The transgender community is finding a foothold in the capital city. A support and social group for transgender and gender questioning people had its first meeting in February with about 12 participants. It follows a trend happening elsewhere in the state.
Zeif Parish, 30, was born a female, but for as long as he can remember, he’s identified as masculine. He says he grew up in Juneau viewed as an unusually masculine girl.
“Half the people I met for my entire life until the last couple years would meet me and be like, ‘What’s her problem?’ and ‘What’s up with her? She’s weird.’ And it wasn’t my choice and I doubtless experienced more social rejection and stigma and negativity just based on that,” Parish says.
He started identifying as transgender when he was 20 and physically transitioned two years ago when he began taking testosterone. Parish says he’s had a supportive family, a strong Bahá’í faith and found happiness in his life, but he never had a community of gender variant friends.
Parish hopes a monthly support and social group in Juneau may change that. He’s one of the group’s organizers.
“I want to reach people who feel alone in their differentness whether it’s like totally a secret thing in their heart or if they express it, but still don’t like feeling alone,” Parish says.
Drew Phoenix, who’s also transgender, says having a support group is incredibly important. He’s the executive director of Identity Inc, a statewide lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender organization based in Anchorage. Phoenix says transgender people or people questioning their gender are an at-risk population.
“Many people in Alaska know of someone who is gay or lesbian or bisexual. They’re not as familiar with people who are gender nonconforming or transgender. So transgender people are in a much higher risk of physical violence and discrimination than the broader LGBT population,” Phoenix says.
In Anchorage, the Veterans Affairs center runs a weekly transgender group. Identity organizes three – two for adults and one for teenagers. The first one started January of last year. Phoenix says Identity will offer additional groups in April.
“More and more I’m getting calls from parents of children, like first graders, third graders, fourth graders, who the children need a play group to be part of with other gender questioning kids. And then the parents need the support of other parents,” Phoenix says.
Phoenix says the climate around being transgender is slowly shifting, encouraging people to come out. TIME Magazine featured transgender actress Laverne Cox from “Orange is the New Black” on its cover last June. Identity recently received a $10,000 grant from the Alaska Mental Health Trust Authority to allow Alaskans in remote areas to videoconference in to transgender support groups. Phoenix says many organizations and businesses in Anchorage have reached out for LGBT cultural competency training.
Transgender or gender questioning individuals can also meet up prior to SEAGLA’s weekly Friday social at The Imperial Bar at 5:15.
But he says society still has a long way to go.
“I’m so aware of the discrimination that still occurs both in places of employment, public accommodations, like use of locker rooms and restrooms. I’m concerned about policies not being in place in local schools for young people who are transitioning,” Phoenix says.
Lauren Tibbitts is a board member and outreach coordinator of SEAGLA, the Southeast LGBTQ alliance group based in Juneau. She’s been helping Juneau’s transgender group get off the ground. Tibbitts is also part of it and identifies as gender non-binary, which means she doesn’t consider herself woman or man. You don’t have to be transgender to be part of the group, she says.
“It is welcoming anyone who considers themselves outside of gender norms, whether you consider yourself or identify as gender nonconforming, non-binary, or transgender or agender – anyone who doesn’t strictly identify with heteronormativity when it comes to gender,” Tibbitts says.
The group also welcomes allies of the transgender community and people who want more information.
Editor’s Note: The story has been updated to correct the number of participants at the first meeting – there were about 12, not 20.