RICHMOND, Va. — Zakia McKensey began her male-to-female transition more than 20 years ago. She said she had to travel over 500 miles to Atlanta, Georgia, to find a plastic surgeon willing to perform her sexual reassignment surgery.
“I had to go to Baltimore for hormone therapy,” McKensey said. “There were not any medical providers in Richmond doing that work.”
Now, McKensey works as a certified HIV test counselor and prevention educator and founded the Nationz Foundation, a Richmond organization that provides education and information related to HIV prevention, cancer awareness and overall health and wellness.
McKensey joined a panel of experts at Virginia Commonwealth University on Wednesday night to discuss how public policy in immigration, health care, criminal justice and emergency management impacts transgender and nonbinary individuals — people who don’t identify as male or female.
“It’s a huge part of who I am,” said Austin Higgs, a panelist who identifies as genderqueer, meaning neither entirely male nor female.
Higgs, who works as a community engagement officer and special assistant to the president and CEO at Richmond Memorial Health Foundation, said, “It’s been a long journey for me, and I am actually proud of who I am. I want the world around me to recognize who I am.”
Higgs and McKensey were joined on the panel by Shabab Mirza, a research assistant at the LGBT Center for American Progress, and Liz Coston, an instructor in VCU’s Department of Sociology.
Nearly 200 students and other community members attended the event, which was organized by Peter Jenkins, a doctoral student at the L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs. Jenkins moderated the event with Khudai Tanveer, an organizing fellow at the National Queer Asian Pacific Islander Alliance.
Jenkins said that people tend to think the transgender community is small but that 12 percent of the millennial population is openly transgender, according to a 2017 report by GLAAD, which promotes understanding and acceptance of LGBT people.
During the discussion, panelists pointed to the problems of proper documentation and refugee placement for transgender and nonbinary people entering the United States. They said that documentation is problematic in many respects.
“For many years, I have questioned why there is any gender on any documentation,” McKensey said. “Does it really matter if I’m male or female to drive a car? I would like to see no gender on any documentation. I don’t think it really matters, as long as it’s you on the ID.”
To provide better health care for transgender and nonbinary people, McKensey said it starts with three steps: training, education and conversation.
“Our medical providers are not informed — not all of them,” she said. “I also think it’s important to build a network, knowing who those affirming doctors are that our community can go to.”
On the topic of incarceration, panelists said that for transgender and nonbinary people, time in the criminal justice system is often more difficult because of their gender/sex/gender expression — and even more so for people of color.
Some of the challenges they listed include physical violence (specifically sexual assault), wrongful placement in prison based on presumed gender, and denial of access to hormone replacement therapy, appropriate counseling and proper garments.
Higgs ended the panel by saying it is not only cisgender people — individuals who identify with the gender corresponds with their birth sex — who discriminate against transgender and nonbinary individuals. Even members of the LGBTQ community sometimes need sensitivity training as well.
“We have to admit that there is a problem within the community,” Higgs said, citing discrimination on the basis of skin color. “I think a lot of people outside of our community are surprised that this happens. It’s hard to kind of admit those problems when we’re just trying to survive and get the rights we should already have.”
This story was produced by the Virginia Commonwealth University’s Capital News Service.