Friday, July 24, 2009

Transgenders: Either You're a Boy or a Girl, Right? If Only It Were Always That Simple.

Having just played a tough, grunt-punctuated game of singles tennis, I stand in the men's locker room stretching in front of a full-length mirror. I'm soaked with sweat. I straighten, tighten the abs, and pull my shoulders back. In the mirror, I see something startling popping out of my wet top – a couple of nipples.

I immediately go over to Jim Kane, minutes before my enemy on the court but now my post-combat friend. “Look at this,” I said, rearing my shoulders back. “I'm growing breasts.”

“I see them,” he said with a big smile and chuckling.

“But you can't feel them; you can only look.”

We both have a hearty laugh.

Notwithstanding my flaunting my nips in a locker room, there is no doubt that, with my bald head and grey goatee and deep voice, and despite the pink water bottle I carry (with a breast cancer symbol on it), I belong in the men's locker room and not the women's. More to the point, I have no doubt that I belong there.

Pink water bottle? Breast cancer symbol? Well, the truth is I have a feminine side that's all about feelings, nurturing, personal relationships, and support for women. I have women friends in which it is all friendship and zero sexuality. When I'm with them, it's like a couple of women talking.

This is not to say that I do not have a sexual interest in women. In this respect, I'm a normal dirty old man. As such, it is easy for me to joke about breasts. At doubles tennis the other day, one of the guys brought a squishy, flesh-colored ball with a nipple on it. We all had fun squeezing it and generally carrying on like like teen-age boys copping their first feel.

But, beneath the hilarity, I have to be honest: When I saw those nipples in the mirror, I didn't much like it. After showering and putting on a dry tee-shirt, I struck the same pose in front of the mirror. No nipples. Good. Still all guy. And it had been good for a laugh in the men's locker room.

Transgenders and their families would find nothing amusing in my little locker room routine. To them, a guy growing breasts or a gal just as fervently wanting to get rid of them is a deadly serious determinant of personal identity and, indeed, survival.

Ethan St. Pierre, 47, of Haverhill, MA, was once a woman but transitioned herself into a man. As she began to look more and more like a he, St. Pierre said it cost him his job at the security company where he worked.

He was quoted by the Associated Press as saying, “Once they saw the changes that my body was making, they decided that I could no longer do my job. They started taking my responsibilities away from me one at a time until they finally told me that I was no longer welcome.”

Lorelei McLaughlin is a transgender person from Northhampton, MA who can't get a job. She says she is constantly rejected for positions because of her sexual identity. McLaughin, 36, was born as a male but always felt female. For the past three years, she has been living full-time as a woman.

McLaughlin recently testified before the Judiciary Committee of the Massachusetts Statehouse on H.1828, the Transgender Bill. Supporters of transgender rights say the bill will provide people like St. Pierre legal protections at work, in public accommodations, and in housing. The bill would make “gender identity or expression” an additional category in the state's civil rights and hate-crime laws.

Also testifying in favor of the bill was Enoch E. Page, 58, an associate professor of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. He was born a female but has always felt like a heterosexual male. He had sex reassignment surgery in 1997 in San Francisco.

Opposition to the bill is fierce. Critics say that people like St. Pierre suffer from Gender Identity Disorder and other neuroses and what they need is help, not a new law imposing their problems on everybody else. The Transgender Bill, according to these critics, would lead to a breakdown of privacy in restrooms, locker rooms, and other single-gender facilities. They say that women's bathrooms would be opened to sexual predators.

Kristian M. Mineau, president of the Massachusetts Family Institute in Woburn, MA said “This is a far-reaching piece of legislation that will disrupt the privacy of bathrooms, showers and exercise facilities including those in public schools. This bill opens the barn door to everybody. There is no way to know who of the opposite biological sex is using the facility for right purposes.”

Another critic is Chanel Prunier of Shrewsbury, Mass., who is executive director of the Coalition for Marriage and Family. She cites a case in Bangor, Maine -- where a law similar to the proposed Massachusetts Transgender Bill has passed. The parents of a 10-year-old boy in the 5th grade successfully petitioned for his/her access to the girls' bathroom because of his “identifying” as a girl. The School Department had previously accommodated the boy with his own bathroom in an attempt to respect the privacy of pre-pubescent girls and also to protect the boy from harassment.

Ms. Prunier says that we should not have to “indulge” a 10-year-old boy just because he “feels” that he is really a girl. In an op-ed letter, she wrote: “Transgendered is self-defined by the claimant, and is based solely on one's conception of oneself on that particular day. There's no requirement of a doctor's proclamation, surgery, or hormone therapy.”

A particularly harsh critic is Peter Shultz of Assumption College in Worcester, MA. In a letter to the Worcester Telegram and Gazette, he wrote: “Perhaps we can find ... appropriate closets where these human beings can go so they will not threaten the moral fabric of our society.”

My wife Barbara has problems with the bill. She said, “I'm sorry, I don't want a man who thinks he is a woman to be able to walk into the women's restroom where I am. I'm just not comfortable with that.” A former second-grade teacher, she also thinks that one 10-year-old should not be accommodated at the expense of all the other students.

She made this analogy: “Just because one student has a peanut butter allergy, do you deny peanut butter to all?” But she is quick to add that in every individual case in schools involving gender, accommodations can and should be made for the student. She says that someone coming into the women's restroom dressed as a woman and “going through the process” would be acceptable to her.

Sponsors of the Transgender Bill say it is a needed expansion of the state's civil rights protections and characterizing it as a “bathroom bill”is a gross distortion. Calling it a threat to public safety from sexual predators, they say, is a scare tactic plain and simple.

The sponsor of the bill, Rep. Carl Sciortino, Democrat of Medford, said: “What it allows for is that every person, including transgender people, can use facilities that are consistent with their gender identity in a safe and private manner. Anyone that uses a facility to commit a crime or does something indecent can be prosecuted under current laws and this bill does nothing to change that.”

(Of this comment, my wife Barbara said, “It would be a little late after a crime has been committed, wouldn't it?”)

Governor Deval Patrick supports the Transgender Bill, calling it “a very straightforward question of human and civil rights.” He dismissed concerns about privacy in restrooms. “Somehow or other, we manage at home with bathrooms that don't have men and women signs on them. I think we can probably figure that out in public spaces, too.”

A dozen states already prohibit discrimination against transgenders, though New Hampshire recently defeated a bill similar to the Massachusetts bill. Of that defeat, Chanel Prunier wrote: “Outraged mothers recently led a fight to defeat a similar bill in New Hampshire, citing the potential for abuse by predators, and the dangerous ambiguity of who is legally transgendered and who is not... Peeping Toms are certainly a worthwhile concern for women here in Massachusetts.”

On the national level, lawyers for President Obama are quietly drafting first-of-their-kind guidelines barring workplace discrimination against transgender federal employees. The guidelines are considered a breakthrough by transgender advocates. Mara Keisling, executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality, said that President Obama is “making a very clear statement that transgender people won't be discriminated against.”

Focus on the Family, a conservative evangelical group, said the guidelines were “unnecessary political action to appease a special interest group.” The group criticized the new guidelines as “government affirmation” of behavior it defined as “one of the many sexual sins that is outside God's created intent and desire for us.”

The battle over transgenders is joined. The issue is primal. It brings us all the way back to that first question that is asked of every newborn baby: Is it a boy or a girl?

It forces us to go to the heart of just what it is to be a man or a woman. It requires us to try to understand the men and boys living in the shadows among us who feel that they really are women and girls, and for whom breasts are a passionate dream.

We must look into the hearts of women and girls who hate their breasts, are repulsed by the very thought of them, and want passionately to live as males with hair on their chests, not to mention on their faces and legs.

Others are in gender nowhere land. Not sure if they are male or female, they don't know whether they want full breasts or a thatch of hair on their chests. For them, discovering their true gender identity is the driving force of their lives and the source of endless torment.

What we know for sure is that not all guys born male are necessarily standard-issue heterosexuals like me. Nor are all gals born female standard-issue heterosexuals. Ethan St. Pierre is one example out of a female-to-male transgender and Loreli McLaughlin is one example of a male-to female transgender.

Because so many live in the shadows, no one knows how many transgenders, and transgenders-in process, and transgenders wannabes there are in the U.S. The National Center for Transgender Equality estimates that between ¼ and 1% of the population is transsexual.

That is not a lot but, counting growing numbers of straight transgender advocates, it is enough to bring about new state transgender legislation and federal anti-discrimination guidelines. Surprising to me -- and one reason I am writing this -- is that the reality of transgenders among us has walked into my little life, and hit me over the head.

I have known Tim, not his real name, almost all his life. As a little boy, he was quiet, friendly, with an easy smile. I saw a boy no different from my own sons, except he wasn't into sports the way they were.

When he was about 20, he decided that he was really a woman and that he wanted to transition himself into one. Now 24 and living with his parents and undergoing hormone treatments, he still dresses as a man but is taking hormones and is slowly transitioning into a female. His breasts are developing.

His parents, friends of mine for many years, have gone from initial shock, to disbelief, to bewilderment, to acceptance. While never wavering in their love for their only son, they do struggle to understand why this is happening and how best to deal with it.

Tim's father wishes that Tim would talk to him more about what he is going through so he can understand and be better able to help. But Tim has not been able to discuss his gender change openly with his father. Tim, if you ever read this, just let me say that your mom and dad and other people who love you are there for you in any way they can. That I know.

Speaking for myself, I see you are changing from a man into a woman, and I know it has to be hell on earth. But, to me, you're still the same old Tim that I have known forever. Say the word, and I will be happy to strangle a demon or two for you.

You are transitioning to a new gender, new identity, and new life. What could be more intense, daunting, and frightening? But if you gather up all the love and support you can get, over time, your being a woman becomes the new normal.

Meanwhile, the subject remains raw, painful, and replete with ambiguities and emotional traps. Will the present path, avoidance and letting things take their course, work? It may keep the pain manageable in the short run, but what about the long term?

I don't know. But I sure am pulling for my friend Tim. As I said to his dad, “I'm looking for the day when we can all joke about this, but right now it just isn't funny.”

This past summer, Barbara and I were visiting a longtime dear woman friend, Elaine, at her lakeside camp in Connecticut. It was a beautiful late summer day and Elaine was in a mood to talk to Barbara. Normally when the two get to yakking, I get restless after a while.

This day I didn't. I somehow sensed that it was important that the two talk without me trying to cut it short. I told them to talk all they want – all afternoon if they felt like it – and I went for a hike around the lake.

They did talk all afternoon. They talked about all the good and bad times they had shared over 29 years of friendship. During all that time, Elaine rarely talked about her brother, but today she did – at length.

Among many other things, Elaine talked about how her brother had abruptly decided late in life that he was a woman. After a long marriage and with three grown children and grandchildren and just a few months after the death of his wife, he morphed from a man to a woman. He went from pants to dresses, from short hair to long hair, from aftershave to perfume and earrings.

Elaine spoke feelingly of the intense anger and confusion that this metamorphosis caused throughout the family. At 70 years of age, dad, gramps, uncle, brother was now a woman and everybody could hardly believe it much less accept it. Elaine asked him to please not visit in woman's clothing. She died a few months later still troubled and not being able to fully accept her brother as a sister.

You know what? My “comedy” routine that I started out with may have gotten laughs, but now I don't think it's appropriate or funny. In the light of what I have just written, I probably should go back and cut it out.

On the other hand, maybe my men's locker room skit should stay as an example of humor that no transgender person would find funny. It can be a reminder to myself and others that while we may be secure in being a boy or a girl, there are fellow human beings among us who are not – and who want that more than anything else in the world.

To learn more about transgender issues, read Matt Kailey's Matt spent the first 42 years of his life as a female. He is now a transsexual male. He is the author of Just Add Hormones.

So long and keep moving.

E-Books by George Pollock

"State Kid: Hero of Literacy" is fiction based on his  real-life experiences  growing up in foster homes; "Last Laughs," is the true story of how five foster kids (he and four younger siblings) found their way in life and each other. "Killers: Surprises in a Maximum Security Prison," is the story of the author being locked up for 23 hours with killers in a maximum security prison;  "I, Cadaver" is about the author's postmortem adventures and mischief in the anatomy lab at UMass Medical School. “A Beautiful Story” demonstrates the art and process of creative writing as a 16-year-old boy goes all out to write a story good enough to get him into an exclusive college -- on full scholarship; and "A Long, Happy, Healthy Life," which is about how to live the title every single day.

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