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Mass. transgender group launches awareness campaign
by Chuck Colbert
2010-11-24

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The message is as all-American as the 14th Amendment.

"The country was built on equal opportunity," a new multimedia public education campaign begins. "As transgender people we are asking for the opportunity to take care of our families and be free from discrimination."

No big surprise: "I AM: Trans People Speak," the nation's first-ever public awareness initiative, springs from navy blue Massachusetts. But the brief personal stories—in video, audio, written essay and photo format—hold the same message even for crimson red localities and purple ones, too.

"We want to explain to people who we are, the issues we face from our own voices, not from a medical model," said Gunner Scott, executive director of the Massachusetts Transgender Political Coalition ( MTPC ) , an advocacy organization.

At a recent launch party, held this month at a popular Boston eatery, Scott said his "crazy idea" for the project came from National Public Radio when he heard about immigrants telling their stories through the "We Are America" multimedia program.

Scott floated his idea at a staff meeting this past summer. "No one said, 'Gunner, are you absolutely out of your mind?'" he explained.

VoilĂ : MPTC fast tracked the project. The Coalition received a $35,000 grant from the State Equality Fund, assembled a team, and within three months were up and running with the project ( www.TransPeopleSpeak.org ) .

Scott said that another $20,000 would enable MTPC to place ads on local subway trains and busses. "This is not the end, but the beginning," he said.

It may well be a model for other states and localities to adopt, Scott said.

Transgender people are widely misunderstood by the general public and the media, transgender-rights advocates say.

"Much of the media is negative," explained Jesse Begenyi. A documentary filmmaker, she serves as MTPC clerk, as well as on the trans speak team.

"We feel boxed in," Begenyi said. "Trans people are so much more than their trans experience," she said, referring to the story told by Cohasset, Mass., resident Michelle Figueiredo, whose video is one of eight posted on the "I AM: Trans People Speak" web site.

"Her whole video is about how she ran a marathon; there's nothing about being transgender," said Begenyi, who is also a videographer for the project.

And yet Figueiredo's experience transiting from male to female while on the job at State Street cuts to the heart of the public education efforts. During a short interview at the launch party, Figueiredo, a manager, spoke about the support she received from human resources and her boss.

"I went to an HR person who said, 'Let's explore how we do this. We support you,'" shw said.

Figueiredo went on to praise her boss, a "guy's guy," she said, who told her point blank: "I don't care what you look like as long as you do the great job you do," she said. "Talk about a huge weight off my shoulders."

"He actually went on the Internet to find out more information," Figueiredo added. "He knew staff would ask questions."

Her boss genuinely cared, she said. From time to time, "He asked me: 'How are you feeling? How are the hormones treating you?'

"I put him up for a diversity award and he won."

Still, Figueiredo's positive experience at one of the Boston's venerable financial institutions is not always the case.

In dozens of states, transgender people face not only employment discrimination, but also encounter discrimination in housing, credit, education and public accommodations. Transgender persons are also victims of violent hate crimes.

In some states—even Massachusetts—where activists have fallen short in adding "gender identity" and "gender expression" to the state's anti-discrimination and hate crimes statutes, social conservatives have succeed so far in blocking transgender civil-rights legislation by hijacking the debate's language, dubbing the proposed legislation a "bathroom bill," an ugly smear pro-trans advocates consider fear mongering and scare tactics all about imaginary transgender bogeymen in restrooms and locker rooms.

And yet the power of personal story telling continues.

"It's not just about us," said Ty, a Northampton transgender man who is the biological mother of two teenage sons, during his video clip. "It's about our families."

For Mick—a licensed clinical social worker, a feminist and queer transman who resides in Boston—it is all about being true to self, he said on video. "I can finally look in the mirror, and I finally know who I am."


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