What it's like to be transgender in Colorado

What it's like to be transgender in Colorado

CultureMay 27, 2016 By Isabelle Kohn

“I have never heard of any negative experiences associated with them.”

That's Sable Schultz, Transgender Program Manager of the GLBT Community Center of Colorado, speaking about trans people’s experience using the restroom in this state.

Sable is the sort of person you'd go to see if you were trans and experienced harassment or assault in a public restroom. However, she doesn’t really hear about that here. Doesn't mean it doesn't happen, but if it does, she's not hearing about it.

And she shouldn’t. In Colorado, the vast majority of bathrooms are non-gendered, single occupancy commodes which anyone can use. But for situations where restrooms are gendered, Colorado’s Anti-Discrimination Act protects a transgendered person’s right to choose whichever restroom they feel most comfortable using. Translation? Mundane activities like bathroom use that some states criminalize, receive the opposite treatment in Colorado. Here, the biological needs and social rights of our trans population legal protection, that of which extends far beyond the bathroom.

In North Carolina, things are different. Not everyone can use the restroom.

That’s because of HB-2, the highly controversial bill recently passed by North Carolina that requires residents to use the bathroom of their gender listed on their birth certificate.

However, in the eyes of North Carolina’s legislature, trans women aren’t women, and trans men aren’t men. This means they’re legally required to use the bathroom opposite of their chosen gender … or not use the bathroom at all.

If the latter option fails and nature calls, loudly, it doesn’t take a rocket scientists to see how this could turn into a dangerous situation for a trans person. And it does.

According to a 2013 Williams Institute report, 70 percent of trans people have reported being denied entrance, harassed or assaulted while trying to use a public restroom.

Meanwhile trans people have denied entrance to, harassed or assaulted exactly zero people in bathrooms. Statements from the Transgender Law Center, the Human Rights Campaign and the American Civil Liberties Union have confirmed that trans people are statistically always the victims, not the perpetrators of the kind of bathroom violence HB-2 was designed to deter.

Of course, trans people and their bathroom habits aren’t the sole targets of HB-2. Much has been written about how the bill weaponizes bigotry in order to undermine the civil rights of racial minorities, the poor and the entire LGBT spectrum as well. However, trans people have become the poster children of North Carolina’s aptly named “hate legislation.” An unexpectedly positive side effect of that the controversy that followed? HB-2 has entirely changed the conversation about trans life in America. In the process, many of the issues trans people face in their daily lives have come into the spotlight.

It’s easy to imagine that trans people living in traditionally conservative areas of the country would have the hardest time facing these issues. It’s even easier to imagine that in Colorado’s relatively progressive landscape, we treat our trans community better than a state like North Carolina does … but is that really the case?

It’s hard to tell, because you don’t hear that much about trans issues here. It’s not that they’re not happening, but they’re certainly not making national headlines like they are in North Carolina, Alabama or some other analogous Southern locale. Or, at least they weren’t until the passage of HB-2. Despite the fact that there are approximately 16,000 trans people living in Colorado, trans life in this state is undercover.

What is life in Colorado for a trans person actually like though? I’d like to believe that since we haven’t passed any hate legislation on par with HB-2, that trans people feel more free to be themselves here. Maybe they feel safer, like their needs are met; like their voices are heard. I had a feeling that wasn’t necessarily the case though.

So, I did what I wish I had done a lot earlier and reached out. I spoke with several trans women (I was unable to reach any trans men), as well the wonderful, aforementioned Sable Schultz about what it’s actually like to be trans in this state and how Colorado measures up.

What I found was illuminating. The the biggest lesson I learned was this: If you’re a trans person, there are worse places to live than Colorado. Our state ranks high on the list of Places That Don’t Totally Suck, but the reality is the issues that trans people face in Colorado are no different than anywhere else.

According to research done by the Movement Advancement Project, trans people nationwide face pervasive and staggering inequalities that affect them at inordinately higher rates than other populations.

Across the board, if you’re trans, you’re way more likely to die in your 30s, attempt or commit suicide, be unemployed, experience physical and sexual assault, endure hate crimes, struggle with mental illness like depression and anxiety, be addicted to drugs, be mistreated by the police and be incarcerated at much higher rates. All these factors are only likelier if you also happen to be a minority. Black trans women, for example, have an average life expectancy of 35 years.

Think about that number. Thirty-five. Thirty-five is the age most people get married, have kids and settle down. Barring some tragic accident, 35 is not when you die.

I asked Sable which of these issues she felt was most relevant in Colorado.

“I feel employment is the biggest challenge faced by my community,” she told me. “The economy is already pretty rough and trans people are at even greater risk for unemployment and poverty. I frequently get calls in from people looking for job leads, and unfortunately there is very little direct outreach to our community I can refer people do.”

Sable is right. Even in wealthy, educated, progressive areas like Boulder, a whopping 20 percent of trans people are unemployed. Even if a trans person does manage to find a job, 18 percent of them are part-time and offer only 32 hours or less per week. This shouldn’t be so in a state like Colorado, which has the fourth lowest unemployment rate in the country with only 3.1 percent of the population out of a job.

Paradoxically, even when a trans person is highly educated, there is still a monumental discrepancy between education and employment rates in Colorado. As the Daily Camera points out, trans people are twice as likely as the general population to hold a college degree, yet twice as likely to live below the poverty line.

Stratospheric unemployment rates for trans people have other; more serious effects though.  Oftentimes, joblessness leads to trans people being poor or homeless, forcing them into underground survival economies like prostitution or the drug trade. This in turn makes them more likely to find themselves booked in the criminal justice system instead. It's a vicious cycle: No job, no money, break the law, get out, no one will hire you, no money, break the law …

Then there’s the issue of health. No job = no insurance. That matters more than you might realize for a trans person, for whom money is inherently tied into maintaining their identity.

Look at it this way; it costs money to change who you are. If you want to undergo gender reassignment surgery, say hello to a $25,000-$50,000 medical bill for the operation alone. Add to that the cost of hormones, medication and check-ups, and you’re in debilitating, life-long debt territory unless you’re lucky enough to have a well-paying job or rich and understanding parents. It’s expensive, but often not having the surgery leads to mental health complications; trans people feel like they’re lying to themselves and others, like they’re uncomfortable in their own skin, like they hate who they are, and often suffer from body dysmorphia. Imagine what this must be like; every second of your existence is marred by feeling like you’re not who you’re meant to be, but the only solution to that kind of suffering is out of reach.

One trans woman named Jessica Warner I spoke with told me she can “still throw her boobs at people,” which makes her feel horrible; like she’s a fake person. She’s saving for top surgery, but until she gets it, the part of her life that makes her feel whole is also just an inanimate object on which she downloads context and meaning. Think about that; what if your entire sense of identity was wound up in a transient object that could get lost at any time? That's something that many transgender people in Colorado, and the rest of the country for that matter, have to grapple with on a daily basis.

All that being said, Colorado is a (relatively) good place to be trans. Life is hard anywhere when you feel like you were born in the wrong body, but the avalanche of shit that sometimes accompanies seems to be more manageable here than in other parts of the country.

Other states like Alabama, Michigan and South Dakota have laws legalizing discrimination against the LGBT community with clauses that say religious people can mistreat and refuse service to whoever they want. Louisiana even restricts same-sex couples from jointly adopting and makes it illegal for educators to talk about LGBT topics during sexual education class. In Alabama, teachers are actually required to portray homosexuality and transgender people in a negative light, reminding students that neither are acceptable lifestyles and both are criminal behaviors punishable by law.

Meanwhile, Colorado has robust and encompassing anti-discrimination laws, educators are free to talk about LGBT stuff all they want, and same-sex couples can definitely adopt. There’s even some attempt to integrate the trans community into Colorado’s political sphere; Mayor Hancock has an LGBTQ advisory commission, which contains trans people in its ranks. In turn, both OneColorado and the Gender Identity Center of Colorado work on engaging with legislators about trans related legislation.

Perhaps those reasons explain why the Movement Advancement Project rated Colorado “high” in equity for its trans population, while Pride.com included Colorado in its Top 6 Best States to Live In as a Trans Person list, citing our anti-discrimination laws that protect trans people from discrimination in housing, public accommodations, and employment, as well as legislation that requires insurance companies to include transgender people’s coverage. Thanks to that law, private insurers can not consider being gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender a pre-existing condition, or decide what is and what isn’t medically necessary for an individual. They can also not deny transgender Coloradans services that are offered to cisgender (non-transgender) Coloradans or discriminate based on sexual orientation or gender identity. Additionally, Colorado is one of only nine states that offers trans-inclusive Medicaid coverage, which can make all the difference given the unemployment rates mentioned above.

Add to that the fact that the tiny town of Trinidad was once dubbed the “Sex Change Capital of the World” — there are plenty of trans and LGBT advocacy and support groups in the state, and the fact that many of our school districts have been praised by the U.S. Department of Justice as national examples for treatment of transgender students and … it’s just a friendlier, more accepting environment. 

At least that’s what it looks like on paper. What about personal experiences?

Interestingly, all of the women I interviewed seemed to agree Colorado is a mostly welcoming environment with negative side effects than they’d expected. A few of the women I spoke with were even surprised at ambivalence people have towards them here.

“After coming to Denver, I quickly got nervous, but then I realized no one really cares,” said Madison Harper, a trans woman I spoke with who surprised to learn people were more accepting here than she’d thought.

Another lady named Bella confirmed that by bringing up a point I think we can all relate to: “It might not seem like it, but no one really cares what you’re doing. People are only worried about themselves. As long as you stay out of their way and vice versa, there’s no problem. But you could say the same thing whether you’re trans or cis, it doesn’t matter.”

She’s got a point; most of the time, we’re not being watched, targeted, or even batted an eyelash at. For the most part, people just wanted to be treated kindly and with respect, and that’s why most of the time, people don’t go around gouging each other’s eyes out.

Jessica Warner even cited an example of a time she was shocked how well she was treated … in jail.

She’d been brought into jail on an I.D. warrant, but instead of being thrown in the men’s section and getting eaten alive, the following happened: She was not only given a choice of pronoun and being referred to by her legal or chosen name, but was also allowed to keep her prosthetic breasts on and was given the option for segregation in a private cell in the women’s section away from the main prison population because her chances of getting torn to shreds in that setting were high. At every stage of her booking, her female gender as acknowledged and accommodated for, despite the fact that the name on her driver’s license clearly said “Rob.”

When she asked the police why, they simply referenced Colorado’s legal code that prohibits discrimination.

Bella from earlier told me about a time she was out with friends in not-so-liberal Fort Collins, and started talking to a group of men. Somehow, it came out she was trans, and while everyone seemed taken aback and kind of awkward about it, they simply smiled, had another drink, then left.

“I’ve been beat up here, but stuff like that happens less and less. At least to me. I think the problem for them is they didn’t know what to say, not that they had a problem with me. I’d been sitting there talking with them for a while … it seems like as soon as someone talks to a trans person or gets to know them, it becomes a non-issue,” she said. “Things are getting better.”

In an interview with the Daily Camera, a woman named Charlotte Io had the same experience, the one where people were accepting, but not quite socially adroit.

"... Even if an individual is friendly and accepting of the concept of transgender, there's still an awareness that there's a significant percentage of the population that isn't,” she said.

Across the board, the women I spoke with seemed to agree they felt comfortable in their skin in Colorado. That doesn’t mean Colorado is entirely is safe for trans people but it mirror the experiences of trans Coloradans and allies I spoke with.

“I think compared to most other states Colorado is more supportive and progressive,” said Sable. “I think overall though, there is always a certain level of apprehension and anxiety among members of the trans community, even in states like Colorado. Most members of the trans community have experienced some level of resistance or even violence as they have negotiated trying to realize themselves. Those experiences continue to stick with a person throughout their life. In addition, with a lot of the anti-trans legislation and rhetoric coming out, it can be difficult not to end up internalizing it and worry if it could come here.”

Sable isn’t lying about the resistance and violence trans people face here, though, and I want to make the crystal clear point that in saying Colorado is a better place to live, I don’t mean to trivialize the nature and scope of what our trans community continues to face, especially in certain areas of the state.

“A lot of what life is like in Colorado is going to depend on where a person lives,” says Sable. “In places like the Denver Metro area and Boulder, there are a lot more resources than the more rural parts of the state. In places like Fort Collins, Pueblo, in the mountain towns, and the Western Slope, there are few therapists, physicians, and support services for trans people.”

After all, laws are only enforceable in places where something can be done. In rural towns like Walsenburg, Colorado, sometimes anti-trans bigotry is so ingrained that it’s untouchable.

That’s where a trans woman I talked to named Madison Harper was brutalized. In addition to being stabbed, shot and beaten, she said she’s faced bigotry, discrimination, been told to cut her hair and bind her breasts, and lost important relationships as she navigated her identity. On top of that, she felt helpless to do anything about it; trans women are seven times more likely to be victims of violence and mistreatment by police.

“Walsenburg, I couldn't do anything about the job because it would have taken eighteen months to get an investigator who's tired, sore, and doesn't want to be out there, and he wouldn't have cared by that point. The law was not enforceable.”

Of course, this was in Walsenburg, Colorado, but you’re thinking that kind of violence and personal devastation is limited to rural, conservative Colorado, that’s not at all the case. Progressive, liberal, forward-thinking Boulder and Denver also have their fair share of violence against the trans community.

“Though I've been in Denver for only a year, I’ve been fetishized, stalked and raped up,” said Madison.

Bella, too. “I got beat up in Denver,” she said, speaking of her time working in prostitution. “Guys don’t always like it when they find you’ve got something extra down there.”

Interestingly, many people in trans community believe that improved legislation would do nothing to curb the violence they continue to face.

“As much as people like to think it would help, frankly, improved legislation would do nothing,” said Madison.  “All of the violence I faced in Walsenburg was the result of a closed community of right wing extremists. Improved legislation just would have painted a bigger target on my back.”

So then, what is there to do?

“I think people need a hard cultural reset,” said Madison. “Working in fast food, I've realized something.  As minimum wage, I'm already sub-human.  As trans, as far as most people seem concerned, I've got no more right to respect and courtesy than a robot arm at a factory.”

As a society, we can’t go on thinking of our neighbors and community members like that. And the only way to stop that cycle of thinking is to learn as much as we can about the trans people around us and what they go through on a daily basis just to get by. That, and we need to listen to trans voices when they speak up.

“I wish more cis (non-trans) people were willing to take the time to educate themselves about the experiences of trans people and more willing to stand up and speak out against when they witness trans related discrimination or microaggressions,” said Sable. “I think they know we exist … but wish they were more willing to listen to our stories and accept that trans people are experts in our identities and experiences.” She feels acknowledged, but not adequately heard.

Finally, there is very little positive representation of trans people in media. Yeah, there’s the gorgeous and talented Laverne Cox of Orange is the New Black, the TV show Transparent, Caitlyn Jenner and a few characters on TV shows like The L Word who are blazing trails, but as strong and inspiring as those women are, their numbers are limited. For trans people, this lack of visibility can negatively impact self-esteem and self-worth. We need to see more real, everyday stories that frame the entire trans experience in a positive light; not just the rare E! Special about the actual transition process.

And there are positive stories. There is joy in being able to express who you are. And there is genuine acceptance, understanding and love in the lives of trans people. It’s not all bad, especially in our state. In fact trans live mirror cis lives in almost every way, but sometimes you have to focus on what’s hard to hear to have your voice heard.

“People are fairly happy in Colorado,” said Sable. “We see a lot of success stories of people who transition and are able to focus on their lives. And we are seeing more and more youth being supported in their identities and transitions.”

Colorado, despite its faults, is a good place. Not a perfect one, but a good one. This something I though Madison described best: “For the most part, I am safe. I have work and a boyfriend who loves me, so I'm pretty happy. I also have plans on moving forward with my life.”