by Melanie Yarborough

Transgendered people face many obstacles, but none more so than sisters and brothers of color. At a special workshop at California Dreamin' 1996 in San Francisco, Kiki Whitlock moderated a panel on multiracial transgender issues. Herself of Filipino/African-American background, Kiki coordinates the Chameleon program of the Asian & Pacific Island community.

All of the panel members were very active in Gay Rights, AIDS Awareness, Ethnic, or Refugee issues. Because of their own often marginalized situations, many were pushed into social activism. This is in contrast to many white Caucasian transgendered individuals who have the luxury of concentration on more social or personal issues. The panel noted that many transgender groups are merely social groups, an outlet for people to fantasize and role-play, instead of for changing their society.

Moreover, many in the White Transgender community interface with minority Sex Workers. A lot of heterosexual crossdressers experiment sexually with this community. This not only means the obvious issues of AIDS; it also involves issues of reinforcing racial stereotypes and an exploitative economic relationship.

Those who are Hispanic and transgendered face immigration conflicts, language and economic barriars, and problems adjusting to a different US culture. Adela Vasquez originally came to the United States from Cuba in 1980. Although she identified herself more with the Drag Queen community, she was told at first that she was a Gay man, and had to fit the macho image to make it in the Gay community. She ultimately found her own identity, and later became Miss Gay Latina 1992. She is active in the Latin American AIDS Organization "Proyecto Contra SIDA". Yvette Robles also notes the obstacle of Machismo in Latin culture,and is a community health outreach worker with the Tenderloin AIDS group. Some Latina transgendered need to prostitute to support themselves, and Yvette refers many for housing and health care.

Patrick Forte is a pre-operative African American Female-to-Male. As a child, he realized that "The tomboy wanted to be a boy", and coming from a religious background often asked "God, how can you do this to me?" He had no one to talk to about these issues; while there was a growing white gay and transgender movement, "Black people didn't go to white people for advice. When something happens in the family, you keep it in the family".

He also grew up in a family where it was normal to abuse and hit women if they got out of line-a practice Patrick unfortunately transferred to his own relationships with women at first. Patrick has overcome many obstacles, and is currently active in organizing the East Bay Black F2M community.

Asian-Americans are often considered newcomers to the Gender Community, and they have many particular ethnic issues. Connie Amarathithada is of Laotian backgorund, a culture which places great emphasis on the family, and conformance over individuality. "We accept that we respect and obey our parents," she says. Connie works with the Southeast Asian Refugee Resettlement Program, as well as other projects.

Tamara Ching is a Transgender Consultant in the Bay Area, and is of Chinese-Hawaiian background. She notes that Chinese culture is particularly suspicious of Non-Chinese, and mixing with white or black people was often discouraged. Moreover, many Asian cultures do not discuss sexual issues, period. Tamara's transsexuality was accordingly blamed on many of her transgendered friends alleged influence over her, rather than accepted as part of who she was.

Drug use and prostitution are also issues within the Trans-gendered Communities of Color, although one has to be careful not to generalize or stereotype. Facing the pressures of family conflicts with cultural conflicts superimposed over them, limited economic opportunities, and general racism in American society at large, some minority transgendered turn to alcohol and drug abuse. Many also drift into prostitution, as the Red Light Districts are the only social places they have. And denied mainstream jobs, sex work becomes the most ready way of support. This, of course, makes AIDS issues very prominant.

Flashpoint: How do White Middle-Class Crossdressers and Transsexuals relate to Transgendered People of Color? In the audience discussion, it was brought out that our diversity can paralyze us. Ethnic issues can often cloud overall transgender issues. Many White transgendered are reluctant to approach other communites, fearful of simmering resentments. They feel they need to ask permission for everything they'd like to do, fearful of stepping on anyone's toes. They also fear that an innocent slip of the tongue or ingrained behavior could stir up a hornet's nest of anger and rejection. Contacts thus tend to be done gingerly and tentatively.

We need to stress our commonalities."Let's build as many bridges as we can" concludes Kiki WHitlock. And Tamara Ching reminds us that "Transgendered people need to help each other-don't look at Racism and Classism.....You need to go case by case, not race by race".

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