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New life as woman brings discrimination for transgender youth

by Jordan Green

Some of the patrons at the Caribou Coffee shop in Friendly Center, an upscale retail area in Greensboro, cast uneasy and quizzical glances at Devon McCauley, whose thatch of jet-black hair extensions, scuffed boots and dual mouth piercings gave her the look of a 1960s girl-group singer with glam and punk-rock modifications.

By expression the 17-year-old Grimsley High School senior indicated the discomfort was mutual, periodically giving the room a vigilant appraisal while maintaining a mask of feigned disinterest and taking pains to avoid eye contact with other customers. Over the past six months, McCauley has been getting thrown out of places like these. She was banned from the Quaker Village shopping center near Guilford College last summer. Then, on Jan. 12, she said a McDonald’s restaurant less than a block away from the progressive liberal arts college told her not to return. The latter decision would be overturned five days later, after the girl’s mother spoke to the restaurant’s franchise owner.

By the time McCauley, who was born into a male body, was adopted by foster parents in the summer of 2005, he had come out as gay. Later, McCauley would take yet another bold step of transition from a male to a female identity.

She spent most of her childhood on the move, handed off from one family member to the next and forced to adjust to new surroundings in at least a half dozen states as her biological parents hurtled down a course of addiction and tried to stay a step ahead of the law. Her biological mother is no longer alive, and McCauley has generally received cold rejection from the rest of her biological family.

The past summer brought a new epiphany. McCauley gradually came to the conclusion that her true self was a young woman. She felt trapped in her male body, so in incremental steps she began to remake her appearance to reflect the identity she had embraced.

“When I dress as a girl I feel sexy and powerful,” she said. “When I’m a boy I feel really sick and really stern, not like me, not comfortable. It’s like I’m trying to put back what was messed with my genes.”

At this early stage McCauley acknowledged her presentation was not always entirely persuasive.

“I’m dressed like a girl; I act as a girl,” she said. “I know it doesn’t pass off all the time, but I’m doing the best I can.”

McCauley’s journey as a young transgender person has thrust her into a tangle of prejudices, verbal slights and incidents of legally sanctioned discrimination both subtle and blatant. The most obvious episode of discrimination stemmed from two McDonald’s managers’ joint decision to ban her from the restaurant in response to a customer complaint after she used the women’s restroom.

Equally or more onerous is the discrimination meted out by prospective employers unable to reconcile her male name with her female appearance, a bias that prevents her from earning her own income.

No federal law protects McCauley from such discrimination. Nor is North Carolina one of nine states in the nation with anti-discrimination statutes on the books prohibiting discriminatory practices in employment, housing and public accommodations based on gender identity or expression. As yet, none of the five largest cities in the Tar Heel State, including Greensboro, have adopted ordinances protecting transgender people from discrimination.

The percentage of people in the United States covered by anti-discrimination laws protecting transgender people has increased from 5 to 34 percent from 2001 to 2006, according to the National Center for Transgender Equality. Among the few cities in the South that have anti-discrimination ordinances are Atlanta; New Orleans; Dallas; Miami Beach, Fla.; and Louisville, Ky.

McCauley’s experience at McDonald’s illustrates not just the dearth of legal protections for transgender people in much of the South, but also the public confusion that greets them in the most ordinary of social transactions.

McCauley said a male manager confronted her as she emerged women’s restroom at the McDonald’s restaurant on College Road, and inquired about her gender.

“I’m transgender, and I don’t think it’s any of your business,” she recalled as her response. The manager, in turn, told her that a customer had complained and she should use the men’s restroom. As McCauley recalls, she went back to a table to eat her food, having resigned to honor the request, and the manager who initially confronted her came over to speak to her, accompanied by a second manager. The two asked her to leave and told her she was not welcome to return, McCauley said.

In response to a request for comment, Scott Lang, the franchise owner of the McDonald’s on College Road, provided YES! Weekly with a written statement on Jan. 16. “On Friday night, the restaurant manager responded directly to a complaint from a mother and daughter who encountered a male customer in the women’s restroom,” the statement reads. “Our restaurants comply with federal, state and local laws and my goal is to provide a comfortable and pleasant environment for all my customers.”

Lang rescinded the ban on the same day, telling McCauley’s foster mother, whose name is Alex Gibson, that the transgender girl was welcome to come back to McDonald’s and could even use the women’s restroom. Gibson said he asked if she thought her child would mind asking permission to use the restroom in advance so a manager could check to make sure other patrons would not be disturbed. After balking initially, Gibson said she decided the request was reasonable.

“He apologized for how they handled the situation,” Gibson said. “He said they had never encountered having a transgender person in the bathroom and having customers complain…. He said he had teenagers too and they told him that we’re likely to see more of this.”

Reached by phone, Lang declined to elaborate on his written statement, and terminated the conversation before he could be asked whether he agreed with the facts presented by McCauley in her account of the incident.

After being evicted from McDonald’s on Jan. 12, the transgender girl made a tearful cell phone call to Gibson.

“She said, ‘Honey, that’s gonna happen a lot,'” McCauley recalls. “I said, ‘Thanks a lot. You could be more supportive.’ I have depression and anxiety over this.” Then she added: “I really push her to the limit. She’s great. She is supportive. She tries to understand, but she can’t really know what it’s like…. I try to have a positive attitude on things, but I don’t see any progress.”

A foster care coordinator at Youth Focus in Greensboro, the 34-year-old Gibson confessed she doesn’t have all the answers about how to steer her foster child through the perils of growing up as a transgender person. Gibson said she and her husband Chad, a 30-year-old culinary arts student at Johnson & Wales University in Charlotte, decided to become McCauley’s foster parents specifically because they knew the child was gay and they believed an older, more conservative couple would be less suitable.

“We love Devon, no matter what, and we told him we would help him navigate it as best as we could,” Gibson said. “One thing we’re looking for now is a mentor, someone who’s older and further along in the transition. To a certain extent we’re at a loss because we haven’t been through it.”

As an indication of the improvisational nature of her parenting role, Gibson currently uses female and male pronouns interchangeably to refer to her child.

“Devon has said it doesn’t matter to him,” Gibson said. “He has never asked me to call him a ‘she,’ but I would if he wanted me to. Over the last month he has more fully begun to dress as a woman. We know he’s been going through these thoughts and feelings, but it’s only recently been on the outside. I want to do what he’s comfortable with.”

She said she struggles with finding a balance between encouraging her child to do what feels most comfortable and counseling awareness of the sensibilities of others who may not accept her.

“I don’t want him to go through life getting kicked out of places, but I know that will happen,” Gibson said. “He’s going to face rejection no matter what. I worry about his safety a lot, and I think that’s what spurs that conversation. I know people do things, and make negative comments.”

A snarl over public restroom accommodations also came up at Grimsley High School.

As McCauley recalled, a group of teachers confronted her as she emerged from the women’s restroom one day.

“They waited for me to come out and told me no matter what I did to my body I would always be a boy and I had to use the boys bathroom,” she said. “They gave me a private, handicapped bathroom, but it’s always locked, so I just hold it.”

A spokeswoman for Guilford County Schools, along with Gibson, gave somewhat divergent accounts of how the school had accommodated McCauley.

“As an alternative option the school recommended that the student use a preexisting unisex bathroom on the third floor that was available for students with special needs,” said Sonya Conway, executive director of district relations. “All unsupervised rooms, they’re always locked. As any student would, they have to go to the guidance counselor to retrieve the key.”

Conway added: “This recommendation was the best for all involved, including all the female students at that school. Conway said that the school administration became aware that McCauley had been using the women’s bathroom, but did not know whether they learned about it from an employee patrolling the restrooms or through a complaint from a student.

Gibson said she is happy with the compromise and pleased with the way the school has invited McCauley to participate in school activities such as panel discussions.

“I look at Grimsley and I’m actually very surprised at how open they are,” she said. “His teachers that I have talked with are working really hard to understand Devon.”

Mara Keisling, the executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality, characterized the public discomfort with transgender people using restrooms consistent with their identity as “one of the most bizarre tangents.”

“If anybody in the bathroom knows what kind of genitals I have they’re the ones who are doing something wrong,” she said. “There are already laws on the books everywhere that protect against people doing bad things in bathrooms. A transgender person poses no threat to anybody.

“The truth is transgender people are less likely to do something bad in a bathroom,” she continued. “A young transgender woman is likely to be more safe in a women’s bathroom and totally no risk to anyone else. I guarantee that if you look at all the problems in women’s bathrooms, they have been caused by non-transgender people who are straight males.”

Keisling pointed to an irony with the public obsession with transgender people’s anatomy: Only a small percentage undertake an operation to physiologically alter their anatomy.

“We estimated that five to ten percent of transgender people get an actual sex change,” she said. “Many people can’t afford it. It is twenty to thirty thousand dollars for trans women. Most trans people have very fragile employment situations, which puts twenty to thirty thousand out of the realm of possibility.”

A more pressing need for McCauley, who candidly describes herself as “poor,” is a job. She plans to attend cosmetology school after graduation and knows she will have to contribute financially to her continuing education.

“I’ve applied to about fifty stores,” she said. “Most of them tell me I need to be a boy. No, it’s taken me so long to get where I’m at. Before I was suicidal and I used drugs. I’m not going back to that.”

McCauley’s situation fits a pattern commonly experienced by transgender people.

“They face some serious job discrimination,” Keisling said. “There will be people who say, ‘I don’t want to hire a transgender person.’ There’s also a problem with identity documentation. Low-income transgender people can’t do what they have to do to get identification that matches their identity. If you’re a person whose name is Marcus but looks like Latisha some employers would say, ‘Why does this person look like what I think a female should look like but has a name like someone I think would be male?'”

Some of the other challenges McCauley has faced also conform to common risk factors for transgender people.

“Alienation and depression rates and substance-abuse rates are very high among trans people,” Keisling said. “You’re placed in a situation where you’re having to hide a very significant part of yourself. And if you come out you, face hostility and abuse. Suicide rates are through the roof. Abandonment-by-family rates are through the roof.”

For all the peril before her, besides supportive parents, McCauley has one significant asset: straight allies. She has almost 20,000 MySpace friends, including a profile identified as Hulk Hogan. That, and several more at Grimsley.

“His personality is just fantastic,” Gibson said. “He’s so outgoing and very loyal to his friends.”

That loyalty was recently returned, McCauley noted, when someone used a magic marker to scrawl “transgender people have to pee too” inside a stall of the women’s restroom at Grimsley.

“I can’t imagine what it’s like to walk in his shoes,” Gibson said. “Being a teenager is enough. To add in all the issues with his family and the abandonment he’s been through, and to add on his sexual orientation and his gender identity – that’s a lot.”

To comment on this story, e-mail Jordan Green at jordan@yesweekly.com

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