The transgender community has become increasingly visible this year. That’s thanks in part to celebrities like reality TV star Caitlyn Jenner, video blogger Aydian Dowling and actress Laverne Cox.
Based on media coverage, one might assume that to be happy and transgender in America, you have to live in a larger city, but that’s not the case. There are many trans people living in small towns in Iowa and across the country.
Angus Pollock is a personal chef in Storm Lake. Pollock was assigned the gender of female at birth, and has lived most of his life as a woman or girl.
But at 41 he’s transitioning to achieve a more masculine appearance with weekly testosterone injections. That means Pollock’s appearance is changing pretty rapidly and so far he says things are going well.
“No one has blatantly said anything rude to me here at all, which I hate to say it kind of surprises me,” Pollock says. “I’m grateful, I’m really grateful—not something I feel like dealing with on a daily basis. But I’m sort of surprised that people aren’t being a little more vocal because I see the looks. But they just don’t say anything.”
Ashley Foster is a trans woman in central Iowa. She works as a site inspector for a small construction company in Grimes, which has a small transgender population.
“Unless some of my friends get together purposely I don’t interact with any other trans people throughout my job, at home, anywhere else,” says Foster.
When Foster first told a family member about transitioning, they suggested that she should leave Iowa. The relative assumed Foster would no longer fit in, but Foster loves her home state.
“I had another friend of mine who transitioned. She’s lives in a small town in Iowa too. And she just said, ‘You’re going to be the gossip until there is something else to gossip about. And it doesn’t take long for new gossip to show up. So just tough it out for a couple days and eventually you’re going to be old news.’”
That’s not to say living life as an openly trans person in small Iowa town is always a breeze. One big difficulty for many is that medical resources are scarce.
Both Pollock and Foster see Dr. Joe Freund of United Community Services's Franklin Family Practice in Des Moines. Freund is one of only two providers in central Iowa who specialize in transgender medicine.
People travel from all over Iowa and even other states to see him.
“When you’re in a rural community, basically all providers that are working right now, very, very few of us have had training or education in providing transgender care,” says Freund. “And many people have never been asked to provide it.”
Not all transgender people choose to have surgeries or take hormones, but those who do may pay hundreds of thousands of dollars out of pocket. And unlike Caitlyn Jenner, who is a multi-millionaire, a large portion of trans Americans are economically marginalized.
According to a 2011 survey by the National Center for Transgender Equality, trans people are nearly four times as likely to make less than $10,000 a year compared to the general population.
Trans people are also more likely to be victims of both discrimination and violence, even though transgender people are protected under the Iowa Civil Rights Act.
Jackson Jantzen is executive director of an LGBTQ resource center that serves 11 rural counties at the intersection of Iowa, Wisconsin and Minnesota. Jantzen, who is also trans, says it’s critical to be visible in your community regardless of its size.
“The people who are in those smaller towns with a more accepting environment, often times that’s attributed to other people doing some really amazing work with the community just by living and being in it,” says Jantzen.
In Storm Lake, Angus Pollock is one of those people who want to live transparently as transgender. He says there is work to be done, but he’s not shying away from the spotlight.
“I am by far happier all the way around than I have been in decades,” he says.
So being trans in a small town is a lot like being trans in a big city, without the big city.