- Associated Press - Friday, July 10, 2015

WICHITA, Kan. (AP) - Olympic champion Bruce Jenner sat down in April and told Diane Sawyer that he was, “for all intents and purposes,” a woman. Soon, he said, he’d look like one, too.

A few weeks later, Caitlyn Jenner appeared on the cover of Vanity Fair magazine. Her hair was perfect. Her makeup was flawless. Her clothes were designer. Her figure, transformed seemingly overnight by high-dollar surgeries, was impressive. She was lauded by many for her bravery.

Meanwhile, in Wichita, Brenda Way was out of coffee creamer. She ran into a local grocery store but needed to use the restroom, and as she came out of the stall, a woman confronted her.

Way, who began her transition from male to female less than a year ago, is unemployed, fired from her job as a dishwasher, she said, when a male co-worker was offended that she called him “sweetie.” Her then-wife threw her out of the house when her transition started, and for about six weeks she lived under a bridge near Maple Street. She wears blue eyeshadow and short skirts with wedge heels, but she hasn’t yet begun the long and uncertain process of changing her gender on her driver’s license, which makes finding another job difficult.

The woman told Way she was in the wrong restroom and to get out, The Wichita Eagle (https://bit.ly/1RdP8f6 ) reported.

“I basically shrugged her off and went and got my creamer,” Way said. “I was standing in the coffee aisle with one of those baskets trying to pick out what I wanted, and all the sudden, she comes running up the aisle with the security guard going, ‘That’s him! That’s him! That’s the man who was in the woman’s restroom!’”

Jenner’s recent coming-out party was a good sign for transgender people, say local members of the transgender community and the experts who serve them. But Jenner’s experience - and the experiences of other high-profile transgender people like Laverne Cox, Jazz Jennings and Chaz Bono - is not typical, they say. Most transgender people are poor. Many are struggling with issues ranging from homelessness to joblessness to suicide. Many avoid going out in public for fear of being ridiculed or worse. And very few of them will ever be able to afford the expensive surgeries that would make their transformations complete.

Those are the people whom Way, 50, and her partner, friend and fellow activist Elle Boatman, 35, are trying to help with a new support and social group they’ve launched called Witcon, which stands for Wichita Transgender Community Network.

The pair recently put on the group’s first meeting, which drew a small crowd that was half transgender people, half representatives from local outreach groups. Way and Boatman say their goal is to help pave the way for local transgender people so they won’t have to endure the isolation, loneliness and fear that they experienced during their own transitions.

They want to provide a place for local transgender people to find support, friendship, even clothing and makeup tips. But most of all, they want to create a transgender presence in Wichita so that people can become more familiar with and accepting of their existence. They want to stop feeling afraid to leave their houses, terrified to use public restrooms. What Jenner and other trans celebrities are starting nationally, they say, they hope to finish locally.

“I think trans celebrities definitely have their place in the moment and in society,” Boatman said. “But I’m not a trans celebrity, and so my place is to raise the awareness and visibility of more everyday, typical trans people who don’t have the resources and the support that often comes with high-profile transitions. Because that’s where things need to change.”

Though no one knows how many transgender people are living in the United States - it’s not an option on the U.S. Census - the most frequently cited study by UCLA’s Williams Institute estimates that it’s 0.3 percent of the adult population, or about 700,000 people.

Jenner is just one celebrity pushing transgender issues into the public consciousness of late. Transgender people are not the mainstream mystery they were even a few years ago, and recently, they’ve become pop culture fixtures.

Last year, “Orange Is the New Black” transgender star Cox was on the cover of Time magazine and became the first transgender person nominated for an Emmy. In January, the Amazon series “Transparent,” about a family with a father who decides to transition into a woman, won a Golden Globe for best comedy series. In March, the daytime soap “The Bold and the Beautiful” revealed that a long-standing character was transgender. And earlier this month, ABC Family launched the docu-series “Becoming Us” about a teenage boy in Illinois whose father is undergoing gender reassignment surgery. Jenner soon will have her own reality show, as will Jazz Jennings, a transgender teen activist. Jenner’s show, “I Am Cait,” will premiere on the E! network on July 26.

But even with the growing visibility, everyday life is still a struggle for people whose inward selves and outward selves are different genders, experts say. The most recent statistics are grim.

A 2011 study by the Williams Institute found that 41 percent of people who are transgender or gender-nonconforming have attempted suicide, nearly nine times the national average. A study from the same year called Injustice at Every Turn, put together by the National Center for Transgender Equality and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, polled 6,140 people from all 50 states and found that transgender people were nearly four times more likely to have a yearly household income of less than $10,000.

They were unemployed at twice the rate of the general population, and 90 percent reported being harassed, mistreated or discriminated against on the job. Of the respondents, 63 percent had experienced a serious act of discrimination, including losing a job, being bullied, being evicted or being homeless.

In conservative Kansas, the issues are often amplified, said Sandra Meade, the state chair for Equality Kansas. Many transgender people in the state are too scared to go out in public as the gender they identify with. Many hide their feelings and never make an outward transition, said Meade, a transgender woman.

“We live in a very conservative state where the current political climate is not very welcoming of the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender) community, and certainly, the discomfort with the LGBT community is amplified,” Meade said.

Way and Boatman say they don’t need to read the statistics. They’ve both lived them.

Boatman grew up in a religious family in Dayton, Ohio, she said, first with an alcoholic father and then with an abusive stepfather. She always knew there was something different about her, but pre-Internet, she didn’t know what it was and didn’t have the language to express how she felt. She didn’t want to play with the boys. She wanted to play with the girls.

“Then, they invented the affordable home computer and the Internet, and I got on the Internet, and I’m looking things up, and that’s when I came across the term transgender,” she said. “And I was really relieved to learn I was not the only person who felt like that.”

But Boatman said it wasn’t safe to confide in anyone in her family. As soon as the turned 18, she left the house and eventually joined the Air Force, hoping to prove her manhood to herself and her family. She married, had two children and tried to focus on building a career.

The feelings didn’t go away. She was married for 10 years before her wife discovered her secret. “I ended up coming out to her on Christmas Eve of 2008,” Boatman said. “She found a bag of fabulous clothes in the house that weren’t hers, and they needed explaining.”

The next few years were a blur of pills and alcohol and suicide attempts, Boatman said. The Air Force reassigned her to McConnell and required her to undergo weekly counseling. She was eventually discharged and spent years in and out of mental hospitals. She tried to commit suicide more than a dozen times, she said.

“It’s really a choice,” she said. “You can live trapped or depressed and live up to everybody else’s expectations or you can come out and be yourself and be largely disowned and discredited and forgotten about.”

In 2012, Boatman found a counselor, and after a few months, she decided that making the transition from male to female was the only way to end her cycle of pain. She began hormone replacement therapy and started living her life as a woman. She had been working at Wichita State University as an event organizer for a year and a half as a man. One day, she returned to work as Elle.

The transition at work was difficult, she said, and many people didn’t know how to react. There were arguments about restroom issues, and WSU started offering training on transgender people in the workplace, training that’s still offered today, even though Boatman no longer works there.

During her transition, she attended several support groups and didn’t like them. They required first-timers to come alone or attracted people who had political agendas. Her transition was so difficult, she said, that she felt it was her duty to do something to help make it easier for the next person. She started a blog called The Face of Trans, which featured photos of trans people living in Kansas and their stories. For the past several years, she has been offering presentations to local groups about transgender stereotypes.

“I do it really because I don’t want another trans person to go through the same loneliness and depression that I had to go through in my transition,” Boatman said.

Way watched Boatman’s transition from afar and admired her courage, she said. The two were Facebook friends, and Way followed her Face of Trans blog.

Way’s story is similar. She grew up in Minneapolis, and said she recently found out she was born intersex, with underdeveloped female genitalia that was eliminated through surgery when she was a baby.

When she hit puberty, she began to develop breasts, and her father insisted she begin taking testosterone. But she still never felt like she was a boy. She’d never heard the word transgender and guessed that the bullies at school were right - maybe her effeminate characteristics meant she was gay.

She joined the Army when she was 17 but was discharged four years later. Way has been married to three women. During her last marriage, the feelings she’d had her whole life became too hard to fight. Way had attempted suicide five times when she finally found a therapist who helped her recognize that she wasn’t confused about her sexuality. She was transgender.

“I was miserable, and there was this wonderful, confident woman that was screaming to come out of me,” she said. “I felt more comfortable, more confident when I was in women’s clothes. When I was in men’s clothes I was always uptight and anxious and really uncomfortable. I felt like I wanted to just crawl out of my own skin.”

In September of last year, Way threw out all of her men’s clothes, started hormone replacement therapy and began her life as a woman. Her wife asked her to leave the house.

She was homeless and slept on friends’ couches for a while before living under the bridge. Her entire family disowned her, she said, and she had to give up two of her beloved hobbies - riding motorcycles and playing disc golf. The first group no longer accepted her. The second one doesn’t allow transgender people to compete in sanctioned events, she said.

The past eight months have been marked with loneliness and despair and more suicide attempts, Way said.

“It’s been really tough. Now, even though I’m a happier person on the inside with myself and with who I am, now I’m realizing there are a lot of different struggles - with dysphoria, with how you feel about your looks, your progress on your feminization. You have to fight loneliness and you have to fight the struggles of not having a job, and it’s miserable because there’s nothing out there for us, and you basically feel like you’re on this journey completely by yourself.”

Key to understanding the transgender struggle is understanding transgenderism, said Caroline Gibbs, a clinical counselor who 12 years ago founded the Transgender Institute in Kansas City, Missouri, which helps the transgender population with therapy, career and insurance counseling, support groups and more. It even puts on classes to help transgender people learn how to convincingly sound gender-appropriate when they speak. Gibbs, who estimates she and her colleagues have served 1,200 people since opening, said her long-term goal is to open a shelter for transgender people in Kansas City.

The most important thing to understand, she said, is that transgender people do not choose to feel the way they do. Almost every major medical association, including the American Medical Association, labels gender dysphoria a medical condition, she said. People are simply born feeling like they’re in the wrong bodies, and they never feel comfortable.

Even those who doubt that can’t reasonably think that anyone would willingly choose such a difficult path, she said.

“We’ve never had one person say, ‘Yay! This is so much fun. It’s great being trans,’” she said. “No one would want to spend over $100,000 on operations, et cetera, in order to just get by in society. No one would want to be ridiculed and marginalized. This has nothing to do with what one chooses.”

Since the Jenner story broke, Gibbs said, she’s seen an increase in the number of people coming for services. And they’re not just transgender adults like Boatman and Way. They’re also teenagers and children and their parents, too. Experts, like Jill Jacobson, a pediatric endocrinologist at Children’s Mercy Hospital in Kansas City, are particularly interested in transgender feelings in children, who sometimes show signs as young as 2 or 3 years old.

People also need to understand, Gibbs said, that gender identity and sexual orientation are unrelated. Some trans women are interested in men. Some are interested in women. Some are interested in men that have transitioned into women. (Way and Boatman recently started a relationship, for example.) That has nothing to do with what gender they feel they are inside, Gibbs said, and people trying to understand get too hung up on that.

“Gender identity is what sits inside of you, and everyone has that sense inside of whether you’re a boy or a girl or man or a woman,” she said. “The two have nothing to do with each other.”

On a recent Thursday night, a group of about 20 people gathered at The Center of Wichita for the first official meeting of Witcon, Way’s and Boatman’s new transgender group. Some attendees knew each other. Others clearly knew no one there. They nervously helped themselves to pizza and soda then selected seats at one of several long tables.

Way stood at the front of the room holding a large tool box. She loudly banged it onto the podium.

“I want to tell you a story - a story about a box,” she said, her voice shaking. “On April 27, I stood on this box with a noose around my neck, trying to think of one reason not to step off the box. I sat there, and I cried, and I begged God to give me a reason. And I was angry, and I was cussing at the fact that things should be better for transgender people. It shouldn’t be this hard. We shouldn’t have to struggle. We should have equality like everybody else. We’re human, too.”

Way got an idea that got her off the box, she said. Maybe she could be the one to start the change. She met with a local transgender leader, who encouraged her to start a support group for local trans people. She took the idea to Boatman, whose Face of Trans blog she’d admired. Boatman hugged her and told her she’d been mulling over the same idea for three years.

The two came up with a name - Witcon - and decided they’d start with first-week-of-the-month social gatherings at bowling alleys, movie theaters, maybe even the new glow golf course, and also third-week-of-the-month support group meetings that would feature speakers and be open to any transgender person or trans ally.

“When I started my transition and started going to support groups, I really wanted to make it easier for trans people to find trans things,” Boatman said at the meeting. “I really wanted it to be that people actually saw trans people. How do you get used to something if you’ve never seen it? A lot of people freak out when they see trans people. They don’t know how to interact with them and treat them with respect. And well, duh, they’ve never met a trans person.”

Next was a round of introductions. The meeting had drawn several people from the outreach community: the president of Pride Kansas; the outreach advocate from the Wichita Sexual Assault Center; an at-large board member from Equality Kansas.

But it also drew several trans men and trans women. Katie said she had recently transitioned and didn’t know any other trans people in town. Karen had been going to support groups for years and had high hopes for this one. Thomas was one week on hormone replacement therapy. Finn said he’d heard about the group and wanted to see what it was all about.

Grayson Barnes had an encouraging story to share.

He started his transition in a very public way at Butler Community College, where he teaches humanities and art appreciation and is president of Butler’s Education Association. It happened one day at a meeting at work. He crossed his female name off his name tag and wrote in Grayson.

People at work have been accepting, though a few seem frightened of him or steer clear, but he’s had no major problems, he said.

“I told them, ‘I feel like I would like to get a new nameplate for my door,’ and they changed my nameplate on my door,” he said. “For the most part, people are referring to me by my new name. A few colleagues I’ve known the longest still refer to me as my former name, and I’m trying to be as kind as possible. I haven’t had any problems yet, but one of the things about Butler is that in the last three or four years, there has been an increasing number of openly trans students. I’ve had trans students in my classes, and I’ve also had students dating trans people.”

Like Barnes, other trans people in Wichita say it’s not all gloomy news. Attitudes are changing, including locally, though it’s slow.

Way points to two encouraging developments: After sharing her story about the restroom at the grocery store, workers at the KU clinic where she gets her hormone injections changed the signs on the restrooms. One door has a male symbol; the other has a female symbol. But both doors have a half man/half female symbol.

Also, Way told those gathered at the Witcon meeting, when she called Botanica about organizing an outing for Witcon there, the staff was welcoming and even excited to have them, she said.

Boatman, who offers presentations around town about transgender sensitivity, has been getting more and more invites from community groups, medical first responders and hospital workers.

Though it will likely be years, maybe even a decade, before trans people are accepted by society, said Sandra Meade with Equality Kansas, she sees progress all the time.

And Caitlyn Jenner and Laverne Cox, even though their stories aren’t reflective of the mainstream, are certainly helping to get the message to the mainstream.

“It absolutely is getting better,” she said. “I’ll tell you the changes over the last two to three years have been absolutely mind-boggling, as have been the rate and pace of visibility and of growing tolerance and acceptance. But we don’t want to be tolerated. You tolerate a headache. We want to be accepted.”

___

Information from: The Wichita (Kan.) Eagle, https://www.kansas.com


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