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An introspective, respectful and sold-out City Club audience gathered to consider the long march to equality for transgender people in Northeast Ohio. Activist Stacey Parsons spoke directly to the elected officials in the room: “Without your support, nothing can change. Your being here says so much to the community.”

Darius Stubbs, a Cleveland teaching artist, added that “public policy helps change the city and if changes are made there, then people have to evaluate where they stand personally.”

The session opened with Dr. Kevin Ng, who directs the MetroHealth’s PRIDE Clinic, where he estimates two-thirds of his patients are transgender. He began with a quick lesson: Biological sex is the sex assigned at birth, whereas gender identity is how people see themselves when they close their eyes. On the flip side, gender expression is how people choose to present themselves the outside world. A person is transgender when their biological sex and gender identity don’t coincide.

Parsons was congenial and straightforward: “Ask questions if you have a question. Kids learn from how you treat us.”

Whatever the stogy Midwest stereotype, Cleveland is a leader in anti-discrimination measures for the LGBT community, said Susan J. Becker, a Cleveland State University law professor. But there is still room for growth. She mentioned the proposed city ordinance that would require public spaces such bathrooms and locker rooms to be available on a nondiscriminatory basis. This law would allow transgender individuals to use the restroom they feel most comfortable in.

Actually passing such measures requires much community education, Ng said, noting that it could begin in hospitals and clinics. Most medical schools offer only five hours of instruction regarding LGBT care, he said. “And the ‘T’ is usually the smallest part.”

Patients who are transgender often meet hostility instead of “care.” Parsons said, “Physicians have told me they don’t want to deal with me and will treat me like a man” as the room went silent. “If that’s not the most dehumanizing thing…” And Stubbs said his doctor sent a letter suggesting he seek a different care provider. Becker said there is little legal recourse: in only one third of states is discrimination against transgender people illegal.

Moderator Connie Schultz asked how journalists can produce more accurate reporting of transgender issues.

“It’s horrifying when [journalists] misgender someone,” Parsons responded. “They’ll write, ‘an oddly dressed man, wearing women’s clothing.’ That’s obviously a transgender individual. It’s a blatant disrespect to the individual. All it does is bring negative attention to the transgender community.”

When Stubbs was asked if he faced any particular challenges transitioning as a person of color, his response was sobering.

“I’ve become very aware of how differently black men are treated in society,” he said carefully. “I’m very aware of the palpable fear that comes from people, when they are trying to engage a man of color. There’s an immediate feeling of ‘you are a predator’ that comes off when you talk to people. It’s something I’m still having to deal with.”

In early February, Facebook rolled out 56 new gender identities for user profiles. Selections such as “pangender” and “two-spirit” now drop-down in a list that gives users more ways to describe themselves.

When she heard the news, transgender advocate Janet Mock, 30, sent out a simple “Yeeesss” on Twitter. Over the past three years, Mock has been increasingly visible and unapologetic about her goals: to provide more spaces for the trans community to be open about their stories and their identities. Hers began 30 years ago in Hawaii and continued during her teen years in Oakland, Cal. She was the first member of her family to attend college, graduating with degrees from the University of Hawaii and New York University.

In 2011, Mock publicly proclaimed her identity as a transgender woman in an Marie Claire essay.

“When I came into adulthood, I learned from other trans women that you need to be quiet,”  said Mock, who had gender reassignment surgery at age 18.  “Go and move on and be successful; that was the model that they had…So I did that, and for a while it was amazing, but part of myself felt like I was silencing myself again.”

After publication of the Marie Claire essay, Mock began the #GirlsLikeUs hashtag on Twitter, intending to use it as a safe place for trans women to gather and connect. It is thriving, with close to 1,000 tweets transmitted per day, and ample participation from trans women on Facebook, Instagram, and Google+.

“These social media platforms can be a lifeline for people who are struggling with identity, who are struggling with self, who don’t have validation, affirmation and real-life friendships,” Mock explained in a recent At Google talk. “Most trans women grow up in isolation.”

Mock’s 2014 memoir, Redefining Realness from Atria Press, continues her advocacy, and amplifies her narrative beyond transitioning and gender reassignment surgery. Mock chooses to be bold on the page, diving into the pain of childhood sexual abuse, the teenage period of engaging in sex work to pay for her surgery, and the mending of her relationship with her strict, Southern Baptist father. 

In a series of short videos filmed in concert with the book release, Mock discusses her thoughts on “passing” as a cisgender woman (one aligned with their assigned sex at birth), the significance of pop culture in her life’s journey, and more. Take a look.