While working at an organization that focuses on homeless LGBT youth, Racquelle Trammell, a 28-year-old transgender woman from Detroit, never thought that taking everyone out for food one day would end up taking a turn for the worse.
“On our way back, a man in a truck tried to talk to me, insisting that I give him my number,” Trammell says. “After saying no a few times, he got very upset and asked why. In fear for my youth, I explained that I was transgender.”
“He stopped his truck and was like, ‘Hell naw, I’m not gay! Don’t be trying to trick me!’ He then reached into the backseat for what seemed to be a gun,” she continues. “My youth and I were able to get back inside before he could get to his gun, but that truly had to be one of the scariest moments of my life.”
Though Trammell walked away unharmed, she revealed that being called her birth name (something she prefers not to disclose) in public outed her and made her an even bigger target for transphobic violence.
That aside, Trammell’s birth name proved to be a barrier when it came to her many attempts at accessing healthcare and finding work. She says that something as simple as going to the grocery store often resulted in one misunderstanding after another when it came time to pay for the groceries because her identification didn’t reflect her appearance.
“No matter where you go, if you’re a transgender individual and your documentation doesn’t match your appearance, people change the way they associate you,” Trammell explains. “For instance, when I would go someplace, it was always ‘Hi, ma’am. How are you?’ Then when they saw my birth name, they began addressing me as sir or referring to me as he or him.”
These type of situations no longer exist for Trammell since legally changing her name with the assistance of the Transgender Legal Defense & Education Fund (TLDEF) back in May. TLDEF provides legal services pro bono to ensure that transgender people are guaranteed equal rights. Whether someone experiences employment or housing discrimination or hits yet another bump in the road while trying to access health care or educational opportunities, he or she works closely with a lawyer over a period of several months to resolve the issue(s).
Much emphasis has been placed on TLDEF’s Name Change Project because a name change is often the first step to ensuring equality for transgender people. As of now, the Name Change Project is available in 13 cities across the country, including New York City, Chicago, Houston and more recently, Detroit.
“The clients we’re serving are living at the intersection of discrimination based on race, class and gender and that can be an overwhelming situation for someone to be in,” says TLDEF’s Executive Director Michael Silverman. “Providing legal services to help people address the discrimination they’re facing is a critical component in ensuring the transgender community is treated equally.”
In Trammell’s case, she learned that her name had officially been changed on her birthday. “It was the best gift I could’ve asked for,” she says.
Although Trammell’s name change has granted her to live more freely, it’s also about something bigger than that. Many transgender people need legal, social and health services and to be honest, there aren’t many available, especially for Black transgender people.
Transitioning is by no means an overnight process and depending on where they are in their transition, they may need exams that are gender specific. For instance, a man transitioning into a woman may still need a prostate exam. However, transgender people are often denied these procedures by insurance companies.
Additionally, poverty poses a serious threat to the transgender community. According to the National Transgender Discrimination Survey, 15 percent of those who completed the survey reported earning less than $10,000 a year. For Black transgender people, that number more than doubled at 34 percent.
Trammell graduated from Wayne County Community College with an associate degree over the summer and will attend Central Michigan University in January. After graduation, she has plans to pursue a career in social justice or broadcast journalism and has even thought about starting her own organization that works to help other transgender people. Trammell’s future seems bright, but there’s still one particular issue that weighs heavy on her mind.
“My fiancé, who is a transgender man, and I are expecting our first child in March. What are they going to do about the birth certificate? How are they going to differentiate the mother and the father of the child?” Trammell asks. “That, for me, is still something that’s very difficult and challenging.”
While there is still progress to be made, Trammell acknowledges that a name change service is a step toward the right direction and that there is a dire need within the transgender community for more organizations such as TLDEF.
“I’m just so thankful that people are starting to have more conversations about what it means to be transgender and taking heed that there’s a population of people out there who need help,” she says. “When people are not able to identify as their authentic selves, they’re stripped of their right to be human. Having systems in place that allow for them to be themselves is essential for the transgender community to thrive and have normal, sustainable, equitable lives.”
Princess Gabbara is a Michigan-based journalist whose work has appeared on Essence.com, BET.com, Huffington Post Women, xoJane.com, ForHarriet.com, BlackDoctor.org, and Sesi Magazine. You can read more of her work on her blog. She also tweets @PrincessGabbara.