Published originally on February 15, 2010 in the Examiner.com HERE.
Trans people throughout the world who need help, support, resources, or just a friendly voice on the phone or online have an organization they can turn to — TransMentors International: Connecting Trans Identities Locally & Globally. The founder and executive director of TransMentors International, Michael Brown, talks about the organization, why it’s needed, and how you can get help.
What is TransMentors International and how and why did you start it?
TransMentors International is a non-profit organization that provides aid, support and assistance to trans-identified men, women, and youth in their day-to-day lives. Our primary focus will always be on the needs and concerns of the individual.
We all needed answers and support when we began our transitions. Some of us were fortunate to have a close friend who had transitioned and we went to them for advice and support. The majority of us only had the Internet. While the information is out there to be found, it’s not the same as having someone in our own area who we can turn to for support.
Having gone through my own transition without a trans friend for support, I realized the need was shared by many. I wanted to fill that need, so I created a safe, secure Web site for transmen to find each other locally, and there hasn’t been a day since the beginning that someone isn’t signing up. The organization continued to grow and began providing support for transwomen and loved ones of trans-identified people on their own Web sites. We now have Web site members from 32 countries, people in all stages of transition, giving support and finding support, many times in their own backyards, so to speak, which is the ultimate goal of the Web sites.
What are the programs that you provide?
The organization has since expanded its services to provide offline assistance as well as online support. We provide resources referrals, emergency assistance (such as clothing, food, personal items), safe housing, phone mentoring, faith support, and other forms of support as the needs come up in the daily lives of trans men, women, and youth. We provide e-mail and instant messaging support, as well as a toll-free phone number.
We also provide educational workshops and events geared towards raising awareness of the issues of the transgender community. Our TransForm Community events are scheduled in various cities in order to educate the LGB community and the public on who we are — that we’re more than just the trailing “T” in the acronym LGBT. We believe that, in offering these affordable-to-attend events to communities, we are pursuing our goal of changing one heart and one mind at a time, and effecting a positive change in the future for the acceptance of trans-identified people.
Our organization is entirely run by volunteers, and there are no paid positions. We rely on donations for our monthly expenses. When the donations aren’t enough to cover them, we pay out of our own pockets.
What are the most frequent types of contacts that you get? Is there one need that stands out above all others?
We receive requests asking for resources, legal questions (usually to do with legal documents and gender markers), needs for safe housing, and mentoring support, among other things. Many contact us when they are deep in depression, lost and feeling alone. We hear their stories of their families disowning them, or their experience with hate or violence against them, or the loss of their employment and the struggling of finances, and all sorts of other life situations. Some want advice on coming out to their family, or to their employer, while others need to find a supportive trans-friendly therapist or doctor near them.
Do you get a lot of contacts from trans people outside of the United States? What differences do you see between various cultures or countries in the types of help requested or conditions for trans people? Are there differences even within various regions of the U.S.?
We do get requests from people outside of the U.S., usually for finding local country support and/or mentoring. When we are unable to provide sufficient resources in their area, we provide the “listening ear” or “shoulder to lean on,” so to speak, so they know that someone cares and is really listening to them. For example, I spent several months in online chat with one young transman in the UK who was unable to transition due to his parent’s not allowing it. At one point, I didn’t hear from him for about three weeks, and there was nothing I could do but wait. Once he came back online, he shared that he had been in the hospital, a failed suicide attempt.
Unfortunately, without a local support system, many trans people get to the point of contemplating and/or attempting suicide, because it’s so difficult to handle alone. Another person I communicate regularly with is a transwoman in Iran, who due to the laws of her country, and the concern of being jailed or killed, still lives and presents as a male. With no money to leave her country, and no means of financial support even if she could leave, she’s in a situation that’s all too common for trans men and women in many countries. Sometimes she just needs to chat and know that she’s OK and someone cares.
Most of the stories are the same, regardless of country or region — valid fears of coming out, facing and/or experiencing various types of loss, severe depression from being unable to live authentically. It’s the stories of trans men, women, and youth needing to begin or continue through their transition and needing to know they’re OK, and that someone understands.
We’re seeing some new laws here and there around the country that include discrimination protections for trans people in employment, housing, and public accommodations. Does this signal increasing acceptance on a community level? Is it easier for trans people to come out now and be accepted?
Coming out as trans is generally difficult for the majority of trans people. Period. On the positive side, there is more information available, there are more medical resources available, and there is a lot of information on the Internet for those coming out compared to those who came out 10+ years ago.
Acceptance, however, by community, church, and family is not much different than it’s always been — minimal acceptance and understanding.
Laws are slowly being changed, but not nearly enough to provide any real sense of security for trans people coming out at their jobs, in their churches, etc. The fear of losing their job, or their loved ones, is still a very real fear for most beginning their transitions. Discrimination still exists, and hate crimes against the trans community are still happening. Just look at the Transgender Day of Remembrance Web site and you’ll see the stories of very real people who are no longer with us because of hate and ignorance.
With all the information and contacts available for trans people on the Internet, and with some laws changing in our favor, why is an organization like TransMentors still needed?
Again, there is still so much discrimination in the world, and with the very real fears of losing every single thing we have, or have worked for, losing our families and our friends, our jobs, we are still facing being “alone” in our transition journeys. TransMentors International provides the means and opportunity for all trans men, women, and youth to find support and encouragement and them know they are not alone, and someone cares.
What we believe makes TransMentors International different than other organizations is that every single person who works with us has a passion for supporting the trans community in their daily personal transition journeys, and we are all willing to give our time to, and listen to, those who need to know they aren’t alone. Our sole purpose is to help make day-to-day lives of trans people easier through mentoring, supporting, and education. And we all do it without a paycheck.
What are your future goals for the organization?
We’re working towards providing a 365/24/7 toll-free telephone support line in the coming months, for people needing someone to talk to immediately, rather than waiting for a return call from a Mentor. We are constantly adding to our database of resources, and hope to establish a full network of safe housing providers, as well as those individuals, groups, and organizations who help provide clothing, food, and personal supplies specifically to the trans community.
We’ve also been working on our Campus Action Plan, tentatively scheduled to take effect in the fall of 2010. Essentially, it is a program designed to work with educational institutions (high schools, colleges, and universities) and provide necessary educational materials, workshops, and mentors to, and on behalf of, trans-identified students.
We’ll continue to support the trans community with any personal needs that come up. Every individual has their own needs and circumstances. If we can find a way to fulfill the need, we will.
What else would you like to say?
All of us started at the beginning. Whether we were 5, or 25, or 45 before we put two and two together and realized our gender identities weren’t meshing with our physical bodies, we all came to the point in our lives where we knew we had to take that first step into our journey of transition. For some, it happened without much incident or fanfare, but for the majority of us, it was a huge, major decision and it was a hard first (and second and beyond) step. Many of us know what it’s like to go through it alone, and there’s many of us who want to be there to support those just starting out so they don’t have to go through it alone.
Thank you for the opportunity to share about our organization and what we do. I suppose to sum up what we’re all about, I’ll say this:
Being there for each other. Lending a shoulder or an ear. Giving a hug or a smile, even virtual ones, to let other trans men, women, and youth know we care. Passing it on and paying it forward. These are the things that make TransMentors International a necessity in our community.