Faye Seidler, a transgender activist living and working in Fargo, North Dakota, was recently featured in the New York Times as part of a collection of interactive editorials "featuring personal stories that reflect the strength, diversity and challenges of the community."
In the piece, Seidler discusses the struggles she faced as a hospital technician because she identifies as transgender, which led her to file a federal lawsuit against her employer and testify in front of the house of representatives of North Dakota in hopes of preventing others from receiving the same kind of treatment that she's faced. But in recent days Seidler has become known for something that didn't make it into the Times' piece: revealing that more Americans claim to have seen a ghost than have met a transgender person.
The statistic comes from comparing a 2009 Pew Research Center survey on supernatural experiences, which found that 18 percent of Americans claim to have seen a ghost, and a 2015 GLAAD study on transgender visibility that found only 16 percent of Americans say they know someone who identifies as trans.
HuffPost Gay Voices chatted with Seidler to learn more about how she discovered this startling statistic, how she became an activist and the most important thing allies should know about supporting the transgender community.
The Huffington Post: How did you discover the ghost vs. trans comparison?
Faye Seidler: Just from my general resource I was aware of both statistics.
According to GLAAD, a recent Pew poll shows that nearly "90 percent of Americans say they personally know someone who is lesbian, gay, or bisexual. However, according to a recent Harris poll, only 16 percent of Americans say they personally know someone who is transgender, which has doubled from the 8 percent who said so in 2008. The same poll showed that while 27 percent of Millennials say they personally know someone who is transgender, only 9 percent of Americans over 45 say the same. Given this reality, most Americans learn about transgender people through the media. So when the media talks about transgender issues -- it is imperative that they get it right."
What do you think this means about where we're at in history in terms of visibility for and understanding of the trans community?
I offer transgender cultural competency training, and during my presentations I often share this joke:
"Right now only 16 percent of Americans personally know someone who is transgender and 18 percent have seen a ghost. That's right, currently more people have seen a ghost than someone who is transgender in their life. That means we are less represented than things that likely do not exist. What this means is most people get their idea of what it is to be transgender from movies or television shows. They only see very limited narratives and perspective of what it is to be trans and often they only see stereotypes and caricature. Can any of you name a single trans male character you've seen in a movie or television show?"
16 percent is still a ghastly low number, and because of this and the misinformation that happens when you don't actually know someone who is transgender, when you don't see them as a human like anyone else just trying to live their life, you get results like what happened in Houston with the HERO Act. You get people who are told transgender people are predators or worse, and since you don't have any other information then that becomes your belief.
But none of this is new, we've been through all of this before. We saw the same kind of attitude around inclusion after desegregation, we saw it during the 1980s when the gay/lesbian movement was starting to get some strides. There is always fear of the "other" and the same language that goes into that fear. However, historically we also see that fear and opposition to inclusion drops off as more people interact and understand the other person as like I mentioned, just humans trying to go about their lives. GLAAD has reported that over 90 percent of individuals have interacted with someone who is gay or lesbian and they credit this amount of visibility to the amazing advancements their movement has made, specifically the marriage equality ruling.
So while there are a lot of systematic and institutional problems that impact the transgender community and certainly strategies to help mitigate them, the more visibility there is the easier everything will be.
How did you become an activist?
The primary force in becoming an activist was growing up in a community that had no resources or role models for me. I didn't know what the word transgender was until I was 19 and because of that I lost my childhood completely and my early twenties to anxiety with trying to make sense of it all. I wanted to make sure that nobody ever had to experience that again, that any transgender individual growing up in this area would have a place to turn to for support, information, and guidance. That they would see that word, see people who identified as it, and maybe start to understand themselves better and how possible it is to be transgender and happy.
In a way I use activist somewhat broadly, because it can mean different roles at different times for me. The thing I love the most is providing trans mentoring or educating on transgender issues for organizations when they request it. As an activist it can also mean fighting for positive legislation, creating and promoting community events, and otherwise standing up for transgender individuals who can't stand up for themselves.
How is life for trans people living in rural areas different for trans people living in urban or large metropolitan areas?
It was just about universally reported that living in rural areas is a bad experience for transgender individuals. The first reason is the lack of privacy and possible scrutiny that happen in a community where everyone knows each other. A lot of transgender people don't want to make a big deal of their transition, especially during the transition, so when everyone knows and may use that information against them, it becomes an incredibly negative situation.
Also there obviously isn't as much for support groups or resources that a transgender individuals would need, that can only be found in larger cities. This can mean added trouble of the cost of gas to get to the city and the time it takes to get there, it can also feel like an isolating situation when you know most of your support is more than half an hour away if anything happens. Finally, the other people living in rural areas likely don't have the same chances to participate in pride events or gain much awareness of LGBTQ+ issues, so they are more likely to get their understanding from media.
That isn't to say that everyone will have that experience, but that is definitely a risk, and cost and time of travel will always be real burdens in that situation. Considering transgender individuals are also often in poverty, it can be a deterrent itself to getting proper care.
What do you think the most important things to address are right now for the trans community?
I've been quoted on this before, but healthcare remains one of the biggest issues for the trans community. That isn't the say there aren't other equally pressing issue, such as the epidemic of violence and poverty, especially against trans women of color, the difficulty in getting legal documents changed in some states and the horrible situations some trans people find themselves in when they're in the prison of the wrong gender.
The reason that I say healthcare is because one way or another everyone needs a hospital at some point in their life, especially transgender individuals if they want to pursue hormones or surgery. But right now there are so many barriers and so much institutional transphobia that impact our communities ability to access or afford proper healthcare. That isn't limited purely to trans-related care either, time after time trans individuals find themselves not getting basic medical treatment because their trans status is known. They find themselves getting misdiagnosed by doctors who think hormones treatment are the cause of any problem a trans person will have. Sometimes in especially unfortunate circumstances they find their doctors completely ignore whatever they came in for and instead talk to them about fixing their transgender condition.
There have been some great strides with the Affordable Care Act to include transgender individuals within insurance and to prevent hospital discrimination, but it isn't the strongest or most well known provision right now, and routinely our community experience the things I've mentioned above. Even if an insurance company covers trans-related care, they probably don't have specialists within their network, which effectively means they don't really cover the care. It is worth noting that of all the companies who have included trans-related care in their insurance plan, none have had to raise premiums because of it. It has such a little impact on the overhead, that it is basically insignificant. Yet, you will still see companies have blanket exclusions for trans individuals.
Given that, we really need to address the healthcare system as a whole. We need comprehensive and inclusive insurance policies, we need transgender cultural competency training for doctors and nurses, and we need enterprise wide policies that address and provide protections for transgender patients.
How can allies help?
The first is that a transgender person should not be used as a learning experience. If you know someone is trans, that doesn't give you the right to interrogate them about what it means to be trans, because more than likely they just want to live their life. They don't want to be and probably aren't an expert on it. It is a different matter if they indicate they want to talk about it and want to teach others, but in general it can be a really negative experience when transgender person is put on the spot like that and expected to teach someone what it means to be trans.
However, there are plenty of trans people, like myself, who put themselves out there and provide education so people can have conversations and get an understanding of the condition. It is important to note that there isn't just a transgender condition or one way to experience being transgender. Everything we learn should be treated not as a the definitive fact, but as the start to a conversation that leads into a bigger story.
That said, the most important thing an ally can do is educate themselves on these issues. As a transgender educator I can tell you that cisgender people rarely talk to me about transgender issues. They likely read what I write and learned the material, but when it comes to engaging and discussing it, they do it with other cisgender individuals because they don't want to make mistakes and offend a transgender person when they are processing the information. This is especially true of individuals who have never interacted with a transgender person before. This means it is absolutely essential that we have well-educated, supportive allies that are there to stand up for us in conversations we aren't a part of.
Aside from that it is also incredibly important for allies to support transgender causes in general, to promote transgender individuals and their stories, and to step back to give transgender people the platform when the option is available. This all relates to the visibility statistic earlier and the fact that the more visible transgender people become, the more inclusive we will be as a society.