“To remain safe and to try and stay away from...

“To remain safe and to try and stay away from being affected by discrimination, many of our members hide who they are,” said Juli Grey-Owens, a longtime transgender community advocate. Credit: Jessica Rotkiewicz

International Transgender Day of Visibility, held every March 31, is an event advocates say serves as a touchstone for the many trans people who have kept their identities hidden for so long.

An estimated 90,300 New Yorkers identify as transgender, meaning they identify their gender as different from their sex assigned at birth, according to the state. Many do not live their true gender identity or hide it from their friends and loved ones out of fear of harassment or violence, advocates said.

“To remain safe and to try and stay away from being affected by discrimination, many of our members hide who they are,” said Juli Grey-Owens, a longtime transgender community advocate and founder and director of the education and outreach nonprofit Gender Equality New York. “Because people are afraid to come out, the general public never learns about our community.”

President Joe Biden, in a statement on International Transgender Day of Visibility, on Wednesday called on Congress to pass the Equality Act, which he said would ensure that LGBTQIA individuals and families cannot be denied housing, employment, education, credit, and more. 

"We celebrate the activism and determination that have fueled the fight for transgender equality," Biden said. "We acknowledge the adversity and discrimination that the transgender community continues to face across our Nation and around the world."

Grey-Owens, a transgender woman who has been out since the 1980s, pointed to the 2019 passage of New York State regulations banning discrimination and harassment against transgender people as proof that progress is being made. But she said the political climate, including an Idaho bill banning gender affirming care for transgender youth and vitriol directed at transgender University of Pennsylvania women’s swimmer Lia Thompson, can be disheartening for younger people grappling with their identity.

“Unfortunately, no one has a really solid answer in regard to what to do with trans athletes,” Grey-Owens said. “Everyone wants to attack the trans athlete, but the reality is the trans athlete is just following the rules.”

Still, advocates say there are more services and awareness of transgender issues.

As Ursula Nigro of Manorville puts it: “There are pockets of better.”

When Nigro’s wife of more than a decade came out to her as transgender in 2015, there were few places on Long Island to find other couples going through the same experience.

Nigro and her wife, Mila Madison, have since founded the nonprofit Transgender Resource Center of Long Island out of their home. The organization offers services ranging from weekly support groups in Patchogue, to connecting people with trans-friendly medical providers, to hosting clothing swaps to offset the cost of buying a new wardrobe and more.

Being linked to others going through the same thing is critical, Nigro said, so she makes a point to lend an ear.

“If I have a spouse that comes to me, or a parent that comes to me, I will sit and listen for hours, because it's so important to have someone with a shared experience,” she said. 

Tammy Layne, a transgender woman from Bohemia, said cisgender people, or those who are not transgender, may not understand the gender dysphoria a trans person can feel when their appearance doesn’t match who they are inside.

“I'm taking hormones for four years and I still have to shave every day,” said Layne, 57. “It's a constant reminder.”

Layne, a manager for Altice, said she has found support from her family and through the Long Island Transgender Experience support group, which is facilitated through the Long Island LGBT Network.

She does not expect cisgender people to understand her specific experience, but to offer empathy for the difficult emotions that may arise from trying to defend her identity.

“To be transgender is to come out every day,” she said. “There is always someone I have to explain myself to. There is always someone who misgenders me.”

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