By Jerika L.H.
2016 has been a big year for Lotus Dao. Along with bringing new meaning to the term ambitious, the 2012 UC Davis graduate is taking on the medical empire with a Master’s in tow with his brainchild Bloom: Transgender Community Healing Project.
Lotus was recently featured in a documentary-in-the-making that was organized by Vietnamese Rainbow of Orange County (VROC), a grassroots Vietnamese LGBTQ organization in Orange County, Lotus’s hometown. Trans activists often face the heavy burden of bearing themselves in public forums as a means to demand better visibility for their community. For Lotus, this responsibility has been a learning experience.
“An on-going conversation I have with my partner, spiritual advisers, mentors, chosen family, is how to visibilize my experiences and story while being accountable to sharing space with those that are not being invited to speak. Sometimes, my ‘work’ is to decline a media invitation and encourage a trans sister of color instead, or, like how TWP was founding, use my privileges (in that case, I was a graduating Master’s student) to gain resources (I applied for a fellowship), and then reallocate them (I used all of the fellowship funds to fund TWP and pay other trans people to provide services).” Lotus, a self-described introvert, sees his visibility as an important part in the much needed conversation on representation and visibility within specific intersectional identities. In his case, Asian trans people, and more specifically, a Vietnamese trans person raised by a single mother fleeing the American intervention in Việt Nam.
Challenging under representation is a burdensome task in itself, but as Lotus describes, it can be particularly taxing when one’s private sphere is put on center stage- especially given that transgender individuals often experience a public interrogation into details as personal as sexual preference and genitalia.
“I was actually quite nervous to be filmed, because back then, I was just reaching my first year on hormones, so I was breaking out, gaining weight, and sounded, in my opinion, like a teenage boy. After sitting with myself and my partner, I decided to be featured because I wanted to visibilize the variety of ways trans people can present, as well as share my honest truth at the moment, which was a lot of confusion, social anxiety, and re-learning how to navigate the world. The media often only visibilizes ‘passing’ binary trans people. And so, my relationship with media, ‘taking up space’ and sharing my story is an on-going process that is deeply transforming, challenging at times, and healing.”
Lotus’s describes his journey of healing as being demarcated by two core components: reconnecting with his biological roots, and connecting with the community. As the child of a refugee mother, Lotus has had very limited access to information about his family history and ancestry. Thus, establishing a vein with his ancestral identity was an important part of achieving wellness.
“Knowledge of history is knowledge of self. It empowers me to disrupt cycles of violence and trauma in my family and community. I know that many other people who have been or families have been displaced by war or impacted by militarism or colonialism feel this. Relationships with my biological family is not always easy, for anyone. My first ‘coming out’ as a lesbian was challenging. Today, I continue to ‘come out’ to my biological family. It takes work on both ends. Many of us have been on the streets and continue to live on the streets because we are fleeing violent homes or communities. And so, I am eternally grateful for and committed to my chosen family and community. My chosen name is ‘Lotus’ because I genuinely believe, as Thích Nhất Hạnh says, ‘No mud, No lotus.'”
Lotus’ undergraduate years at UC Davis played an important role in his present path of direct service and community organizing. Lotus spent the vast majority of his time on campus at the LGBTQIA Center or in the safe spaces created by other queer or trans people in Davis.
While many people have fought long and hard to successfully create earmarked zones for queer community building, Lotus notes that there is still much work to be done. “In light of the recent tragedy in Orlando, anti-trans bathroom legislation across the nation, and on-going violence and murders of trans women of color.”
Lotus remarks that “Davis is no exception to the violence perpetrated on the queer and trans community. I am grateful for safer spaces such as the UC Davis LGBTQIA Center, where young lesbian, gay, bisexual, queer, asexual, intersex, and trans people can gather, grow, and build together. Unfortunately, our community often creates these spaces because we are not safe or welcomed in other spaces. These safer spaces are integral for our community, and it is the responsibility of our allies to join our efforts in pushing more widespread education and accessibility so that we can move freely and authentically throughout the world without fear or discrimination. We deserve access to bathrooms – ‘the right to pee.’ We deserve to have our chosen names and gender identities honored and recognized. We deserve to have access to resources and services that are accessible to our specific needs, such as gender-affirming basic primary care or employment opportunities.”
Furthermore, Lotus thanks his education in the UCD Anthropology and Women and Gender Studies departments. He considers Assistant Professor Cristiana Giordano, Professor Marisol de la Cadena, and Senior Lecturer Wendy Ho as the women that set his foundation for critical thinking. “These women planted the seeds in my mind that continue to root my work and education. Because of them, I was able to obtain my Master’s in Social Welfare at UC Berkeley with a critical lens and commitment to social justice praxis. I am forever thankful for them and consider them my mentors and dear friends.”
Upon graduating from UC Berkeley in 2015, Lotus partnered with the San Francisco Department of Public Health Transgender Health Services, Asian & Pacific Wellness Center Trans: Thrive, and the University of California, Berkeley, Human Rights Center to develop and run Transgender Wellness Program (TWP). These endeavors led up to the development of a more permanent project, Bloom. Bloom has already been met with overwhelming positive feedback. For many, this group could mean the difference between accessing care or being left out in the cold.
“For many in our community, our daily lives are entangled in the medical system because we are on hormones, doing lab tests, preparing and recovering from surgery, etc. Our community also reports significantly higher rates of depression, anxiety, suicidal ideation and attempts, police harassment, etc., even in comparison to our LGB siblings, which means many of our community is also entangled in clinical and prison systems. Our health disparities and challenges are, in my opinion, a pressing public health issue.”
Proper medical treatment is especially difficult to secure, as significant barriers in access to health care exists for transgender individuals. A survey by the National Center for Transgender Equality and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force found 19% of transgender patients had been chronically refused care due to their gender status, with even higher numbers among people of color. 28% admitted to being victims of harassment within a medical setting, and over half of all the queer and transgender patients surveyed said they had to teach their medical providers about transgender care.
An astronomical 41% of the survey participants had contemplated suicide at least once in their life (compared to 1.6% of the general population), with increased rates for those who lost a job due to bias (55%), were harassed/bullied in school (51%), had low household income, or were the victim of physical assault (61%) or sexual assault (64%). Furthermore, “Health disparities are exacerbated by poverty,” Lotus explains.
25% of all the transgender patients surveyed by the National Center for Transgender Equality reported losing a job due to their gender identity. Pressure to conform to gender norms within the workplace puts many non-binary workers in between a rock and a hard place. 90% said they faced some form of transgender-based discrimination within their lifetime, be it in employment, medical care or in securing affordable housing. Transgender individuals occupy the lowest tax bracket and are overwhelmingly subjected to extreme poverty. A sampling calculated by the Obama administration found that people who identify as trans or non-binary are nearly four times more likely to have a household income of less than $10,000/year compared to the general population.
“The general public, as well as professionals and academics, tend to be fixated by our bodies and our transition journey, more so than the fact that we experience discrimination and barriers to stability in all realms of life and systems – health, employment, housing, etc. To highlight specific barriers that our community experiences, I’ll start with a typical visit to the doctor – let’s say for flu symptoms. Entering the doctor’s office, a trans person will be asked for their name, ‘sex/gender,’ medical information. In this first moment, depending on whether or not a trans person has legally changed their sex and/or name, they are forced to ‘out’ themselves or not honor their identity.
“For myself, my legal name is Tonhu Dao, although my chosen name is Lotus. I use he/him/his and they/them/their pronouns. I have not changed my name or sex legally. So, in the doctor’s office, I am referred to as ‘Tonhu’ and she/her. Before starting hormones, I became accustomed and adapted to being read as a masculine Southeast Asian woman. However, now that I am over a year on hormones, I’d say I read as a gay male or effeminate Southeast Asian man 75% of the time, depending on the context.
“So, now, when providers see my ‘Female’ sex, they question if I am the person for the appointment or her brother. I am situated to be ‘outed’ or keep quiet and just go through the motions to get the medical services I need. This repeated encounter will happen with the front desk clerk, the nurse practitioner taking my vitals, and the medical doctor. This is just a basic example of how uncomfortable and anxiety provoking a visit to the doctor’s office can be.
“There are many more stories of how trans people are outright harassed by providers. If you can imagine, ‘coming out’ is not a one-time event, but an on-going, complex practice that involves assessing safety, risks, and priorities. If you can imagine further, this takes a lot energy – mentally, emotionally, spiritually. This is why, for myself and many other trans people, we avoid medical appointments unless it is absolutely an emergency. Financial challenges, physical inaccessibility, and lack of insurance increase barriers to accessing health care services. Another example is how many services are gendered, such as pap smears.
“So, for trans people that identify along the masculine spectrum or present with stereotypically ‘male’ features such as beards, going to ‘Women’s Clinics’ for a pap smear is also highly anxiety provoking and dangerous. Furthermore, if a trans masculine person has legally changed his sex, then his insurance may not cover the service. Systems are deeply gendered, especially medical and clinical systems, which creates overwhelming barriers to trans, genderqueer, and non-binary people.”
In attempt to address these various issues, Lotus explains, “I would say that Bloom has two overarching projects: One, increase access by offering referrals to free and sliding-scale holistic health services with the intent to promote a culture of wellness in the trans community, and two, to financially invest in the economic empowerment of our community, because health is deeply influenced by socio-economic circumstances. And so, we are organizing a free Trans Health Fair where we contracted with providers and healers of trans and non-binary identity.”
When Lotus first experimented with putting together a trans focused health program, he found that the overwhelming support was testament enough for its urgency. “There was such strong, positive feedback from participants – both poor trans people that attended the workshops and trans people that led the workshops – that I knew TWP needed to continue, and needed to build a base to continue sustainably running. So, I invited many of the trans healers and providers, as well as other trans organizers, to meet. Through a collective process of visioning and strategic planning for a few months, Bloom was born in the East Bay in June.”
TWP offered holistic health and wellness classes along with several workshops. Services like yoga, acupuncture, and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy helped participants learn ways to manage stress and anxiety- a combination which is an unfortunately prevalent reality for low-income trans people. While the focus on trans issues was a much needed break for those entrenched in daily struggle for health equality, the peer-to-peer support and mentorship was what really made the program unique.
Bloom will host a Trans Health Fair on Saturday, July 30 to kick start its mission. The event is free, open to the public, and 100% wheelchair accessible. For more information on Bloom, or to learn how to support Lotus’s mission, please follow the links below.