Every time Adrian, a young trans man in the Rio Grande Valley, visits his doctor, he has to make a $60 copay. If not for the coverage provided by his employer, it’d probably be much more. Even so, it’s a challenge and the reason he only visits Dr. Michelle Cordoba Kissee once every three months and only if and when it’s related to his hormone replacement therapy. Between months, he works hard, saves money however he can, and hopes that he doesn’t get sick. It’s just not something he can afford.
Still, Adrian, who is one of the leaders of Trans Folx Support Group, considers himself lucky. Despite the financial juggling he still faces, he knows he is in a better position than many of his friends in the trans community. Indeed, he’s doing better than he was just one year ago when he couldn’t afford to buy medication for his asthma, much less for the care and services needed for him to transition.
While issues regarding general intolerance often shape public perceptions of what the LGBTQ struggle is, for many low-income LGBTQ individuals like Adrian, there is also the basic fight to survive. To better understand what are some of the ways that economic issues affect the Rio Grande Valley community, Neta reached out to leaders in the local LGBTQ community. What they told Neta provided an important glimpse into the variety of ways that class, poverty, and low-income status intersect and impact LGBTQ individuals in the Rio Grande Valley.
Many of the issues that lower income LGBTQ community members face begin with their lack of access to employment. Due to discrimination as well as other issues which we will delve into, it can be very difficult to find consistent employment in the Valley.
While individuals across the LGBTQ community are subject to job discrimination, trans residents often find themselves facing unique challenges. For them, even getting your foot in the door can pose an extraordinary obstacle.
“Not all workplaces are an equal opportunity business,” Adrian said. “Not only are transgender workers more likely to be discriminated against for their gender identities, but also our IDs automatically out us when we are applying for jobs.”
“Then having the interview in person, they are, on that spot, discriminated at times,” Jada Josette, who currently leads the both the English and Spanish Trans Women Support Groups for South Texas Equality Project (STEP), added. “I personally have faced this, and it takes a toll on the individual.” According to Josette, due to the transphobia and discrimination that trans people face, some often find themselves with no other option but to turn to sex work for survival.
“The transgender community has always been marginalized,” Josette said. “We need to have local business ally owners open up their doors and help us out.”
Josette added that this is something that STEP is working to address. They have a plan to provide basic training to different organizations that include schools, hospitals, and businesses to make these spaces more inclusive for LGBTQ people.
Even when employed, members of the LGBTQ community often still find themselves facing another form of discrimination: housing discrimination. Although in cities like San Antonio, Austin, Fort Worth, Dallas, and Plano, local governments have passed ordinances prohibiting housing and public accommodations discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. The Valley, however, has yet to see any similar ordinances introduced in any of its four counties.
That doesn’t mean protections are completely inexistent. At the federal level, the Fair Housing Act prohibits “housing discrimination based on race, color, national origin, religion, sex, disability, and familial status.” While, unfortunately, there is no explicit mention of sexual orientation or gender identity, according to Texas Law, some experiences of sexual orientation and gender identity discrimination may still be covered under the law. A landlord’s refusal to rent an apartment to someone who is transgender due to the prospective tenant’s identity or non-conformity with gender stereotypes may, for example, constitute illegal discrimination on the basis of sex. Unfortunately, In her experience, Josette has found that oftentimes the trans community, through no fault of their own, is not aware of their housing rights are and how to exercise these.
For hundreds of LGBTQ youth, this type of discrimination and intolerance can lead to the precarious situation of homelessness. In 2017, the True Colors Fund conducted a national study on LGBTQ homelessness. The results were staggering; among other things, the True Colors Fund found that LGBTQ youth are 120 percent more likely to experience homelessness than non-LGBTQ youth. While the report tabbed family conflict as the number one reason why LGBTQ youth experience homelessness, other reasons included poverty and aging out of the foster care system.
Joe Colon-Uvalles, a community activist and drag performer known as Beatrix Lestrange, spent time in foster care as a youth. According to him, many of the local resources and options available to the larger homeless population are provided by groups or organizations with conservative or religious ties. As a result, it can be difficult for LGBTQ individuals to access such resources.
“A lot of those organizations that do provide those resources to people on a day to day basis are usually a Catholic organization, like Catholic Charities, and queer people may not feel comfortable going there,” Uvalles said.
It’s a need some community members recognize is desperately needed and one which they hope to be able to address through projects like the LGBTQ Center, a shelter that would provide housing and support to LGBTQ people who are struggling to find a safe space to live in. The LGBTQ Center also hopes to serve as a multi-purpose space for community members to gather for events and meetings and for trained medical professionals to provide services on health-related issues and concerns. It’s an ambitious project that is still being imagined and fleshed out at STEP meetings. Still, Josette, Croll, and Adrian are excited. All feel a center like this is long-due in the Valley.
“I think it will provide a necessary community hub for finding ways to address the unique needs we face here in the RGV,” Madeleine Croll, a member of STEP and community activist, said. “Hopefully it will be able to help those in immediate need, but more importantly it will be a means to gather and coordinate for long-term solutions to systemic challenges.”
Historically, another issue LGBTQ people have struggled with is transportation and access to transportation.
Michael Rangel is an LGBTQ historian who has explored the impact of transportation issues in the Rio Grande Valley through his thesis “Queer Valley: Stories of Culture and Resistance along the Lower Rio Grande Valley.” He was first introduced to the unique challenges which transportation issues can pose for LGBTQ communities through the works of John Howard.
“[John Howard] talked about rising affordability of the car revolutionizing gay sex in the South,” Michael Rangel told Neta in a phone interview. “So many people are in rural communities, where it’s not necessarily safe to engage in sex without the entire town finding out and then threats of violence and disownment being used against them. So the ability to transport to another town, or another county, allows them to safely explore their sexuality.”
In his thesis, Rangel zeroed in on how this issue played out during the 1970s, how some LGBTQ people living in Hidalgo County found it difficult to travel, and how this impacted their ability to explore their sexuality and gender. Like Howard, Rangel found that not having access to transportation often created a barrier for LGBTQ people in the Valley to explore their sexuality. It’s not a problem that’s in the past either.
“[Transportation is] a problem that continues to haunt Valley people and one that many queer historians document in their histories of queer people in rural spaces,” Rangel affirmed.
Croll agreed, pointing that while the Valley is a metroplex, it is still very much a chain of small communities that don’t have the major public transportation infrastructure of cities like Dallas, Houston, or San Antonio. Beyond the restrictions imposed sexual exploration, Croll said that “not having a car in the RGV is confinement.”
“You can be in Brownsville, but the resources you need could be in McAllen, so despite being close, it’s not close enough to help you,” Croll said. “The same could also be said for employment opportunities as well. A broken vehicle can mean unemployment or loss of access to essential community resources or even places of acceptance.”
Finally, as with Adrian, healthcare access can pose a serious threat to LGBTQ individuals living in the Rio Grande Valley.
According to a recent study by the Center for American Progress (CAP), transportation, finances, and distance plays a major role in the healthcare that is accessible to LGBTQ people, especially those who live outside of what is considered a metro area. From the pool that was surveyed, 41 percent of LGBTQ people that live outside of metro areas stated they would find it “very difficult” or “not possible” to find transportation at an alternative hospital if they had experienced discrimination at their nearest hospital.
Even when LGBTQ people are able to find a doctor they feel comfortable with, finances often play a huge obstacle to the beginning or continuing of treatment. In the case of trans residents, Josette told Neta that the costs of hormone replacement therapy are among one of the major issues affecting those who attend support group gatherings.
Adrian agreed. “A single dose injection, which is generally needed every two weeks, is $100 without insurance,” he said. “If it’s the testosterone patch, then its approximately $600, without insurance. That’s not even including doctors visit fees and lab work fees, which must be done every three months. Aside from all that, the majority of us just cannot afford healthcare.”
According to Josette, being unemployed or only making minimum wage are among the prevailing reasons trans individuals struggle to access hormone replacement therapy in the Valley. The hefty expenses associated with transitioning can also pose a challenge for those in better financial standing too. However, Croll told Neta that even high-income members of the trans community can sometimes face the prospect of poverty when they come out as their true selves.
“Many of us lose already limited opportunities to advance ourselves in order to transition, only to [then] be limited by our health insurance-if we’re able to get it,” Croll said. “Sadly, this means despite being able to come to terms with their identity, they have to deal with the crisis of not being empowered enough to remedy it.”
As with housing, it’s an issue local groups and organizations are working to address. At the moment, the Valley AIDS Council (VAC) is planning on rolling out a new program that would enable trans individuals to afford hormone replacement therapy, regardless of their financial stability, Josette described to Neta.
As many lower-income LGBTQ community members continue to face these struggles, there are several options that can be considered to combat these obstacles. Ordinances outside of the Valley have been one way communities have protected LGBTQ people who are struggling in the workplace or to find housing. However, those ordinances can only do so much. The bigger, more crucial option will undoubtedly require LGBTQ community members working together to educate the broader community about the issues impacting their community and, of course, organizing to create effective change in the Rio Grande Valley.