To coincide with IDAHOT 2015’s (International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia) theme “LGBTQ youth” this is the 1st in a series of interviews focusing on some of the challenges facing LGBTI youth living in poverty around the world.
Bree Sutherland is executive director of The Gender Expansion Project (GEP) in Missoula, Montana, USA.
Please describe how GEP came to prioritize services to transgender youth.
Bree Sutherland: GEP began as Montana TDOR – Transgender Day of Remembrance – a day to memorialise those who were killed due to anti-transgender violence. However, the absence of direct services and education for trans and gender-diverse people in our region of the United States was painfully obvious.
We thought, “Let’s start truly serving these youth.” This led to the creation of GEP and our expanded outreach to transgender and gender-diverse people in rural Montana and the American Northwest (U.S.) followed. Our most impactful direct service is through gender-inclusive education and awareness surrounding transgender, transsexual, intersex, and gender diverse people through evidence-based care, research, advocacy, public and private policy, and respect in transgender health and well-being.
What are some of the challenges facing impoverished transgender youth in the American Northwest (U.S.)?
BREE SUTHERLAND: The majority of trans youth we encounter living in poverty have been kicked out by their families, and are often in need of housing placement. These youth have almost nothing in the way of resources and they are isolated from their families. Many are old enough to be “emancipated” but are ineligible to apply for basic public assistance.
They also lack something as simple (and necessary for a decent job) as a physical address, and traditional shelter environments are not safe places for poor trans youth. In rural areas, especially, trans youth are excluded from available shelters.
In Montana there are very few doctors who will care for transgender kids. If a kid is lucky enough to have the support of their family and track down a sympathetic doctor they’re often located 400-500 miles away – impossible to manage for low-income families.
On top of all of this the system is actually designed in a way to make a trans youth think twice before they go out in public. Aside from a few tiny pockets of the state it is legal to discriminate against someone on the basis of gender identity in Montana, and the state’s hate crimes statute does not cover violence based on sexual orientation or gender identity.
This means a trans person can be prevented from working because of their gender identity. This systematic oppression leaves all trans people in Montana, youth and adult, underemployed, undereducated, underpaid, and in a rural environment this is exaggerated – trans kids have absolutely no idea how to legally protect themselves in a work environment.
Would you share some of your own experience growing up in Montana as a trans youth?
Bree Sutherland: I came from a white, middle class family. I was comfortable before transition – very privileged. When I try to put myself in the place of a trans youth living in poverty, I can’t.
But I do know what it is to hate yourself while realising your reality is fighting against your transition and your journey to becoming yourself. If someone would’ve told me that trans support was out there I may not have attempted suicide. Being a youth is to be powerless on so many levels.
Comparatively, impoverished trans youth are better off in the U.S. than in many places in the world. In the U.S. you won’t be legally executed, or thrown in prison or subjected by the government to reparative therapy for being a trans. Still (U.S.) American trans youth remain a largely undeserved population especially in rural areas.
What is it like to meet a family that actually supports their transgender kid?
Bree Sutherland: I’ve visited with families like these in Montana. Parents know the statistics. They know their kid will be oppressed and discriminated against, so it’s hard to have that conversation with parents. It’s very difficult to tell parents, “Despite how bleak the statistical outlook is for their trans kid if they transition, it is not ok to tell them to exist against their nature.
For conservative parents/guardians it is the other side of the coin: shame them and allow their peers to shame them until the kid just learns to hide and repress and when repression becomes too daunting, often the next step is suicide. We try to reach trans youth before this.
Let’s say you’ve been given a surplus of resources (freely defined) and with it you must significantly improve the lives of LGBTI youth living in poverty by addressing one aspect of this complex struggle. Which facet do you prioritise?
Bree Sutherland: First contacts: social services, school counsellors, CPS (child protective services) – anyone trained to receive a child without judgement. Because GEP will not likely be the first point of contact for an impoverished trans youth living on the outer reaches of the Montana Hi-Line.
By educating enough providers we would enrich the quality of a trans kid’s first contact, and we might begin to disappear the tired cliche of knee-jerk condemnation. We know that a trans kid’s life trajectory is absolutely affected by an authority figure’s first reaction to them revealing themselves as trans. I’ve heard it so many times, so many … it was certainly my experience.
These kids aren’t confused. For a youth to confess they are trans aloud takes a whole lot, and they aren’t lying.
We know that when a young trans person is ordered to divorce themselves from their identity they are vulnerable to isolation, and if the child is not already born into poverty, then isolation becomes one of the first steps toward poverty, and one of the main ingredients in keeping them there.
Care providers expand their world views all the time because the truest thing I’ve experienced in this work is that compassion, like principles of psychotherapy, can be taught and learned in equal measure.
This interview was conducted by phone and edited.