The Rainbow flag, a symbol of LGBT rights. Courtesy of Wikimedia

ITHACA, N.Y. — For transgender and non-binary people, the costs of a gender transition can add up quickly: costs like hormone replacement therapy, surgery, travel to appointments, vocal coaching, and covering the loss of a job or housing due to discrimination. A new program at an Ithaca credit union aims to ensure those costs do not create a barrier to affirmation and inclusion.

Alternatives Federal Credit Union has launched the TransAction Financial Empowerment Program in partnership with Planned Parenthood of the Southern Finger Lakes to provide low-interest loans and credit lines to cover transition-related expenses. The program is among the first of its kind nationwide, mirroring PPSFL’s first-in-the-state transgender healthcare services.

PPSFL was the first Planned Parenthood affiliate in New York to offer hormone therapy to transgender patients, and has seen a surge in service utilization over five years. In 2013, PPSFL provided services to 28 people; in 2018, they served 482 people. Many of those patients, staff realized, were paying large sums out of pocket and taking on significant credit card debt to access care.

“There’s quite a lot of expense that goes into someone trying to socially or medically transition,” said Devon Ritz, LGBTQ patient navigator and outreach educator at Planned Parenthood. “It just kind of compounds itself after a while and makes life difficult.”

Some patients travel four or five hours to reach PPSFL clinics, Ritz said, and many are saddled with high deductibles and prescription costs even if their health insurance covers some medical expenses. And beyond medical services, costs associated with transitioning are as varied as the transgender and non-binary population is diverse, Ritz said.

“Transgender” and “non-binary” refer to people with a range of identities and experiences, including people who were assigned male at birth and identify as women, were assigned female at birth and identify as men, and who identify outside of the gender binary as transgender, genderqueer, agender or bigender, for example. Embodying a gender identity that matches one’s sense of self might require medical, legal or other professional services, and discrimination against people who do not conform to gender norms can worsen financial burdens.

Alternatives is a community development credit union, meaning it is part of their mission to provide resources to underserved groups, said Reiley Schoen, chief operations officer. As the credit union’s leadership team discussed the financial challenges transgender and non-binary people in the community face, they saw an opportunity to help.

“We thought, how can we step up with a program and product that’s going to have an impact and not just be lip service to ‘we welcome everybody’? We do welcome everybody, but we want to do better than that,” said Carol Chernikoff, chief lending officer at Alternatives.

At a meeting where executives brainstormed program ideas, Schoen pitched a program tailored for the trans population. “I’m a trans person myself and I thought this was a really great idea and a unique way to support the community,” Schoen said.

The group was enthusiastic and set about making it happen. Liz Hudson, director of development, secured federal funding for staff training and program development from the National Credit Union Administration. Schoen and Chernikoff worked with Ritz to create a referral program to bring people who are transitioning through Alternatives’ door and to put best practices in place to ensure they feel welcome.

A barrier to accessing financial services, Chernikoff said, “is having to open an account with a driver’s license with a name or a picture that no longer looks like you, and the awkward, disrespectful response most people get.” In addition to taking part in sensitivity training, Alternatives staff set up a system for recording clients’ preferred names so front-facing employees can greet clients correctly. “The name you want to go by is something we can absolutely respect and accommodate here,” Schoen said.

Recognizing that it would uncomfortable and inappropriate to require program participants to disclose personal information about their transition to a credit union employee, Alternatives and Planned Parenthood developed a referral sheet for healthcare providers, including mental health professionals, to sign. “We want to make sure the money is being used for something in the designated category, but we don’t want to be intrusive and we want to protect confidentiality,” Chernikoff said.

The program includes both personal loans and lines of credit, designed to accommodate one-time and ongoing needs associated with transitioning. While specific plans will be tailored to each individual’s financial position and needs, Chernikoff said the upper limit for borrowers is currently $20,000.

Funds can help cover a wide range of costs associated with transitioning. For example, clients could borrow to pay for medical costs if they choose to use hormone replacement therapy or to have gender affirming surgery, or for legal costs if they choose to alter documents like birth certificates and driver’s licenses to match their gender identity and preferred name. They could use funds to pay counseling, or for transportation to reach a counselor who is welcoming to transgender and non-binary people. Loans could help with housing costs for those who lose their home due to family hostility or landlord discrimination, and for sporadic out-of-pocket costs like buying fitting clothes.

Schoen acknowledged that no program can support all people in all scenarios, but said the team will continue working to adjust the TransAction initiative as they get feedback from early clients. “We want to make sure we’re hitting the marks: that we’re making it a comfortable situation, that we’re offering a product people can afford, that this product is going to work for them short-term, long-term, whatever they envision,” he said.

Ritz said the program will help give transgender and non-binary people the resources they need to make the decisions that are best for their minds and bodies. “It adds options for folks,” she said. “I’m just really excited that we have community partners like Alternatives who have these really brilliant ideas in their own wheelhouses.”

Resources for transgender and non-binary people are available throughout the region; here is a list provided by Planned Parenthood.

Devon Magliozzi

Devon Magliozzi is a reporter for the Ithaca Voice. Questions? Story tips? Contact her at dmagliozzi@ithacavoice.com or 607-391-0328.