-Change, with support from the Jamaica Forum for Lesbians, All-Sexuals and Gays (JFLAG) and Jamaica AIDS Support for Life (JASL).

TransWave's Executive Director Neish McLean is the only trans man at the helm of a Caribbean transgender organisation. Recently, he publicly discussed his personal journey, exploring issues ranging from the distinction between gender identity and sexuality to surgery. This is largely uncharted territory.

“For a long time people actually said that trans people weren't in Jamaica because they could not put a face to it, or readily identify anyone who was trans. Now we have so many people who identify. It has helped in terms of explaining who trans people are,” Green explained.

TransWave pairs this visibility mission with advocacy on the range of issues affecting the community, such as lack of access to trans-specific health care, housing, education, and employment, as well as poverty and violence.

A 2018 Integrated Biological and Behavioral Surveillance Survey conducted by the University of California, San Francisco found that 51 per cent of Jamaican trans women tested were living with HIV. But for the young organisation, its priority is less on testing and more on the outreach and advocacy that would make it possible for members of the community to access health care. HIV is just one of many challenges.

“Many are aware that they are HIV positive but don't seek treatment. They are just waiting to move on to the next plane. People cannot stomach not being able to live their lives as their authentic selves, and cannot put themselves through the distress of going to a clinic. It becomes difficult because all eyes are on you and you are putting yourself at risk for people to attack or hurt you,” Green explained.

In July, UNAIDS Jamaica supported TransWave's Transgender Health and Wellness Conference. The event included the dissemination of a toolkit on how health care practitioners can provide holistic, non-discriminatory services, along with how to facilitate dialogue around the rights and inclusion of transgender people.

Givans explained that the organisation has met with some employers to gauge the degree of acceptance for inclusion of transgender workers, as well as to advocate for unisex bathrooms. She painted a nuanced picture of what life is like for trans people in Jamaica.

“It is very difficult, but people try to align themselves with society's gender norms. They might do a little make-up to feel comfortable, but they don't go heavy. Some workplaces allow persons to be themselves, but you don't have trans women wearing skirts,” she said, adding, in certain industries, trans people can be “visible and sometimes safe”.

Public transportation is often challenging. Even when TransWave members charters a taxi, for example, they are unsure of whether the driver will be tolerant. Renting an apartment can also be a landmine. Lower priced housing often means living in an area with safety concerns and contending with nosy, judgemental landlords and neighbours. But, notwithstanding these difficulties, many people are piecing together full lives.

On the other extreme are the poorer trans people. Homelessness is a major concern, with some young transgender people being thrown out of their homes as young as age 10. This is often the starting point for frighteningly layered vulnerabilities, including sex work, violence, lack of education, low employability, and poor health.

Asked about their hopes, the advocates list adequate funding for TransWave and furthering their educations. Green added that she would like to migrate.

“But not everybody can leave Jamaica and not everybody should leave,” she said pointedly. “That is why we are working so hard. So that we can get to a point where everybody can be accepted.”

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