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Advocates Call For Better Understanding Of Medical Needs Of Transgender People

Black Transmen Inc

With Caitlin Jenner running for governor in California and others moving into prominent, public roles, you might think many of the hurdles facing transgender people have been overcome. 

But many remain and that’s why two people in Charlottesville are speaking out during this Pride Month, calling for greater understanding of and services for transgender people. 

Charley Burton was designated female at birth, but from an early age he rebelled against what society and his mother expected.  “I couldn’t fathom wearing dresses.  I just couldn’t figure it out,” he remembers.

At the age of 13 he started drinking.  It helped him cope with loneliness and confusion.  “At age 17 I made a very serious suicide attempt that landed me in a private hospital here in Charlottesville.”

To get rid of his masculine traits, doctors ordered six weeks of electroshock therapy.  “It didn’t work.” Burton admits.

So he kept on drinking and using drugs until the age of 45 when he joined Alcoholics Anonymous.  But five years into sobriety, he was still unable to cope with the difference between his body and his sense of self. “I just wanted to cut the skin away from myself, because I just felt like I didn’t fit.

He bought a gun and was preparing to commit suicide when the doorbell rang.  “My ex had sent me a package – information about an organization called Black Trans Men Incorporated, and in it was a card from the CEO – Carter Brown – and I called Carter, and we talked for hours.” 

Conversations continued online, and today, at 61, Burton is Program Director for National Black Trans Men.  “That was where I saw men who looked like me – black, older trans men who literally took me under their wing.” 

He learned many of these older men don’t get medical care for life-threatening disease.  “Because they’re not comfortable going into hospitals to be taken care of.”

Burton himself endured painful kidney stones and urinary tract infections because he traveled for work and had trouble finding bathrooms he could use safely.  “Do I stop at the Pilot up here and go to the bathroom?  I don’t have the parts that the truckers are going to have, and more than likely these are open stalls, they’re urinals, and I was afraid of being beaten, killed.  Because what people see first is a black man.  That’s a threat," he says.  "And then, if, God forbid, they find out that I’m trans, then we’re in a whole new ballgame.”

Even medical professionals may have limited knowledge of how to care for transgender people.  Burton still recalls a visit to UVA’s emergency department four years ago.  There were no private rooms, and the staff didn’t know whether to put him in with another man or a woman, so he was left in the hall.  “And there was this resident yanking my clothes in the hallway where all these EMT are standing around joking and talking, and I grab her hand, and I say, ‘Have you read my chart?’ And she said, ‘Yes,’ and I said, ‘Obviously you haven’t read it thoroughly.  You can’t take my clothes off.  I’ve not had top surgery.  I’m trans.’  And she looks at me and says, ‘What is that?’”

Hospice nurse Cathy Campbell also sees room for improvement.  She’s studied and written about the needs of transgender elders.    "When you’ve been living a life where just because of who you are and your gender identity you are ridiculed, a lot of judgement placed on you," Campbell says.   "When they do present for care, for example with cancer, they’re likely to have their cancer in advanced stages, because they’ve waited so long.” 

Her research suggests doctors and nurses need more training in how to care for transgender people.  “Some of the staff are not sure how to work with people whose bodies may be different from their gender expression.” 

She and Burton shared their views in a three-part podcast, organized an online conference, and with one of her students Campbell published an article on the spiritual needs of transgender elders in the Journal of Hospice and Palliative Care. 

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