What It’s Like On the Front Lines of the Struggle for Trans Health Access

I need you because I'm getting tired and this battle is long.

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Oct 8 2015, 8:25pm

Author AJ Ripley (right) marches in Fredericton's pride parade. Still via On Hold.

Activism is about survival. But when you're an activist in a small town, you spend a lot of time screaming into the void. My words and the words of other people like me get lost among the white, heteronormative, and government-employed hubbub of my city, Fredericton, New Brunswick. Our words get lost in the whoosh of the breeze sifting through the trees that still stand strong, uncut by Irving Oil—for now. Our message gets lost or intentionally hidden behind the status quo. So when VICE asked me to host and co-produce a documentary about transgender health care access, I knew what they were really offering—an audience, at last.

As a writer, I think about audiences a lot. Usually, I think about how I shouldn't think about them (if I ever want to write a word). I'm also a PhD student, so I spend a lot of time pretending I'm complex when I want to be simple. And I spend a lot of time being simple when I want to feel complex. That's the curse of being alive in the world we're being handed right now—a world that's running out of most things. You think that complexity will grow meaning in places that need it. When I first came out as trans, six months ago, I had no idea that the greatest change for me wouldn't be physical. I thought the sheath of body hair and long drop of my voice would be the most shocking transformations, but the greatest change is that I can now admit how much I need other people. It sounds complex, but it's actually a simple lesson. I'm learning that audience matters, connecting matters. In a world that's running out of most things, compassion is a protected resource.

As a trans activist, my schedule is stuffed with letter writing sessions, presentations, poster-making nights, on-the-spot media interviews, video rants, support groups, photo projects, and rallies. Before I came out as transgender, I had other ideas for how I'd spend my days. Perched at a desk behind the sanctuary of my cabin walls, nestled in the woods, I would complete my first bestseller. Occasionally, I'd surface, with my rescue dog trailing alongside me, to teach at the local university and buy lentil samosas from the market on Saturdays. All this to say, I didn't want the activist life, but I realized I was also one of the trans people who might be killed or ignored to death if I didn't raise hell. To survive, I needed to be seen.

The documentary had the goal of understanding what gender reassignment surgery (GRS) meant for trans people and where the barriers to access existed nationally. We knew that medical conversations can feel cold and often hide the human element beyond the procedure. So we sought out the stories of people at all points of their transitions and with different relationships to the healthcare system.

In their efforts to access adequate care, many of these people had to become their own advocates and activists in their communities. That was especially true in New Brunswick, where no trans procedures are covered. During our conversations, I learned about courage. Although guts may be a better word. Because it takes guts to throw your body on the very ground that's being threatened to crash out from under you. These individuals taught me about sacrifice. Because when you're fighting for a population to be seen and subsequently saved, your life becomes the cause. And with good reason. Without the fight, you aren't a person on paper. You aren't protected under law. You are fired. Assaulted. Made to walk a mile just to use the bathroom.

It's been weeks since I've had two cameras pointed at me at all times and microphone cords threading through my shirts, but what I remember is how the interviewees opened their hearts like doors. Yes, there was pain. There were rooms and rooms of pain. But that's not all there was. I remember feeling so overwhelmed with affection for Rachel, an inventor and trans activist, who invited me to Rainbow Ranch where she was recovering from her gender-confirming surgery after having been on the waitlist in Ontario for over two years. She cited many things that were stolen from her throughout her transition, but her level of optimism and hope for the future was palpable. I could feel her determination to change the system when we did a double-hug in the golf cart after the interview finished.

When you're interviewing trans people, you're asking them to go on record about the discrimination they face. The documentary team was nervous about whether Janine and Karen would agree to an interview because their daughter was so young. Like most people we interviewed, they wanted to talk because they knew that it might lead to change. Their daughter was surprised when I told her I was also trans and that we'd started our transitions at the same time.

"How long was your hair?" she asked.

I rubbed my hand along my top rib to show her where it used to rest. "Yours will grow."

"I want it to here," she said, pointing at her sparkly belt.

The people I interviewed in the documentary are people you could meet anywhere. I remember the way that Sophia's

stick-and-poke tattoos glistened from her arms, under the bright white light, as she excitedly detailed her upcoming move to Montreal. I remember Gloria, clutching her Tims coffee and explaining how she'd busted the rear windshield of her red car lugging music gear. The people I interviewed were ordinary people, with rich and diverse lives, who came together because an extraordinary circumstance united them: their government had not made their healthcare a priority.We live in a time when the media pumps out images of transgender people and considers that visibility courageous. But that doesn't take guts. Each person I interviewed reminded me that it's not enough just to see. Trans people need cis allies to write letters to those health ministers who aren't showing compassion. We need you to vote for the person who promises to protect the most vulnerable populations when it comes to basic human rights. We need you to share documentaries like this one so that ignorance and misinformation are no longer shields. We need you because we're getting tired and this battle is long.

Dr. Adrian Edgar, a family doctor that I interviewed in New Brunswick, said it best: "This is a treatable suffering." The problem is that the people capable of treating the suffering of trans people in this country are doctors and politicians. Despite the growing suicide and murder rates for trans populations, many of those people in power find ways to ignore the problem until they're held accountable. Even then, there are excuses for delays: budget reviews, quotas, lack of curriculum, or elections. What I want to say to whomever is reading this is that you're not only funding a gender-related surgery if you urge your government to support trans health care, you're giving people the opportunity to be present in the world, to enjoy the small and mundane parts of life.

Trans health care access means fewer broken and lost bodies. Access means that activists can become human again. They can share their whole stories with each other, not only instructions on how to survive. Access means life—now, in this moment, not when the timing is right.

Follow AJ on Twitter.

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