Changing the transgender narrative through design and care

Robyn Kanner, co-founder of MyTransHealth, on stage at Design Week Portland

Generally speaking, the narrative around transgender people is not exactly sunny. For every positive and uplifting Caitlyn Jenner story and overturning of ‘bathroom laws’, there are thousands and thousands of stories that are the polar opposite. They are painful reminders that the transgender community and, by extension, humanity has a long way to go to be more accepting and understanding.

Robyn Kanner, co-founder of MyTransHealth (MTH), a healthcare site for the transgender community, sees opportunity, but is rightly frustrated that the media has taken a direction where, to understand her and her work, she is taken to painful, cringe-worthy moments. In a powerful presentation at Design Week Portland, she shared what nags her about the way the transgender community and, by extension, her work, is portrayed.

“I would like to just focus on [MTH], but I could never actually get the interview to be published unless I told them a bad thing about me — a bad thing that had happened,” she said. “I think that narrative creates this sadness around trans lives. I don’t want trans people to be sad; I want them to be really stoked about their lives. And I don’t think that all narratives around trans people should be sad.”

On one hand, Kanner was happy to get the exposure for her important work but had to give a piece of herself to make it happen.

Further, the sometimes cheeky approach by the wider community in support of the trans community may be well-meaning, but doesn’t necessarily get to the root issues. For example, restroom signs, in support of transgender people, only addresses one part of the conversation.

“[People] are obsessed with creating the most witty and inclusive restroom sign, and they’re not even remotely dealing with any problem that the community faces,” Kanner told the Design Week Portland crowd. “You’re just dealing with the political thing and, honestly, we’ve got better work to do.”

Kanye-ing the moment

Better work for the transgender community and its health took flight with the MTH site, which launched on May 3, 2016. Interestingly, the date coincided with another huge announcement from the transgender community – Bruce Jenner announcing his transition to becoming Caitlyn Jenner.

In a savvy move, MTH and Kanner used the bright spotlight to not only get the site in front of the world, but to consciously use the moment to point out that there is still a very long way to go and that there are critical issues that need to be addressed.

Kanner, who is also an art director and UX designer at Amazon, took inspiration from Tiq Milan, a Philadelphia transgender activist, who gave a speech about how to “Kanye” Jenner’s moment — a reference to the rapper’s bum-rushing of the Grammys stage in 2009 when Taylor Swift was accepting her award for Best Female Video.

“We ‘Kanye’d’ her moment,” Kanner shared with the Design Week Portland audience.

“My point, literally, was that no one trans moment should have all that power. It was like, ‘Caitlyn, Im'a let you finish but 19% of us have experienced abuse from our own families.’ That's 19% of my own community that's been hurt or mentally abused by people of their own families. ‘Caitlyn, Im'a let you finish but 41% of us have tried to kill ourselves.’ 41%, that's a lot of people, right? That's not good on a whole bunch of other levels. Then, ‘Caitlyn, Im'a let you finish but we still need fucking access to healthcare.’ This is basic stuff that we're trying to work through. We're super happy for you and this is awesome, but there's a lot of complexities [and] we need to figure out what we can get.”

Designing with transgender health in mind

What Kanner and MTH got in that process was exposure — but it also began galvanizing the health community. At its core, the site is essentially a portal. What’s behind it, though, is much more high-touch and empathatic than meets the eye. Health providers for the transgender community need to be vetted to ensure that they understand the specific needs of transgender patients.

“When we talk to [providers], we make sure that they are following the right standards of care (such as World Professional Association for Transgender Health guidelines) and that they have had some sort of experience with this,” Kanner said.

At present, the site has 450 providers across six cities. The goal, in the next iteration of the site, will have over 1,000 providers in an additional 20 locations around the country. MTH also re-evaluates providers every 12 months with a rigorous review that ensures top standards are being met.

The design of the site is considered and thoughtful. Kanner noted that people in the transgender community endure fairly consistent levels of panic and anxiety and she wanted to ensure that it was “an enjoyable experience.”

What really solidified her design direction and inspiration was experience, specifically volunteering for Trans Lifeline, a support hotline for transgender people. In her time talking with people, she was able to, most importantly, help, but also understand more about what the community was thinking and feeling on a more one-to-one level.

Again, the narrative about the community is generally wrought with sadness but on the site, designing for healthcare and this community was more in line with the ethos of thinking, as she said on stage, “Hey, you’re trans. That’s cool. Us too. Let’s work this thing out. Volunteering for the hotline was critical for that.”

Making it a human issue

The site, like a number of independent endeavors, started as a Kickstarter project, garnering enough to get things moving. Raising around $33,000, Kanner and her partners found that 80% of the funding came from people outside the transgender community — people who wouldn’t actually use the site — which is part of the overall plan, especially marketing the site. The fact is, the transgender community is already talking to each other and it seemed a more prudent course of action to get the rest of the world involved.

“I knew we needed money to get this thing off the ground but I also didn't want the community to pay for it. I wanted other people to pay for it,” said Kanner. “So it very much positions a lot of the marketing to them.”

Scalability and expansion is also very much in the cards — and it is contingent upon the balance of need, opportunity and what’s possible. Surprisingly, 25% of traffic to the MTH site is from Russia, a country whose government has a woeful track record with the LGBTQ community and sits by the sidelines as the gay community in Chechnya, a Russian province, is under vicious attack.

“I don't know the culture. I don't know the community,” noted Kanner. “I’ve never been to Russia. But I know that's a thing — and as we work towards more solution to problems, I think a lot of the work we're doing right here is really important. [In] South America, [for example] a lot of trans women are being murdered. And that's an entire community that I don't know about either. But I should and need to learn so I'm able to create more solutions.”

All that said, though, it does, in Kanner’s eyes, come back to the narrative and breaking through the barriers in the conversation around transgender people.

“The world probably has thousands and thousands and thousands of stories. So the more stories we tell, the more human the topic becomes, the less weird small moments can be,” said Kanner. “So that [overall community] support piece is actually about making it a societal norm. And that's hard. Even though that this thing has been happening for hundreds and hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of years, we're now getting in the space where a dude can sit down with a trans girl and it's not weird — and that's kind of a new thing in a lot of ways. So the more stories we tell, the more human it becomes — and the more that becomes where we live in a gender-chill future. Which is what I would dig.”

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