Attorney Kylar Broadus, Founder of Trans People of Color Coalition, Works to Protect the Civil Rights of the Transgender Community
by Lester Strong
Photographed Exclusively for A&U by Alina Oswald
Transgender”—a term that was only a blip in the consciousness of most people barely a decade ago yet today is splashed throughout headlines in print media as diverse as newspapers, magazines, and tabloids. Trans people from Laverne Cox [A&U, June 2014] to Cait Jenner seem to be everywhere on TV, from reality shows to talk TV. And this year one transgender performer, Mya Taylor, won a Best Supporting Actress Independent Spirit Award for her role in the movie Tangerine.
Beyond the apparent glam and glitz promoted by popular media about a few individuals, however, the true reality for many trans people can be quite a bit grimmer. Problems can range from social ostracism to civil rights to job protections to bias attacks to murder to healthcare—of which AIDS is most definitely an issue. This can be especially true for trans people of color.
Enter Kylar Broadus, lawyer, activist, and founder of the Trans People of Color Coalition (TPOCC), who himself transitioned in 1994. “The problems can be pervasive, and the consequences quite severe, depending on the individual,” said Broadus when interviewed for this article. “I became a lawyer so I could represent myself in a job discrimination case after I was fired due to my transition and couldn’t find anyone else to help me legally in court. I lost the case because in those days not only was there no legal protection aimed specifically at meeting the needs of trans people, but there was very little awareness of what those needs involved.” He added: “There’s still not much legal protection today. Trans people are covered in a general way by existing anti-discrimination laws, but not many courts realize this. We need more education about our needs, and more specific laws on the books. We need to come together as a group and be at the forefront of working out our own strategies for gaining greater social acceptance and legal protections.”
Broadus himself has been at the forefront in seeking to remedy those problems. Among his many activities: From 1997 to 2013, he maintained a law practice in Columbia, Missouri, where he represented transgender, lesbian, gay, and bisexual clients in family law, criminal law, and other legal areas. In 2010, seeing the need for a national organization dedicated specifically to the civil rights of transpeople of color, he founded TPOCC. As a member of the city of Columbia’s Human Rights Commission, he helped secure the passage of an amendment to the City Code in 2011 protecting transgender people’s rights. He’s a board member of the National Black Justice Coalition, and from 2007 through 2010 served as its board chair. He has served as the senior public policy counsel at the National LGBTQ Task Force, as well as the director of its Transgender Civil Rights Project. He also served as state legislative manager and counsel for the Human Rights Campaign, working with legislators around the country to pass LGBT-inclusive legislation. He has written numerous articles and contributed to books on transgender and black American LGTBQ issues, and delivered talks and lectures at many college and conference venues. And in 2012, he was the first trans person to appear before a U.S. Senate committee, speaking in support of the federal Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA), which would prohibit job discrimination nationally on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.
Broadus has also received recognition from several quarters for his work: He was one of those interviewed in filmmaker Kortney Ryan Ziegler’s 2008 documentary STILL BLACK: A Portrait of Black Transmen; in 2011 he was given the National LGBTQ Task Force’s Sue J. Hyde Award for Longevity in the Movement and the Freedom Center of Social Justice’s Pioneer Award; and in 2013 he was included as one of Out magazine’s OUT100, an annual list of the year’s most compelling LGBT people.
Asked during the interview for this article to expand on the issues facing the transgender population, Broadus replied: “First off, there can be confusion about what’s going on in your feelings. This may be less of a problem these days because there’s so much more information available about transgender people. When I was growing up, though, it was a real problem for me. I knew about Renée Richards and Christine Jorgensen, but they didn’t seem relevant to my situation. They were men who transitioned to women. I was raised as a woman, but never felt like one. Then after jazz musician and bandleader Billy Tipton’s death in 1989, it was discovered that although assigned the female gender at birth, he had lived his adult life as a man. This was a revelation to me. I realized I had another option. But I went through years of confusion and unhappiness because who I was told I was didn’t fit my own feelings about myself and there were so few resources to help me understand it all.”
He continued: “Another issue many transgender men and women can face is family and social ostracism, depending of course on your family and friends. Then there’s discrimination on the job. My experience is a perfect example. Employers have almost complete discretion over what employees wear at work. I never felt comfortable in women’s clothes, and as I transitioned I started to wear more masculine outfits. That seemed to be no problem with my co-workers, but was a problem with management at the financial institution where I was employed. I was harassed more and more, and eventually constructively discharged, even though I had an excellent work record. It was quite a while before I found another job, and it didn’t pay as well as what I’d been earning. I was lucky in that I had a college education, savings, and COBRA [a federal law allowing one to keep health coverage temporarily after losing a job by paying the entire premium oneself], so I was able to keep my medical insurance for a time after I was fired. But when COBRA ran out, I found myself among the uninsured.”
Which brings us to medical issues transgender people face. First and foremost are the costs of transitioning. According to Broadus: “You need quite a bit of money or good insurance to pay for the operations you’ll need and the hormones you’ll be taking for the rest of your life if you choose to go the medical transitioning route.”
But the problems don’t stop there. To quote directly from page 72 of the 2011 research document “Injustice at Every Turn: A Report of the National Transgender Discrimination Survey,” sponsored and published by the National Center for Transgender Equality and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force: “Access to health care is a fundamental human right that is regularly denied to transgender and gender non-conforming people.
“Transgender and gender non-conforming people frequently experience discrimination when accessing health care, from disrespect and harassment to violence and outright denial of service. Participants in our study reported barriers to care whether seeking preventive medicine, routine and emergency care, or transgender-related services. These realities, combined with widespread provider ignorance about the health needs of transgender and gender non-conforming people, deter them from seeking and receiving quality health care.
“Our data consistently show that racial bias presents a sizable additional risk of discrimination for transgender and gender non-conforming people of color in virtually every major area of the study, making their health care access and outcomes dramatically worse.”
Some of the statistics given in the report can be startling: Nineteen percent of survey participants said they had been refused medical care because of their transgender or gender-nonconforming status, with even higher numbers among people of color; twenty-eight percent said they were subject to harassment in medical settings, with two percent being victims of violence in doctors’ offices; fifty percent said they had to teach their medical providers about transgender care; a staggering forty-one percent said they had attempted suicide (compared with national statistics of 1.6 percent of the general population), with those citing unemployment, bullying in school, low household income, and physical and sexual abuse reporting even higher rates; over twenty-five percent reported misusing drugs or alcohol specifically to cope with mistreatment they faced due to their gender identity or expression.
The “Injustice at Every Turn” report also documents transgender issues related to HIV/AIDS. Overall, the survey participants reported an HIV infection rate of 2.64 percent. This may seem low until you learn that it is four times the infection rate of 0.6 percent in the general U.S. adult population. And transgender people of color reported rates much higher: 24.90 percent for African Americans, 10.92 percent for Latino/as, 7.04 percent for Native Americans, 3.70 percent for Asian Americans, all substantially above the rates for those groups in the general population.
In regard to HIV/AIDS, Broadus stated: “It can be a real problem for transgender people of color. The ‘Injustice at Every Turn’ report shows that thirty-four percent of the African-American transgender population makes less than $10,000 per year, not surprising in a period when the unemployment rate for black Americans overall is almost twice the rate for white Americans. But trans people of color are especially vulnerable to employment problems. For one thing, they tend to transition earlier than their non-people-of-color counterparts, which can result in their education being interrupted as they struggle emotionally to cope with all the changes this causes in their lives. Even when educated, they can run into a great deal of employment discrimination, either unable to find work in the first place or like me finding themselves let go because of their gender non-conforming status. Remember, there’s very little legal protection to help them in this area. To support themselves they’re often forced into the underground economy, which in turn often means sex work. And that can mean exposure to sexually transmitted diseases, which above all includes HIV.”
It’s clear that the problems faced by the transgender population, including HIV/AIDS, have complex roots. The solutions, however, are equally clear: In the words of Broadus quoted earlier in this article, “We need more education about our needs, and more specific laws on the books.” The transgender community is lucky to have someone of the caliber of Kylar Broadus working on its behalf to achieve those goals.
Lester Strong is Special Projects Editor of A&U.