Queercents strives to represent diversity in the LGBT community and in my opinion the trans voice and view is one where we have come up short. So when I asked Helen Boyd if she could introduce me to a few thought leaders in the trans community, she put me in touch with Jamison Green. I was thrilled when he responded and graciously accepted our request for an interview.
Jamison is an internationally respected leader within the transgender movement and has written books, won awards and appeared in numerous documentaries. I asked him to get personal about money and share his thoughts about the financial issues that impact the trans community at large. I enjoyed this thoughtful conversation. I’m sure you will too.
1. There has been much debate in the press about Who Pays for Sex Reassignment Surgery. What’s your opinion on the topic?
It’s easy for people to get all bent out of shape about the idea of paying for someone else’s stuff, no matter what it is. The issue, as I see it, is not about whether taxpayers should cover particular medical expenses for prisoners, or whether we should advocate an “I did it on my own, so others should do it on their own, too” social philosophy. The issue is whether we as a society include sex reassignment as a covered medical expense (in insurance or government-funded contexts) because it is a human need, or whether we exclude it because we have a moral objection to it. I think our current medical insurance system in this country is seriously broken and truly serves only the affluent, but that is a different topic.
Given the current system, the way insurance works (whether it is taxpayer-funded Medicare or private insurance schemes) is that it purports to reduce costs by spreading them throughout an insured pool of individuals. Looked at in this way, the cost of surgical sex reassignment is much less than many other less rare and more expensive treatments that are routinely provided, such as open heart surgery or spinal disc repair, etc.
We have no difficulty justifying these expenses, but we have a lot of resistance to paying for someone’s sex change. Why is that? When we advocated for insurance coverage for transgendered and transsexual city and county employees in San Francisco, the amount that every covered person in the plan had to pay for trans treatments was less than one fifth of the cost that every covered person had to pay to provide substance abuse treatments for subscribers. It is just as easy to get angry about paying for someone else’s substance abuse treatment, but no one complains about that. So, without belaboring the point, it seems to me the issue is less one of “how do we divide the finite resource pie?” than it is one of “which people matter?” So long as trans people are regarded as exotic, perverted, or disposable, it will be easy to complain about sharing our scarce resources with them. My goal is to shift this social paradigm so that no one has to suffer from this kind of prejudice.
2. What is your most significant memory about money?
When I was in my early 30s, my partner, Samantha, and I saved for two years to have a month-long trip to Europe, which we took in 1982. My parents had always said that it was extremely expensive to go to Europe, and I had this idea that I’d be extremely lucky to get ever get there, but once we’d made up our collective mind that the trip was a priority, Samantha and I were able to commit to the sacrifices saving that much money required. We weren’t making much money then, and it was a struggle to save $5,000.00, enough to cover our trip and maintain our apartment, car payment, etc., while we were away. We had a wonderful time, managed our daily expenses well, and came back with $1000.00 in hand. It was then that I realized that I had much more capacity than I had previously imagined, and that I really could do things that I wanted to do if I committed myself to my goals.
3. What is your worst habit around finances?
In spite of what I just said above, my worst habit is spending money too easily. I’m quite good at it, actually. I am generous to a fault, and somewhat self-indulgent, too, and I am inclined to spend money when I have it, even though I know I should be saving, especially as I am getting closer to retirement age.
4. In your book, Becoming a Visible Man, you discuss many of the challenges of the female-to-male transsexual experience. Can you share thoughts about how this personally impacted your financial status?
When I undertook all the medical expense of transition and surgical sex reassignment, in the years 1988 through 1991, I was very fortunate to have a management position at a leading computer technology design and manufacturing firm. I managed to have some of the minor costs (psychological counseling and hormones) covered by insurance, though on claim forms I did not describe my condition as anything having to do with transsexualism, which was excluded from treatment.
Fortunately, most of what transsexual people need in the way of medical care is not unusual, and is available to non-transsexual people (a fact that underlies one of the main arguments I have made for years about the discriminatory exclusion statements that prevent transsexual people from openly receiving medical care), so it never raised a flag.
When it came to my genital reconstruction surgery and medically necessary hysterectomy, I needed to borrow $10,000.00 from my mother to cover the $22,000.00 payment that I was required to make at the hospital the morning of my surgery (“cashier’s check only, if you please — we don’t want any deadbeat transsexuals stiffing us for their expenses!”).
Of course I worried about potential job discrimination, but, again, I was lucky. I approached the matter as if it was nothing out of the ordinary, generally a private matter, but nothing to be ashamed of, and besides, I was at work to do a job, one at which I was capable and competent, so I just made sure that I focused on the job, believing that if I did I would not be subject to dismissal.
As it happened, I did become downwardly mobile, but that was my own choice as I opted in 1992 to take on more of an activist role, and became a part-time freelance writer to finance myself as I built up the educational organization FTM International through 1999.
5. Who taught you the value of a dollar?
My parents did: my father was a self-employed furniture wholesaler, and my mother was a homemaker (her preferred term). They had no health insurance, no credit cards; they paid cash for everything, and they made sure my brother and I did not lack for anything, particularly in the way of education. They also made sure we understood the value of living within your means and how to budget and prioritize expenses. We were well-trained in the principle and practice of deferred gratification, which I have deliberately chosen to ignore at times, but only when I was reasonably confident of having the cash flow to get myself out of any short-term debt I might incur.
6. Why do transgender people face an increased risk of homelessness?
It is true that some landlords discriminate against people who change sex on their property, finding clever ways to evict them, but the most common cause of homelessness for trans people is employment discrimination, coupled with the cost of transition itself. I’ve met scores of highly educated, otherwise successful people who have either lost everything when they couldn’t retain their employment or find a new job once their transness became known, or who have limited themselves and avoided opportunities because of their own fear of confronting the world as a transgender person.
7. Is there a price attached to activism?
You bet there is! It costs time and money to take on an issue and work all the angles to achieve a political or social goal. In addition, people assume that one is either funded in this effort (through foundation grants or other non-profit fundraising organizations), or is independently wealthy; how else can they expect that you will be available at a moment’s notice to attend meetings, do interviews, fly across the country for a protest, etc., etc.
When I began actively promoting transgender inclusion in the queer rights movement in the early 1990s, no one was willing to fund organizations that promoted trans issues. It wasn’t until we had achieved some significant political and legislative success in the mid-1990s that funding entities were willing to begin providing small grants. And because trans organizations had not had any track record of handling money, the early grants were very small, not enough to actually develop or increase capacity in any meaningful way.
So most trans-specific organizations (to this day) struggle financially, and the people who believe in them fund them personally, often to the detriment of their own personal fortunes and potential retirement savings.
8. Did your parents ever disagree about money? Are there any similarities with how you handle and negotiate finances with your wife?
If my parents ever disagreed about anything, they did it well out of my or my brother’s presence. They always presented a united front and a very stable force for their children. They were very conscious parents, right down to the fact that they chose to adopt two children (me and my brother) four years apart so they would be able to afford to send us both to college, paying only for one of us at a time.
My wife, Heidi, and I treat our combined financial assets as community property, and we are very conscientious about discussing with each other our mutual financial goals, our monthly expenditures, and any unusual personal expenses. Our money belongs to both of us, and we both feel that this means communicating with each other about it rather than just assuming we can do whatever we want with it without consulting each other. We have no trepidation about this communication because we both want the best for each other, and we both know we have to make conscious decisions about money or it has a way of disappearing when you’re not paying attention!
9. Do you have a financial plan for retirement?
Yes, but (I think because of spending most of the decade of my 40s as an unpaid activist, funding myself) I suspect I will have to continue working into my 70s. For me, the goal is to make that work something that I love to do, so I don’t notice that I’m not retired yet.
10. Does money buy happiness?
No, but it can sure help make happiness easier to find!
More about Jamison Green
San Francisco based author and activist Jamison Green, 58, is internationally recognized as a leader in the field of transgender law, policy, theory, and education. He serves on the boards of several nonprofit organizations, including the Human Rights Campaign Business Council, the World Professional Association for Transgender Health, and the Transgender Law & Policy Institute; he’s also an advisory board member of the National Center for Transgender Equality and the Institute for Intersex Children and the Law. He has appeared in a dozen documentary films and given countless public speeches, lectures, and media interviews in North America, Europe, Australia, and the Far East. His award-winning book, Becoming a Visible Man (Vanderbilt University Press, 2004) is being used as a text in numerous universities. Mr. Green currently works as Director of Technical Publications for Visa U.S.A.
Read other Queercents interviews in the Ten Money Questions archive.