On November 18, 2010, representatives of the Cincinnati Transgender community and its allies came together at Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC) to commemorate Transgender Day of Remembrance. Transgender Day of Remembrance is a global event held in honor of self-identified transgender individuals who lost their lives because of hatred, intolerance and indifference. The event was co-sponsored by the Cincinnati chapter of Human Rights Campaign, a non-profit organization that advocates for equal rights for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender individuals, and representation from Greater Cincinnati Comittment, an initiative of the Cincinnatus Association that seeks to make Cincinnati a more tolerant, welcoming community. Cincinnati Vice Mayor Roxanne Qualls, the keynote speaker for the evening, also brought messages of support from the office of Mayor Mark Mallory.
Rabbi Kenneth E. Ehrlich, Dean of HUC, provided opening remarks that set the tone for the evening, expressing pride that Jewish tradition places great importance on “making room at the table for everybody.” Following his remarks, Vice Mayor Qualls offered a message of hope and strength for the LGBT community and its allies, reflecting on the journey that Cincinnati has taken towards embracing diversity and becoming more welcoming to all people. Prayerful meditations, commemorations and silent reflection followed, read aloud by Human Rights Campaign representatives and allies of the transgender community. During the candle-lighting ceremony that followed, in which the memory of those transgender individuals who lost their lives over the previous year was acknowledged, the candlelight’s solemn glow was a moving reminder of why Transgender Day of Remembrance is so important to commemorate.
I spoke with a member of Cincinnati’s transgender community who provided me with poignant insight into what being transgender means on a day-to-day basis. For those who don’t know, a transgender person is someone whose gender self-identification is not the same as the physical sex and the gender assigned to them at birth. Some transgender people choose to express their gender identity through dressing as the opposite gender, whereas some individuals choose to undergo a complete sex-change operation so that their physical sex matches their gender self-identification, with hundreds of variations in between. He suggested imagining the following scenario: “Pick out the ugliest, worst-fitting, most awful outfit you can imagine, including hair and makeup. Wear it for a full day, out in public. At the end of the day,” he told me, “take off these clothes and dress in a way that truly expresses who you are, in a way that you love. This ability to feel completely like your true self is a feeling a transgender person rarely has until surgery and other treatments allow that person to feel more and more like who they truly are inside.”
The realization that your gender identity and your biological sex do not match can be the beginning of a long and often challenging journey towards becoming who you were meant to be. For those who undergo a sex-change, the resulting physical and emotional stressors can be overwhelming. Many transgender individuals attempt to or successfully commit suicide, or turn to substance abuse at various points throughout the process because of the seemingly insurmountable legal, economic and social hurdles they face. Once the medical and surgical hurdles have been tackled, the legal rights of a transgender person who has a sex-change are still not always guaranteed. In Ohio, for example, a person who changes their sex cannot have their birth certificate changed to reflect it, which will impact his or her ability to marry, raise children and enjoy the same rights and privileges of other Americans. For the individual I spoke with, the ways in which he feels his community has been mistreated by our country’s medical and legal systems are only a few of the “1,001 reasons there are to just give up” on going through the process altogether.
The hurdles continue after surgery is over. Losing the right to privacy and the control over how one’s identity is perceived by others can be traumatic at best and fatal at worst. Gender identity-based hate-crimes committed against transgender people have often resulted in death but have been under-reported in the media. According to Transgender Day of Remembrance International, “more than one person per month has died due to Transgender-based hate or prejudice, regardless of any other factors in their lives [in the past decade.]”
Transgender Day of Remembrance sought to raise awareness in Cincinnati of all the challenges facing this community today. For those of you out there who may be struggling with the same feelings as many transgender individuals today, my contact who so bravely shared with me his own story of self-realization has some words of encouragement: “Relish every moment of the journey that brings you to yourself, learn to love the person you once hated, be able to honor that person that brought you to your true self, have hope for the future and try and forgive the ignorance, prejudice and bigotry that exists in a world in need of repair.” For those out there who may have never met a transgender person, he says, “it is important to educate yourself and get to know members of our community who are human beings just like you.” Only by being able to appreciate each other as human beings can we fight the intolerance that transgender men and women face every day and make room for them at our collective table.
Andrea Nadel is a native of Cincinnati who has returned to the Queen City after a four-year hiatus. An alumna of The Ohio State University, Andrea confesses that she has absolutely no enthusiasm for football despite the Buckeyes’ best efforts, but she does enjoy travelling, learning foreign languages, following Israeli politics and music, and growing vegetables in her backyard.