“Should I deny my head, my heart, and my soul?” – Transgender Commentary in the Media

Art from TransThriveIn the New York Times Magazine today I found a surprisingly sympathetic story about a transmale college student struggling to find his place on campus and in life. Alissa Quart, author of Branded: The Buying and Selling of Teenagers, and Hothouse Kids: The Dilemma of the Gifted Child, follows Rey, a female-to-male transgender youth as he struggles to fit in at his all-female college.

At first I was puzzled why someone identifying as male would choose all-female Smith University. The article explains

On the face of it, it’s not surprising that students like Rey would choose to attend a women’s college. Same-sex colleges have always been test beds for transformations among American women. Set up as places where women could flourish without men, colleges like Barnard, Wellesley, Smith and Mount Holyoke have always had dual personalities, serving both as finishing schools and as incubators of American feminism…

The schools that decided to remain single-sex in the 1970s, when many colleges around the country went coed, represented a significant and even controversial challenge to liberal ideas about gender equality. And in refashioning their identities for the time, many became loci for the interrogation of gender roles. It was, after all, at all-female schools that many young women first began to question the very notion of femininity.

[…]

Indeed, as one transmale student I spoke to at Wellesley pointed out, women’s colleges are uniquely suited to transgender students. “There’s no safer place for transmen to be than a women’s college because there’s no actual physical threat to us,” he told me, adding, “I have more in common with women because of that shared experience than I do with men.”

Yet, things didn’t go smoothly for Rey in ways I didn’t expect. In his first semester, Rey’s two straight female roommates didn’t feel comfortable rooming with someone identifying as male.

At Mount Holyoke College two alumni wrote an angry letter about their own school’s admission of transmales. In their opinion:

Trans students were simply “men seeking to take advantage of Mount Holyoke’s liberal and accepting atmosphere.”

Simply men? Really? Not diseased females? Not sick human beings? Not unnatural, or ungodly, or just plain weird? Surprisingly (to me, anyway), the mainstream media is addressing the issue for what it is and recognizing that a person’s identity, not their anatomy, defines that person’s gender. It is, as far as this article is concerned, unquestioned.

Am I too used to the uproars about transkids and bathroom usage? Or the righteous denial of rights to the transgender community in last year’s Employment Non-Discrimination Act? Or are we simply looking at a very liberal sub-sect and angry comments and letters will pour into the Times tomorrow?

It would be heartening if female-only schools admitted transfemales, but the article (which strangely neglects to so much as mention male-to-female transitions) suggests this is not the case by stating Smith’s policy to accept “legal” females only.

Quart is careful to widen the accepted “born in wrong body” lens and look at transgender issues more broadly. Each person is unique and how and why someone transitions involves a range of personal and complex choices, the reactions to which vary even within the trans community.

For many people gender is found somewhere along a male-female continuum and without the black and white clarity of a “check-M/check-F” decision. Quart examines the personal and unique nature of a trans-person’s choice to use hormones, seek top and/or bottom surgery, renounce his or her pre-transition identity…or not to do so. Different actions apply to different people. Rey, for example, embraces his former female self. For him, who he was is an important part of who he is and who he will become. Rey used hormone therapy and eventually had top surgery, however he found bottom surgery unnecessary. Others elect to have no surgery at all and simply use manner and style to project their gender identity. Still others reject the need to specify a gender at all, eschewing labels and brandishing individuality in their stead.

…[T]oday many students who identify as trans are seeking not simply to change their sex but to create an identity outside or between established genders — they may refuse to use any gender pronouns whatsoever or take a gender-neutral name but never modify their bodies chemically or surgically. These students are also considered part of the trans community, though they are known as either gender nonconforming or genderqueer rather than transmen or transmale.

To discover if my surprise at the nature of this piece was warranted, or if I’ve just had my head in highly prejudiced circles lately, I poked around the web a bit. I discovered that in April 20/20 did a pretty extensive piece on transgender kids, including a six-year old boy who firmly, and with the support of doctors and parents, identifies as female. The comment board for the online article of this piece displays an astonishing 239 posts of (mostly) supportive and compassionate voices.

In 2005, the Sundance Channel (not exactly a conservative haven, sure) broadcast a 7-part documentary series on trans-teens called Transgeneration, which unfortunately I totally missed. I also realized something I’d taken for granted. High schools and colleges that had gay and lesbian student unions a decade ago now have, seemingly without exception, LGBT organizations.

Even Christianity Today, “a magazine of evangelical conviction,” recently published an almost (but not quite) balanced article on transgender issues. Early in the piece it tells the story of a Baptist minister who, in mid-life, realized he was transgender and made the operative switch to male. He explains

Should I deny my head, heart, and soul to live according to what others think of my body? I cannot do that and live a life of Christian integrity…This is something that’s in you from the womb.

The article points to the recent calls for expanded civil rights for transgenders in the face of both discrimination and violence. It also cites Jimmy Creech, executive director of Faith in America, an organization whose mission includes, “the emancipation of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people from bigotry disguised as religious truth.”

Religion has been used in history to discriminate against various groups of people by justifying slavery, denying women the right to vote, and persecuting religious minorities. Today it is being used to persecute lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered people.

Yet, it follows up with a full page on the views of Warren Throckmorton, associate professor of psychology at Grove City College in Pennsylvania, who believes

Whether mentioned in Scripture or not, the transgender movement clashes with traditional Christian theology that teaches the only God-given expression of human sexuality is between a man and woman who are married.

And, sadly yet predictably

Even if science does determine differentiation in the brain at birth, even if there are prenatal influences, we can’t set aside teachings of the Bible because of research findings.

The article then relates the tale of a post-op woman who was graciously accepted by Calvary Assembly of God in Orlando, Florida – pointedly adding that the church even allowed the woman to do volunteer maintenance work. After an unspecified amount of time the unnamed woman came to a church official in tears. After religious counseling she “eventually realized that God didn’t make creative mistakes and […] resumed a male identity.”

Unfortunately, although it does touch upon one more successful transition, the rest of the piece veers sharply toward the right with quotes from the Family Research Council,

The pressure for acceptance is ultimately a challenge to the authority of Scripture and a violation of natural law.

And Concerned Women for America:

The transgender lobby is following the example of the homosexual lobby in that they are co-opting the language of the civil rights movement in order to push their own radical and wacky agenda.

It ends with Jerry Leach, director of Reality Resources, an organization in Kentucky that describes itself as, “an international ministry to those afflicted with gender identity confusion, homosexuality, and sexual addiction.”

At one time Leach, hours before his reassignment surgery, (the desire for which he attributes to his mother forcing him to wear dresses as a child) heard God telling him to “stop his covert, double life.”

“God planned for me to be a man before I had ever been created. There was not a woman inside my body longing to be expressed.”

The author of the article, John W. Kennedy, expresses an opinion in the final paragraph of the five-page piece. He concludes:

The challenge before conservative evangelicals is persuading transgendered people, their families, and faith-based advocates that gender identity disorder is not beyond the reach of God’s grace, compassionate church-based care, and professional help.

The entire thing is worth a read. It’s eerily fascinating how even those condemning transgender issues as unnatural and sinful try very hard to regard the poor trannie souls with compassion. Love the sinner hate the sin… They see transgenders as sick, lost lambs needing those who know better to do God’s work and return them to the fold.

So, was I right to be surprised at the tone and scope of the Times article? Well, yes. Other than what I’ve described, I found very little mainstream coverage of these issues. However, I also didn’t find nearly as much ignorance and hate as I’d expected. What I did find was an amazing number of local and national organizations, support groups, and advocacy efforts.

Such as…

Resources:

Human Rights Watch: Offers resources dealing with legislation, coming out, and employer information.

The Transgender Law and Policy Institute: Litigation, discrimination and hate crime laws, and university & employer policies.

Transkids Purple Rainbow: Dedicated to funding research and education about transgender issues to build a brighter future for all TransKids.”

Family Equality Council: Blog. “love. justice. family. equality.”

Gay & Lesbian task Force – Transgender Issues: A lot of great activism including the civil rights, homelessness, and pending legislation. Check out its chart documenting the time between the passage of legislation based on sexual orientation and the passage of identical laws based on gender expression. (Hint: It ain’t quick.)

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