The struggles and small victories of being transgender in Washtenaw County

As a kid, Michael Anthony told his parents he wanted to be a boy. Then he shaved his head in their bathroom and "got into a lot of trouble."

"This was the late '90s, and the only transgender person they really knew of was, like, what's his face from 'Rocky Horror Picture Show,'" he says. "They had no conception of what a transgender person was, so they didn't really know how to react."

After getting pushback at home and at school in Saline, Anthony "took it all back" and spent his high school years trying different identities that didn't fit.

"I was really taught to feel kind of guilty and ashamed about how I was feeling," he says.

When he came out as a transgender man years later in graduate school at Eastern Michigan University (EMU), it was different. School helped him understand and express his identity, and, with a little education and time, Anthony's family got behind him, too.

Today he wants to help make a difference, not just for people thinking of coming out, but also for those living their lives as transgender and genderqueer (having a gender identity that is not exclusively masculine or feminine) in Washtenaw County.

Everyone's story is different, but common concerns among members of the local transgender community include adequate legal protection, access to healthcare, jobs, and safe spaces — particularly for young people — as well as clearing up misconceptions about who they are and who gets to decide that.

"It's no different than anywhere else"

Lorne Clarkson grew up in Ypsilanti and lives in Ann Arbor. He came out as a transgender man at 19 and transitioned while going to college in Chicago.

While he acknowledges Ann Arbor is one of the better places for LGBT people in Michigan, he still sees a lot of room for improvement when it comes to supporting the local transgender community, especially in terms of resources and overall acceptance.

"There's definitely a misconception that Ann Arbor is super liberal and doesn't have those same kinds of issues, but all the stories I hear are just the same, with families disowning their children and letting them couch surf or end up on the street," says Clarkson, now 25. "It's no different than anywhere else."

Finding therapists, primary care doctors, and specialists who are comfortable treating transgender patients is one challenge, Clarkson says.

For someone to start transitioning, a letter from a therapist confirming the person is transgender is needed. While the University of Michigan Health System's (UMHS) Comprehensive Gender Services Program and some private practitioners specialize in transgender issues, Clarkson says there aren't enough specialized therapists to serve the local trans community (he estimates he personally knows at least 100 transgender men living in the area alone).

"I've heard many stories from people who tried transitioning here who would start with a therapist, but the therapist wasn't comfortable with it and wouldn't end up being willing to write their letter," Clarkson says. "So after you pay for three months of therapy, it was, 'Sorry, no luck. Try someone else.'"

Once a therapist signs off, Clarkson says getting a prescription for a hormone like testosterone can be difficult because the hormone can be hard on the body.

"You'll get your letter, and then you'll have to wait another six months to actually start, because there aren't any doctors who will do it, and there's such a long waiting list to go into the few that will," he says.

Then there's routine care. When Clarkson moved back from Chicago, he says his old gynecologist refused him because he was transgender.

"They had all my old files, they knew who I was, and they said they don't see people like me," he says.

When you factor in cost as another barrier to healthcare, Clarkson says many people who need to transition get stuck in between, which makes it harder to get their preferred names and pronouns used and even find and hold jobs, especially in the service industry.

"Most of the struggle that I see trans people going through is a problem with the the local community just not caring or looking at it as a nuisance, and that's where you can't be yourself," he says.

For young transgender people trying to get on their feet, the challenges can feel insurmountable. Local outreach efforts, like the Neutral Zone's Riot Youth program for LGBTQ teens, and Ozone House — where Clarkson volunteers as a crisis hotline operator — help, but many young people are still at risk and some wind up homeless.

Clarkson is a filmmaker, and he's working on a documentary about a young man's transition as well as the local transgender male community. "A Year in Transition" is for a trans audience, he says, and meant to show the emotional journey of his subject's choices and changes. The film is in post-production now, and Clarkson hopes to have it on the festival circuit this spring and summer.

"They don't understand what's going on"

Tammi Moyer doesn't live in Washtenaw County, but she makes the drive from nearby Westland to Ann Arbor regularly to use services she can't get closer to home.

The 39-year-old came out as a transgender woman in 2015 after feeling "stuck" and like she didn't know what she wanted in life. After 16 years of marriage to a "wonderful, wonderful lady" and having two children, something still didn't feel right.

She'd been experimenting with wearing women's clothes when an acquaintance had a revelation for her: "You're not a crossdresser, you're a woman."

"Once he said that to me, I was like, 'No shit: I am,'" she says.

Finding a local therapist to help with her transition proved difficult, so she started looking in Ann Arbor, where she eventually connected with Dr. Sandra Samons, a private practitioner who has been serving the local transgender community for 25 years. Today Moyer also sees an endocrinologist at UMHS, and attends a local monthly group therapy session for transgender 30-somethings, many of whom she now considers close friends.

As a restaurant manager in Westland, Moyer spends a lot of time in the public eye greeting guests. She says most patrons either don't know she's transgender or don't care, while some make a point of complimenting her appearance.

"There have been people that, if they don't like it, they won't come back," she says. "But there have been more good confrontations than bad."

While gendered public restrooms can be problematic in her line of work, Moyer says if you look the part, no one really cares. She says people who try to frame trans women as potential predators are overlooking an obvious counterpoint.

"Once you start taking a testosterone blocker, good luck [getting] sexually aroused, because that doesn't happen anymore," Moyer says. "That's the biggest thing nobody ever says, because they don't understand what's going on. People think we're guys in dresses, and that's the farthest from the truth."

Although their relationship has changed and continues to evolve, Moyer and her wife are still together.

"Love is love, and if you love a person that much, you will stay with them," she says.

"Maybe that's a good day"

For Shoshanna Wechter, the biggest hurdle for the trans community to overcome is people's perceptions, and that starts with more visibility.

"I feel like the more and more people who know people who are transgender, the less likely they are to treat people badly because they're transgender," she says. "If people know people, there's a face to them."

That means visibility for transgender people of different ages, backgrounds, and situations: regular people who aren't famous and don't have personal stylists.

"We're used to celebrities all looking a certain way, but for a lot of transgender people, especially if they're early on the path, we don't look like (actresses) LaVerne Cox or Trace Lysette," Wechter says.

The 34-year-old Ypsi resident and Ann Arbor native came out as a trans woman last year after a process of trying and seeing "what felt right" over the course of a few years. During that period she identified for a time as non-binary (someone who experiences their gender identity and/or gender expression as falling outside the categories of man and woman) and then transfeminine (someone assigned as male at birth, but whose gender identity is more female than male).

"Currently the way people talk about sexual orientation and gender identity and expression is — to paraphrase Lady Gaga — the 'Born This Way' model, and I feel like for a lot of people that is how they experience their identity, and for them it's true," she says.

But gender expression and sexual orientation have also been historically explored as more intentional and political, and Wechter says for herself she feels it's "a little of both."

Wechter considers herself lucky to have already owned a home and had a good job when she transitioned, and her friends and family have all been supportive ("I grew up Jewish in Ann Arbor, so they're cool with all that kind of stuff," she says).

The Ypsilanti District Library, where Wechter works, updated the name on her mailbox before an official change date was even set. Then her employers worked to get her name badge, company email, and logins all seamlessly changed over by that date — little details she says all make a big difference. And the library director asked her to help draft language that includes gender identity and expression in the library's anti-discrimination and harassment policy.

Interacting with strangers can be another thing sometimes, but Wechter understands many of them don't mean harm.

"If I get called 'sir,' maybe five or 10 times one day, it's just not going to be a good day," she says. "It's not something they're doing on purpose. They're just seeing someone and making an evaluation based on their guess, which is all anyone does."

She encourages people who realize they've made a mistake misidentifying someone not to make things worse by dwelling on it, but to instead just apologize quickly and move on. And while compliments can help offset awkward moments and negative comments, sometimes it's nice just not to be noticed.

"On some level, if a whole day goes by and no one says anything, maybe that's a good day," Wechter says. "It's really just supposed to be normal. It's supposed to be like no one cares."

"We saw a need"

As Anthony transitioned, he got involved with EMU's LGBT community and helped pass a campus-wide preferred name and pronoun initiative that ensures students' rights to the names and pronouns they identify with most (except in cases in which a legal document is necessary, which he says are "few and far between").

After grad school, he got more active. Today the 26-year-old leads the nonprofit Jim Toy Community Center's public policy committee and also serves on its executive board. In late 2015 he and a couple of friends started FTM A2 Ypsi, a support group for trans men that meets twice monthly, once in Ann Arbor and once in Ypsi.

"There's a huge population of trans people in Ypsilanti, Ann Arbor, and southeast Michigan in general," Anthony says. "We saw a need for resources and a need for a way to socialize with other trans people."

Common topics range from starting testosterone treatments, and managing the "second puberty" that comes with them, to what to do when public men's rooms don't have closed stalls.

"We talk a lot about families and social relationships," Anthony says. "A topic that comes up over and over again is how to correct people when being misgendered by family, friends, and strangers."

Last summer, FTM A2 Ypsi hosted a pool party for transgender and genderqueer people at a private residence — "Spaces like pools are super gendered and can be really uncomfortable for people who don't necessarily align with their body," Anthony says — and earlier this week, the group hosted its first "T-Time," a new monthly social event "for trans people by trans people" at Cultivate coffee and taphouse.

But social outreach is just one need. Anthony also wants to help change policies and practices in local governments and schools, which he says would have a "huge" effect.

"Policy is one piece of the equation, but oftentimes when policy change happens, there is a discussion of practice that goes along with that," he says. "Although hopefully it's not something that needs to be referenced super often, in reality it kind of is."

For example, while Ypsilanti just amended its human rights ordinance to include gender identity, Anthony lives in neighboring Ypsi Township with his husband and a lesbian roommate. When some neighbors recently started looking in his windows, "basically, like, trying to figure out my gender," he didn't feel comfortable calling the police.

"I don't know the police in [Ypsilanti Township]," he says. "The township tends to be a little bit more conservative, and I'm not protected under the law."

In the near future, he hopes to work with the township and other local governments to include gender identity in their nondiscrimination ordinances. He says focus on local change is particularly important under the new presidential administration.

"In the next four years, there is not going to be much room for change at a federal level," he says. "Making sure people are protected at least in their own communities is a really big deal to us."

Eric Gallippo is an Ypsilanti-based freelance writer.
Photos by Doug Coombe.
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