Sun Shine: Finding support can be a transformational experience

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Our meeting had been pushed back the day before, then again in the afternoon. The final update arrived 45 minutes before the scheduled powwow was set to begin: I’m assisting a Trans client who was just released from the hospital to get home!

The Williams Institute at UCLA estimates that roughly 700,000 Americans identify as transgender. Collectively over the course of two meetings per week, about two dozen of these individuals can be found at AIDS Project Worcester. Trans4mations, the only transgender and gender non-binary (meaning not identifying with either gender) support group in Worcester County, began on April 14, 2014. There were two in attendance, one the woman we were about to meet, the other her friend.

“Support groups really fulfill the need of a sounding board and an opportunity to talk through challenges, whatever they may be,” says Mason Dunn, executive director of the Massachusetts Transgender Political Coalition. Transgender support groups, though, vary in efficacy depending on audience or an individual’s personal experience, Dunn notes: “In more rural areas,” he says, “it provides a sense of community where many people feel in isolation. In larger areas, where there is already a sense of community, the program can be a great way to work through challenges that trans people face in a variety of ways.”

As we sit amongst stacked files, and literature, the meeting finally underway, Chastity Bowick inadvertently answers the lingering question of what Trans4mations is all about. “You’re coming to receive and give support, respect each other, and give amnesty,” says Bowick, the facilitator of Trans4mations and case manager at AIDS Project Worcester. “Participate, do not dominate,” she continues, is an ethos of the meetings, alternating between education and presentation to game nights and field trips. The goal for Bowick is “[to keep] it fresh and keeping up with the transgender issues that are in the news,” but “this is not high school,” and she does not allow for superficial judgments.

Chastity Bowick, facilitator of Trans4mations, a transgender support group backed by AIDS Project Worcester.

Courtesy Chastity Bowick

Chastity Bowick, facilitator of Trans4mations, a transgender support group backed by AIDS Project Worcester.

Bowick may have founded Trans4mations, but first she had to find Worcester. “I was a client of the Transgender Emergency Fund back in September 2013,” Bowick says candidly. “They helped me after leaving an abusive relationship in Boston, so I had nowhere to go, and I came here.”

Chastity Bowick knew she was different at age 7, living in Rochester, N.Y. At 14 she first understood she was transgender. The lack of individuals with whom to talk became maddening.

“It made me angry; it made me an angry child, and I was in a lot of fights.” Fearing transphobia from her family but also crushed to be living a lie, she moved to Boston and graduated from South Boston High in 2005 before pursuing her associate’s degree at Bunker Hill Community College.

Upon graduation, she immediately began transitioning, working to pay for her transition. The eight intervening years she describes simply as “crazy.” Prior to legislation barring gender identity discrimination in hiring and firing practices, Bowick claims she was fired from six jobs, believed to be due to her status as a transgender individual. At one job, she recounted, “I used to be called to the office about which bathroom I used, because once I started wearing female clothes I started using female bathrooms.” When suggested she switch, Bowick says she replied that while she didn’t have a problem, “I don’t think (men) would like that very much.”

Those eight years also challenged her personal resolve. She would eventually reintroduce herself to her family, breaking the process down; first conceptually, then years later as Chastity. Because, she notes, “it can be a blow to some family members.” At the same time, she continued seeing a boyfriend from high school, though one no one knew about, per the boyfriend’s direction. Three years into the relationship he became abusive; it took another year for the relationship to be confirmed to a friend.

Oscillating between toxic work and home environments to avoid one or the other became a vicious cycle. “The night before I came to Worcester, we got into a crazy argument, and when I looked at the face in the mirror, it was hard to recognize myself. It was hard to recognize with a busted eye and eyelids and lips and swollen cheeks,” she said.

AIDS Project Worcester's home base, 85 Green St.

Alex L. Khan / For Worcester Sun

AIDS Project Worcester’s home base, 85 Green St.

Choosing to come to Worcester did not mean Bowick wished to stay. “It felt like going from the city to the country,” she said, only deciding to stay after becoming involved in AIDS Project Worcester. She’s gone from a 10-hour-a-week position to 40 hours, to now working nebulous hours north of that. “Once I got involved with working, I started enjoying myself and I like getting up to go to work in the morning,” she says, behind her desk with its nonthreatening container of candy. “I was meant to be here for a reason.”

“I don’t want to spend most of my life hiding who I am from the world. … I wanted to figure out how to get my family safe, rather than get them into more difficulty.” — Whitney Reid, on leaving Jamaica to begin her transition

Reasons to stay
Whitney
For Whitney Reid, it was a 50-50 chance that she could even enter the United States, let alone be the only other member at the inaugural Trans4mations meeting. Born in Jamaica  — a country whose human rights situation for LGBT individuals has been described as “dire” in a report submitted to the United Nations — Whitney grew up in hiding because of the culture. She likened her and her peers’ experiences to suffocating. “The more you breathe, the more you can be attacked.” Her decision to exhale is what ultimately led her to the United States.

On March 8, 2013, We Are Jamaicans, a campaign to highlight lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender experiences in Jamaica, uploaded a video featuring Whitney in which she candidly rejected her mode of being. “I don’t want to spend most of my life hiding who I am from the world,” she said. After her gender identity was revealed, her life in Jamaica became an implausibility for her, and a liability for others. “I wanted to figure out how to get my family safe, rather than get them into more difficulty,” she says.

Whitney Reid, seen here in Worcester, fled Jamaica out of fear of the treatment she and her family would be subject to based on her gender identity.

Courtesy Whitney Reid

Whitney Reid, seen here in Worcester, fled Jamaica out of fear of the treatment she and her family would be subject to based on her gender identity.

J-Flag, the nonprofit organization that created the We Are Jamaicans campaign, stepped in and placed Whitney in a house while she began the process of receiving a B1/B2 visa to enter the United States. For over a month, she was required to once again hold her breath.

In fact, much of her time in Jamaica, Whitney herself did not identify as transgender. She explains “(in Jamaica) we don’t say ‘transgender, we say ‘crossdressers’ or ‘gay men.’ ” Elaborating, she notes there is neither the infrastructure of understanding nor treatment for transgender identities. Ironically, it was displacement that brought Whitney to a position in which she “observed and absorbed the whole concept of transgender.”

Getting off the plane  — first in North Carolina for a layover, then Boston  — she put on her heels, her only pair at the time (though now she has upwards of 30 as “there was no need for me to hesitate”), and “I was, like, ready,” she says, beginning hormone therapy on the Fourth of July of this year.

Damien
“The Omen, not Bruce Wayne’s son,” Damien says, giving a clue to the spelling of his name. Originally from Concord, Damien ran the rounds of boarding schools before finally checking himself out at 19. “I mean, technically, I could have stayed until I was 21,” he admits, “but I just didn’t want to.” The school organized transport, and Damien was dropped off at the People in Peril, or PIP, shelter in Main South, where he lived off an on from 2006 to 2009.

Having never been to Worcester, the shift was a “culture shock” for Damien. “I got introduced to drugs early,” he offers openly. “I didn’t know anybody, so I was trying to impress people, like ‘yeah I totally do this.’ ” Having already felt he was “pretending to be something (he) wasn’t,” this newest guise fit nearly as well. What began were three years of drug use: crack cocaine and heroin. Damien got married, had his first child  — a girl, given up for adoption  —  and gained a divorce.

Change arrived with Damien’s second husband. “He would take my shoes at night,” Damien explains, preventing him from leaving the shelter to acquire drugs or work in prostitution. However, it also left Damien at the shelter to suffer withdrawals. Through assistance at the shelter he became clean, he says, in 2007.

By 2012, married and long out of the shelter, Damien gave birth to a son. “I have pictures of them together,” he says now, referring to his two biological children, whom he requested be raised together. The prospect of meeting them one day leaves Damien processing, “I just want to make sure that they are comfortable with it, and that their parents are OK with it.”

The potential point of discomfort, Damien’s reality as a trans man, came only to Damien himself in 2013. A certified nurse’s assistant, Damien, while attending class, met a trans man for the first time. In his words, “It just kind of clicked.” Getting the click to resonate was the difficult aspect.

He first had to tell his husband. “As he puts it, he kind of knew,” Damien said. His husband researched for hours, while Damien was elsewhere. “I kind of was thinking about what people would think about it, more than what I would.”

However, deciding ultimately to live solely by his expectations has proved to be “f****** awesome.”

As he began transitioning in September of last year, starting hormones in October, Damien found his upbringing did help him in some ways. Being in therapy since he was 6, he was able to provide documentation and help a therapist be able to request testosterone and affirm Damien’s known identity. In totality, “It was a lot easier for me, because I did have someone who could do that right off the bat.”

Now, like many at Trans4mations on hormones, he picks his up from the CVS next to his house.

Lauren
Born into a traditional 1950s household, Lauren grew up instinctively knowing her life was not reflected by Norman Rockwell. “When I was 3, I didn’t know the words; I knew I was the same as the girls next door and different than the boys up the street.”

Lauren's road to Trans4mations was a long and winding one.

Alex L. Khan / For the Worcester Sun

Lauren’s road to Trans4mations was a long and winding one.

While she may have felt secure, her family and community did not. She was punished regularly as a child, she says, and between her first and second years at the University of Rochester, Lauren’s father placed her in Pilgrim State Hospital. “The theory was to fix everything,” she explains, though she says she recalls little of her time there. What she does recall is carrying a razor blade with her during her teens and early 20s, providing insurance for “a quick out.”

Lauren, of course, neither was fixed nor elected for the quick out. Instead, she chose to hitchhike, looking to join a hippy movement, before winding up in The Process — a religious cult that gained traction in the late ’60s  — for 20 years. “They were very homophobic and transphobic,” requiring her to “keep (her) shields up 24/7,” but they were also celibate, which provided its own advantages.

Leaving the cult, however, did not lower Lauren’s shields. In 1995 she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, and a year later she married. Continuing in a self-described stage of acting, working with a beard as an electrician for much of her time, she “basically lost (her) mind and went into an amorphous, unbeing state,” she says. An actor for most of her life, “It’s like my life script ran out, and I didn’t know what was next.”

The only thing she did find was “female.”

Looking toward professional help, Lauren’s first therapist attempted to teach her to be happy living as male, which “was an utter failure,” Lauren says. A second therapist would recommend her to a third, and it was in 2007 that Lauren first admitted what she knew personally. “I was so scared I was trembling,” she recalls, “I thought, ‘Oh my god, they’re going to commit me for sure.’ ”

Still, Lauren describes her time since her transition as “[the] happiest years of my life, with the MS and everything.”

“In fact,” she notes, “the MS Clinic at UMass Memorial told me after I transitioned my symptoms lightened up.”

The challenges continue
Safety is still a concern for members of the transgender community. To date this year, 17 transgender women of color have been murdered nationwide, according to an Aug. 26 statement from the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs.

Bowick recently received an email in response to a listing for the Trans4mations group. The letter began requesting the meeting to be held “some place like a hole or under a rock,” with requests to “please, animals, kill yourselves and stay away from us.”

“My fear as the facilitator,” Bowick says, “is I don’t want anyone getting hurt leaving or coming from group.” For that reason, the times for the groups are not publicly listed.

“There are a lot of unique issues that face LGBT older adults and caregivers, and the population of folks is clearly becoming larger; or people who are out, who are more active, essentially have issues accessing senior services in general.” — state Rep. Liz Malia

Two pieces of legislation have begun to make their way through Beacon Hill. Senate Bill 735 was filed jointly with House Bill 1577 aim to add “gender identity” to existing Massachusetts civil rights laws for public places. A 2014 report from Fenway Health reported that 65 percent of transgender identifying individuals had faced some form of discrimination in public. Dunn says that Massachusetts would follow in the path of 17 other states in adding this protection, noting that such a lack of protections tarnishes the LGBT-affirming history Massachusetts generally holds.

Still, even medical professionals seem to lack knowledge of transgender issues. The same Fenway Health report found that 29 percent of transgender individuals had needed to explain trans-health issues to their healthcare provider in the previous 12 months. House Bill 526, if passed, would require LGBT sensitivity training for elder care service providers.

“There are a lot of unique issues that face LGBT older adults and caregivers, and the population of folks is clearly becoming larger; or people who are out, who are more active, essentially have issues accessing senior services in general,” says state Rep. Liz Malia, D-Jamaica Plain, the lead sponsor of the bill. “When people haven’t had any type of training for sensitivity, people end up getting deeper and deeper into the closet.”

At her desk Bowick reflects on Trans4mations. Ultimately, her goal is to expand the organization’s support groups across Massachusetts, particularly in underserved areas. She additionally would like to create a standalone Transgender Emergency Fund  — now fiscally hosted by AIDS Project Worcester, but run on grants  — to help low-income transgender people procure apartments.

She is pleased with progress so far. Referring to members of her group, Bowick says, “I feel blessed to be able to have a space that they feel comfortable coming to, and be themselves, and be free from judgment, and free from harassment. So I’m just grateful.”

For more information on Trans4mations or the Transgender Emergency Fund, contact Ms. Chastity Bowick at 508-755-3773, ext. 19, or cbowick@aidsprojectworcester.org.

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