Indie rock lyrics crooned through the speakers of a downtown coffee shop while College of Charleston students crammed for their finals.

Lee Anne Leland had just left work, where she changed out of her construction attire and into a red, long-sleeved dress. Purple eyeshadow covered her eyelids. Bangles jangled on her wrists. 

A young man approached the line and accidentally bumped into her. 

"Excuse me, sir," he said. 

Leland could have turned. The transgender woman could have corrected him with, "Ma'am."

But she chooses her battles, she said.

She reserved her energy for "Trans Talk: Uncensored" — a panel discussion taking place this Sunday at Commonhouse Aleworks, a brewery near Park Circle in North Charleston.

Leland was born male, but from the age of 5, identified as a girl.

Leland will be one of five panelists who plan to cast political correctness and their own comfort aside in an effort give people a chance to ask whatever questions they have about gender identity. 

Chase Glenn, executive director of the Lowcountry-based Alliance for Full Acceptance, will moderate Sunday's event. He hopes people who have never met a transgender person will show up. 

"When people have relationships with trans people, that's when change happens," Glenn said. 

The panel will include two transgender people of color. One panelist identifies as "gender nonbinary", which means they identify as neither a man nor a woman.

Examples of questions people might ask the panelists include: 

  • What does being trans mean in your sex life?
  • How did you choose your name?
  • What is the difference between sex and gender?
  • Doesn't being trans mean you need to have surgery? 
    • (Follow-up: What is "the surgery"?)

AFFA is a Lowcountry nonprofit that represents transgender or gender non-binary people and those whose sexual orientations include lesbian, gay or bisexual — and all the intersections in between. AFFA membership also includes straight allies.

Transgender issues are at the forefront of many social justice campaigns. Researchers at the Williams Institute of UCLA found in 2014 that transgender adults were 14 times more likely to think about suicide and 22 times more likely to attempt suicide than those in the general population. 

This past year, 2017, was the highest year on record for transgender slayings with 28. As of last week, eight transgender people have been killed in 2018, according to the Human Rights Campaign. 

Even within the LGBTQ sphere, he added, bisexual and transgender people often have a harder time carving out a voice. That's partly because of misinformation about who they are.

Simply put, a gay person, by nature, would not have any more understanding of what it's like to be transgender than a straight person.

Glenn, who is a transgender man, said LGBTQ activists often find themselves preaching to the choir. He said he hopes gays, lesbians and bisexuals come to Sunday's event, in addition to people who are straight. 

People will have the freedom to ask whatever is on their mind, but panelists will note if and how questions can be reworded to be more respectful. 

"That's why we're having it at a place that serves beer," he joked. 

Leland is in her early 60s and now lives in McClellanville, but she grew up in Charleston. The word "transgender" wasn't in America's vocabulary when she was coming to terms with her gender identity, nor was it during the 1970s, when Leland would wait until 2 a.m. or later to put on her wig and dress and walk around Washington Park. 

In those years, if someone was caught by Charleston police cross-dressing, they could be arrested for prostitution. 

Decades later, when she seriously contemplated suicide, Leland sought out membership with Charleston Area Transgender Support — a support group for transgender adults. She came out as transgender to her wife (they are still married). 

Leland now co-facilitates CATS, a group that helps people during their transitions. 

"The average trans person just wants to go about life," she said, "and that's not easy."

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Reach Hannah Alani at 843-937-5428. Follow her on Twitter @HannahAlani.

Hannah Alani is a reporter at The Post and Courier covering race, immigration and rural life across the Palmetto State. Before graduating from Indiana University and moving to Charleston in 2017, her byline appeared in The New York Times.

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