Jess St. Louis has known all her life that she was transgender, even before there was a name for it.
As a child, though she could be rough-and-tumble with the neighborhood boys, she was consistently drawn to clothing, toys and activities designed for the culture of femininity. In her heart, she knew she was, somehow, living in the wrong body.
“But growing up in the 50s and 60s, you didn’t express yourself as transgender,” the 63-year-old said. “Other kids would bully you.”
Beyond that, she knew instinctively that issues of sexual orientation, gender identity and other alternatives to “normal” heterosexuality were simply not discussed in polite company, and that when they were raised at all, they were freighted with ignorance, anger and derision.
So she kept the fearsome secret — and the given name of Roger — all through childhood and long into adult life, including four marriages and 20 years of honorable service in the U.S. Marine Corps. It was only a few years ago that St. Louis decided to come out, motivated by a climate of growing social acceptance and the example of Nicole Maines, a transgender girl from Orono whose story made national headlines.
I thought, ‘If this young child has the courage to come out and put up with being [openly] transgender, why can’t I?’” she said.
Now, St. Louis is living openly, dressing as she pleases and advocating for the transgender community in Maine. It hasn’t been a simple change, or an easy one, she said, but it’s worth it to finally be living a more authentic life.
But as an advocate, she said the divisive presidential campaign, the rise of extreme social conservatism and the loss of basic civility threatens recent progress in social acceptance and legal protections for transgender people and other members of the LGBTQ community. And while the changes threaten all LGBTQ people, she said, the potential impact on transgender people is different.
That’s because recent changes in public policy have been deeply controversial, including laws ensuring access to gender-appropriate bathrooms, sports teams, medical care, marriage and other protections. Policies allowing passports and other legal documents to reflect changes in gender and name may be reversed. Regulations, including provisions in the Affordable Care Act, that require insurance companies, veterans benefits and Medicare to pay for hormone therapy, voice training and other services could disappear.
And with an administration that models intolerance and disrespect, St. Louis said, transgender people and others in the LGBTQ community fear an uptick in local incidents of violence and harassment.
“People are starting to go back in the closet,” she said. “They’re fearful of attacks by hate groups and individuals.”
One transgender woman she knows, a determined proponent of firearm restrictions, recently purchased a handgun and learned to use it, St. Louis said.
“She is still out, but she is very leery of the changes she’s seeing in social attitudes,” St. Louis said.
St. Louis is far from alone in her concerns. Despite a recent White House statement pledging to “protect the rights of all Americans, including the LGBTQ community,” many advocates have sounded the alarm about threats from conservative politicians to roll back important protections established during the administration of President Barack Obama.
These include advocating for the right of same-sex couples to marry; repealing the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” law and allowing openly gay Americans to serve in the military; extending hate-crime prosecutions to attacks based on the victim’s perceived sexual orientation or gender identity; requiring hospitals to permit patients to designate LGBTQ visitors; advocating against bullying in schools and workplaces; developing a national strategy for combating HIV/AIDS; extending federal housing protections to LGBTQ Americans; enforcing criminal provisions in domestic violence cases involving same-sex partners and more.
By contrast, many Republican contenders in the 2016 presidential campaign have disapproved of these “special protections” for LGBTQ Americans.
President Donald Trump has a record of speaking against same-sex marriage and has suggested that the “bathroom bill” — which affects many other school and workplace policies — should be resolved at the state level.
Vice President Mike Pence, according to Ballotpedia, a neutral online encyclopedia of American politics and elections, has been outspoken in his opposition to the bathroom bill, endorsed legislation to allow businesses to discriminate against LGBTQ people and others based on religious preference, and supported “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”
Trump’s picks to head cabinet positions, including Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama, currently pending Senate approval as U.S. attorney general, and Rep. Tom Price of Georgia, his nominee to lead the Department of Health and Human Services, have strongly conservative records on social issues.
The Washington Post reported on Jan. 20, the day of Trump’s inauguration, that a page dedicated to LGBTQ rights had disappeared from the White House website, along with a special report on the rights of LGBTQ workers that was posted on the website of the U.S. Department of Labor. The Post article quoted Chad Griffin, president of the Human Rights Campaign, calling on Trump to declare his intentions toward safeguarding protections for LGBTQ Americans.
“We are prepared to do whatever it takes to protect our community and our progress,” Griffin told the Post.
In Bangor, therapist Einstein Hickman, 31, said transgender people, both youths and older individuals, are the “most vulnerable” members of the LGBTQ community in the face of broad changes in social behaviors and political posturing. Hickman’s practice focuses on the needs of LGBTQ individuals and those with substance abuse and addiction problems. He also has given several talks on issues pertinent to LGBTQ people including a 2013 Pecha Kucha talk in Bangor.
While mainstream social norms have grown more accepting of same-sex couples and gay individuals in recent years, transgender issues are less familiar and more misunderstood.
“There is a real increase in anxiety about a fear-oriented future,” he said. “When a bully is given authority and a sense of power, it enables and encourages others to take on the same attitudes and behaviors.”
Many transgender youth, he said, have come of age in a society relatively accepting of issues around sexual orientation and gender identity. For young people, he said, the prospect of losing that broad acceptance and the rights they take for granted is truly alarming.
“Older people are more like, ‘Here we go again.’ They’ve heard this kind of hate speech before,” Hickman said.
In both cases, he said, the fear for personal safety is heightened right now, as reflected by a surge of interest in LGBTQ classes in self-defense and firearm safety.
The community and its allies also are preparing to counter growing anti-LGBTQ sentiment through grass-roots support, education and socialization, increased visibility and political advocacy, Hickman said.
Doug Kimmel, executive director of SAGE-Maine, an organization that advocates for LGBTQ Mainers age 50 and older, said many older people he knows are taking the “watchful waiting” approach.
“It’s like getting a diagnosis of prostate cancer,” Kimmel, 73, said. “We’re scared out of our wits, hoping it’s not going to be too bad. But we know we sure have to keep an eye on it.”
Fears associated with the Trump administration’s policies toward LGBTQ issues and the recent surge in reports of crimes against minority groups of all sorts, Kimmel said, are widespread but as yet unfocused.
St. Louis says the biggest challenge may be keeping older transgender Mainers connected to the support they need to feel safe and empowered.
Whereas younger LGBTQ people often have a well-developed network of peers and allies, she said, older individuals who grew up in less accepting times have a tendency to keep a lower profile, often resulting in social isolation. With renewed challenges to the reality of their existence, she said, the pressure may be great to retreat even further, and wait for the storm to pass.