July 2008: Transgenders and the Medical Community — Part One
One of the great difficulties that many transgender people have is getting proper and appropriate medical care. There are a set of standards in place that serve as guidelines for health care workers,. Unfortunately not everyone follows these steps, or if they do, they may not be consistent from one doctor or facility to the next. Some of this difficulty can be directly attributable to medical indifference or even blatant bigotry and discrimination.
The basic standards are currently found in a book called the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, Fourth Edition (DSM-IV). What it boils down to is that if someone feels they are transgender, then they must first seek the assistance of a psychiatrist or therapist. Once they make an official determination, then the matter can be forwarded to your primary doctor, along with a specialist called an endocrinologist. It is this team which will assist the transgender through the labyrinth of the medical field, prescribing medications and/or surgery, if the condition so warrants.
The first step is always medication. In the case of myself, being a male-to-female transsexual, I was prescribed female hormones, along with a testosterone blocker. Very quickly many of the basic male attributes start to fade and be replaced by female ones, although there is only so much medications can do. If the person needs to complete transition, then they will need surgery to change as completely as current medical technology will allow. To authorize surgery, the patient must accomplish first what is known as the “Real Life Test.” In the RLT you must fully adopt your chosen gender and be able to live full time for at least a year before completing surgery.
A problem in this process is that the DSM-IV is a manual devoted to mental illness. In other words, being transgender is medically classified as a mental disorder. Considering that the miswiring of gender identity takes place inside the brain, there is some basis for that, but then it also opens the door to a lot of discrimination, based on this same mental disorder diagnosis.
About 30 years ago, the DSM-III was replaced by the DSM-IV, currently in use. In that previous incarnation of the manual, transgender was also considered a mental disorder, but we were not the only ones. Anyone who was considered gay or lesbian also was diagnosed under that old manual. And using that as a medical guidebook, doctors were able to attempt to “cure” their homosexual patients through drugs and other means, the worst of which was electroshock therapy!
Due to the lobbying efforts of gays and lesbians over many years, the medical community officially recognized the mental wiring of being attracted to someone of the same sex, as being a normal variation in basic human sexuality. The official change occurred with the release of the DSM-IV and was wonderful for gays and lesbians, but unfortunately did not include transgender. In fact, it has only been in recent years that the homosexual community has even wanted to accept transgender themselves. We have been literally ostracized by everyone.
Now, the American Psychiatric Association is working on the next revision of this manual, and are scheduled to release the DSM-V in 2011 or 2012. Considering all the progress that has been made within medical circles on behalf of transgender since the last manual change, you would expect we would be waiting joyously for this latest revision. Unfortunately, that is not the case, not by a long shot. The APA working group on revision of the transgender part of this manual is headed by a man by the name of Dr. Kenneth Zucker. What Dr. Zucker believes with regard to transgender is very much along the lines of the mental health community’s previous standards with regard to homosexuals. He believes in something called “reparative therapy.” What this means is that say if a child were to exhibit signs of being transgender, such as playing with the wrong toys normally associated with their gender roles, or wanting to wear the wrong clothes for their physical gender, Dr. Zucker says to take away anything that could encourage this “temptation.”
He runs a clinic in Canada where transgender children who are healthy and happy, have been turned into introverted and reticent children, afraid to be who they already know they are. His therapy is more akin to Pavlov and his salivating dogs, than with human children. And this man has been put in charge of my future, and the future of all transgenders, approximately 300,000 people in the United States alone! For myself, I consider Dr. Zucker to be dangerous, and the only outcome of his “reparative” therapy is negative. I did this type of therapy on myself as I grew up. I thought I was doing the right thing. Instead, I got to the point where suicide was the best answer. If not for a set of lucky circumstances I would not be telling you this today. This is a horrible, and I would even consider, dire circumstance. It is unconscionable and unethical that the American Psychiatric Association would put a man such as this in charge of people’s lives.
Dr. Zucker’s methods are similar to a doctor telling a cancer patient that if they just don’t believe it is there, that they will be cured! What utter nonsense. I hope that all the wonderful people that read Sex Ed 101 might get as mad as I am over this situation and maybe drop the APA a line or two and let them know your feelings.
American Psychiatric Association
1000 Wilson Boulevard, Suite 1825
Arlington, Va. 22209-3901
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August 2008: Transgenders and the Medical Community--Part Two
Seems I stirred up some harsh feelings from readers with last month’s column discussing how transgenders are aided (or not) by the medical community, so I am devoting my current thoughts to answer that feedback.
There were two major themes brought up, both of which are closely related: 1) Being transgendered is a state of mind, and 2) Transgender people should be satisfied with what they were born with.
Let’s talk about this condition just being a “state of mind.” Yes, transgenderism is in the brain, but it is anything but a “state of mind.” The reader who sent that comment also said I was being too hard on Dr. Zucker and that I made him out to be a “torturer.” I can’t use any harsher words than to say Dr. Zucker is wrong, and yes, I would very much equate his “reparative therapy” on children to being “torture.” I put myself through “reparative therapy” as I grew up, and it drove me to suicide attempts. So, I speak from a very personal place on this.
I never said that just because a boy might play with a doll or watch “Cinderella,” that this makes him transgender. Nor does it make a girl who may be a tomboy growing up into someone who wants to change her gender. In some ways it is impossible to describe if you haven’t lived it yourself--and I would never wish this on anyone, believe me! Doctors and parents who have supported transgender children find them to be very happy and fulfilled, while those that undergo Dr. Zucker’s therapy become withdrawn, unhappy, and often suicidal. Studies have clearly shown over many decades of good scientific and medical research that being TG is not something that is a phase or a fad, or anything you grow out of. Not one child, in any proper, peer-reviewed medical study, who is accepted for being trans and allowed to proceed with transition as early as possible, has ever expressed a desire to go back to their birth gender.
Being TG is not something Dr. Zucker, or any person can foist upon another. This comes directly from your own brain. You know inside if you are transgender, whether or not you are too young to even know there is a word to describe it. This is not something that is forced on a child just because daddy happened to see junior playing with a Barbie doll one day!
Because of people like Dr. Zucker, who thinks you can fix transgenderism by forcing someone to live in their birth gender, no matter their true feelings, many trans people will face a dark future--usually through suicide. This will be especially true if Dr. Zucker’s choice is the only one available. With him in charge, many transgenders will feel there is no other way out. According to the facts--and this may actually be an underestimate--over 50 percent of transgenders will commit suicide. With teen suicide already being the third largest killer of that age group, who knows how many of those are brought about because the person was TG? Many teen suicides currently attributed to being gay or lesbian, may actually have to do with the difficulties society has in accepting those who are transgendered.
I truly find it unbelievable that the American Psychiatric Association is allowing Dr. Zucker to be in charge of the future medical care of transgenders. Their position is unconscionable, unethical, and it should be stopped.
There are people who think that having cancer is just a “state of mind.” They believe that if you use the power of positive thinking that they will be cured. There are those that feel any disease may be cured this same way. Sort of like the “Think Method” used by Professor Harold Hill in the famous play and movie, “The Music Man.” Would you want a loved one who is dying of cancer, or Alzheimer’s, or any debilitating disease, to stay away from a qualified doctor who may be able to aid, and possibly cure, them of their disease? Dr. Zucker’s “think method,” er, “reparative therapy,” is ignoring the body of scientific evidence that shows the best and only way to properly treat a transgendered person is to allow them to transition.
As I mentioned in my October 2007 column, being TG has nothing to do with gay, straight, or whatever. This is something separate and specific, and it must be dealt with properly and with compassion, or more people will die. There is no reason for people to suffer needlessly.
As one responder last month said, “I have a problem with people who seek to modify their bodies in the most extreme way, something that totally goes against nature.” Is it against nature to crack open a person’s chest and repair or replace an ailing heart? How about if someone with tuberculosis can be saved by transplanting a new lung? Are these not extreme ways of modifying our bodies? Taking an aspirin to eliminate a headache causes blood vessels in your brain to open wider, allowing better blood flow. This is also modifying your body. Where do you draw the line? Why is it that every reasonable person would never think twice about allowing a doctor to repair a birth trauma such as a cleft palate, congenital heart disease, or numerous others problems that could be mentioned, yet say that someone who is transgender should be left alone when diagnosis and treatment are readily available.
Transgenderism is something that can be properly diagnosed, treated, and accommodated with current medical technology. Why would anyone rather go back to the dark ages? If you do this to those who are transgender, then we must also move against gays and lesbians, and anyone else who is different from the norm. Personally, I prefer living in the 21st Century.
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September 2008: First Anniversary and Transgender American Veterans
Welcome to my first anniversary as a columnist for Purple PJs and Sex Ed 101. Before I delve into this month’s offering I just want to mention a few housekeeping details. It has been a wonderful and exciting year, one I certainly never thought I would ever have the opportunity to live through. Transition for a transgender person such as myself can be a terrifying and extremely emotional time. Friends and family members that have been with you forever can fall away when they hear the news. I have been amazingly lucky to have the love and support of so many people, especially that of my spouse, Cherie, without whom this could have never happened.
Thanks definitely also go to a great friend, Janet Fraser, for believing in me and my ability to write this column each month, and to talk with you all about an issue that is obviously very close to my heart. And very special thanks to all the readers who have dropped by to see what’s up in my head each month. Sometime these columns have been happy, and other times sad, or even angry. I guess that just comes with the territory, so I appreciate those who have taken this ride with me, and especially those who have offered questions and feedback. Knowing that I’ve elicited some sort of response in a reader is what every writer strives for, so to paraphrase the cliche, keeps those comments and e-mails coming in. It is you, the reader, who I am writing this for, so any participation is always greatly appreciated.
Okay, now on to my commentary for this month.
You may have read the title and scratched you head in bewilderment when I used the term “Transgender American Veterans.” I can imagine that most of you might think this is some sort of joke at the worst, or misnomer at the least. Either guess would be incorrect. I am a transgender American veteran. I served my country for two enlistments in the U.S. Air Force. This was obviously prior to my transition, since the United States is still the only major country in the world to not allow gay, lesbian, or transgender people to serve openly in the military, in any capacity. This is all part of the failed “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy set up by President Clinton in the 1990s.
I’m not going to take my space to discuss the merits of people with different challenges serving in our military. That is (unfortunately) best left to the politicians who will make and change those policies. My point today is to discuss the fact that not all prejudice comes from the far side of the transgender wall, it just as easily falls on this side as well. Case in point is a group known as the Transgender American Veterans Association, or TAVA.
I first found TAVA when going through my transition and had questions concerning how this would affect my former military service. There are many benefits which veterans have following their enlistment such as aid with employment and housing, which I wanted very much to keep intact. I put my life on the line, so there was no way I should lose what I had earned through that service to my country. This led to my internet search and the discovery of TAVA. I was hoping I would hit a gold mine with these people, instead, I hit a minefield.
In all my talks at colleges and universities, and also here in this column, I feel that when getting people, especially those outside the transgender community, to understand what is going on with being TG, that it helps to set up some basic definitions of what this actually means. (Now, this is the part where I would really request feedback from my readers, as I have to face the fact that maybe I am simply wrong in this assumption.) What I did was to start a discussion concerning the definitions for words describing various members of the TG community, and where they may or may not be in transition, or even if they would ever transition. Examples of some of these words include transgender, transsexual, transvestite, cross-dresser, and many others that are spread throughout the infinite spectrum of who we really are.
In response to this discussion several things happened. First was that the leaders of the organization went on the attack and showed their complete intolerance of anyone’s opinions but their own. Remember that these are transgender people themselves doing the attacking against a fellow TG person. They said that definitions were improper for any word along the transgender spectrum. Each person must make up their own mind who they are, and putting a definition to it that might aid others to understand, such as most everyone reading this column today, should be outlawed. I was told in no uncertain terms that any discussion of defining terms was off limits. This attitude from a group that wants the outside world to accept them and understand them, but not allow anyone to know what anything means. To me that sounds plain ridiculous. Please drop me a note and let me know your thoughts on the matter.
What happened at the end was, to my mind, even more ridiculous than the inability to talk about definitions of terms. My membership was canceled and my access to their site and message board blocked, but not for the direct discussion of definitions, but for posting a quote from a Founding Father of America in response to their TAVA attitude. What I posted was a quote from Mr. Stephen Hopkins, the Rhode Island representative to the Continental Congress in 1776, when it was up for a vote on whether to upset the King of England with a Declaration of Independence. Mr. Hopkins said, “I’ll tell you, in all my years I never seen, heard, nor smelled an issue that was so dangerous it couldn’t be talked about.”
I sincerely hope that in this day and age of political correctness and expediency that all of you will never feel there is anything too dangerous to even talk about. If that day ever arrives, we are all in big, big trouble.
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October 2008: Terri O'Connell and Diane Schroer
There are two people I would like to discuss this month that are indicative of the difficulties that transgender people face, especially in the area of employment. It can probably be said with confidence that out of all the jobless people in America, the one single demographic that has the most difficult time finding and holding a job is someone who is transgender. And let me be clear up front, this lack of jobs for those who are TG has absolutely nothing to do with skills or abilities.
Terri O’Connell was a race driver. As early as nine years old, she was already a champion driver on the go-kart circuit. Many years later she was just thinking about getting into NASCAR. When it became known that the former “he” was actually a “she,” her sponsorships dried up and she was forced out of the business. Terri had over 500 race wins on her record by that time; no one can say she was unqualified. Unfortunately there were many religious people in her home state of Mississippi, and within the NASCAR sponsorship ranks that felt that what she had done by coming forward with her story was an abomination.
Diane Schroer is an even more insidious case in that she served her country as an Airborne Ranger in Special Forces for many years, rising to the rank of Colonel before her retirement after 25 years of being on the front lines of the War on Terror. They were looking for someone exactly like her to fill the position of senior terrorism research analyst at the Library of Congress, so they jumped at the chance to offer her a job. Of course, it must first be understood that at this time, Diane was still outwardly a he, although she had been on hormone therapy and was living almost full time as a woman. However, the day following her lunch discussion with her boss-to-be where she explained she would be reporting to work as Diane, her job offer was rescinded.
Two people eminently qualified to do the work they had chosen to do. Organizations that could use these types of people should jump on the chance to have them aboard. In fact, they did, up until the point where they explained they were transgender. Not one other thing about them changed. Because they were transitioning from male-to-female did not mean that their IQ suddenly dropped by 50 points, or that they would lose their job skills that had been so highly sought after previously, nor did they grow horns and become demons, yet all of these things are thought about when it comes to someone who is TG. I know because it has been thought of with concern to me, too.
In the case of Terri, as soon as she went public, one of the first things to appear about her was the horrendous rumor that since she was a transsexual she must therefore, by definition, also be a prostitute. It was said that she was leading a double life. A male in the race cars, but a transvestite hooker on the street corner at night. This seems to be something that a lot of people automatically assume. There are countless movies and television shows that have featured transpeople, and a lot of them are portrayed in exactly those terms. A couple of examples: In 1974s “Freebie and the Bean,” a detective story with James Caan, the murderer was a transsexual who literally was trying to kill someone while also putting on her makeup at the same time in a sports arena bathroom! A more recent case was an imported police series “Murder in Mind,” in which the star figures out that a suspect is actually trans, and thus leaps to the conclusion that because “he” is trans and had to get the money to achieve a sex change operation (more properly called gender reassignment) that the person must have worked as a prostitute in order to get the money!
Did the Library of Congress also feel that Diane was working as a prostitute? Who knows. What other explanation could there be? Yet neither Diane nor Terri did any such thing. This is prejudice pure and simple. When Diane’s case went before a federal judge recently, the amazing thing was that the defense offered by the Library of Congress was that since Diane was transgender they literally thought it was okay to discriminate against her since TG is not a protected group of people. Must we have laws to prevent discrimination? How about simple and common decency? How about simply looking at a person (and in the case of a job, looking at their resume) and act toward a person as you would any other who is decent and hard working.
In both of these cases there is somewhat of a happy ending. Diane won her case against the Library of Congress for job discrimination, but she still didn’t get the job she wanted in which she could directly help our country the way she had for so many years. But then maybe she has helped our country by pointing out such blatant discrimination and bigotry. As for Terri, she has just had her autobiography, “Dangerous Curves” published, and she still hopes to get back into racing. There are apparently at least two top teams who are ready to give her a shot behind the wheel, if only non-prejudiced sponsors can be found within this highly “Christian” organization.
The story does not end so well for most other trans people. I have often heard that there is a 50 percent unemployment rate for those who are TG. That is ten times the national average! However, this number has recently been called into question. A very reliable organization that tracks these sorts of things, the Transgender Law Center of San Francisco, pegs the rate at closer to 75 percent!
Some feedback to earlier columns have said that maybe I am being too hard on some people and organizations. I apologize, but with figures like this and stories like that of Diane Schroer and Terri O’Connell out there, all I can think is that I am not being hard enough. Look at your own inner thoughts on this issue and ask how you would react in these situations. You probably are not trans yourself so you can’t properly see it from my side, but many of you may be, or already are, in positions that could affect employment for someone such as myself. I can only hope that you will do what is right and moral if such a situation ever arises, and that you come down on the side of humanity and not bigotry.
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November 2008: The Right of Equality For All
Here in California we are in a battle for equality, a battle that will hopefully be won once and for all on election day, November 4. Even for those of you not living in California, what happens here could directly affect your future. We have a ballot measure entitled Proposition 8. If passed, this measure would write discrimination directly into our state constitution. Specifically, it is about the right of all people to marry whomever they so chose. The proponents of Prop 8 want to eliminate the right of same gender couples from entering into marriage, basically saying it is a privilege reserved only for those who believe exactly as they do.
Everyone is supposedly created equal in this country, although over the centuries since its founding, there have definitely been inequalities for many people such as blacks and women. The courts have sometimes taken their time to right any injustices, but eventually we saw full equality for both women and minorities. Many times this equality was granted even in the face of opposition from the majority of the people because the courts understood and upheld the principles as they should. A prime example of this was the ability of interracial couples to marry. There were laws in many states, even up until the 1960s, that forbade this practice. Can you imagine the world today without any couple marrying whomever they want? Unfortunately bigotry and discrimination is still rampant.
So far, Prop 8 has become the most expensive ballot initiative ever in any state, with over $50 million spent so far by both sides of this issue. For me, this proposition is a very personal one, and it is the first time I have ever gotten directly involved in politics, other than voting, in my life. I have campaigned against Prop 8, written editorials (including this one) in hopes that people would see reason and vote against this hatred, and even donated money.
One of my primary things I have accomplished is to get out and talk with people. I am a speaker at colleges and universities on transgender issues, and each time I do one of these talks prior to the election, I will always talk about the necessity of defeating Prop 8. In doing so, I put a personal face on this whole argument, and will maybe get people to think that this is not just some abstract and arbitrary thing that will not truly and deeply affect individual lives.
There is a nationally-prestigeous school here locally known as Chapman University Law School. Recently they teamed up with the Mormon Church (a primary contributor to passing Prop 8 and eliminating the rights for anyone to marry) to put on a full-day seminar on the pros and cons, both legal and social of this ballot measure. What struck me as I sat there watching this all unfold was that the people who supported discrimination did so using primarily scare tactics. They talked of how the institution of marriage would completely fail for everyone if same-gender couples could marry. They said how children raised in same-gender families would be social outcasts, unable to function. They wrongly stated that schools would be sued over this issue and that churches could lose their tax-exempt status, even though the California Supreme Court ruling allowing same-gender marriage specifically forbids any such nonsense.
Half of the panelists supported and half were against to maintain the balance in the discussion, but the audience itself was amazingly about 80 percent opposed to Prop 8, leaving us to convert the other 20 percent to reason and sanity. When it came time for the Q&A in the afternoon session, I raised my hand and was given a microphone. I addressed my question to the two panelist who were from the church and also the dean of Chapman Law School, who said he was pro Prop 8, as well as to any others in the audience who were also in favor. I asked them all a very pointed question that went something like this:
"As I sit here today I have to ask all of you if you consider me a human being?" One of the Mormon guys spoke up and said that of course he did. So I went on and stated, "Then why is it that you do not want to afford me exactly the same rights as you have, or anyone else in this room? Why should I not be treated exactly equal with you, and you, and you? Contrary to what you've said, why do you actually consider me less than human? And why am I not able to marry the person whom I chose to marry?"
The two Mormon guys tried to come up with something, basically saying that marriage is only for procreation of the next generation and for raising those kids, and same gender couples can't do that.
To which I responded, "I am a transgender person and I married my wife prior to transition. We have a monogamous and loving relationship of 27 years. Through a quirk in the law, we were already a legal same gender couple even before the California Supreme Court ruling in May, but now you are saying that you want to take away my marriage that I have been in for over a quarter of a century? You cannot do that. You cannot take away my marriage from the one person in this world that I love and care about more than anything else."
My comment was met with open mouths from the Mormons, yet no sound came out! The event was finished soon after. As it started to break up, I had several of the “No on 8” panelists come up to me, and also a large group of students, and they all said what a wonderful statement I had made and how great it was that I left the Mormons speechless. There was simply no answer for what I had said and they could not counter it. I was gratified to get the reaction from so many others to what I had said in support of equality for all.
It’s amazing how some people want to control everything in your your life, even to the point of saying who you have the right to marry. This is a return to the Dark Ages, not the place we live today in the Space Age of the 21st Century. Those days were called “dark” for a reason. A select few people had complete say-so over pretty much your entire life—from birth to death. Are those the days to which we want to return? I would hope all of you would be above such things as foisting your beliefs onto someone else’s rights.
If you live in California, just say, “No to Proposition 8!”
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December 2008: Second Class Citizens--The Aftermath of Proposition 8
It was such an amazing thing to watch as so many millions of people came out to vote for a progressive change in the direction of our country. There is such a sense of hope and optimism permeating our country right now about the possibilities of the future because of President-elect Obama. Unfortunately, that optimism does not reach to all levels of our society. I’m sure most readers of this column have heard about the results of the November 4th election where it concerns the rights of equality for everyone. The last thing anyone expected with an Obama election was that a minority group would also be voted into the status of second-class citizens--actually to have their rights taken away. Never before in the history of the United States of America have rights ever been removed from anyone. Never!
Here in California it was called Proposition 8. The title of the measure said it all: “Eliminates the right of same-sex couples to marry.” Who would ever believe that in this day, in the 21st Century, those of us in the gay, lesbian, and transgender community would be still fighting for our rights--especially those rights that were already granted by the courts? This effects me especially personally since I am a member of two of those categories (lesbian and transgender).
Let me take a similar situation as an example. According to Equality California (www.eqca.org), in 1948, when the California Supreme Court struck down state laws banning interracial couples from marrying, 90 percent of Americans opposed the freedom to marry for interracial couples. Nearly 20 years later, in 1967, when the U.S. Supreme Court finally struck down similar federal laws, the number opposed stood at 70 percent! According to the Gallup organization, it wasn’t until 1997 that support for marriage for interracial couples broke the 50 percent mark. This was 49 years after the California court decision!
Does this mean that it is wrong of the courts to overturn the will of the people? Should interracial marriage have remained banned until more than 50 percent of the people supported it? That is what the proponents of Proposition 8, and other similar measures across the country are saying. The California Supreme Court (with six Republican judges and one Democrat) amazingly said back in May that everyone is equal, yet the “people” by a small four percent margin say otherwise. Who should hold sway in this case? The constitution says that it is the role of the judicial branch to protect those who are in the minority, just so something like Prop 8 would not happen. Those supporting the ban on same-gender marriage call this court an activist court because of their overturning of the supposed will of the people. That is what the court are supposed to do if the rights of anyone are threatened by the tyranny of others.
Florida and Arizona passed similar bans on November 4th, and joined the ranks of about 30 states who now outlaw same-gender marriage. Arkansas also went so far as to make it illegal for same-gender couples to adopt. But here in California we decided that enough was enough. We decided that we are not going to sit back and allow this to happen, so we took our campaign to the streets of the state, and this has now spilled over into demonstrations across the whole country. In some ways, maybe the passage of Prop 8 could be the turning point that could start this country down the road to full equality for everyone on a Federal level. It is our fervent hope that the backlash against the hatred of Prop 8 will be its undoing, both here in California and across the nation.
I very much appreciate the comments from our SexEd readers concerning last month’s column where I advocated voting against this abhorrent measure. As an example, Amanda, 16, from Florida, wrote, “Though I personally do not support gay marriage, if I could vote I would vote against it. Because, like you said, in this country we are created equal. Also, I am personally offended that the government would be so invasive into a citizens' personal life, so much as to limit such a personal matter and big decision."
As Amanda so eloquently put it, you don’t actually have to be in favor of something specific like same-gender marriage, as long as you are simply in favor of equality for all. If this is allowed to stand in California, and in so many other states, who is to say what rights some group might attack next? Doesn’t our world have enough hate already? Why do we need to add to it, simply because we may not agree with the challenges others have to face in life.
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January 2009: A Cold Winter's Night
Many areas of the United States have been hit by extremely cold weather. For many, this means snuggling with your wife or husband by a warm and cozy fireplace, secure in the knowledge that you have each other to protect and comfort. This was especially true as the holiday season progressed. What better way to celebrate than with a white Christmas? The image is one of peace and harmony, love and joy. Children rip open their presents, have a warm and filling dinner, then leap out into the cool weather to play. For those of us a bit older, it brings back precious memories, while those just living it today are forming ones that will last a lifetime.
As you might guess, the wonderful picture in your mind from what I have just written is far from the truth for many people. With the economy in the dumps, more and more people must go without. Retailers report the lowest holiday sales in decades. For a very unfortunate few, they never have to worry about buying presents or paying rent or mortgage. These people have already lost it all and survive only by living on the streets, hoping that others may help. There are many professional organizations that are there to do just that: the Red Cross, Goodwill, Salvation Army, United Way, and Catholic Relief Services, to name a few major ones. Places full of people whose sole purpose is altruistic assistance for those less fortunate than themselves.
If we have the spare change, or need a tax deduction come tax time, a donation to any of these groups is something that lifts our hearts because we know we have helped them to do their good work for all. You would think that, but it is not always true.
As a member of a marginalized segment of society, the transgender community, I know too well that charity is not always forthcoming when it is most needed. My personal story has been one of hope and friendship. So many people stepped up and gave me their hand when I most needed them. My family and most all of my friends were there, and still remain so today. I count myself as lucky beyond belief because so many like me are not so lucky. Case in point is Jennifer Gale of Austin, Texas.
On the evening of December 16, Jennifer sought out shelter from the bitter cold. Usually she just found a place on the streets to sleep, but she knew this night would be worse that usual, so she went to the Salvation Army homeless shelter in Austin. Due to the fact that she was a transgender woman, the Salvation Army said they would be glad to take her in, but only if she agreed to be housed amongst the male population of the shelter and to use her original male name and manner of dress. That meant she would have to sleep, shower, and use the bathroom with men, and not be allowed to be with other women such as herself. This is the way too many people, especially those coming from a very religious point of view such as the Salvation Army, see a transgender person. For you women reading this, how would you feel if this is what they proposed to do to you under these circumstances? You would rightly be scared of what might happen to you. I know I would be. Jennifer was too. She had no choice but to return to the cold streets and seek shelter where she could. At 7:30 am the following morning, emergency services were called when a passerby found Jennifer on the steps outside the First English Lutheran Church. She had died during the night, frozen from the cold, her heart unable to keep her going any longer.
Jennifer was a homeless transgender woman who died simply because of the transphobia and homophobia too many people still harbor. On a personal level that is one thing, but for a charitable organization that can (and in this case, did) hold the actual life of a person in their hands. This is simply wrong and cannot be justified under any circumstances.
Jennifer was also not someone who was just a statistic. She was an amazing woman who tried to change the system until the last. She had served her country in the United States Marine Corp, yet after transition was left out on the streets with nothing. Even then, she tried on numerous occasions to run for political office in Austin, including the School Board, Austin City Council and the Mayor’s office, to which she had again filed papers to run in 2009. During the holiday season she was known to locals for her Christmas caroling each year. Instead of celebrating her diversity, her dedication, and her life, she was left to die alone in the freezing cold.
I hope that the life of Jennifer Gale, and the manner in which she left us, might give all of our readers pause the next time they decide to drop their change in a red bucket.
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April 2009: The Disappearance of Christine
Those of us in the transgender community are often attacked by people who do not understand who we are. Last year was the deadliest on record for transgender people who were murdered here in America. Examples are Lawrence King who was only 14 years old when he was shot and killed by a classmate in Port Hueneme, California, in February; Angie Zapata, 18, of Greeley, Colorado; or two murders that happened in November: Duanna Johnson in Memphis, Tennessee, possibly murdered by the same policemen who had beaten her earlier this year; and Lateisha Green from Syracuse, New York, killed by a friend to whom she had confided her transgender status. There are many more, too many more. And it happens all over the world. Last year saw killings in Turkey, Chile, and in lots of other countries.
I would not hesitate to say that being transgender is one of the toughest things a person has to live with. This is primarily a fact not just because of the dichotomy between the mind and body of a TG person, but because of the reactions of those they come in contact with. How many others have to worry every day about having violence thrust upon them, simply for being who they are? It is similar for transgenders today as it was a century ago for blacks in the South who were killed just for being born with the “wrong” color of skin. We must always be on the lookout to those around us who may take offense by our mere presence. And their offense could take the form of simply staring, laughter, verbal abuse, or worse. Much worse as was found out by Lawrence, Angie, Duanna, and Lateisha.
In attempts to get others to understand, we do many things to help educate people that this is simply a condition we are born with. No different from your natural eye color, or predisposition to be who you are in life. Some people may go so far as to call it a birth defect, relating it to congenital heart disease, autism, blindness, or any number of other afflictions that people everywhere suffer from. This is probably the most accurate because it explains exactly that this is something we have absolutely no control over. It happened in the womb during gestation. There was no conscious choice involved on our part to be transgender, it just is.
Many people want to call this a choice. It makes them feel better about their hatred of the unknown. A rallying cry from the religious community to justify their discrimination and violence against gay, lesbian, and transgender people is often, “God does not make mistakes!” We could easily counter by saying that they are absolutely correct. I am not a mistake. This is the way I was supposed to be. Instead of accepting that, they will counter by saying that it is the devil’s work, that we have succumbed to his temptation. It may sound silly, but this argument has been used against me personally an uncounted number of times.
We try our hardest to get across this basic point: Being transgender is not a choice. It is us, it is who we are, nothing more, nothing less.
But what of those who profess to be transgender and may even go through transition, but then for whatever reason go back to being their birth gender? Doesn’t this “prove” that being TG is a choice--one that can even be reversed if the person so desires? In actuality, what it proves is that for some of us transition can be such a painful process that we may finally make the decision that it may not be worth it. That the hatred and difficulties we encounter every day may be too much to bear. This appears to be what happened with a famous transgender case that occurred about 20 months ago, that of Christine Daniels, formerly Mike Penner, of the Los Angeles Times Sports Desk. Christine made huge headlines across the country when she announced her transition. I had the great pleasure to know Christine, and she helped me immeasurably during my own transition. But due to personal reasons we may never fully know, Christine recently decided to return to her former life as Mike.
I would never fault Christine/Mike for what they did. We can only wish the best for each and every person. However, because of her notoriety, her case may serve as a new barrel of ammunition for those who wish to trounce on anyone who is transgender. I can only reiterate that no, this is not a choice, and just because someone may have to return to their previous gender does not alter that fact. Please accept us for who we are. And for Christine, now again Mike, please know that there are a lot of people out here that care about you and that you will always have friends, no matter where your journey in life may take you.
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Note from Michelle:
Due to accidents that left me with two broken legs in January 2009, and other ongoing medical difficulties, I had to suspend the writing of my Trans Ed 101 column. I continue to provide talks at colleges, universities, and other venues to further the cause of transgender education. After the tragic death of Christine Daniels in November 2009 I wrote one final column:
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December 2009: Losing Christine
I want to take a moment to share some of my personal thoughts about Christine and my brief friendship with her.
Christine Daniels touched my life in a very positive way, and, also like many, feel that somehow we let her down by not being there for her. Unfortunately, it is my understanding that this is what she wanted, to not have any further connection with those of us in the transgender community. I can only imagine how much it would have pained her to stay in touch with those of us who struggle with this when she was trying to put this somehow behind her. I know when she went back to using the name Mike, I tried on many occasions to contact her as I could imagine the suffering she must have endured with that decision, but never received any response.
We shared much in common, especially with regard to being transgender. I started my transition within weeks of when she started hers, we both were very close in age, and we both were writers.
When I first started hormones in December 2006, I had no idea who Mike Penner was since I didn't follow sports at all. Those first few months were a topsy-turvy ride of emotions for me, and along about April 2007, I was having my own doubts on whether I could actually go through with what I knew I must do to survive. Late in the month, I was hiding at home, commiserating about my life, "knowing" what I was doing would be impossible to accomplish. My wife, Cherie (who has supported me throughout all this and her love and devotion to help me cannot be emphasized enough, either), called me from her gym. She told me I had to immediately go out and find a copy of the Los Angeles Times, that there was a staff writer who had just come out as transgender!
When I found a copy, I read the article with tears in my eyes. I had never read anything so true to heart about coming out. And I could never imagine how difficult her decision was to do so in such a public manner. I was having trouble just going out my own front door, and here she was telling the entire world. Yes, it was definitely the whole world. I can't think of anyone who made bigger headlines than she did with transition in the last 20 years, and probably more.
Christine immediately gave me hope that maybe I could survive this process of transition. My black depression lifted again because I could see the light, finally, of success. Just the fact that she had come out so publicly, had to have given a lot of trans people hope for better acceptance.
Reading her "Woman in Transition" blog at The Times, I started to respond to many of her posts, and I was wonderfully surprised when she wrote back to me. That summer, Cherie and I went to a party up in LA and I finally had the chance to meet Christine in person. When I introduced myself to her, she greeted me with a big hug and said how she had really enjoyed the comments I had added to her posts, and the various emails we had exchanged. I truly felt she was a great role model for other trans people to show that just about anything is possible.
Her writing was always upbeat and she remained positive, even though she had to have had setbacks personally, that troubled her. This was certainly true as we all found out much later when she disappeared.
Later that year, I was finally on the verge of going full time, but had run into some stumbling blocks that I feared might be insurmountable. I had come out to nearly everyone and had gone full time, except for one specific group of friends and colleagues: the primary people I worked with in my job as a writer and educator. Like many of us, I had to come to the understanding that I had to be prepared to lose everything in this final coming out. It is impossible to describe the feeling if you haven’t been there yourself, what this moment is actually like. Knowing that one day you can be fully accepted and successful in the world, but then after telling everyone you are transgender, how that could all shrivel up and disappear in a moment.
I made the decision to go forward, no matter what, and face the consequences, but that didn’t change the fact that I was scared to death of what would happen.
Just two days before the big meeting was planned, I went to my support group. I was very surprised to find that Christine was there that evening. It was so wonderful to see her again. When I told her of what I felt might be my impending doom, so to speak, she calmed me down and told me a very simple thing which I shall never forget, and which I want to pass along to all of you, “Never sell your friends short. Give them a chance, and they will most likely come along with you.”
Instead of considering the positive aspects of all I was going through, and how it was very possible that all would be fine, I was concentrating on how badly everything could go. I listened to Christine’s advice, and that meeting went absolutely perfectly. Not one person got up and left in disgust, not one person told me I was an abomination, instead, every person there came forward and reiterated their friendship for me, and their full and complete support. I never expected that, and I feel that I owe it all to Christine because if my attitude had been the negative one I had had before talking with her that night, maybe the outcome would have been greatly different.
Christine had been so happy and joyous the last time I saw her. She was very excited that she had made the date for her gender reassignment surgery, and all looked right with the world. It was with utter dismay not long afterward when I went to her blog site and found that no new entries were being made. After a long time of this, it one day disappeared completely from the LA Times site. Christine herself had also pretty much disappeared. I couldn’t find anyone who knew what had happened for a long time, until finally learning that it was around the time of her mother’s passing that Christine had decided she could not continue, and reappeared eventually as Mike.
This news certainly put me into a tail spin. Even though I had been full time since that fateful day when I last spoke with her, I found the old doubts rising up in me again. If she couldn’t make it after all the support she had received, how would it be possible for me to survive? It took months of very heavy soul-searching before I finally cleared that hurdle myself, realizing that there was no way I could ever return to how I had lived before.
I think that a primary difference in my case was that I had several people right at my side, shoring me up when I felt my world crumbling down. Cherie never failed in her support and love after clearing the hurdle of my transition herself. And another person who made sure I succeeded and survived was my great friend Ray. Without these two, who knows where I would have ended up. With Christine, I can only imagine that she did not have people like this at her side. I was, and will always be, extremely saddened that I was not there for her. A feeling I’m sure is shared by any of those who knew her.
She apparently had suffered the trauma that certain important people in her life were not accepting. Christine had chosen not to discuss the negative side of transition, and I think that this played a big part in what eventually happened. No one really knew until it was too late, what was happening with her, and once she disappeared there was no way to reach out and help.
To Christine, all I can say now is that you will be greatly missed by all of us. You gave us hope and made things possible that we had once thought would be forever out of reach. For myself, I will always feel that somehow our community let you down. Forgive us, and forgive those whose ignorance, bigotry, and hatred, led you down a path from which you could not recover. Because of you and your life, other transgender people will live as who they are, and the veil of darkness will be pulled back to allow new light to show through.