Article by Adeyemi Ekundayo | Photography by Adeyemi Ekundayo | Owl Staff
With this confidence, Emerson has been able to remain true to her self expression throughout the hardships she’s endured.
Emerson’s story echoes the bravery of many transgender people who have renewed themselves by stepping up to their fears. According to a 2016 study by The Williams Institute, there were a reported 22,300 people who identified as transgender in Maryland alone. For the entire country, that number raised to 1.4 million people.
While gender identity is sometimes thought to be tied to sexual orientation, this is not necessarily the case. Gender describes an aspect of one’s identity, while sexuality describes the types of intimate partners one prefers. This, and many other distinctions, make gender identity a complex issue for some people to understand.
Emerson is very familiar with this as her fiance transitioned from female to reflect his male gender identity. Since Emerson considers herself a heterosexual woman, dating a man aligns with her sexual orientation.
“I’m engaged to a trans man,” says Emerson. “So I get so many things thrown at me where people are like ‘why are you guys transitioning to be together?’ And it’s simply because he’s a man and I’m a woman.”
While gender identity and sexual orientation can be related, one does not necessarily determine the other. This is exemplified by Claire Sawyer and her wife, Carolyn Lipinski.
Sawyer and Lipinski started dating in 1992 and were wed in 2000. When Sawyer decided to transition to female decades later, they saw a marked improvement in their relationship
In Sawyer’s words, “[Transitioning] was the savior of me, and me existing in a good state is integral to our relationship.”
Lipinski’s love for Sawyer transcends gender identity. “I’m pansexual so I like all genders,” she says. “I love her very much and she’s the light of my life.”
Her love has spurred her to become proactive in educating herself on transgender topics. Lipinski explains, “If I’m not understanding something, I’ll read articles about it. On Facebook, I’m a member of a support group for the spouses and partners of transgender people.”
This helps her to be more informed about transgender issues in the face of opposition. Like Emerson and her fiance, Sawyer and Lipinski have beenexposed to harrowing discrimination.
Sawyer explains, “People get assaulted for no reason. I’ve had an appointment with a doctor and then when they found out I’m trans, they said, ‘we won’t treat you,’ and then the appointment was canceled.”
Stories like Sawyer’s are common among trans people. According to the National LGBTQ Task Force, around one in five people reported being refused care outright because they were transgender.
Discrimination and bigotry endanger trans people on a regular basis. For this reason, Emerson warns against speaking about a trans person’s identity without permission.
“It’s a very dangerous world that we live in,” she cautions. “Let me express who I am to them on my own terms.”
When having these types of discussions, it can also be offensive to “misgender” trans people. This happens when you refer to someone using pronouns that are not aligned with their gender identity.
If someone prefers the pronouns “he,” or “him,” calling them “she” or “her” could potentially hurt them or expose them to discrimination – or even violence.
By November 2019, there were at least 22 reported murders of transgender or gender non-conforming people in the United States, according to the Human Rights Campaign Foundation. Three of them were in Maryland. In fact, the year before saw nine reports of anti-transgender incidences in Maryland, according to the Maryland 2018 Hate Bias Report.
In 2019, the American Medical Association described the violence against the transgender community as an “epidemic,” citing transgender people of color as the most at risk due to a “disturbing pattern of violence toward black transgender women.”
That same year, Robert Preidt of HealthDay News reported that “about 78% of the transgender students met criteria for one or more mental health problems such as depression, anxiety, eating disorders, self-injury and suicide risk.”
With so many threats to their safety, transgender people are one of the most at-risk populations in America. In the interest of resolving this issue, Emerson, Sawyer, and Lipinski all agree upon one solution: open discussion.
“Just have discussions,” says Emerson. “On both sides, stop letting the anger get the best of you and really listen to what people are saying.”
Though the journey has sometimes been dark, Emerson says that transitioning is like “looking in the mirror and seeing you for the first time. Seeing you come alive…This is me now. This is me at my happiest.”