Ginny leaned back in her chair and asked, smiling, “Have I completely blown your mind?” It was true, she had. Like many gays and lesbians, and even more straight people, I was utterly clueless about Ginny’s branch of the queer family until we started talking. Her experiences as a transgendered person were so new to me that I had to begin by asking just what “transgender” really means.
Transgender, she patiently explained, is an umbrella term that encompasses all people who cross gender lines, ranging from those whose gender expression does not match their genitalia to transsexuals–people who’ve chosen sex reassignment surgery (SRS). “It is really a broad term,” Ginny said. “Transgender includes anyone from people who crossdress all the way to those of us who have had SRS.”
Ginny, 36, is one of the latter: a blond, 6-3, male-to-female transsexual who began “the transition” five years ago. She now lives as a woman, working as a computer programmer in Raleigh. It’s a long way from home.
Born in Nashville, Tenn., Ginny grew up in a conservative Catholic family, the son of a stay-at-home mom and a father who always seemed distant. “I was raised pretty much by my mom only. My father was this man that brought home the bread and that was it.”
Ginny knew at an early age that she was different. “I remember one time going to visit friends of my family and being approached by a playmate. I was 5 years old and she had a bunch of dolls and said, ‘Come on, let’s play.’ It seemed like the most natural thing in the world to me.” But when Ginny was caught playing with those dolls, she learned an early lesson about the rigid code of acceptable gender expression. “My father beat the crap out of me for that one,” she says. “I learned very early not to tell anyone, not to give off clues. I watched what males did, and I learned to emulate.”
Though Ginny continued to feel unnatural living as a male, she had no idea how to do anything else. The stress of putting on a false front only intensified during college, when she struggled with depression and fear of rejection to the point where “it was difficult to even have a conversation with other people.” But, unable to risk losing her family, Ginny continued to hide behind a feigned masculinity while she pursued graduate degrees both in human factors engineering and clinical psychology, with hopes of entering the astronaut corps. “I knew I would be disowned for what I am,” she said, “so I knew I couldn’t tell anyone.”
When Ginny’s imperfect eyesight disqualified her for the astronaut corps, she was forced to abandon her career goals. It was then that she finally acknowledged her transsexuality. “I was hiding behind hundred-hour work weeks, hiding from myself. From other people’s point of view, I was driven and ambitious. But I was being a coward.”
So she left her graduate programs, moved into computer programming, and started to live a more honest life. “Before I came out, I was emotionally numb,” she says. “I had lost myself, and when you lose yourself, you don’t have anything at all, so there is nothing you can care about.”
Ginny began taking hormones in January 1995, a first step in her transition from male to female. She underwent SRS one year ago. Now, she says, “I finally feel like a part of myself.”
But as she expected, Ginny lost her parents on the road to being herself. When she began making the transition, she tried talking to them about living as a woman. They didn’t want to listen. “The rules are, if I go home, I have to go home male,” Ginny says. The upshot: “I haven’t seen my family in three years. They don’t even know that I’ve had surgery. About a year and a half ago, my father threatened to kill himself if I went through with this.”
Most queer folks can readily relate to Ginny’s anxieties about coming out of the closet and losing her family. We can also relate to the new concept of family she developed when her biological parents refused to listen. “My family is the family I make around me,” Ginny says. There’s more than a little bright side to making your own family, she adds. “The people I call my friends–my relationships with them are a lot more sane that what most people have with their biological families.”
In the past year, Ginny has expanded her family to include a significant other: Teresa, a woman she met at work. “One day Ginny walked into the office and I was instantly drawn to her. She was funny and pretty and tall,” Teresa remembers, laughing. She finds Ginny’s strong devotion to family one of the most captivating things about her. “She has been through so much–I dare say that she’s been through everything–and she is still always willing to go out on a limb to help her friends.”
But while Ginny has faced issues that are common among all kinds of queer people–coming out, job discrimination, physical violence–she doesn’t always feel like a member of the larger queer family. Like many transgendered people, Ginny has had an uneasy relationship with gay men and lesbians. “I got tired of walking into gay bars and not knowing how I am going to be received,” she says. “It seems like there are extremes–people who are really supportive and look at me just like another woman, and then people who are against trans women being part of the lesbian community.”
One reason, Ginny thinks, is that many gays and lesbians see the transgender community as a detriment to the gay-rights movement because of a perceived “freak factor.” She says these people fear that identifying with crossdressers, transsexuals and other transgendered people will make it harder for gay people to gain the acceptance of middle America.
Acceptance can also depend on how well a transgendered person “passes” as male or female. “It seems like the gay community opens its arms easier to people who don’t stick out,” observes Jane Sargeant-Trollinger, a local therapist who works with transgendered people.
The result, for some “queer queers,” is that worries about losing a biological family can be compounded by not having a gay community to rely on. Lee, a transgendered person living in Raleigh, knows this fear very well. After coming out as a butch lesbian in his 20s, Lee has been living as a man the last two years, taking hormones but opting not to have sex reassignment surgery. While Lee now lives and works as a man, he still floats back and forth across the boundary lines of gender. “Right now I live my public life as a guy, and I’ve been working fulltime as a guy. In my church community I am still ‘she’ because they all knew me before and I haven’t come out to them officially. But some of them have started asking me if they should change pronouns.”
Lee says that for female-to-male transsexuals, the loss of lesbian community is a major concern when they come out as transgendered. “Those of us who have had important identity ties to queer community are really afraid to think we will lose our membership to that family,” he says. “There is this fear that if you start living as a straight person, you are going to lose the women’s community that is so important.”
It hasn’t helped, say many transgendered activists, that the Human Rights Campaign, the nation’s largest lesbian and gay political organization, has been reluctant to include transgendered people. In fact, HRC has refused to include the transgender community in its mission statement, even though most smaller gay groups have been using the “GLBT” (gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender) acronym for a couple of years now.
With time, says HRC spokesman Wayne Besen, that may change. “Our mission statement is certainly not written in stone,” he says. “But there will have to be a lot more education and communication between gay and lesbian and transgendered activists.”
Why are gay men, lesbians and bisexuals hesitant to associate themselves with the transgendered community? Besen’s theory is that too many queer people simply haven’t met transgendered people. “There is a fear factor associated with the transgender community, a fear of the unknown. The way to break down those barriers is to talk to people and show them that transgendered people are your friends and your family members. Then the freak factor becomes the friend factor very quickly.”
Mary, a 41-year-old male-to-female transsexual who lives and works in the Triangle, believes that transgendered folks will always be on the front lines of the gay-rights movement, whether or not they are embraced as part of the queer family. After all, Mary says, “People don’t transgender-bash, they gay-bash.” She means that when members of the transgender community are singled out or attacked, they are usually targeted as “faggots” or “dykes” by their attackers–though their sexual practices might conform more closely to straight people’s.
Conversely, Mary notes, “people don’t gay-bash, they transgender-bash.” She’s referring to the fact that people who blur gender lines, as all transsexual and transgender people do, are usually the first to be threatened with physical violence and discrimination. Many transgendered people can’t–or don’t want to–blend into mainstream expressions of gender, and they live in constant fear of being singled out for their differences.
Because they fear more than violence–and often expect little from their fellow queer people–a lot of transsexuals don’t stay active in the gay community after their transition. To protect their jobs and ensure their safety, many choose to blend back into the mainstream as best as they can. “A lot of us don’t want to be in community after we transition,” Ginny says.
While every queer person has his or her own traumatic tale of coming out, few of us can come close to a story–or a happy ending–like Mary’s. Mary met her wife, Susan, when Susan was in high school and Mary was working as the male youth minister at Susan’s church. After several years of friendship, the two began dating and eventually married. But three years into the marriage, Mary decided to confront Susan with the truth about herself. “My marriage was kind of flat,” she says. “I was feeling emotionally dead.”
In retrospect, she can relate her coming-out lightheartedly. “I went for the captive-audience strategy,” Mary says. “I told my wife in the car on the way to Atlanta for Christmas. I said, ‘Honey, I think that I am a transsexual,’ and she said, ‘What do you mean think?’”
At first, not surprisingly, things were tough. For the next several months, the couple talked endlessly–five or six hours each night. “She was upset, pretty frightened by the whole thing,” Mary recalls. “But one of the things that kept her around was that she agreed with me” about Mary’s true gender. “It made sense to her somehow. She’d never met a person quite like me before. And we’ve always had a determination to work things out.”
Apparently so. With Susan standing beside her, Mary came out to her biological family and her in-laws and began the process of transitioning from male to female. “I told most of my family on an airplane on the way to a ski trip in Colorado,” she says, laughing again. “I really like the captive-audience approach, because then they can’t get away from you and you really have a chance to connect.”
Mary’s family was hardly taken aback at the news. “When I told my dad he was like, ‘Does this mean you get to hit off the red tees when we play golf? You know, in a scramble, you hitting 250 yards of the red tees would be a huge advantage to us.’”
The main concern Mary’s mother had was that was what life as a transsexual might mean for her daughter. “My mom could just picture me living on the street with no friends or family,” she says. “I assured her that was a scenario that I would not let happen.”
While her immediate family has been supportive, Mary is sometimes excluded from large family events to avoid extended family members who have not been told about her transsexuality. That hurts, because like Ginny, Mary is as family-oriented as they come. “I want to be there to do the family thing like I always have,” she says. “But we’ve been playing this little shell game where I can be there sometimes, then I can’t be there another time.”
All in all, though, Mary’s transition has been the kind of transgender success story they don’t make major motion pictures about. Angela Brightfeather, who runs It’s Time North Carolina, a political organization that lobbies for transgender rights on the state level, says that such stories are becoming less and less unusual. “Ten years ago, the script for a transgender or transsexual person was to come out to their family, leave home and begin a new life as best as they could. People don’t do that anymore. We stick around and fight for who we are, stay connected to our friends and family.”
Brightfeather attributes this change in part to the increase in the kinds of support networks that Ginny couldn’t find when she was younger. Local transgendered activists have started support groups and expanded resources for others who believe that the gender on their birth certificate isn’t their true gender. The Internet is an important resource; in fact, it was the first place Mary went for help. “All of a sudden I thought, wait a minute, and so I got on the Internet, typed ‘transsexual’ and thought, Damn. I’m really not alone.”
It’s Time N.C. will hold a transgender workshop prior to Saturday’s N.C. Pride march, from 10 a.m. to noon in Room 107 of the Duke University Art Museum.