A Mother’s Plea for GENDA

Today I cried.

A gut-wrenching, mascara all over my face, sobbing cry that I know I’ll feel in my throat and stomach for a long time.

I read of yet another transgender teen’s suicide and watched footage of his heartbroken mother. Kyler Prescott, 14 years old, took his life, despite having a loving, supportive family. Kyler’s mother said she believes “there were a number of complex reasons” for the suicide, citing one of the biggest as society’s lack of understanding and tolerance for transgender kids.

My heart aches for this family, and for this young boy whose pain was so great that he chose to end his life.

I’ve read of a dozen other transgender teen suicides in recent months, and I’m haunted by the loss of these young lives. The hopelessness and despair brings back frightening memories of my own child’s torment.

Nearly five years ago my husband and I learned that the child we thought was our daughter is really our son. At 13, our son attempted to take his own life. The challenges of being transgender in our society had felt overwhelming to him, despite having the loving support of his family.

41% of transgender people attempt suicide (as compared to 1.6% of the general population.) That number goes up to 51% if they experience bullying or harassment and up to 61% if they are subjected to physical assault.

The challenge for my son, and all transgender people, is not just being born in a body that doesn’t match who they know themselves to be. The challenge is compounded by how they are perceived and treated in society.

My husband and I confided in few people at first, as we immersed ourselves in learning all we needed to learn to save our child. We supported our teenage son’s transition from female to male. The experience has transformed all of our lives – for the better.

For years I was dedicated to helping my son make the changes he felt necessary to be seen and accepted as the young man he knew himself to be. It was a long and difficult process. There was bullying and rejection and discrimination along the way. We moved to another city, changed schools multiple times, and had to educate countless people – including healthcare workers, educators, and court officials.

Many would say we succeeded. My son is now happy and healthy. He’s a full-time college student, has a steady job where he was promoted to manager, is in a wonderful relationship, and is living his life fully as the young man I now know he has always been.

For years my life revolved around helping my son be able to finally live as the boy he always knew himself to be. I wanted to help him get on with living his life and not be limited or defined by his trans identity.

I didn’t want my son to suffer and struggle until society and our laws caught up.

But my focus has changed now.

I no longer want to change my son so that society sees him as a man and accepts him. Instead, I want to change society and our laws so that he (and all transgender people) can be seen for the remarkable human beings they are.

Today, I am an advocate for change. I advocate not only for my child, but for the entire transgender community, demanding access to healthcare, education, economic security and the freedom to move about this world without fear of state-sanctioned discrimination and violence. More than that, I advocate for dignity, respect, justice, compassion and love.

ALL people are entitled to dignity and respect and equal treatment under the law.

But in New York State, all people are NOT treated equally and do not have the same protections.

New Yorkers can be fired from their job, kicked out of their home, or denied credit, service, and even health care simply for being transgender. Furthermore, our state law does not protect transgender members of our community, even though they are at a greatly increased risk of violence.

I have two sons, raised in the same home and community, by the same parents. Both are college students. Both are hardworking, loving, kind, thoughtful, and giving. Yet my two sons are not treated equally under the eyes of the law in NYS. One of my sons is protected from discrimination and violence, while the other is not.

My son is a model employee, receives customer recognition and awards, and was promoted to manager.

But his employer doesn’t know he’s transgender. If they found out and have a bias, my son could be fired despite his exemplary job performance because we live in a state and town without trans-inclusive protections.

My son works hard to afford his own apartment. But he could be evicted from that apartment, because he is transgender.

I love BOTH of my sons and it is not right that one is protected while the other can be fired, evicted, or denied services simply for being who he is.

This week I will make my 7th trip to Albany, where I will call on Governor Cuomo, State Senate Leader John Flanagan and the entire New York State Legislature to make 2015 the year we pass the Gender Expression Non-Discrimination Act (GENDA) to protect transgender New Yorkers from discrimination.

Year after year we fight for this common sense legislation. Year after year the NYS Assembly passes the bill and the NYS Senate refuses to bring it to the floor for a vote.

I believe that anyone who doesn’t support GENDA doesn’t understand it. They don’t understand what it means to be transgender or they don’t understand what this legislation is and isn’t about. GENDA isn’t a special protection. Passing GENDA will simply mean that finally, both of my sons will have the same rights under the law.

I’ll share my family’s story again and again, hoping to open hearts and minds. Hoping to educate others and help them understand and learn some of what I’ve learned—as a mother, a friend, an ally, and a human being.

I had an urgent and compelling reason to learn, because my son’s life depended on it. But our elected officials have an urgent and compelling reason to learn, too. New Yorkers are being discriminated against. People are dying. Some are taking their own lives and some are victims of violence.

We cannot wait another year. The time to pass GENDA is now.

GENDA alone will not end the tragic epidemic of transgender teen suicide, but it is a necessary step toward getting practices, policies, and protections across our state that will support not only our youth, but all transgender people.

We tell our at-risk youth, “It gets better.” It is our responsibility to make that statement true – for all of our children.

And so I’ll make the six-hour drive to Albany again, and as many times as necessary, until GENDA is passed—and I’ll advocate for dignity, respect, justice, compassion and love. In the end, I believe that compassion and love will always win.

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Freedom is Not Free

Yesterday was a day of reflection in the nation’s capitol for me. In the morning I walked the hallowed ground of the WWII Memorial and the Vietnam Memorial. Forgive me. I did not have time to pay my respects at all the memorials for others who gave so much for freedom, but I heard loud and clear that “Freedom is not free.”

I’m grateful for the freedom to write this blog.

What also struck me profoundly was that some faces in the crowd were once enemies who fought the wars. I heard voices from all over the world … individuals, couples, and families who did not lose their identity despite their side of a war … appreciating one message, “Freedom is not free.”

All sides gave dearly for freedom. Ironically, it occurs to me that what we ultimately have to give up is freedom in order to have it.

I’ll try to explain what I mean.

We all know that we have free will, but that we must ultimately deny others the freedom to murder and do harm. This is probably the most obvious and easiest to accept example of where we give up a freedom in order to preserve the greater freedom of others.

Please have patience with the next example. It takes a little while to develop.

The horror of the Holocaust is heavy on my mind. I recently watched Sophie’s Choice. There was some controversy surrounding the book because Sophie was a Polish Catholic in a concentration camp. I think the author, William Styron, correctly pointed out that it did not matter who was put on the trains or who was sitting at the tables deciding life or death … privilege or no privilege; it was wrong, period.

Last night at the Human Rights Campaign National Dinner, a big issue was Marriage Equality. There is no argument on my part that the politicians and voters are exercising their freedom when they defend marriage as between one man and one woman. However, like other freedoms we limit to preserve the greater freedom, this freedom should be limited too.

In an ideal world we would not need laws to protect against murder because people just know it’s wrong, but the world is not perfect in that sense. Likewise, people should know that putting people like the LGBT community on trains or setting up tables like DOMA is wrong. 

I’m hopeful that basic human kindness and compassion will prevail. Until we live in a perfect world, we do need laws to protect people from hate and ensure freedom to enjoy the privilege and basic human right to marry and love as we choose.

Respectfully, to all sides on the equality issue, my hope is that we can someday walk hallowed ground like at the war memorials today with the same understanding, “Freedom is not free.” … and that we do not lose our identity when we accept each other. Instead of a war memorial for marriage equality could we call it a peace memorial? Can we actually wage peace?