At age 37, Billie Bryan feels like a statistical anomaly.
While little data on transgender people exists in the Caribbean, research from Latin America, collected by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, indicates an average life expectancy of transgender women, like Bryan, of 30 to 35 years.
Targeted violence and discrimination make the Americas a dangerous place to live for transgender people – individuals whose gender identity does not conform to the sex (male or female) that they were assigned at birth. Transgender women of colour, especially, face a deadly trio of misogyny, racism and homophobia.
“According to the data collected, approximately 80% of trans persons killed were 35 years of age or younger,” the IACHR wrote in its 2014 report.
“Violence against trans persons, particularly trans women, is the result of a combination of factors: exclusion, discrimination and violence within the family, schools, and society at large.”
In the Caribbean, a lack of data and visibility of transgender experiences makes it difficult to assess the vulnerability of people like Bryan. Anecdotally, however, she knows that openly embracing a non-conforming identity is dangerous.
“We’re being attacked from so many angles,” Bryan told the Cayman Compass.
“We have to fight for our lives.”
Growing up in Grand Cayman, Bryan didn’t know any people who identified as transgender. While she knew people who identified as bisexual, topics like gender identity and sexual orientation were rarely discussed in open.
She didn’t encounter the concept of transgender identity until college in the United States, when she opened up to a friend. Bryan told her she always felt like a girl and was more drawn to ‘girly’ things.
“She just said to me, ‘well, why don’t you just be one?’ And I never really did that before,” Bryan said.
That conversation in college opened a new world for Bryan. The more she read, the more her own identity came into perspective.
It has been around 15 years since the Colours Cayman founder embraced her identity and first presented openly as a woman in Cayman. While she has long become accustomed to the street harassment and bullying targeted at trans bodies, the threat of violence looms.
“I’m lucky to be alive right now doing what I’m doing,” Bryan said.
“It feels like my time is soon to come.”
Her work as an LGBTQAI+ activist through Colours Cayman makes Bryan a visible and easily identifiable member of the community. While she hopes her visibility will empower others, who may relate to her experience, it also makes her a target.
She describes “an overarching fear of just being seen” felt by many young Caymanians with non-conforming identities. When young people reach out to Colours for help, she understands the importance of protecting their confidentiality.
As a trans woman, however, her identity is inherently visible.
The inability of trans women to conceal their differences has pushed women like Bryan to embrace activism. Since the launch of Pride celebrations 50 years ago, women of colour have been at the forefront of the fight for equality, Bryan explained.
“Pride itself as an event started 50 years ago this year by queer women of colour who were standing up for their rights, who were going up against police brutality, were fighting for survival and here I am doing the same thing,” she said.
“We’re the ones who are most vulnerable. We’re fighting the patriarchy, we’re fighting racism, we’re fighting homophobia, transphobia. We’re fighting all these things.”
Employment and social discrimination
Research indicates stigma against trans people comes with social and professional consequences that force already vulnerable people further into the margins.
A November 2019 study by TransWave Jamaica surveyed 35 trans and non-binary adults living in Jamaica. An additional 37 people participated in a focus group.
It found 51.4% of those surveyed were unemployed, compared to a 9.54% unemployment rate reported for the general population in 2018. Forty percent reported an income of $0 a month.
“The data collected suggests that trans persons are more likely to live in poverty than cisgender, heterosexual persons and cisgender, gays and bisexual persons. Transwomen seem to be the most vulnerable,” the report said.
Social exclusion and discrimination can force trans people into irregular forms of employment to survive, the report notes, creating additional health and safety risks.
Customer service jobs at call centres were considered safer jobs by those surveyed, due in part to anti-discrimination policies in the industry. Study participants pointed to entrepreneurship or NGO work as preferred forms of employment.
As social movements ignite across the US and the world, Bryan wants Cayman Islanders to wake up to realities faced by its LGBTQAI+ residents.
“When it comes to the bullying, harassment, domestic violence, rape, all of that, across the board, queer people are always disproportionately more affected,” she said.
“But at the tip of that, the apex has always been trans people.”
She notes a disconnect between the urgency of protests for black lives in the United States and what she describes as complacency in Cayman.
“This is our time to really shake people up and be like, ‘listen, these things happen. These things matter,’” she said.
“You’re involved, you’re effected or someone you know is affected.”
What is LGBTQIA+?
There are variations to the acronym, but LGBTQIA+ has become one of the most commonly used terms today to describe a range of sexual orientations and gender identities. It might seem like this acronym contains a lot of letters, and that’s because it includes many types of people.
The term has grown from the original LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) to include a wider range of identities. The expanded term also includes those who are questioning their identity, genderqueer (people whose gender identity falls outside the male/female binary), intersex (people whose biological sex characteristics are not traditionally considered male or female), and asexual (people who feel little or no sexual attraction).
Transgender refers to people whose gender identity does not conform to the sex (male or female) that they were assigned at birth – as opposed to a cisgender person, whose gender identity matches their assigned sex.
The plus sign at the end of the term is inclusive of other traditionally non-conforming sexual orientations and gender identities.
Colours Cayman provides additional information and resources about LGBTQIA+ issues in the Cayman Islands at colours.ky.