King Marchand: And what kind are you?
Victoria: One that doesn’t have to prove it. To myself, or anyone. – Julie Andrews and James Garner, Victor/Victoria –
Welcome to Claire’s Transgender Primer for the Curious, Apprehensive, or Confused. The purpose of this page is to provide, in some small way, a brief (albeit necessary) guide for non-transgendered folks to more effectively understand and communicate with their transgendered friends and family members.
I’ve broken the primer into two main sections. The first, “Lost in Trans-lation,” addresses the most common questions and misconceptions people outside the Transgender Community may have about us. The second section, entitled “Now You Know – and Knowing is Half the Battle!” is not, as you may suspect, a tribute to G.I. Joe, but instead a list of sources one may consult in order to expand upon one’s understanding of the people, challenges and issues affecting the transgender community.
Nota Bene: The comments, views and generalized craziness found on this page are solely those of yours truly, and do not necessarily reflect those of the entire transgendered community, specific transgendered individuals except as noted, or humanity in general, because that’s just arrogant, yo.
Nota Bene, Part II – Nota Harder: This Primer is subject to change, update and augmentation, much like its author.
See what I did there? Eh? Eh? Yeah, I’m a dork.
All righty, then. Everybody been to the potty? All buckled in? Then let’s go!
Part I: Lost in Trans-lation
CLAIRE’S PERSONAL STATEMENT
How many times has this happened to you?
You: “Hello there, friend! How are you today?”
Friend: “Oh, fine, I guess. I still can’t seem to shake this transgenderism, though.”
You: “Oh, no! I hear there’s a lot of that going around lately. Have you tried a brisk walk? How about chicken soup? Can you get a prescription?”
The answer, of course, is that it HASN’T happened to you (at least I hope not). Many people outside the transgendered community see being transgendered as an “illness” or “disorder,” but, truth be told, it’s an innate condition. You wouldn’t tell someone you have “a case of the redheads,” would you? Well, I mean, unless you were a vendor for Mattel or a wigmaker, maybe. But I digress. The point is that (in my non-professional but certainly well-researched opinion), just like green eyes, or brown hair, or the ability to make horrible, horrible AC/DC covers, being transgendered is an innate and probably genetic characteristic. I say “probably” because, like a lot of things characterized as genetic in our post-Watson and Crick society, the evidence of a genetic source for transgenderism is not fully documented, even if it is very compelling. That said, the importance of the fact that, for the transgendered, being differently gendered and falling somewhere along the gender spectrum OTHER than at its Male and Female termina is certainly INNATE, regardless of whether science finds it to be genetically INBORN. We’re all pilgrims on the trail to self-actualization, and for those of us who are transgendered, the trip can be a tortured one without the love and support of those around us…something that’s true of everyone else as well, of course, which means that the energy we spend trying to jostle ahead of one another, stepping on necks as necessary, is much better directed in helping each other along the path to understanding, enlightenment, and delicious, delicious Peeps.
THINGS TRANSGENDERED PEOPLE WOULD LIKE YOU TO KNOW:
1) I am not a f*ing drag queen. But some of my sisters are. “Transgender” is a very large, somewhat fuzzy-edged umbrella under which many of us who fall outside gender conventions find shelter. Words like “transgender,” “transsexual,” “genderqueer,” “intersexed” and others are all applicable (to one degree or another) to a variety of people within this category.
Let’s review some basic terms and their meanings:
Transgender: As I mentioned above, “Transgender” is the broadest possible term used to describe a variety of gender identites. Basically, if a person’s gender identity falls outside the male/female binary arrangement and involves a schism between one’s apparent gender and one’s actual gender, then that individual may be said to be “transgendered.”
Transsexual: Transsexuals are those who use some physical means (hormones, surgery, genetic cocktails created deep within secret labs located on an uncharted island’s smoldering volcano…ok, that last one might just be me) to bring their physical sex into line with their inner gender, often referred to as “gender alignment” or “gender reassigment,” although in truth it is the physical sex being brought into line with the person’s gender, and not the other way around. Transsexuals identify as the sex opposite that of their genetic self, and seek to redress this imbalance, due to a medically-identified condition known as Gender Identity Disorder. That said, not all transsexuals seek “bottom” surgery (i.e., phalloplasty or vaginoplasty) – some are comfortable with the sexual organs with which they were born and, despite identifying as the gender opposite their genetic one, opt to retain their sexual organs and live in their new gender with only some or even none of other treatments involved with the gender reassignment process.
Transition: The process of moving into the gender consistent with one’s true self. This involves: coming out to friends, family, employers and others as necessary; changing one’s name; living full time in one’s preferred gender role; and using hormone therapy, electrolysis/laser hair removal (mostly for MtFs) and often (but not always) various surgeries to change one’s physical self. This is, for obvious reasons, one of the most important events in a transgendered person’s life and is often the bifurcating element in their personal timeline (i.e., Before Transition and After Transition).
Cross-Dresser/Transvestite (the latter being both outdated and mildly offensive): Men (or women) who don the clothes and accessories of the opposite sex for reasons of personal gratification (sexual or otherwise). Heterosexual men compose the overwhelming majority of cross-dressers, and identify as men when not in “character.” While some of them may go “full-time,” i.e., wearing the clothing and adopting the mannerisms of the opposite sex, they do NOT perceive or express a gender identity inconsistent with their genetic one. Drag Queens and Kings most often fall into this category, although some of them are transsexuals. IMPORTANT: neither “Cross Dresser” nor “Drag Queen/King” should be applied to anyone who has transitioned or intends to fully transition.
Intersex: GLAAD’s terminology guide says it far better than I can:
“Describing a person whose biological sex is ambiguous. There are many genetic, hormonal or anatomical variations which make a person’s sex ambiguous (i.e., Klinefelter Syndrome, Adrenal Hyperplasia). Parents and medical professionals usually assign intersex infants a sex and perform surgical operations to conform the infant’s body to that assignment. This practice has become increasingly controversial as intersex adults are speaking out against the practice, accusing doctors of genital mutilation.”
Genderqueer/Androgyne: These terms are used to describe those who identify with a gender other than the one consistent with their biological sex, but do not necessarily identify with the gender opposite that sex. They may manifest a blend of gender characteristics, and their gender identity may be fixed or fluid. They may or may not choose to employ hormones, surgery or other treatments to better adapt their physical self to their identified self.
MtF: Male-to-Female. Used to describe genetic males transitioning to female.
FtM: Female-to-Male. Used to describe genetic females transitioning to male.
M-F, 8-5: The office hours of most manufacturing-based industrial companies.
If your physical self and your true, inner gender are out of alignment, congratulations, friend – you’re transgendered! Being transgendered is not a “hobby,” it’s not a lark, and it’s not an affectation. To use myself as an example, before I began transition, I was an acerbic and chubby artist with a soft spot for curvy princess types who was a very unhappy genetic male. Now I am an acerbic, slightly-less chubby MtF (male-to-female) lesbian artist with a soft spot for curvy princess types, but working to align my gender has allowed me to shed a lot of my angst and unhappiness along with the weight. I am ME, not a character, and I’m not myself “part-time.” This is true whether I identify as female, male, intersexed, genderqueer or something else entirely.
2) Gender and Sexual Orientation are Different (or, What’s Between Your Legs Doesn’t Necessarily Reflect What’s Between Your Ears) This is a big one, kids. Because transgender people (transsexuals in particular) spend a lot of time, money and effort to change their bodies to fit their minds and souls, it is often assumed that their sexual orientation is heterosexual (with regard to their new sex). Since you’re reading this, you know that’s not always the case – there are MtF lesbians, and FtM gay men, just as there are straight MtF women and straight FtM men.
It cannot be said often or loudly enough: who we are is NOT an automatic indicator of who we love.
3) It’s Easier to Dig a Hole than Build a Tower When one is transitioning to another sex, there are a lot of questions people have about the physical part of that transition, and one of the most common is “How do they, um, you know, uh, turn your, um…you know…into a …you know?” While a lot of the transpeople I’ve talked to are very well-versed in the medical procedures and terminology involved, I’ve found that discussing the modification and reconstruction of one’s genitals with the non-transgendered tends to elicit:
A) The same face people make when one of America’s Funniest Home Videos features trauma to the groin.
B) Body contortions not normally seen outside of Cirque du Soliel.
C) Wildly inappropriate remarks generated either as a manifestation of fear and confusion, a defense mechanism or as a function of some internal generalized jerkitude (e.g. “Oh my God, are you crazy?”, “Dude, that’s f-ing disgusting!”, “I hope you know you’re going to Hell!” [<——–actual parental quote]
D) Some combination of the above
As a result, I’ve found that it’s best to let the doctors (and pictures) do the talking. It introduces a clinical element to the discussion that helps ameliorate some of the emotional or perceived moral discomfort that some individuals may have regarding this topic. If you’re the “nuts and bolts” type (no pun intended), check out the links in Part II…many of them either have explicit information regarding the mechanics of sex reassignment surgery, or link to exhaustive, illustrated guides.
4) Answers to the questions a lot of you have about the Transgendered community. Quite a few of my readers posted questions in response to my request during the week of July 12th, 2008…and while I haven’t received very many responses from the transgendered folks I’ve queried, there are a few of the most commonly asked questions I’d like to take a stab at answering.
Nota Bene, Part III: Rise of the Nota: Unless otherwise noted, these are MY answers to the questions below, and by no means definitive.
Nota Bene, Part IV: A New Nota: Members of the Transgender community with answers to these questions are encouraged to post their own answers in the comments section of this page.
Q. How did you know you were transgender?
A. Well, that’s easy. Like a lot of transgendered people, I became acutely aware at a very young age (around 4 or so) that I wasn’t like the other little girls. In fact, I was informed by a series of adults with increasingly furrowed brows, I wasn’t even a girl at all, but instead a boy! This was, to say the least, distressing. Please keep in mind that while I didn’t have a word yet for what I was, I knew that I wasn’t a boy, and that I’d be focusing my efforts toward clearing up the misunderstanding.
Q. How do you deal with “coming out” to people you know? To people you don’t?
A. In my case, coming out was a bit of a slapdash affair. Convinced for years that I was doing an exemplary job of portraying DC Jackson, Somewhat Effeminate But Average Straight Guy, I was bemused to discover when I began coming out that, my preference for dating women aside, all (and I do mean ALL) of my friends and family (with the exception of my parents, two people for whom denial is much more than just a river) assumed I was as gay as a picnic basket. So, in a way, there was, for me at least, a lot of “Oh, okay – NOW we get it.” I came out to my family (a qualified disaster mitigated by my the acceptance of most of my immediate family except my parents), then at work and in the world in general.
As for people I don’t know, I’m still at the stage in my transition where sometimes, I explain, but most of the time, it’s a moot point. Even if they read me, they usually hew to the social contract closely enough to preserve my dignity and theirs by acknowledging my female identity and acting accordingly. In a few instances (usually children and the reflexively asinine) I have to be a little more assertive about my identity, but those instances are relatively few and far between. I find it’s easier with people who don’t know me (which makes a lot of sense – no past means no baggage or preconceived notions), while family, friends and associates who knew me as DC still occasionally struggle with some things, like pronouns and (more rarely) my name. It should be noted here that, despite my struggles with bigots and some members of my family, I’ve been EXTREMELY lucky in that I have an excellent support structure of friends and family to carry me through the rough patches. As my friend Laura likes to say, “there’s the family you’re born into, and there’s the family you gather as you go along.”
It should be further noted that, for a lot of transpeople (particularly those who pass well), stealth is paramount. They don’t want to be “that transgendered gal/guy” – they just want to blend into the rest of the population and get on with their lives. This is a valid and totally understandable choice (who wants the headache of dealing with other peoples’ hangups?), but in my case, I’m open about being transgendered. I don’t broadcast it or put it on my business card, but neither do I shy away from the topic or try to deny it. Again, this may be due in no small part to my status as a giant, but I like to think it’s mostly because, after spending so much of my early life trying to deny who I am, I just don’t have the patience or time for one more second of mendacity or deception (even if it does occasionally draw the ire of the judgmental or terminally ignorant).
Q. What’s the deal with surgery?
A. Like so many phases of the transition process, surgery is a deeply personal decision. What’s right for one person may not be right for another; some transpeople have the full complement of surgeries to bring their bodies into line with their true self, while some of us do it “piecemeal,” having only those procedures that we deem necessary to our happiness. In my case, I’ve been living as a woman for almost two years now, been on hormones for three months, frying my evil facial hair for two years, and plan to go “the whole nine yards” around 2010 or so. I’m still not sure if I’ll have “top” surgery…the hormones take several years to do their thing, and I’m not sure how much breast development I’ll have in that time (answer: probably not enough for my liking), but I definitely plan to have my bottom surgery.
A lot of non-transpeople are shocked by the price of all this work (and if you think you’re shocked, think about how we feel! Good thing I found that Sports Alamanac from the future as a kid, or I’d be in a world of financial hurt). The cost of the overall transition, factoring in electrolysis, hormones (a lifelong commitment, may I add), new clothing and bribes to public officials to keep your embezzling off the books (OK, not that last one) can run into the neighborhood of hundreds of thousands of dollars (ironically, a neighborhood I can’t normally enter without being pulled over). Whenever people say “Oh my God, you could buy a house/car/emu ranch for that!” I reply “Well, I HAVE all those things.”
Except for the emus.
Q. How do you balance your needs with the expectations and needs of others?
A. This is my friend Jim Beam. He helps me through the tough times.
OK, seriously, though, like everyone else on this little blue dirtball, I occasionally find myself pincered neatly between the horns of duty and personal integrity. How can I be my best, truest self when it leads to questions like “How can you do this to your family?” How can I incorporate my transition into a full and rewarding life, career and Morning Express obsession while also maintaining my roles as a dutiful citizen, employee, friend and daughter?
Again, I refer you to Mr. Beam.
Not really! I kid! I kid. Ultimately, in my opinion, we must all decide for ourselves (after careful reflection and consultation with God/Allah/Buddha/The Infinite/Oprah/The Flying Spaghetti Monster, if we are adherents of the same) what it means to be true to oneself, and act accordingly. Personal integrity forms the backbone of my ethical and moral strategems, and I find that as long as what I do is in accordance with the person I know myself to be, and does not dishonor, disrespect, or harm myself or others, then we’re five by five, kids.
Now, I hear some of you saying “but what if transitioning DOES hurt others, what with their perceptions of its immorality and general wrong-headedness?” To which I reply: “Yeah, that’s their issue.” Obviously, I don’t love the fact that my parents (to trot out that well-worn example once again) are so staunchly against my transition, and I regret that something I need to do in order to have a complete and functional life causes them pain. However, I also know that the source of that pain is not my action, but their reaction, which is, in turn, based on fear: fear that I’ll go to Hell, fear that I’ll be brained with a pipe wrench in some dark alley, fear that I’ll make a poor decision and end up miserable – and this fear is based out of love for me, their child, even if it manifests as horrid screamfests. The choice they have is to try to understand why I walk the path I do, and acknowledge my right to do so, or to decide that, regardless of the evidence and counterarguments I present, they will not accept me or my transition. In neither case will I stop loving or supporting them, and while I would certainly be hurt if they can’t accept me as I am, I would respect their decision as long as it was made in accordance with their own personal integrity.
Finding balance when you’re transgendered isn’t easy. But it’s not easy for people as a whole, so that’s nothing unexpected.
Q. Do you avoid certain social situations or people?
A. All the time, but not because I’m transgendered. It has mostly to do with my low tolerance for idiots.
I sometimes see people I used to know “before” – but these tend to be the peripheral people, the pastors, the mailmen, the store clerks…and if they do recognize me, they usually do it in the “She looks very familiar, but I can’t quite place her” way, with the rubbing of the chin and the furrowing of the brow.
Avoiding anyone or anything solely due to my transition isn’t common or even likely these days. Now, avoiding certain situations or people to avoid the hassle created by having to explain my transition…well, there we go. I tried it for a while when I first came out and was as shaky as a new-born colt, still trying to find my social legs as Claire full-time and constantly worrying that my right to be anywhere, at anytime, was subject to revocation.
That was crap, of course, and now I’d say that if I duck into an alley (look out for pipe wrenches!) or behind a shoe display to hide from someone, it’s not because they don’t know I’ve transitioned, it’s because I would’ve hid from them and their dragon breath/logorrhea/kid who thinks it’s “cute” to screech like a howler monkey as they hang from one’s hair anyway.
Stay tuned for more Q & A as this primer develops.
For more T & A, stay tuned as the author of this primer develops.
(Yes, I really typed that. Aren’t I ridiculous?)
PART II – “Now You Know – and Knowing is Half the Battle!”
Thank (the deity of your choice) for the Internet. I don’t know what folks did back in the days before the dissemination of information was both global and ridiculously convenient (serialized books and Western Union aside), but I’m guessing that, as lonely and isolated as those of us who are different feel now, it was exponentially worse back then. Thanks to Al Gore (ok, fine, not really), we can share information in a public way and hold up a torch of enlightenment against the pressing darkness of ignorence and fear. I’ve listed below some resources you may find helpful as you continue your transeducation.
TSRoadmap (A must-see resource for MtF issues)
IFGE (International Foundation for Gender Education) Publishers of the magazine “Transgender Tapestry”
Trans-FM (This is a great place to listen to a variety of podcasts about transgender issues and real-life experiences, as well as discover blogs by transgendered folks)
“Bad Questions” with Calpernia Addams Hilariously caustic, yet informative, review of questions endured by the lovely Ms. Addams