I had allergies and asthma as a kid, and in that time and place the only treatment was to scream at the victim to calm down and breathe normally. It’s a sensation you can’t understand unless you’ve felt it yourself. It feels like you’re dying and no one cares. In many ways, it reminds me of being transgender.
I grew up off a gravel road in a rural part of Mississippi with Southern Baptist parents. Looking around, you never saw an out gay or lesbian person, let alone someone who was transgender. The subject of “those” kinds of people were taboo, which meant that I lived in constant fear of being labeled insane and I was always careful to walk the thin tightrope of rebellion and compliance. Inside, I was heartbroken and angry. I couldn’t understand why I was being punished and forced to live like a girl, someone I wasn’t. I kept wondering, why isn’t anyone helping me?
When puberty came and delivered the ultimate betrayal by developing female secondary sex characteristics, I fell apart. When I was forced to live in a woman’s dorm, I had a mental breakdown. I withdrew from the world as much as possible, feeling a deep sense of shame and hopeless rage. I lived in a thick cloud of buzzing, painful gray static that held no hope for the future, just an unknown number of months before I cracked and committed suicide. It took sitting in my car with a gun barrel in my mouth to convince my parents to let me come home from school.
“Many transgender youth will go through exactly what I did—the depression, fear, and endless questioning that something might be wrong with me. Laws like Washington’s ensure that transgender young people who might be struggling can express themselves without fearing that they’ll treated differently by their teachers or coaches because of who they are.”
I finally met a psychologist who showed me a paragraph on transgender people. It was the first time in my life that I knew I wasn’t mentally ill, that other trans people existed and living longer might actually pay off. The process of transitioning in the ’90s was hard but I was happy to comply if it got me a fair shake at being myself. I slowly began to build a life I wanted: friends, a girlfriend, a job, a more successful attempt at college.
One really important thing that has helped me build a life is the fact that for 11 years, Washington has had non-discrimination laws on the books that ensure fair and equal treatment for transgender people. Those are protections that I didn’t have when I was growing up in Mississippi, and that could have made accepting myself as transgender come a little quicker and a little easier, knowing that the law of my state had my back.
Many transgender youth will go through exactly what I did—the depression, fear, and endless questioning that something might be wrong with me. Laws like Washington’s ensure that transgender young people who might be struggling can express themselves without fearing that they’ll treated differently by their teachers or coaches because of who they are. This is really critical, since transgender youth are already much more likely to be bullied because of their gender identity.
Knowing all of this, I’m disheartened to see opponents of equality push I-1552, which would put the repeal of these critical protections on Washington’s general election ballot this November. If passed, I-1552 would actually require our public schools to discriminate against transgender students by denying them access to restrooms and other facilities that are consistent with their gender identity. It would allow public businesses to discriminate like this too.
That’s going to really hurt people like me. Not only that, it’s against the values of fairness and equality that Washingtonians hold dear. And it’s against my values as someone who has spent much of my personal and professional life trying to help people who are hurting.
When my father was diagnosed with leukemia and given two years to live, I knew there was no way my mother could help take care of him alone. While my father and I had a contentious relationship my entire life, not helping didn’t feel right. So I quit school and work and moved back in with my parents, back to Mississippi. The next couple of years my schedule was filled with routine: I would wake up early to pack freight trucks in the morning, rush home to take Dad to chemotherapy and then run to my restaurant job at night. I wanted so much more for myself, but taking care of my father when he was dying felt like the right thing to do.
“I think my experiences have made me more empathetic and a better respiratory therapist when my patients, like me years ago, can’t breathe and feel like they are dying. ‘Our patients don’t care whether Jason is transgender or not, they just want to know if he’s going to help them breathe more easily,’ says Regina, one of my co-workers.”
That feeling stayed with me when I moved to Seattle after my father’s death. After years as a cook, I went back to school and became a respiratory therapist. It turned out to be a good fit. I think my experiences have made me more empathetic and a better therapist when my patients, like me years ago, can’t breathe and feel like they are dying.
I’ve been lucky enough to work with a team of colleagues who are compassionate, dedicated, and hilarious. Healthcare makes tight bonds among co-workers, so when I opened up about being transgender, I was not surprised when they were their usual affectionate and supportive selves. My union, SEIU Local 1199, and my employer, Swedish Medical Center, have all echoed that support.
“Our patients don’t care whether Jason is transgender or not, they just want to know if he’s going to help them breathe more easily,” says Regina, one of my fellow respiratory therapists. “But I care because Jason is who he is: a great friend and co-worker.” I agree.
I’m lucky to work with a supportive group of people, but not all transgender Washingtonians do. Right now, the law protects them. But if these protections are repealed, transgender people would be even more vulnerable to harassment and gross invasions of privacy—like having our birth certificates checked just to do something as simple as use the restroom.
I cannot let this happen. That’s why I’m speaking out—and joining Washington Won’t Discriminate’s efforts to defeat this dangerous initiative. You can join me: Just click here to sign the Decline to Sign I-1552 pledge against putting discrimination on the ballot.