The Courage of Being Transgender in Public

I have long thought that transgender people living honestly as themselves are very courageous.

Mirriam-Webster.com defines courage as "mental or moral strength to venture, persevere and withstand danger, fear or difficulty."

I believe that the willingness to be oneself, one's true self, openly in public is a scary thing for anyone. Honesty in the face of adversity is a form of moral strength.

For transgender people, being "out" can be downright dangerous.

I have spoken annually over the past decade at a number of Transgender Day of Remembrance (TDoR) events in November, when the transgender community around the world remembers the hundreds of the transgender people that we know were murdered for being transgender. Most of these folk were poor transwomen of color brutalized, often disfigured, because of who they were.

These events always make me think back to the first time that I ventured outdoors dressed in women's clothing. A stranger in a car drove up, called me a "he-she" (an old derogatory term), and ordered me into the car. He followed me the wrong way down a one-way street. I eventually lost him by running across an interstate highway.

I could easily have been among the unknown thousands of transgender people murdered in the years before we began our annual services. Or I might have been brutally raped, and might not have had the strength to make it this far.

These events remind me of what happened to Gwen Araujo, a beautiful 17-year-old young woman from Alameda County, CA, where I live, who was murdered in in 2002 because her "friends" found out that she was transgender. Her murderers were tried and convicted in the same courthouse where I later served for two years.

When I first ran for judge in 2008, I was endorsed by Gwen's mother, Sylvia Guerrero. When I went to her home to take a photo of with her, she handed me a box. I opened it, and inside were Gwen's cremains.

Nothing could have made this tragedy more real than to hold Gwen's ashes in my hands.

Brandi Martell was an African American transwoman that I knew through many of those TDoR events. She worked as a peer advocate for a local transgender services program. Brandi was murdered a dozen blocks from my home in 2012. Her friends say they believe it was because the unknown killer knew she was transgender from a prior conversation that night. Her case remains unsolved.

And the problems aren't just that we take our lives into our own hands when we walk outside. We have to fear being shamed and humiliated. We sometimes get mocked to our face, and more often behind our backs. Transgender people are regularly the object of jokes, both by professional comics and ordinary people, in the movies, on television and in person.

Sadly, making a declaration of a deeply held self-identity that puts our lives literally in jeopardy is treated as a punch line, or is argued to be the equivalent of being an adolescent voyeur.

Employment for us is usually a challenge. Study after study confirms that we are a chronically unemployed, and underemployed, community. It is tough getting a job when you are openly transgender, especially if you are at the top or bottom levels of the ladder.

Does anyone think that the large number of transgender women who become sex workers do it because it is glamorous, or because the pay is good? Many have no other option to survive -- they can't even get documents with their names and photos on them without going through bureaucratic hoops. Without that identification, it is tough to even get government assistance. Some folk are too embarrassed or fearful to even ask for help.

I saw how hard it is to get a job when I started looking after law school. Even the best recruiters couldn't find a position for me at most corporations or law firms because the employers either figured out or found out that I was transgender (the recruiters told me that was the reason -- I am not just projecting my fears). When I finally got a job, one of the attorneys got a call from a friend at a firm that had rejected me to "warn" him about me. I was outed to my entire firm.

Eventually, I had to start my own firm, and later I got civil service jobs because selection was based on merit. Even so, I could have been far more successful in my career if I had never transitioned.

Even something as fundamental as using a bathroom is unnecessarily difficult.

When I began my public transition in law school, I was banned from using all public bathrooms on campus, whether for men or women.

Later, as an attorney, I represented (pro bono) a young transman who had been pulled out of a single-stall bathroom by a police officer at a courthouse in my county for using the "wrong" bathroom. The officer publicly humiliated him in the process. (Again, shaming is so commonplace for transgender people.)

There are actually people currently proposing laws in California to arrest transgender people for using bathrooms.

For those reasons, and for many more, I think that transgender folk are among the most honest, most courageous people that I know. And I am glad that more and more people are coming to the same realization.