Equal rights and inclusivity have been an ongoing battle, but in Chicago the people are making their voices heard
“I knew I was different when I was two or three,” says Vanessa Sheridan, transgender activist and author, with confidence and grace. “I just didn’t understand what [being transgender] meant, but I knew I was different.”
Sheridan, who used to identify as a man, believes the pressure to follow gender norms causes self-doubt. “We are struggling with that on an ongoing basis, and if you’re trans, you run head-on to these social expectations. They impact you in tangible and intangible ways, which all impact your sense of self,” says Sheridan.
Her battle with self and societal acceptance started at a young age, and it wasn’t until later in her life that she allowed her true self to develop.
All through her teen years, there was a strong sense of femininity that flooded her mind but – coming from a strict Southern Baptist home – there was little to no room for Sheridan to express herself in a way that was consistent with her gender identity.
Sheridan was dealing with the typical struggles of teen development like self-image, popularity and puberty on top of the looming issue of her gender identity. Growing up in a pre-internet era, she was limited in her ability to find a community she could lean on.
“All alone. It was incredibly isolating. You feel like you’re the only one in the world that’s crazy enough to be going through it and you’re not sure what to do because you don’t have role models,” says Sheridan.
Those who are cisgender — a person who identifies with the sex they were born into – will not understand the trials faced by trans individuals, Sheridan says. As she begins to feel more comfortable with me, she illustrates a place she vividly remembers — her childhood bedroom.
“I can’t tell you the amount of times when I was a kid I would lay in bed at night listening to music and start crying.” James Taylor’s Fire and Rain faintly plays in the background as we sit in the American Dog in Chicago’s Gold Coast neighborhood. She continues, “I was struggling with my gender issues and I couldn’t talk about it — it was just me. When you feel so freaking alone, it’s pretty easy to cry.”
The strain of self-doubt and society’s lack of acceptance have a significant impact on an individual’s mental health. Studies show high rates of mental health issues amongst the trans community. Those who identify as transgender are two times more likely than the cisgender population to become suicidal or practice self-harming behavior.
Turning to drugs and alcohol to cope was not a part of Sheridan’s plan. Instead, she found an escape in the creative process.
“Whether it’s writing or composing, the process is really an escape on an emotional and psychological level, just because you can disappear into the world of music and forget all about your gender issues and anything else, really,” Sheridan says.
Finding an outlet in writing helped channel the frustrations Sheridan built up from hiding from her true identity. Looking back now, she believes getting lost in writing was an essential part of her personal growth.
Sheridan is grateful for where she is and acknowledges that many in the trans community weren’t able to deflect the negativity and discrimination faced on a daily basis.
“Those of us who come out somewhat unscathed and who are able to keep our faculties and come out the other side reasonably intact. I don’t think any one of us comes out without any scars… for those of us who do come out, we can consider ourselves very fortunate,” says Sheridan.
Sheridan recalls a period in her life — right before coming out — when the repression of her gender identity was having physical repercussions. The weight of carrying around her false persona was emerging as severe migraine headaches, anxiety attacks and upset stomachs.
She describes these illnesses as “manifestations of her gender-based trauma.” Once she realized these were her body’s response to the underlying fight with her gender identity, she made the decision to begin her transition and take control of her health.
Sheridan shared an experience with me – coming out to her mother. She hoped her mother would be accepting but couldn’t be sure how she would react.
Sheridan didn’t come out to her mother until her thirties.”This is what she told me; I will never forget it as long as I live.” As they sat on the couch of her Orlando, Florida, home, her mother looked at her and said, “You are my child, and there is nothing you can do to make me stop loving you.”
Sheridan paused for a moment.
“That’s all I needed to hear,” Sheridan says. “That she wasn’t going to reject me and she was supportive up until her death.”
Those in the LGBTQ community say coming out to a family member can be unsettling and some are scared of rejection or disapproval. Sheridan was her authentic self, and her mother saw that and respected it.
“The journey to self-acceptance is one that I don’t think truly ends. I believe that it’s a process, not an event,” Sheridan says. “So I just got to keep putting one foot in front of the other and living day by day. And I really try to focus on how to make a difference for other people as well as myself.”
Sheridan has dedicated her adult life to being a voice for the transgender community. As we sit for another interview in a conference room at the Center on Halsted, she speaks about gender authenticity–the focus of her next book.
She explains “gender authenticity is the right to express our orientation and our personal identity, whatever that may be, without fear of coercion to conform to social stereotypes.”
Scheduled to be published next spring, the book discusses the concept of gender authenticity and productivity in the workplace.
“I realized the workplace was an awfully good place to focus because that’s where most of the adults are during the day, so that became my area of expertise,” Sheridan says. “Through research and looking through the current situation [of inclusion and transgender employment] I wanted to see what might be done to improve it.”
For a majority of the population, the term authenticity refers to ‘representing one’s true and honest self,’ but for the 0.6 percent of the population that identifies as transgender, gender identity is the largest and most complex factor when it comes to being authentic.
Sheridan, and most LGBTQ activists, wholeheartedly believe that when individuals push past the need to mirror social norms, they’re liberated to become the best version of themselves. When someone is utterly and truly their authentic self, they are freed from their self-doubt and are able to accept themselves. In turn, they become a more productive member of the community.
Awareness through education is the first step to bringing inclusivity to work or school environments. Being transgender is complex and is not fully understood on a national level.
Sheridan conducts corporate trainings for organizations that are looking to become more inclusive. She begins every presentation by stripping down what gender identity is and what it means to be trans. Sheridan explains that an individual’s gender identity does not always match up to their sex assigned at birth — this is not a birth defect.
“When this happens, when our gender identity doesn’t line up with our designated sex at birth, that person is considered to be gender diverse, or transgender,” explains Sheridan during a training for After School Matters, an after-school program created to help Chicago’s high school students reach their highest potential.
When she speaks, Sheridan blends facts with humor to “lighten things up occasionally.”As she gets further into the true meaning of gender identity and how it’s perceived in the community, she can easily break down the meaning of transgender.
Sheridan believes the discrimination the trans community faces is deeply rooted in stereotypes perpetuated by the media. Trans people are not “sex workers or punchlines.” They’re people “just like you, trying to pay their bills.”
Paying the bills is difficult for many trans people due to the lack of jobs available to the community or discrimination in the workplace. According to The National Transgender Discrimination Survey, 47 percent of the 6,450 respondents experienced hardship in a corporate environment — being fired, not being promoted or not receiving employment — because of their gender identity.
Jocelyn Meyers, president of the transgender support group Chi-Chapter, explains that in some cases trans workers can be more productive because they are being as authentic as possible. By removing the stress of creating a false persona they are able to focus on what is asked of them. Someone’s gender identity is a personal experience and shouldn’t have adverse effects on their professional lives, says Meyers.
“We are still good employees; we have the skills they are looking for. The fact that we may present differently or have a different sexual orientation should have no bearing on the working world,” says Meyers.
Sheridan believes in order to achieve gender authenticity individuals must feel accepted by their community. Right now, conservatives feel that isn’t the case.
The current political climate under the Trump administration has both members of the LGBTQ community and advocates concerned with losing the progress made during the Obama administration. In March 2017, protests broke out all over the nation promoting inclusion and equality.
President Trump has been criticized for his conservative views surrounding LGBT rights but has made a point to remind Americans that he is the first G.O.P nominee to mention the protection of LGBTQ rights in his nomination acceptance speech.
Having been in office for almost four months,Trump has not eased into his role as President. On January 31, 2017, his administration announced it would not reverse Obama’s 2014 legislation protecting LGBTQ federal workers.
Even with the protection of LGBTQ federal workers, Trump’s support for the community is being highly questioned after the White House announced its decision not to challenge the nationwide injunction that restricts transgender students from going to the bathroom and using other facilities that correspond to their gender identity.
The block was set in place in August of 2016 by Judge Reed O’Connor of the Federal District Court of Texas, stating the, “new rules, regulations, guidance and interpretations at issue are unlawful and unconstitutionally coercive.” The Obama administration had been appealing Judge O’Connor’s ruling, but that come to a halt when the new administration came into power.
In February, Trump announced he has overturned the policy protecting trans students ability to use the restroom they identify with. The policy now lies in the hands of state governments.
Sheridan believes the disconnect between the right and the left, in regards to LGBTQ rights, stems from a lack of understanding and education.
“I think that people who are anti-LGBT in general are coming from a place of fear, of ignorance —for the most part. The cure for fear is to cure the ignorance. As the ignorance dissipates, so does the fear. That’s been my experience time and time again,” Sheridan explains. “When you can put a face on these issues, you can let people see that there’s nothing to fear.
In May 2016, the U.S Department of Education, under the Obama administration, issued a “Dear Colleague” letter stating under Title IX, it is a public school’s obligation to remove all discrimination surrounding the gender and gender identity of students and it “requires schools to provide transgender students equal access to educational programs and activities,” even in situations where others may “raise objections or concerns.”
Title IX is a government legislation that prohibits an individual from being discriminated against, or denied benefits, based on their sex in an educational setting. The problem America faces regarding Title IX is the interpretation of this legislation changes with each administration. Meaning what falls under the definition of sex and the protection of Title IX is subject to change.
The Trump administration does not recognize gender identity as falling under Title IX.
The Democratic party says the new administration is not pushing inclusive policies after it announced its decision. But in Chicago, the equality movement has not been burned out. Local government, nonprofits and universities are standing up for the transgender community and are defending the rights of all people.
Equality Illinois, the state’s oldest and largest organization advocating for equal rights for the LGBTQ community, issued a statement criticizing the Trump administration for disregarding the previous Title IX interpretations. It stated, “The Trump Administration’s action is inconsistent with the Land of Lincoln’s shared values of inclusivity, equality, and fairness. We are better than the discrimination and bias that will be visited on transgender students by the federal action.”
The new interpretation of Title IX has many concerned with the future of discrimination against individuals’ sex and where that will leave DePaul University. Karen Tamburro, The university’s Title IX Coordinator of the Office of Institutional Diversity and Equity, says the current Title IX policies in place at DePaul will not change based on the White House interpretation of the statute.
“I want to create a distinction between what is going on with the [government] administration and what DePaul’s policy and practice is,” Tamburro says. “Our discrimination and harassment policy sets forth protections for individuals based on gender and gender identity, and my impression is that DePaul strives to do the right thing with regard to inclusion and equal access. So regardless of the statute interpretation, our policy remains in place.”
Rooted in DePaul’s mission, the university strives to “respect the personal rights and dignity of each member of its community and providing an environment that is free from all forms of discrimination and harassment,” within all aspects of campus life.
Last year, DePaul implemented a preferred name policy that reflects its mission of inclusion for all students. This policy allows “any student may choose to identify within the University community with a preferred first name that differs from their legal name.”
Katy Wesseman, LGBTQA Student Services Coordinator for the Center for Identity, Inclusion and Social Change at DePaul, began advocating for this policy in 2015 and believes it has created a more inclusive environment.
“It creates so much less anxiety for that student and it creates a more inclusive space and environment for that student,” Wesseman says. “For the faculty member, it removes any barrier the faculty member might have around understanding what [preferred name] actually means.”
The preferred name police reduces student stress about coming out to professors. Some transgender students are open to discussing their transition with professor and faculty, but others are not. I was unable to speak to a transgender student, but Wesseman and Tamburro both said they’ve received positive feedback from both faculty and students regarding the implementation of these policies.
DePaul’s housing administration follows St. Vincent DePaul’s teachings. “Housing Services and Residential Education will consistently recognize and respect the gender identity that students self-identify to DePaul University in good faith.” For students who don’t fall under the gender binary norms, DePaul offers special accommodations but emphasizes they are not obliged to.
“Equality and acceptance are very important – that’s what we do,” says Adam Morgan, the Assistant Director of Housing Assignments.
Morgan says that most transgender students are mainly concerned when it comes to housing rather than the way they will be perceived.
“Very seldom do I get a student who comes in [my office] and asks will I be accepted and I think that says a lot about DePaul’s mission. Acceptance is one of our hallmarks,” says Morgan
Despite the fact that DePaul is Catholic, Morgan says the university’s welcoming nature “speaks volumes to the mission.”
DePaul is not the only institution that has made a statement regarding its stance on inclusion and equal rights.
Earlier this year, Equality Illinois held the largest LGBTQ Gala in the Midwest celebrating the community as a whole and awarded those who are fighting on behalf of LGBTQ rights.
Brian C. Johnson, CEO of Equality Illinois, stated in a press release that “at the gala, we will offer the outlines of an Illinois vision for strengthening LGBTQ equality over the next several years.”
Members of Chicago local government that were in attendance were vocal about the need to stand together. Congressman Mike Quigley of the 5th District has been a vocal supporter of the community and believes there is strength in numbers, especially in troubling times.
“These are particularly parlous times for equality and justice,” Quigley said. “I think it’s time for all good folks to come out and show that when equality is threatened within any segment of our community, that all segments of our community come out to protect and defend them. That’s for our Muslim friends, LGBTQ friends, women’s choice issues, so I think it’s time to recognize that if we don’t stand together, we will fall apart.”
Congressman Quigley recognizes the lack of attention the trans community receives. He says they are “undoubtedly the least appreciated for the extraordinary discrimination they face.”
A key theme of the night was community. Senator Duckworth put it in simple terms: “Because LGBT Rights are human rights. We’re all human. We all inhabit this planet together and when you take away any group of people’s rights, whether it’s LGBTQ community, whether it’s because of someone’s religion — you hurt all of us.”
Human rights have been at the center of debate over the last few months, but Chicago’s public officials and residents are banding together to support those who are underrepresented.
“This country is greater than the demagoguery. Greater than the politics of separation. It’s always important,” Duckworth explained. “The victories we have gained can easily be reversed…certainly we will be fighting every step of the way.”
Sheridan believes the momentum will be temporarily halted by the current administration but is unsure what the future holds. She still has hope.
“Yes, they can do a lot of damage in four years, [but] they aren’t going to destroy progress forever. It’s a temporary kind of thing and it’s no fun to have to go through, but it is what it is and we will come out the other side. We will be stronger.”
Despite the hurdles faced, Vanessa Sheridan believes she has grown into the person she was meant to be all along.
“If you had told me when I was 19 that I would be doing what I do today, I would tell you that you are out of your freaking mind. In fact, I used to tell people that if there was a pill you could take to get rid of the need to express yourself as transgender, I would have swallowed the whole bottle,” she says as she takes a sip of her soda.
“Now, I wouldn’t take [the pill]. The reason I wouldn’t take it is because I feel like I have grown so much as a person. I’ve experienced things I would have never imagined I would experience,” says Sheridan. I’ve had so many remarkable opportunities to experience some way cool things that most people never get the chance to. That would never happened if I wasn’t trans.”
Sheridan believes the road to acceptance never truly ends, but hopes her writings, presentations and involvement at the Center on Halsted, will inspire other trans individuals to become the people they were meant to be.
Header image courtesy of Katherine Philips.