Andrea Carmichael struggled to confide in anyone that she wrestled with gender identity. She felt alone in the world. She didn't have the words to describe the life she was experiencing. After seven years of internal struggle, she finally told one friend how she felt, expecting rejection. Instead, her friend said, "That's great."
"I knew finally that I need to be myself," Carmichael says.
That's when Carmichael, with the help of her friend, found the Southern Arizona Gender Alliance, or SAGA, a nonprofit established in 1998 dedicated to providing resources and support for Arizona's trans identities, including transsexual, transgender, genderqueer, masculine of center, feminine of center, non-binary, two-spirit, butch, femme, gender fluid and intersex.
This October marks 20 years of SAGA helping people like Carmichael and thousands more find support and comfort in who they are.
This also marks Carmichael's third year being involved with SAGA where she is now a board member, helping organize events, educate the public and partner with other nonprofits in the community.
"For me, it was the most scary thing I've ever done but it was also the most wonderful thing I've ever done," she said about coming out as trans.
SAGA has had a big impact on the lives of transgender people in Arizona over the years, according to Abby Jensen, vice president and general counsel for SAGA.
"It was a SAGA member, back in 1999 when the Tucson City Council was considering changing their terminology from sexual preference to sexual orientation, who suggested including gender identity into city terminology," Jensen said. "That's how Tucson became one of the first cities to include gender identity into its anti-discrimination laws."
Jensen said that progress has been made, but there's still a lot of discrimination and violence in Tucson and statewide against trans people.
To help promote a safer space, Jensen said people should learn how to be an ally. For her, that means speaking out against anti-trans actions and attitudes.
Support from family, employers, health care providers and allies is crucial to improve the lives of transgender people in our community, according to Russell Toomey, professor of family studies and human development at the University of Arizona.
Toomey and his research team recently published their findings on suicide rates among different groups of transgender youth. He said the study looked at the difference in suicide risk between transgender and cisgender youth as well as looking for important differences in subsects of the transgender population.
The team found that transmasculine youth, female to male, and nonbinary youth (those who don't identify exclusively as male or female), have far higher rates of suicide attempts than cismales and cisfemales.
Toomey said there is a lack of suicide prevention programs dedicated to transgender people, and the study can help identify where to put intervention and prevention efforts.
"Family support and school support are key predictors of resilience for marginalized populations," Toomey said. "Here locally, we have a parents of transgender youth support group. Having access to that to help parents better support their trans youth is critically important."
Toomey said that 20 years ago, not having an organization where you could find support or other people who might be experiencing the same thing would have been very difficult. Now, you can just google "transgender in Tucson" and SAGA will be the first thing that comes up.
"Tucson is an amazing community," Toomey said. "As a transgender person, there are just so many resources and supports in the area that make it a comfortable and generally supportive place to live."
Toomey highlighted that the general public shouldn't accept the single story narrative about transgender people.
"There's been so much negative, and my research shows this negative aspect, but it's important to highlight that trans people are resilient," he said. "We can see that with all the successful people in Tucson, people that just get up and live their everyday life."
SAGA has eight different support groups supporting trans men, trans women, nonbinary people, parents of trans youth, advocates, partners, councillors and a general meeting open to the public.
On SAGA's website, sagatucson.org, there are resources for the public, including information about changing a name and identification, where to find a doctor, legal support, religious support, professional support and more. SAGA also has a soccer team that competes year-round as well as a team that rides in El Tour de Tucson every year.
SAGA's 20th Anniversary Celebration is on National Coming Out Day, October 11 from 6-8 p.m. at the Center for Collaborative Learning, 37 E. Pennington St. There will be music, food and conversation.