The circle of chairs just keeps getting larger.
First, it’s only a man and woman sitting on a couch. But then someone takes a chair across the circle. Then another. And another. By the time Blue Montana takes a seat and introduces himself, 13 people surround him. Some are strangers. Some are friends. But in this room — with its dark purple walls, lime-green lockers and orange-tinted floors — Montana wants all to feel welcome and, more importantly, comfortable to be themselves. So his introduction comes with an invitation to do just that:
“My pronouns are he/him,” Montana tells the group. “This week so far was good.”
The introductions continue in that pattern.
“My name is T. I don’t have a pronoun right now. I think I had a good week.”
“I’m Harper. Female pronouns. My week has been terrible.”
“My name is Geneva. Pronouns she and her. Last week was pretty crappy, and I’d rather not talk about it.”
Good weeks, bad weeks or indifferent, talking isn’t necessary here. Called “Trans.lation,” this gathering at The Gay and Lesbian Community Center of Southern Nevada is a support group for transgender people and their loved ones. By the meeting’s end, more than 30 people had pulled up a chair or plopped down on a couch.
It had been a rough few weeks for Southern Nevada’s transgender community. In February, a gunman fired bullets into the Las Vegas Lounge, striking one person’s leg in the trans-friendly bar. The shooting rattled the community and raised this question: Was it a hate crime?
Police declined to comment, citing the ongoing investigation. But for transgender people who call Las Vegas home, it’s not the only unsettling incident. There’s also the ongoing debate over the Clark County School District’s proposed gender-diverse policy, the creation of which is part of a new state law. The Nevada Department of Education has been crafting a statewide regulation that will serve as the framework for individual district policies, but that hasn’t stopped a public backlash from opponents who say the policy will infringe on their children’s privacy, safety and “cultural norms.”
For transgender people, this room is the safe spot in a world that isn’t always tolerant or accepting.
When Harper Ellis enters the room, she quietly walks to a chair, tucks her oversized purse below it and sits down. More than four months ago, the 28-year-old started transitioning into the woman she knows is her true self. But it wasn’t until two weeks ago that she felt brave enough to walk around donning women’s clothing.
Tonight, she’s wearing a turquoise shirt with pink floral pattern, dark-colored jeans and brown sandals. Yesterday, it was her birthday, but that didn’t make the week much better. She started telling her family about the transition.
“It’s been a really hard week,” she tells the group. “My mom has been pretty terrible. She’s convinced everything is a different way than it is.”
On top of that, her soon-to-be ex-wife doesn’t understand the transition either.
“I’m going it alone right now,” Ellis says.
Except not exactly. As soon as Ellis finishes talking, the advice starts rolling in — first from Montana who says she shouldn’t take any negativity to heart. Montana transitioned more than a decade ago, spurred by the decision to save his life. Now, he’s the transgender program manager at The Center, where he helps others who are finding the way to their authentic selves.
“They don’t know any better,” Montana says. “They really don’t. They’re speaking out of ignorance.”
A man named A.J. chimes in next and says Harper’s mom may still be clinging to an image of her that no longer exists. A.J., who asked that his last not be used in this story, says he eased his family into the change. Like Harper, his family also lives in conservative-leaning Missouri.
“I didn’t give them a lot at once,” he says. “Focus on you and who you are, and they will come around.”
The chatter drifts into a conversation about being transgender in various locales — small-town Kansas, the urban core of Atlanta and, ultimately, Las Vegas. Does the city branded by its carefree, anything-goes mentality extend that same tolerance to its own residents who happen to be transgender?
Martina Diamante, 44, says yes without hesitation. She points to the Salvation Army in downtown Las Vegas, which provides “safety dorms” to homeless transgender people, and the support group as evidence.
“This is the first place I’ve lived in that has anything like this,” she says. “I’m on my hustle every day. I walk all over this city. If you don’t feel comfortable as a transgender person here, you’re not going to feel comfortable anywhere.”
Geneva Trice, 27, agrees: “A lot better than Kansas. Oh my gosh. It’s like night and day.”
Recent policy announcements seem to support that assessment. Earlier this year, the Nevada Medicaid program extended coverage to include gender-reassignment surgeries. And, soon, the state’s Department of Motor Vehicles hopes to debut a new policy that would allow people to choose the gender they identify with for driver’s licenses and other forms of ID. As it stands now, people must bring a medical form from a doctor if they want to change the gender marker on any state ID, said Alex Smith, a spokeswoman for the DMV. The change is pending final approval from the Legislative Commission.
“We prefer to do things in a proactive manner,” Smith said.
Even so, some group members say Southern Nevada isn’t as welcoming as their peers portend.
Misty Rabka, 55, says this was the first state she encountered a physical threat because of her gender identity. Despite a community’s best intentions, Rabka — a former Marine —says discrimination often boils down to time and place.
That’s why her assessment of safety and tolerance for transgender people is this: “You’re going to deal with assholes anywhere.”
The support-group participants say better education about what it means to be transgender could dispel falsities and make Southern Nevada a more tolerant and accepting place. Billboards and commercials advertising services for transgender people could also help, they say.
But Tristyn Gandha, 33, says solidarity — consistently raising each other up rather than “nit picking and tearing each other down” — could foster a better environment, too.
“You want to talk about visibility?” she says. “How about a visible united front? Let’s work on that first.”
March 31 marks Transgender Visibility Day, a time reserved for honoring transgender people around the world while also raising awareness about the discrimination they still face. The Center will be hosting related events, Montana says, but he encourages the group members to keep their heads up each day — even in the face of discouraging incidents garnering headlines, family struggles or daily snide comments from strangers.
“We’re visible all the time,” he tells the group. “Not just the month of March.”