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Friday, January 22, 2021

Precarious life of being a Black, trans woman

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“Grandma, how do I become a girl?” a young Kimberly Acoff asked looking up at her grandmother with hopeful eyes. 

“Kiss your elbows,” her grandma responded. 

At just 5 years old, Acoff knew she was meant to be a girl. Now, at 52, she laughs at the time and lengths she went to in order to be able to kiss her elbows. 

“I kept trying, but I just couldn’t do it,” she recalls, laughing. 

She knew that she was meant to be a woman and made it her mission to become one. 

Growing up in Selma, Alabama, and Fort Wayne, Indiana, was not easy for Acoff, who now lives in Indianapolis. She went through her adolescent years and early twenties as a male. Still, she was bullied, teased and ostracized by her peers for how she acted.

“I honestly looked more girlish than boyish without even really trying,” she said. Because of that, others often misunderstood her. “Growing up when people would try to define me, I’d say in my head ‘liar, they are a liar.’ That’s how I got through. I just knew in my heart who I was.” 

The Human Rights Campaign — the largest LGBTQ civil rights advocacy group in the United States — defines transgender as “people whose gender identity is different from what is typically associated with the sex assigned to them at birth” (i.e., the sex listed on their birth certificate). At birth, most infants are assigned a gender before they’re even given a name, that assignment, usually given by a doctor, more often than not determines how caregivers raise the child into adulthood. In Acoff’s case, that’s what happened even after expressing that she felt she was meant to be female throughout her childhood.

 The process

By her late twenties, Acoff began making plans to fully transition to female. Today, trans individuals who want to undergo gender reassignment surgery must complete a series of tasks set by the World Professional Transgender Association of Health. The first step is meeting with a mental health professional for a diagnosis and psychotherapy. Ideally, a trans individual will receive a diagnosis of gender identity disorder or gender dysphoria. A letter of recommendation from the therapist allows a person to begin hormone therapy with a doctor. Following hormone therapy, an individual must live publicly as a member of their preferred gender for a period of time. 

Overall, gender reassignment surgery can cost anywhere from $10,000 to $100,000. In 2016, Medicare lifted a 33-year ban on the surgery, allowing for some costs to be covered by insurance. Still, it is more cost effective — and just as safe — to get the surgery done abroad as Acoff did. In 2000, she boarded a plane to Brussels, Belgium, for her surgery. 

“It was my first time out of the country. I recovered in Brussels just long enough to be able to get on a plane and come home,” she recalls. She came home covered in sutures that her doctor in the states had to remove. “I was very blessed in a sense because I had a doctor who was willing to take this on. It was a learning experience for them and me.”

 Free but not safe

While undergoing gender reassignment surgery can be freeing — it was for Acoff  —that doesn’t mean life gets easier. Trans individuals, especially trans women of color still experience a disproportionate amount of violence. According to a 2017 report published by the Human Rights Campaign, transgender women face more than four times the risk of becoming a homicide victim across the country. From 2013 to 2017, the organization recorded the deaths of 102 trans individuals, 80 percent of whom were people of color. The Huffington Post reports that the life expectancy for a trans woman of color is 35 years — 46 years less than the life expectancy of non-trans women — due to the high murder rates of this group. 

In Indianapolis, the homicide rates for trans women of color are not available. Nor is it available for any person who is murdered and identifies as a member of the LGBTQ community.

“We track more common demographics: Black, white, male, female, age,” Sgt. Kendale Adams of the Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department said. “Some of that more outlying data we don’t track because it’s a personal issue and folks may not want to share that with us, so oftentimes that data, if we did track it, wouldn’t be as accurate as we’d like it to be.” 

Sgt. Adams says many departments across the country do not track the homicide rates of transgender individuals because of the difficulty to get an accurate number. Additionally, not all transgender individuals are out to their family at the time of their death, making it easy for a trans person to be mis-gendered by their loved ones. However, IMPD does have an LGBT liaison, a position that has existed since 2012. IMPD has been involved in the Indy Pride celebrations over the years and recently partnered with Indy Pride to create a PSA on sexual assault. 

Still, Acoff believes more needs to be done. 

“If you’re not recognizing a trend you’re not able to combat it,” she said. “We can’t begin to save trans lives until we begin to understand what put them at risk and that is discriminating against them in the forms of housing, healthcare and jobs.” 

Currently in Indiana and 30 other states, transgender people can be fired without any other reason than simply being who they are. They can also be denied jobs for this same reasoning. Acoff has experienced this first hand. 

“Just recently I had a job offer with a pretty big insurance company and I thought things were going pretty well. Then, after a credit check they were tight lipped and my offer went away,” she recalls. “It happens after these instances, where you have to reveal everything. When you have to fill out the ‘any other names that you’ve gone by’ section of an application you sort of reveal yourself and you make yourself open to discrimination.”

Since Acoff transitioned and despite some challenges, she’s also had a lot of triumphs. Growing up she’d tell her younger sister that she was going to be her sister one day instead of her brother; and she’d tell her aunt that she’d own a condo, she’s done both of these things. And after her learning disability was ignored in grade school and high school, she went on to get her bachelor’s and master’s degree in business at Indiana Wesleyan. She even fulfilled a childhood dream and served in the National Guard for six years. 

More than anything, Acoff is glad to be able to live as her authentic self. 

“[Being in the wrong body] is like being in prison, for no wrong doing” Acoff said. “I’m now free to be myself and my family accepts me and loves me unconditionally.” 

She wants people who aren’t transgender to understand that for her and other trans individuals, her being trans is no different than being born Black. And to people who still don’t understand, Acoff simply asks: What would Jesus do? 

“Would Jesus not continue to love? Would Jesus ask you to stop loving someone for who they are? That’s how I think we have to approach this dialogue,” she said. “Love is the key to understanding and bridging the gap between the transgender and Black communities. There’s no way people can say they love without having a love that is unconditional. Love your neighbors, no matter who they are.” 

Kimberly Acoff, who was born male, lived her lifelong dream of joining the military. She served six years in the Indiana National Guard.

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