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"We're trying to make the 't' not so silent in Kansas City," Nikkie says. "It takes everything in the world to make the walk from your car to the front door. You have to have the courage to get dressed, drive somewhere and go out."
Sandra Meade and Gus have managed to define themselves in a world where definitions are not provided. Reshaping identity, they know, is perilous and often confusing. What they're doing exposes them to the possibility of discrimination and violence — a tension that may never go away.
The National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs, a collection of 39 agencies that includes the Kansas City Anti-Violence Project, found that transgender people were twice as likely to experience assault or discrimination as non-transgender white individuals. The 2010 study showed that 12 of the 27 homicide victims targeted for being gay or trans were transgender women. Five of the victims were involved in prostitution.
"Trans folks are generally targeted because of their identity or expression," says Beth Savitzky, Kansas City Anti-Violence Project executive director. "And we're starting to recognize that transgender people are victimized at a much higher rate than the lesbian, gay and bisexual community."
A dead sex worker generates sensational headlines. It's Dee Dee Pearson's story. The 31-year-old trans woman was killed last Christmas Eve. Kenyan Jones is charged with second-degree murder for, police say, shooting Pearson at 43rd Street and Harrison. Court records say Jones was angry after discovering that Pearson was biologically male, born Darnell Pearson; Jones told detectives that he believed he was paying for sex with a biological woman.
"There's a risk of violence for both transgender women and men," Gus says. "With women like Dee Dee, it's usually because someone feels tricked, or they're freaked out because of an attraction."
KCTV Channel 5 called Pearson's killing a "shooting under salacious circumstances." The trans community was outraged that newspaper accounts and the police report used Pearson's legal name rather than what they say was her true identity.
"How do you define a woman?" Meade asks. "You can define a loaf of bread. But to define what goes into being a woman is very abstract and really hard to enunciate."
Gus has long asked himself how a man is defined.
"I feel like who I am as a man is how people respond to me as a man," Gus says. "I just have to be there for my friends and family. It's that simple."
In 2004, after close to three years of hormone treatments and a half-dozen therapists, Gus was ready for the next step. His parents, who had adjusted to his new gender expression, agreed to help him financially with his transition. Gus traveled to Texas with a girlfriend, his mother and his sister to undergo a mastectomy and a hysterectomy.
"My mother every now and then will talk about her daughter that died," Gus says. "I think it's just easier for her to see us as two separate people."
Nearly a decade after the surgery that matched biology with his identity, Gus is happy with his routine life. He lives in the home that belonged to his father, he holds a steady job and he runs a support group for trans men.
"I don't wear a T-shirt that says 'transsexual' on it, and I don't put myself in a position to be asked questions by strangers," Gus says. "I don't have this strong urge to be open to the public, but I do have this urge to be approachable to other guys like me."