This was the third town hall meeting presented by Trans*Action Florida (formerly Transgender FORGE). It was the best attended so far and the most productive in the sense that participants walked away feeling like their voices were heard and that a plan was in place. Topics of previous meetings had been "The Trans Community's Expectations of FORGE" and "The Trouble With HRC: Should the Trans Community Support HRC?" No unified solutions materialized in either of these meetings, but in last week's meeting a solidified front began to form.
A discussion panel consisting of Nadine Smith, executive director of Equality Florida; Mariruth Kennedy, president of the Tampa Bay Business Guild; Beth Fountain from Stonewall Democrats of Pinellas County; and Reverend Jake Kopmeier from King of Peace MCC was the centerpiece of the evening.
Panelists first answered questions designed by Trans*Action Florida to make clear each organization's commitments to the transgender community.
Smith and Equality Florida have been longtime supporters of the transgender community. In fact, Transgender FORGE was founded under the guidance and support of Equality Florida 10 years ago. Smith said that neither she nor Equality Florida support policy that doesn't include gender identity and expression. But unlike many other LGBT organizations, they also actively oppose such policy. Smith said that Trans*Action Florida and the trans community can expect Equality's continued support and offered to hold formalized lobbying training to prepare for a discussion with Pinellas County commissioners.
Kennedy informed the audience that the Tampa Bay Business Guild was committed to encouraging its members to be fully-inclusive businesses. Prior to the town hall meeting, discussions had already occurred around the idea of Trans*Action Florida offering training to Business Guild members. As she told the audience, participation from the transgender community is an important part of the solution. The Business Guild is actively recruiting transgender board members.
The Stonewall Democrats under the previous leadership of Rick Boylan and current president Susan McGrath have really begun to see the need for supporting the transgender community. Fountain encouraged transgender people to come to their meetings and volunteer to promote candidates that support gender identity and expression in policy changes.
Rev. Kopmeier discussed MCC's denominational efforts to encourage its churches to be fully inclusive and went into details about King of Peace's commitment to offering trans persons a safe and welcoming space to meet their spiritual needs. Kopmeier, a trans man, serves on the transgender ministerial team at the church and offers ministerial counseling to anyone in the trans community.
Several audience members spoke, some asking questions of the panel and others commenting on the topic. Levi Love, who was present at Bishop on the night of the incident and is also the manager of Emerald Bar on Central Avenue, conveyed another recent experience he encountered in an LGBT establishment. Love called for greater efforts within our own community to understand and accept each other.
Local burlesque performer and longtime transgender ally Frankie Markstone Jaton pulled no punches with her comments to the crowd. Jaton first called out Bishop owner Dean Marshlack on what she considered an insufficient apology and for his absence at the town hall meeting. She then went on to comment, as Love did, on the lack of respect and understanding within the LGBT community. She gave a call to action to the community at large to stop using derogatory language within our own circles — words like fag, dyke, twink, breeder, tranny. She also called the trans community to action, encouraging it to "stop taking the scraps from the table."
A trans woman named Tina asked the panel what it would take to get a trans person into political office locally. All of the panelists supported the idea, but were honest in once more conveying to transgender folks that we have to do the footwork first, starting with being active in other candidates' campaigns.
Another trans woman asked the panel for advice on how to encourage transgender persons who are still closeted to become involved. She stated that she is a member of an online group with 5,000 other trans-identified people in the Central Florida area and the majority of them are living in fear of disclosure.
Fear came up in other comments as well. Guest speaker Christian Wright discussed his daily fear of being in an accident and not receiving medical treatment once his gender status is discovered. The mother of a trans man tearfully described her daily fear that every time her son leaves home he may encounter violence or an accident that leaves him without proper medical treatment.
Another young trans man called the panel to task, stating that upon his arrival in the area two years ago he had reached out to two of their organizations to become involved and did not receive responses. The panelists were apologetic, explaining that they are primarily volunteer-staffed and sometimes these things slip by. Not satisfied with the response, the young man remained said, "You're asking us to reach out to you but you don't respond. Why should we help you?"
Fountain's response — "We're doing this for you" — sent a murmur through the crowd. She went on to say that gays and lesbians face similar medical care issues, which brought several audience members to their feet in protest. As moderator, I took a moment to explain that the issue being discussed was not about visitation by partners or families, but the reality that some trans people have been denied treatment due to the fact that their physical body does not match their gender presentation.
The final speaker of the evening was St. Petersburg City Councilman Steve Kornell. Kornell, who has taken a supportive stance on transgender issues since taking office, announced that he is working on several initiatives within the city government that will benefit the transgender community. He also made a very strong statement that mistreatment of transgender persons by the city's police, fire or paramedics would not be tolerated and he would handle those issues personally.
This event was a definite turning point for the Tampa Bay transgender community. After the meeting, people remained for hours, networking and exchanging ideas. I agree with several of the calls for action that occurred, primarily those that concern the transgender community's initiative. It is time to sit at the table — the table that has been set by your trans community leaders and our allies.
Trans*Action's next steps are to schedule the lobby training with Equality Florida, based on the upcoming election cycle. We will assist Stonewall Democrats in recruiting trans members for their political action committee and have already offered to establish a transgender advisory committee. Trans*Action already works closely with King of Peace and will continue to support their programs; and we will further pursue training opportunities with the Business Guild and continue to assist that organization with the recruitment of transgender board members and business members.