By Fernanda Uriegas
Lailani Muniz, 33, a transwoman, says she was born a male, but never felt that she fit the gender she was assigned to.
“I never identified as a gay man, but that is how I was labelled in society,” says Muniz. “I always planned to transition.”
But the cost of sex reassignment surgery ranges from $15,000 to $50,000, a price that Muniz, a former insurance company worker and a hair dresser, could not afford.
Her clinic did not provide free hormone replacement therapy or funds for a breast implant. Her doctor kept assuring her the program would come. She waited for six years. “I was just being patient” says Muniz.
Help arrived in 2015. For years, New York’s Medicaid policy excluded transgender health care. Then a year ago, the Department of Health repealed the prohibition on Medicaid coverage of transition-related care and services. There are restrictions: These are only available for persons diagnosed with gender dysphoria, a condition where someone feels an emotional and psychological connection to the opposite gender of their biological birth. These individuals must have two letters from health professionals that refer the individuals for surgery.
But even that coverage often isn’t enough. People who transition sometimes need more physical and mental care. In the Bronx, one group, called Community Kinship Life, does that. It provided Muniz with surgery referrals so that she was able to finally get her breast implant in April.
She also got hormone replacement therapy and HIV treatment. She did not have to pay a cent besides CK Life’s $250 lifetime membership. But more importantly, she got emotional support. Thanks to CK Life’s surgery buddy program, she had someone who had already undergone similar procedures come with her and walk her through the process.
“Before CK Life I knew I needed surgery and hormones, but what I didn’t know is that I needed support,” says Muniz.
Community Kinship life was founded in the Bronx in 2007 by Kim Watson, a transgender woman and Mister Cris, a transgender man. The duo established it because they both felt that transgender people could not get the support they needed to help them adjust. Most services for transgender people focus on the physical aspect of transitioning. But, co-founder Watson, asks, “Is your mind fitting your body?”
People who are not psychologically ready for transition can suffer mental health issues during the process, the most common being depression, she says. Counseling helps everybody who is transitioning, she argues, as it is not an easy process, even if transgender people feel confident about their decision. “I am all about healing,” says Watson. “I do this from the passion of my heart.”
She means it. At one of the support group meetings, which CK Life holds every Friday, she freely handed out tissues to participants. But do not dare to think these were used to dry tears. Here, tissues represent a person’s accomplishments, one Kleenex for each accomplishment they cared to share.
“One of my biggest achievements is going to college” said Ethan Jones, 20, the only transgender person at his college. He said through CK Life he has learned “there are other people who are like me and other people who need this help.”
Watson asked them to call out a word to describe themselves. ‘Housewife’ said Muniz, who sat next to her fiancé, who accompanies her to the meetings even though he is not transgender.
Everyone then chose a word to describe the others. Peers described Muniz as “in control,” “strong,” and “resilient.”
“Sometimes I seem very secure on the outside, but I also have my insecurities on the inside” Muniz said thinking about what her peers had said.
The support meetings focus on the challenges transgender people feel as individuals such as getting to know oneself and feeling confident and not on the physical process of transitioning like other trans meetings.
Luke Walker, 20, had been seven months taking testosterone, but when talking about his transformation, he focused on his self-discovery process rather than in the physical aspect. “I have learned a lot about myself in these past months” he said.
“This meeting is very different from others I have been to,” said Mariah Riley, who attended the meeting for the first time and left convinced she will be back every Friday. “We talk about being affirmative of who you are, not only about surgery and hormones.”
Jokes and laughter characterized the mood of the meeting. “You will never find a group like this in New York,” says co-founder Watson.
For Muniz, the group has helped her feel she is part of a community, something that’s given her self-confidence. “After CK Life I became more comfortable with the person who I am,” says Muniz. “I feel like I have someone behind me.”