When Tara Lee, a 67-year-old Gainesville transgender woman, transitioned 14 years ago, she never expected to go through it alone. Yet, she said she lost her immediate family and felt ostracized by coworkers at the post office in the process.
Lee said the relationship with her ex-wife and their daughter was strained throughout her transition. In a somber moment, Lee said she felt like her then coworkers were frequently talking about her in hurtful ways. Lee said some people in her life even believed she had AIDS.
At one point, five teenagers surrounded Lee while she was working.
“They were saying, ‘Here it is. It’s delivering mail again. Let’s see what it has between its legs,’” Lee said.
Alone and alienated from the people she loved, Lee said her transition was painful.
These experiences are not unusual, though, according to the National Center for Transgender Equality.
In 2011, the NCTE and the National LGBTQ Task Force published the National Transgender Discrimination Survey. The survey found that 63 percent of participants experienced serious acts of discrimination including lost jobs, physical assault, sexual assault, homelessness, lost relationships and denial of medical service.
Discrimination possibly stems from religious and cultural bias and lack of understanding, said Jennifer Evans, a licensed psychologist at Clinical Psychology Associates of North Central Florida. It can negatively affect people, especially those historically perceived to be marginalized.
“It takes a toll on their mental health, which can lead to feelings of guilt and shame, and contributes to higher rates of depression, anxiety, substance abuse and suicidality,” Evans said.
Kane Barr, a 27-year-old Gainesville transgender man, was suicidal and depressed after coming out to his family two years ago. Although his mother was accepting on the first day, he said, his twin sister and younger brother took it exceptionally hard.
“I definitely felt like I was alone,” Barr said. “Eventually, I did attempt to kill myself. I got 10 stitches on my left arm.”
But he didn’t just struggle with his family. He said he also struggled advocating for himself at the historically black college he attended in Tallahassee, Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University.
He said the college did not have a LGBT organization, pride center or people he could talk to.
Even though he wrote letters to his professors asking them to call him by his preferred name and pronoun, he said some had a difficult time accepting his transition because of their religious beliefs.
“It was a really big struggle,” Barr said. “Not only did I have to deal with my family, but I also had to deal with the people around me on campus. I even had anxiety about simple things like using the bathroom.”
Michelle Phillips, a 32-year-old transgender woman and director of education at the Pride Community Center of North Central Florida, said healthcare is also a huge obstacle for transgender people.
“Many of us are straight up turned down for healthcare, or we are given substandard healthcare,” she said. “And doctors don’t take it upon themselves to educate themselves on the issue.”
Phillips said she experienced this firsthand during a trip to the hospital for a urinary tract infection.
When she explained her medical history and confirmed she was male-to-female, Phillips said she was given antibiotics and ushered into the hallway to fill out forms.
Peter Rudnytsky, a psychoanalytic psychotherapist and an English professor at the University of Florida, said acceptance of transgender people is difficult because not a lot of people know someone who is openly transgender.
“We’re dealing with fantasies, stereotypes and prejudices,” he said. “It’s a far more radical transformation of who somebody is. For most people, it’s strange and unimaginable.”
Lynn Langley, a 54-year-old middle school teacher in Ocala, Florida, said she does not know anyone who is transgender, which makes it difficult to understand how the whole process works.
On top of that, Langley said she feels conflicted about the issue because of her Christian beliefs.
“I’ve been told what I know,” Langley said. “God made us in his image, and you were made a certain way with certain parts.”
Although Langley struggles with it, she does believe that eventually people will be OK with transgender individuals and move on. They just need to be able to come to terms with it on their own, Langley said.
Rudnytsky agrees some people may take more time than others to understand the issues transgender people face. And he said the members of the transgender community need to find the strength to be who they are.
They also need to know that it’s going to cause tremendous fear and anxiety in a lot of people like Langley, who admit to having limited knowledge and experience with transgender people.
“Even as they assert their right to be who they are, they should try to understand how painful and difficult it is to change,” he said. “Until more and more people have some direct experience with it, I think it’s going to be hard to change attitudes.”
Kane Barr concurs.
He said he understands that it’s going to be hard for people to change. But it does make a difference knowing someone who is transgender because he or she can relate to that person on a more intimate level.
However, Barr said he wants people take initiative and try to educate themselves on the issue.
Most importantly, he wants people to understand that being transgender is just another part of who they are as individuals.
“The only thing that’s different is that we’re changing our physical body and appearance is some way, shape or form,” Barr said. “We’re people, too.”