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'I am transgender, and I want my voice to be heard'

By Jordan Sarver, Special to CNN

(CNN) -- Rebecca Avery always felt different, even as a child. It wasn't until the age of 13 that she would even hear the word that explained why she felt out of place -- she was transgender.

It would take another 14 years and a new job before she started her transition from male to female.

Avery, 30, works as a graphic designer in Waukegan, Illinois. And even though she has worked in the publishing and design field for 10 years, only the past four have been under her current name and identity.

Her transition has made finding work difficult. "For a while, I was trying to cut off all my past work from before my transition," Avery said. "Questions kept coming up, and there was just no escape from the past."

Illinois is one of only 13 states that have a policy protecting transgender people against hiring bias. The Illinois law, created in 2005, prohibits employment discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity.

"The laws help protect me from getting fired or thrown out of my apartment," she said, "but they do not help me obtain a career, medical insurance or housing."

Interviewing for jobs wasn't an exceptionally positive experience when the topic of her transgender identity came up. "There's always a point in the interview where you could see the hamster fall off the wheel in their head," she said.

She recalled an incident in which she received an e-mail from a company that wanted to consider her for a writing position. She sent the best writing samples she had, and some bylines were under her previous name.

"I got a call back two days later," Avery said. "They had a question about the name on some of the samples." She assured them that they were all her work, and after a long pause, the interviewer said he would call back next week for a full phone interview.

No follow-up call ever came.

It was that experience that motivated Avery to speak out on CNN iReport.

Avery was one of several people who participated in an iReport assignment that asked transgender, transsexual and questioning people to create a message they wanted others to know.

The task was simple: Make a sign with your message, and take a photo of yourself holding it. The responses were powerful and surprisingly candid.

Avery's message simply said, "I am talented, creative, and beautiful, and I refuse to be tyrannized by a letter."

She was referring to the letters "M" and "F" commonly used on forms to denote gender. Avery says that a choice like "male" or "female" that usually seems like a no-brainer is fraught with consequences for transgender people.

"That M or F on a document" too often is used to discriminate against us.

Legally, because Avery has not had gender reassignment surgery, she is still referenced as male on some documents and female on others.

Gennifer Bone used the assignment to introduce herself to the world. Sporting electric-blue nail polish, Bone holds a sign that reads: "My name is Gennifer and I am a woman."

Participating in this assignment was a profound step for Bone, who said, "It was the first time I announced to the world in general who I really am."

Another iReporter, Oscar Robles, used his submission to speak about his experience disclosing his transgender identity.

Robles, 24, began his transition in college and said he immediately became the token transgender in his community.

He wanted to transition without all of the attention, so eight months after he began hormone treatments, he moved to Connecticut. No one knew his transgender status in his new city, except for his immediate employer, so it was up to Robles when and to whom he would disclose.

"It's a big deal to wear your trans identity on your sleeve," Robles said. "It's not your primary identity, and it's not something you want to consistently be coming out and telling people."

The term used by those in the transgender community for people who don't make known their transgender status is "stealth." For many in the community, the issue of stealth is complicated.

Jett Smith, who transitioned from female to male, said that he finds himself being inadvertently stealth on occasion. "To bring it up feels awkward and forced at times," he said.

He says that he has worked jobs for months without anyone ever knowing his transgender status, and while he understands the desire to be stealth, he prefers to be upfront about it.

"People need to know about us," Smith said. "Being transgender is only a small aspect of my life."

Read more from Jett Smith

Avery said she struggles with the issues of stealth on a daily basis. "At work, I'm out because I'm kind of forced to be. Everybody knows, even people who were hired after me."

While she is out at work and says she doesn't try to hide away, she remarks that her transgender identity isn't a topic that comes up in general conversation or everyday activities.

Gender identity specialist Judy Van Maasdam says, "There's no rigid thing that says you have to be out and open about your gender status. That's all personal."

Van Maasdam is the program coordinator for the Gender Dysphoria Program in Palo Alto, California. She has worked with transgender people for more than 30 years and says that everyone is different in how they wish to present themselves.

Overall, iReporters wanted the world to hear their voices, their stories, and to possibly teach a few people along the way. Robles summed up the feelings many transgender people shared through their submissions.

"People get really wrapped up in their minds about people who are queer-identified or trans-identified," he said. "It doesn't have to be that big of a deal. Correction, it isn't that big of a deal."