By Finbarr Toesland
LONDON, Nov 20 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - From breast-flattening binders and prosthetic penises to friendly beauticians, transgender shoppers often struggle to find the products they need - but a growing number of trans-owned businesses are tapping into this long-ignored market.
Few businesses know how to cater to trans consumers, said Siobhan Reilly, who set up Electrolysis by Siobhan in the northern English city of Manchester in 2017 after she and her friends had distressing hair removal experiences.
"When it comes to accessing a service like mine, that can be a difficult or dysphoric experience at the best of times," said Reilly, with ignorance and transphobia adding to the discomfort of having a needle put into hair follicles.
"Having an electrologist who is a trans woman and has faced some of the challenges of accessing hair removal can be reassuring and make the process easier," said Reilly, who offers cheap treatment to trans people who cannot afford higher rates.
As the world marks Transgender Day of Remembrance on Wednesday in tribute to those murdered owing to transphobia, trans people also face numerous barriers in accessing everyday products and services that others take for granted.
Some 600,000 people in Britain identify as trans, according to Stonewall rights group, and some 1.4 million in the United States, the Williams Institute think-tank estimates.
Awareness of trans people has risen as celebrities such as Caitlyn Jenner and Laverne Cox have become mainstream, but sexual and gender minorities still face widespread discrimination at work, school and in shops.
Using appropriate gender pronouns, not asking invasive questions and being aware of sensitive areas of conversation are basic requirements for businesses serving trans consumers.
"It seemed to me that training as an electrologist and setting up a clinic was the most sustainable impact I could have," said Reilly, whose next goal is to train more trans electrologists in other cities.
With high street stores offering very limited options for trans men and non-binary people seeking sexy lingerie or stand-to-pee devices to support their transition, many go online.
But the experience is often patchy, with many people relying on advice from YouTube bloggers on how to achieve their desired body shape, such as using duct tape to tuck their penis between their legs, or relying on low-quality product images.
"People often buy binders and prosthetics from message boards or off social media groups, and it's actually startlingly common to hear about people being ripped off," said Scout Rose, founder of the online store Transguy Supply.
Like Reilly, Rose set up his own business after having trouble accessing the items he needed as he began to transition in 2004, using local charities like the Oregon-based Point of Pride which provides free chest binders.
"Trans people are better positioned to meet the needs of other trans people because we have firsthand knowledge of the issues they are facing," said Rose, who sells everything from packers to create a bulge in the wearer's pants to shaving sets.
"If you don't really understand the pain points, how can you adequately provide solutions?"
Some trans entrepreneurs have designed popular innovations in response to their own unmet needs, such as highly realistic penile prosthetics that allow trans men to use urinals.
"Necessity is the mother of invention. I needed these products and they didn't really exist," said Alex Jay, owner of U.S.-based Transthetics, who started out by experimenting in his own kitchen in 2014, frustrated by what was on the market.
"I don't think I could or would have created this business were I not trans."
Through its website, Transthetics sells the EZP, a stand-to-pee device, the "Rod" penile extension and other prosthetics designed to enhance stimulation during sex - with stock often selling out online.
Transthetics has also raised more than $44,000 to develop "The Bionic", an all-in-one prosthetic that mimics a number of the functions of the penis, including being able to shift between flaccid and erect states.
Jay hopes the device may offer an alternative to surgery for trans men.
Many trans business owners do more than sell products. They also support their customers with online advice, such as how to date straight women, care for surgery scars and deal with body scanners that do not match their gender identity.
Carmen Liu, who launched GI Collection, the first British lingerie line for trans women earlier this year, also offers a free "phone a friend" service for customers to chat with her staff, social events and information on trans rights.
"I know exactly what it is we need as I am also going through my own transition," said London-based Liu.
"It means a lot to my customers that everything is designed by me, a trans woman, for trans women ... Knowing how my products make me feel as a woman allows me to know what my customers will also feel."
Trans women who do not have gender reassignment surgery, like Liu, often have to wear an uncomfortable gaff, or jockstrap, to hide their genitals and create a smoother shape.
GI Collection sells matching lace and satin bras and panties that allow trans women to feel feminine. The first collection sold out in days.
While mainstream companies are increasingly realising the potential of the trans and non-binary market, trans business owners are confident they will continue to dominate the industry because they understand their customers.
"It's going to take a concerted effort for these companies to become safe spaces for trans customers," said New York-based Rose of Transguy Supply.
"The rise in trans visibility hasn't necessarily coincided with an equal rise in trans competency. Trans-run businesses are generally operating at a higher level of trans competency."
($1 = 0.7756 pounds)
(Reporting by Finbarr Roesland @FinbarrToesland; Editing by Hugo Greenhalgh, Chris Michaud and Katy Migiro. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters that covers humanitarian news, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)
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