By Farrah Duffany for the Record-Journal
Janis Booth can still recall the moment nearly 40 years ago when she watched celebrity athlete Bruce Jenner set a world record in the men’s decathlon event and win the Olympic gold medal.
“I remember sitting in front of my TV set and watching that gold medal get put around his neck. Never did I ever dream that the secret I was carrying, he was carrying too,” said Booth, a transgender woman.
In an April interview with Diane Sawyer, Jenner revealed to the world that he would be making the transition to a transgender woman.
Transgender refers to “people whose gender identity and/or gender expression differs from what is typically associated with the sex they were assigned at birth,” according to the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation.
The world was introduced to Jenner as a woman in a preview of the July cover of Vanity Fair, set to be released on June 9. Jenner appears dressed in an off-white strapless corset, hair curled and wearing makeup above the words “Call Me Caitlyn,”
Understanding what it means to be transgender is often difficult in the eyes of the public, said Booth, a Thomaston resident and executive director of a transgender support group.
“I don’t identify as a person who is trapped in their own body, I identify as a person who was assigned the sex of male at birth but has all my life (and) in my head, been female,” she said. “Up until I started my transition five years ago that was a secret. And when I started my transition five years ago, I was telling my secret to the world. I identify as a human being who is by my nature female and by my anatomy male. I choose to live my life in female persona.”
Booth said she feels it took “a lot of courage” for Jenner to appear on the cover of Vanity Fair.
So what does Jenner’s transition mean for the future of the transgender community?
Carissa Conway, director of prevention and intervention services at the Women and Families Center in Meriden, said she’s worried about transgender youth.
“I think that this is really great... (it) took a lot of courage to do this so publicly because there are so many stigmas,” said Conway. “But on the flip side what I worry about is youth, (who are) not as privileged. It’s almost as if it’s glamorized.”
Conway helps direct LGBT Youth Space, a group that meets every Wednesday. The program is designed to provide support and empower youth who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender.
The “surgeries, therapy, hormones” Jenner had access to during transition may not be as obtainable for others.
While Jenner’s public transition spotlights transgender people and has started conversations worldwide, many transgenders believe there’s still a long road ahead for acceptance.
“It’s really an important conversation for us to begin having as a society,” said Anthony Crisci, the executive director of the Triangle Community Center in Norwalk.
The center provides services to the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community and promotes public awareness.
“We’re probably far away from any national legislation that will give transgender (people) the rights they deserve,” he added. “ Connecticut is one of a handful of states that has been in the forefront of protecting people, protecting the transgender community.”
A bill that would allow people to update their birth certificates and to change their gender designation passed 32-3 in the Senate last week.
Connecticut would be the eighth state to modernize birth certificate access if the bill is signed into law.
State Sen. Joe Markley, R-Southington, voted in favor of the bill.
“I feel that under those circumstances there was no reason for me to oppose it,” he said. “There were concerns more on the general level on the notion of altering sex on birth certificates and the whole notion of gender reassignment surgery. That’s a large topic that I think is worth consideration, but really is not what was before us.”
Reaching equal rights will be a day-by-day battle for the transgender community, battling stereotypes and discrimination.
A report on a survey released by the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force and the National Center for Transgender Equality found that many of the 6,450 transgender respondents faced issues with discrimination, poverty, and attempted suicide.
“What do you think about the idea that you go out of your house at night and have to worry if someone is going to jump you or beat you almost to death simply because of who you are?” said Booth. “They just saw you walk by and say ‘that’s a man’ and they attack. That’s what we need to see change.”
Fifty-three percent of respondents said they were “verbally harassed or disrespected in a place of public accommodation.”
Forty-one percent attempted to commit suicide, compared to the 1.6 percent of the general population.
Programs to help the transgender community financially are offered at the Triangle Community Center, said Crisci. Transgender people are “four times more likely to have a household income of less than $10,000” a year compared to the general population, according to the survey.
“Because of the stigma and discrimination, a lot of transgender people are likely to live in poverty and not have the resources that Caitlyn Jenner has,” he said.
Programs for LGBT youth in the Meriden area can be few and far between. Conway said there is “a huge gap in services,” which is one of the reasons why the LGBT Youth Space group is so important.
“Youth have a place to come and work with folks who understand the various issues that they can come into contact with,” said Conway.
Jenner’s transition may have sparked conversation around the country and while some people are in support of that dialogue, Booth has advice for those who may not be as understanding.
“It’s OK to be confused folks. It’s OK to not get it, because you’ve never had the experience so how could you get it?” said Booth. “The best you could do is empathize, but it’s not OK to argue with someone with who they say they are.”
To learn more about LGBT Youth Space in Meriden call or text (203) 427-5778.