"What exactly does it mean to be transgender?"
"Why do they want to change their sex?"
"Why can't they just be gay or lesbian?"
These are some of the questions I so ignorantly used to think about transgender people. I just couldn't understand what they were thinking. Then it dawned on me: I'm being just like those closed-minded idiots who judge me and whom I so despise! So I made it a point to educate myself. I am a firm believer that ignorance must always be replaced by education. I am grateful for the amazing folks who helped me along the way. They have taught me so much, but sadly, most wish to remain anonymous, because they fear the repercussions of being outed. Some fear for their jobs, some fear losing loved ones, and others fear for their safety.
First, let's define some terms, starting with "transgender" ("transgendered" is incorrect). According to the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD):
'Transgender' is an umbrella term often used to refer to people whose gender identity differs from their assigned sex at birth. However, people whose gender identity differs from their assigned sex at birth may not self-identify as transgender; some may identify as transsexual, trans, genderqueer, a person of transgender experience, etc. Transgender people may or may not use a different name or pronoun than the one they were assigned at birth, and they may or may not pursue hormone therapy or surgery. When in doubt, always defer to the way a person self-identifies.
"Cisgender" is, in effect, the opposite of "transgender." A person who is cisgender is one whose gender identity matches the sex he or she was assigned at birth.
The following words should never be used to describe someone who is transgender: "transvestite," "she-male," "he-she," "it," "trannie," "tranny" or "shim." These words are dehumanizing, and using them to refer to any person is disrespectful.
Now that we have covered some terminology, let's discuss some of the questions that I asked my transgender friends to answer. I asked them for proper terminology, to tell their personal stories and, most importantly, to share their feelings. Here is one question and several of the answers I received.
"If there is anything you have always wanted people to know about you or being transgender, what would that be?"
The primary thing people should know is that being transgender is not a choice. It's not a fetish or a sexually driven thing. It is an incongruence between the mind and body. Socially it is an incongruence between how one sees themselves and how others relate to them. It has nothing to do with sexual orientation. It is an extremely difficult journey that no one would willingly take for fun or shock value.
We are normal people, just a little bit different from everyone else. It's not scary, outrageous or terrible. These are all rumors and misinformation.
We are human too.
I am still the same person I have always been, regardless of the changes that I may go through.
So from what I can gather, they are just like everyone else! How crazy is that?! Who knew? I have said all of those same things about how I want to be treated as a gay person. The transgender mind simply doesn't match the birth-assigned sex. (Of course, it's not that simple, but it should be.) As I think about what it means to be transgender, I feel incredibly sorry that I ever had those uneducated thoughts. I am disappointed in my ignorance and vow to make it better. What strikes me as most upsetting is that even after the long journey of acceptance that each individual has to go through (and it can take years, even decades), these folks are more often than not forced to continue denying their true selves in most areas of their lives, for fear of losing their jobs, losing loved ones, etc. Try to put yourself in their shoes for just a moment. Imagine having to hide your true self every single day, at times having to hide all aspects of your life from the people you love, fearing that they will no longer love you or might turn their backs on you, and living with a constant internal struggle, with no end in sight! The emotional torment isn't something that I can even imagine having to endure.
Here is one trans* person's heartbreaking take on it:
For me, being trans* started out as a subtle urge. The best term I can use to describe it would be "longing." I can remember seeing girls in my childhood and feeling sad that I was not going to be one. I can remember those moments to this day, so it must have had an impact on me. As I hit puberty, I decided that those feelings were just a misunderstanding of attraction that I must have had. This was a huge source of confusion for me. "I must just be attracted to women, so that's why I feel like this," I would tell myself. "If I wanted to be a woman, I would be attracted to men, right? I don't want to be a woman, because I like girls!" So on I went trying to convince myself, and I actually believed it. That confusion led me astray from my feelings for years. I grew up in a small farm town, and the mere idea of being lesbian or gay was unheard of. I certainly never saw anybody who was of the LGBT community, and it was never talked about except in terrible terms. So because I liked girls, I had the idea in my head that I was OK. Yet still there was the longing, so subtile but so persistent. For the life of me, I could not get it to go away.
As I think back on it now, it is much clearer how I justified all my thoughts. I am attracted to women, but to this day, more often than not, I don't look at women with attraction. It is with adoration and slight envy. Something as simple as the sight of a shiny bracelet on a wrist hanging out the window of a passing car can trigger my feelings of "why does she get to wear that and I am stuck with this big metal watch? Why did I get thrown into this body and this role of a man?" On my girlier days, every woman is just a reminder of what I am not.
Several years ago, after seeing a therapist, I decided to try taking estrogen. I was still married to my now-ex-wife, and she was less than supportive, but I thought, "What the heck. I'm gonna do something and see if it helps." My therapist had been very understanding and supportive, and I assumed that tat would be the case with the doctor she had recommended. I had my letter of recommendation from my therapist, and I went to my doctor full of confidence that I was doing the right thing. Much to my dismay, the doctor didn't agree. She said, "You are a very handsome man. I can't imagine why you would want to do this to yourself and your life, let alone your kids!" I was in shock! I teared up. How could a professional in this field say this to me? I wasn't trying to ruin my life; I was just trying to feel normal. I spent half an hour trying to make her understand why I needed this, and why my therapist thought it was a good idea. She said that if I came back in two weeks and still felt the same way, she would allow me to take estrogen. But it's my body, so it should be my choice what I do with it, right? I had gone through the necessary steps with the therapist. Why did I now have to convince the doctor what is right for me? Being "handsome" has nothing to do with being transgender!
I took a low dose for three months, to see how my body would adapt before they upped the dose. Nothing really happened during this time. I honestly felt nothing different. I was beginning to feel like it was a waste of time. Then she upped the dose, and within a week I felt like a new person inside! I had been tense all my life; an internal nervousness was always present. But it just melted away like an ice cube in the summer sun. My body felt warm and friendly inside. I slept better. I had never slept like that. I lost the ever-present irritability that had been with me since puberty. I was calm! People in my life didn't affect my attitude like before. My mind was stable and rational. I didn't feel like I needed to breed with every woman in sight. It was wonderful! I also lost the need to wear feminine things. I still liked it, but I didn't need it.
About four months went by, and then my body started to change, primarily my breasts. I was now going through puberty again. I developed small knots under my nipples and began to lactate a tiny bit. I didn't mind this at all. It was exciting to have that experience. I was sensitive in new places, and it felt good.
"You are growing boobs!" said my wife one night, with a horrified look on her face. It was the beginning of the end of us. She hated it. She never touched my chest again. It was so painful, to have the one I loved look at me in total disgust. I felt like a disgrace. I was overwhelmed with guilt. Allowing myself to be true to who I am was very painful. I began to again question what I was doing. After a few more months I stopped taking the estrogen, to try to save my marriage. It didn't work, of course, but at least I tried, right? Anyway, I still felt good, so maybe it hadn't been the estrogen after all; maybe I'd just had a mental shift.
But as the estrogen wore off over the next couple of months, the old, familiar feelings returned. I was divorced and decided to have a good life once again as a man. It lasted a couple of years. I am now about to start HRT once again. I am hopeful that it will have the same effect.
If I feel good like I did before when taking estrogen, and I don't need to transition, that will be great. Then all I'll have to do is try to hide the breasts that will grow. If I decide to transition, I'll have a ton more work to do and pain to endure. There are no great choices I can make. All the options have a big penalty to pay. I can stay off the drugs and live as I am now, in constant turmoil. I can take the drugs and hide my new feminine body parts. Or I can go all the way but risk losing friendships, relationships, my children and family members. And I'd have to learn to speak, act, walk, move and dress as a woman; do my hair and makeup; deal with a wide array of government agencies in order to try to change my name and gender marker; face multiple surgeries that are not covered by insurance; buy a new wardrobe; explain to anyone who asks why I don't feel the need to explain what type of genitalia I have; and always be aware for my safety, in case someone with a shallow mind wants to get rid of another "tranny" trying to "trick" him into sex with a "man."
Sadly, in the trans* community, about half go for option 4 and try to commit suicide. A lot are successful. I completely understand why this happens. Society is brutally hard on trans* people. A lot of people have in their minds the media's representation of transgender people. The old Jerry Springer shows, and many other sideshow-type representations, are still in the minds of millions of people. In recent years there have been some positive efforts by the media to show the truth about trans* people. Every generation has become more accepting, but we have a long way to go. Many trans* men and trans* women pass well and therefore live their lives in stealth mode, meaning that they don't tell anyone about their prior existence. It's great that they can do that; however, no one in the general public is aware of them, so the public misses out on seeing the spectrum of trans* people. I certainly don't think passing should be required or even be a goal if that is not what a trans* person wants. People who can pass are just part of the spectrum.
Some trans* people know at an early age that they are in the wrong body. It is completely clear to them. I, on the other hand, was not that way. I am still not sure where I fit in the spectrum. I have boy days and girl days, boy moments and girl moments. Some things I like are things that girls typically like, and some things I like are things that boys typically like. I have found no clear line for myself. So then the question becomes how I want the world to see me and what body I want to live in. But how do you know what it is like to actually be a girl if all you have ever been is a boy? Well, I don't know, so in order to find out, I have to explore different things to find what fits. So I am in a awkward stage of existence. I am way too masculine-looking to be mistaken for a girl, even if I tried. It would take the steady hand of a talented surgeon to fix that. But if I go there, it's permanent. So take a leap of faith? Maybe, but I will have to feel a lot more certain than I do now. At this point in my life, all I can do is continue in a direction and see where it leads.
This is gut-wrenching to me! The treatment and lack of understanding of transgender people cannot continue on this same path. So for family members struggling to accept a transgender relative, please remember a few things that a wise transgender person I know is allowing me to share:
1) If a family member is transgender, it has nothing to do with you. It's not your fault. It's not about you. It may affect you, but so does the weather. You can't fix it or control it. You can either support it, be indifferent or be cruel and hateful. Trans people are resilient and tend to avoid and separate from those who are indifferent or worse. Telling you was likely the last part of a long journey of self-acceptance. You can either help or hurt, but you cannot make them change. The only control you have is how you react or respond to them.
2) So now you have been told that you have a trans relative. Maybe you are wondering if this is real. It is! You may be wondering if this is some strange sexual fetish. It is not. You may be wondering if this is something you caused. It isn't. You may feel embarrassment. You may feel anger. You may feel sadness. But what you really need to understand is that your transgender loved one is not doing this to cause you pain of any kind.
3) Your loved one has come out to you as transgender. I am of the opinion that, first of all, you should be thankful that you still have them. Coming out is a tremendously difficult thing to do. Your loved one may have had no idea how you would react. But if you're reading this, I would guess that, at the very least, you are open to trying to understand. This is likely very new to you, especially in comparison to your loved one, who has had lots of time to try to understand it. You need to give yourself time to adjust to the idea. I strongly advise you not to make any decisions or judgments until you've had enough time to look at it from multiple viewpoints. You won't ever understand what it's like to feel stuck in the wrong body, but you don't really need to understand it. In my situation I don't need anybody to understand why I am the way I am. All I really want is acceptance for who I am. I don't want pity, sadness or special treatment. I don't need excessive compassion, and I don't need acknowledgment for the mental trials I have been through. I just want to get along with my life and enjoy the remainder of the window of time I have on Earth.
There is far too much information for one blog post, so I think I will leave it with this: The bottom line is that we are all part of the human race. We have a duty to one another to be respectful and allow each other the right to pursue happiness. So the next time you see or meet someone who is transgender and you are unsure of how to react or what terminology to use, do not be afraid, do not judge, and do not criticize. Instead, extend your hand, offer a smile and call them "friend"!
I would like to continue this learning experience. If you have information or resources that would be helpful, please share them in the comments section below.
- Massachusetts Transgender Political Coalition
- National Center for Transgender Equality
- New York Association for Gender Rights Advocacy
- NYC LGBT Center's Gender Identity Project
- Philadelphia Trans-Health Conference
- Sylvia Rivera Law Project
- TNET: PFLAG's Transgender Network
- Transcending Boundaries Conference
- Transgender Day of Remembrance
- Transgender Law Center (San Francisco)
- Transgender Law and Policy Institute
- Transgender Legal Defense and Education Fund
- Trans Youth Family Allies
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