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Community told to ‘accept and support’ at Greenwich transgender panel

By Sylvia Foster-Frau for Greenwich Time

About one in five are homeless. About 50 percent are raped in their lifetime. More than half attempt to commit suicide by their 20th birthday.

These statistics about transgender individuals were stated by J.D. Melendez of the Triangle Community Center at Greenwich Town Hall Tuesday night.

The 19 people who showed up hung on to every word.

Melendez spoke at a panel discussion on transgender issues organized by the First Selectman’s Community Diversity Advisory Committee. The five panelists who took part were from the Norwalk-based Triangle Community Center, which provides support for the LGBTQ community of Fairfield County, and Family Centers, the Greenwich-based nonprofit that offers educational, health and human services programming.

In 2011, Connecticut added gender identity or expression to its anti-discrimination laws.

But, as Anthony Crisci, executive director of the Triangle Community Center, explained, legal equality doesn’t necessarily reflect “lived equality.”

“It’s not uncommon for the LGBTQ community to have negative experiences seeking social services,” he said.

Emily Segal, a panelist and social worker for Family Centers who has worked with transgender clients, said she has confronted parents many times who said, “Can’t you just tell me it’s a phase?"

She said the most important factor in how transgender youths handle their identity discovery is whether or not they have support.

“Our role is a simple one,” said Segal. “To accept and support.”

“The trans community is experiencing the same type of discrimination the LGBTQ community experienced 20 years ago,” said Crisci.

Melendez, of the Triangle Community Center, cited his own experience with homelessness and discrimination in school, including not having access to a gender neutral bathroom.

Stephanie Haen of Family Centers said bathrooms are one example of how the community needs to modify it’s environment to be more accepting of transgender people. Another, from a business perspective, is having forms that are inclusive to transgender individuals — meaning offering an option for gender neutral pronouns.

Melendez said people have four types of identities: sex, gender, sexual orientation, and gender identity and expression.

He broke down the distinctions: Sex is what people are assigned at birth based on their biology, gender is about an internal sense of identification, sexual orientation is about the gender or sex one is attracted to, and gender expression is what one chooses to show to the world.

Melendez said language is key. He brought up the word “cisgender,” which means a person whose self-identity conforms with their gender and sex — the most accepted and mainstream identity.

“We have that word because we’re trying to take the othering out of transgender,” said Melendez.

“It’s understandable we struggle with this — it challenges what’s natural or normal about our way of thinking,” said Segal.

A group of three Greenwich High School students from the Gay-Straight Alliance club, who were in the audience, asked the panel about the rights transgender students have in school.

“Every right,” said Melendez.

At the end, Ethan Sullivan, 43, a Greenwich native who transitioned from female to male three years ago, spoke up.

“This panel is something that at my time at Greenwich High that never would have happened,” said Sullivan, who now lives in Phoenix, Az. “We all need to learn to respect each other as we are, and this brings us closer to that.“

“It’s easy to come to this meeting and then put it in the back of your mind and think you’re good now, you’ve done your work. But there’s a lot more to be done,” said Melendez.

SFoster-Frau@scni.com; @SilviaElenaFF