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Twin Town High (vol. 8)
Transgender in the Twin Cities
Friday 06 May @ 20:25:27
by Audrey Dutton
“He was three when he first told me he was a boy,” says Twin Cities P-FLAG transgender coordinator Florence Dillon about her then-daughter —now her son—“and of course I assumed that my daughter was trying to tell me something else. I thought I had done something wrong. Because he was so little, I didn’t think that he knew what he was talking about—literally. I thought, for some reason, my kid has gotten the idea that it’s better to be a boy.”
That Dillon’s child might be transgender didn’t enter her mind at first. Like many parents of transgender children, Dillon thought her then-daughter was reacting to the rigid social expectations of gender, and wanted to be able to do everything boys did.
“That bothered me because I wanted him to be happy being a girl,” Dillon said. “But I didn’t take it seriously because I didn’t have any frame of reference for it.” Eventually, after several years passed and she realized that her child’s gender identity questions were not part of a phase, Dillon began investigating transgenderism as a possible answer. She spent the next couple of years gathering information from the Internet and, later, launching a transgender network under the local branch of P-FLAG.
University of Minnesota architecture student Parker Rogers knew early in childhood that his biological gender wasn’t congruent with how he identified himself. “I said, ‘I want to be a boy,’ from the youngest age I can remember,” Rogers explains. “From the time I was about 10 years old, I’ve been a tomboy. I never wore dresses, I had short haircuts. I’m pre-op, pre-hormones, transgender,” says Rogers, “but for all intents and purposes, I’m a guy.”
(All transgender people are referred to here by their adopted names, and by the pronouns of their identified gender.)
Raised in Milwaukee, Rogers was one of 10 children in his Irish-Catholic family. When he first came out to his family and friends, it was like hitting a brick wall. As often happens when people are introduced to transgenderism, Rogers’ family and friends thought he was confused—that he was actually experiencing self-hatred, and that he should learn to accept himself. “What’s wrong with your God-given body?” they asked.
Kate, a local college art student, describes how her own religious beliefs intersected with her ability to accept her gender. “I would have nights where I’d make a deal with God. Praying to Him to make me a girl—even if just for a few hours, when no one was around—because maybe that would get this whole ‘girl thing’ out of my system. And then later I’d feel immense guilt for even praying to God for such a thing,” said Kate, who considers herself a Christian.
“But after 10-plus years of praying to God to ‘take away these thoughts,’ I sort of started to realize that, y’know, that wasn’t going to work,” she said. “I went through a period of feeling betrayed by God, like ‘why did He do this to me?’”
Kate eventually found resolution between her religion and her gender, and is currently transitioning with the support of her family and friends.
And as far as Rogers was concerned, the question about his God-given body was moot; it was simply that he had been born a boy, within a girl’s body. His gender expression was rarely taken seriously until he moved to the Twin Cities, where he found support from community groups like the Queer Student Cultural Center. As a student at the University of Minnesota, he researched transgenderism and realized that “it was a normal thing. I wasn’t weird.”
Transgenderism is an umbrella term that describes a mismatch between a person’s genetic gender and the gender they feel themselves to be. It includes transsexuals, who undergo surgeries to switch their sex; transgender men and women who don’t want surgery; drag queens and kings; cross-dressers; and those who classify themselves on the spectrum between both genders. It is not related to what gender one is attracted to—a biological male can be attracted to women and still identify as a woman.
Given our country’s current political climate, it is not surprising that misrepresentations and misinformation have obscured the meaning of the term “transgender.” In the midst of a growing movement to recognize transgender people for who they are, many people’s only contact with transgender Americans is through Jerry Springer and similar shows, where “Guess What . . . I’m a Man!” episodes are a staple. Such programs encourage the belief that transgenderism is a sexual deviation.
“Trannies” have made significant strides in social acceptance and equality, but they are still misconceived by mainstream society—as a danger to children, as psychotic— and they still encounter fear and, all too frequently, violence.
In spite of these problems, the Twin Cities has a thriving transgender community that includes teachers, students, writers, human services workers, retired librarians, and the former deputy mayor of Saint Paul.
Debra Davis is one of Minnesota’s foremost educators on gender. In May of 1998, the vivacious and engaging woman was working at Southwest High School as a media specialist. While she ran the library under a male name, and while students and fellow staff knew her as a man, her family and friends knew her as Debra. By the time Davis came out to her colleagues, she had been happily living in the female role for years—but only outside of school.
“When I transitioned eight years ago, publicly, the only person who didn’t know was my sister,” says Davis. “The hardest part for her was the fact that I hadn’t told her earlier. My family knew, and most of the neighbors knew. So the only people who didn’t know were the people at work.”
The stress of Davis’s double life took its toll as years went by, and she resolved to finally be herself at work. On a day reserved for parent-teacher conferences, the school’s staff gathered in the auditorium, and Davis made the announcement that she would be returning to work the next week as who she really was: Debra.
The reaction, she says, was amazing. As Davis encouraged everyone to respond however they needed to—to ask embarrassing questions, or to offer their input—the auditorium erupted in affirmation and acceptance. At that moment, she became the first Minneapolis Public School employee to transition in the workplace. Davis says that, while a few colleagues and students were hostile, most were eager to meet their “new and improved” librarian, and she finally felt comfortable in her job.
As Davis transitioned at Southwest, and after she retired from the school, she felt compelled to share her knowledge with others. Now, as Executive Director of Maple Grove’s Gender Education Center, Davis travels the country educating people on gender difference. Speaking at high schools, universities, corporations and public events, she found her niche as an educator who “puts the face to what a transgender person is.”
Whenever she speaks, she makes a point to encourage people to ask questions and talk about respect. And, as a national speaker, Davis thinks Minnesota has “respect for the transgender community” pretty high on its values list. Compared to places across the United States where Davis has traveled as an educator, she says the Twin Cities area has a uniquely large and active transgender community.
By most estimates, Minneapolis and Saint Paul boast the second-largest transgender community in the country, surpassed by only San Francisco. Of course, the number of transgender people living in the Twin Cities can only be estimated, since many people choose to never go public with their identities. (The transgender population is somewhere between one per 4,000 and one per 500, worldwide.) But the sheer number of resources available to the local community is remarkably large, and growing. Organizations and events like TransVoices—an all-trans chorus—and GenderBlur cabaret provide a safe, open-minded environment for transgender community members and their allies. In fact, the transgender community is so wide-reaching that it’s accessible to non-trans people, with organizations like Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (P-FLAG) and Rainbow Families offering support services to friends and family.
“There are other ways of entering the community outside of being transgender or transcending gender norms,” says Andrea Jenkins, a transgender woman who works as a nonprofit consultant. Jenkins hopes that closing the gap between trans and non-trans community members will help foster wider cultural acceptance.
When she spoke at the Outfront Minnesota JustFair Lobby Day at the Minnesota capitol on April 7, the rallying audience included dozens of transgender activists and thousands of community allies gathering to support equality. But even with Minnesota’s growing network of support for trans people, Jenkins thinks there’s room for improvement.
“There still isn’t one consistent place where people can gather and feel completely welcome and socialize without necessarily just being served,” she said. Some transgendered people interviewed pointed out that outward acceptance does not necessarily mean tolerance or understanding — “Minnesota nice” culture may be a double-edged sword.
The movement toward equal rights for people of all sexualities has grown substantially, but still encounters stumbling blocks. In 1993, Minnesota adopted its Human Rights Amendment, becoming the first state to include transgender people in equal-rights legislation. This signaled overwhelming support for legal equality. But transgendered people’s access to health care has been hampered by restrictions.
A bill currently in the Minnesota House, HF 2388, would cut state health care funding for sex reassignment surgery. This might seem like the token act of an increasingly conservative legislature. But this heralds a crisis for the transgender community, many of whom have undergone years of preparation for sex reassignment surgery.
Tony Luci, a local transgender man, knows the demoralizing and dangerous effects of health care restrictions.
“The only treatment for this, for a lot of people, is surgery and hormones. Some people are so desperate to have this surgery that they … do it themselves,” said Luci.
Luci himself battled for insurance coverage and, after hiring an attorney with failed results, took a loan and traveled out of state for his mastectomy—just one part of the sex reassignment surgery process. In Luci’s case, even being diagnosed as intersexed (chromosomally both male and female) didn’t help in getting adequate medical coverage.
Despite Minnesota’s reluctance to provide healthcare, however, Luci said the Twin Cities culture itself is far more open to transgenderism than his native Pittsburgh. This openness, though, is limited. Luci and several others who were interviewed told stories of job discrimination and subtle acts of bigotry in everyday life.
Debra Davis says the biggest daily challenge is “the way you’re treated, as a human being and as a person. Your right to use a bathroom. It shouldn’t matter what your body parts are; you identify a certain way. In the workplace, if you want to transition, it’s none of their business what your body parts are, or are going to be, or were.”
Billy Navarro Jr. attests to this. A transgender man currently studying toward a bachelor’s degree in education, Navarro has faced job-related discrimination. When he began transitioning publicly while working in human services, Navarro was open and honest about his gender, but he found that people did not welcome his candor.
“The places I worked weren’t able to keep up with it,” he says. “Supervisors would tell me I didn’t fit in, and I’d hear that people didn’t want to work with me.”
Although he confesses that he always thinks the best of people and “would rather blame [himself] than other people,” he feels saddened by his experiences. “They see what I am, instead of who I am. I don’t think Minnesota has gotten to the point where gender difference is OK or understood. It’s not mainstream.”
As Navarro relays his story, he returns again and again to the importance of one’s culture and the sensitivity bred into that culture. Navarro grew up in rural Minnesota and, like Parker Rogers, was one child in a large Catholic family. Also like Rogers, he was considered a “tomboy,” and his family tried to reassure him that it was OK to be a girl. The family’s culture just wasn’t receptive to Navarro’s difference; it didn’t make sense to them that their third-grade daughter could possibly know he was a boy.
But then, something happened that changed Navarro’s life: His estranged father stepped up to support him. Speaking with a palpable appreciation for his father, Navarro talks about being so distanced from his family that he frequently ran away from home. He wasn’t accepted as a boy, despite expressing his gender identity since before the third grade. After fully coming out to his family at age 13, living on the streets, in shelters and in a whirlwind of foster homes, Navarro found relief. His father—who grew up in a Puerto Rican immigrant family and battled discrimination to become a successful businessman—packed up and moved to Minnesota to support his son.
Now, Navarro’s father is his greatest advocate. Not long ago, Navarro and his father were eating in a local restaurant; they’d been seated for 20 minutes, but no servers had approached them. Navarro waited patiently, figuring the restaurant was busy. But after trying in vain to get someone’s attention while the other customers were being served, Navarro gave up, feeling defeated. It was then that his father reminded him, “It’s not you. It’s them.” This has been a continuing refrain from his father, and it’s made all the difference in Navarro’s ability to cope with discrimination.
Sometimes the bigotry is more than passive-aggressive servers at a restaurant. Sometimes it’s in the form of violence. Connie Hope, a local attorney and transgender advocate, points to hate-related violence as a major issue facing the transgender community.
Navarro seconds this, saying that one of his youth clients was murdered in what Navarro sees as a hate crime, one of many transgender youth homicides reported in the last year.
“I think the homicides that were reported had to do with hate crimes,” says Rogers, “but I think a lot of factors played into that. The majority of them were male-to-female transgender people. There’s a lot of trans kids out there and a lot of them are homeless, so they’re living on the streets with trans issues to deal with, too. It’s different from someone who has a place to live and a group of supportive friends.”
One of the worst-hit groups within the transgender community is, not surprisingly, transgender youth.
Reacting to this, Twin Cities advocates have opened doors to transgender runaways, transgender youth who are outcast by their families, and transgender youth looking for support—District 202 is just one of these places.
Jenkins points out that African-American trans youth are particularly at-risk as a demographic.
“Transgender and transsexual people of color tend to come out at a much younger age,” she said. “Consequently, when you’re harassed at school and discriminated against, it becomes more difficult to maintain the level of commitment to complete high school and college, to make yourself employable.”
The disparities between white and minority Americans, Jenkins says, are only intensified once transgenderism enters into the equation. For example, an African-American boy might face harassment from racist neighbors or high school teachers; if that African-American child is also a male-to-female transsexual, she will contend with multiplied forces of racism, sexism and transphobia. Jenkins is encouraged by some recent developments, though.
“There’s a lot of energy here to create transgender services for people of color,” Jenkins said. “The Minneapolis Urban League, the African-American AIDS task force and KFAI radio are there to draw attention to some of the issues that transgender people of color face, create some services. People are really interested in addressing issues [for youth], like District 202, YouthLink . . . a number of youth-serving agencies. People are willing to at least understand what’s going on and create opportunities.”
There’s one area, though, that nearly all trans people interviewed cited as an Achilles heel: dating. Most people find dating difficult enough, but “we’re not even on a lot of people’s radar as dateable,” says Davis, adding that she’s had successful, long-term relationships since transitioning. Luci jokes that, as dating prospects, “We really are the black sheep of the black sheep.”
On top of the typical issues confronting any budding romance, being transgender means having to “come out” to a prospective partner, and if all goes well in the relationship, there is of course the ultimately-difficult issue of marriage. (“Whom can we marry?” asks Davis, “both legally and in our churches? If I want to marry someone legally, as a transgender woman, can I marry a man or can I marry a woman?”) Although both Luci and Davis have found love since transitioning, the singles culture certainly isn’t tailored for transgender dating. Nor is the nightlife in the Twin Cities, where, according to Hope, at least one transgender woman has been dragged out of a downtown Minneapolis establishment for using the women’s bathroom.
One of the major causes of cultural bias against transgenderism is, simply, a lack of awareness. “Personal contact with a transgender person has been shown in research to make a big difference in attitudes toward transgenderism,” said Walter Bockting, Coordinator of Transgender Health Services at the University of Minnesota’s Program in Human Sexuality and Editor of the International Journal of Transgenderism.
With false, sensationalized representations of transgenderism being the norm in the United States, our culture isn’t as receptive to transgender issues as, say, that of Europe, where transgenderism is far more accepted. According to Luci, the American perception is stained by misinformation: “It’s still treated like something you can catch, or something really deviant.” Perhaps, with more gender educators like Davis, that will change. Maybe awareness really will make the difference.
“I think it’s useful encouraging everybody to think about their own gender identity,” said Aaron Lichtov, a gender educator based in Saint Paul. “I think the whole idea of binary gender [only two sexes] is an Emperor’s-new-clothes fairy tale.” Lichtov would challenge the Twin Cities community as a whole to examine gender and its cultural perceptions of gender—and to see that gender is just perception. “Everybody’s gender is socially constructed,” he said.
That isn’t to say that Lichtov—or Luci, Rogers, Jenkins, Davis, and Navarro—want to erase idea of gender: “The idea of gender should be open,” says Lichtov. “If we do away with it entirely, then it becomes sort of like ‘all cats are gray in the dark,’ and what’s interesting about that? But rather, to make it not merely binary but infinitely multiplied.”
Dillon, like Lichtov, hopes that eventually there will be a widespread willingness to look beyond the gender stereotype. In the meantime, she encourages parents to be open-minded to the idea that their children may not fit within binary genders, “It’s his or her nature, and it’s not something a parent can change, or anything a parent caused. You can’t change it, you can’t cause it.”
Then, sounding off on the desire for cultural sensitivity voiced by both transgender people and their allies, Dillon says matter-of-factly, “You can’t tell by looking how a person feels inside.” ||
TWIN CITIES TRANS RESOURCES
Social event, cabaret and party for Twin Cities trans, genderqueer and allied communities. Held every two months at Patrick’s Cabaret.
City of Lakes Crossgender Community
Support organization and social group for crossgendered people in the Minneapolis/St. Paul area. Open to partners of crossgendered people.
Community center providing support, education and social opportunities for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender (LGBT) youth and allies.
Gender Education Center
Educational outreach and support service. Provides workshops, presentations, education, training and consulting on transgender issues.
Educator on transgender issues.
Twin Cities support/social group for everyone who was assigned female at birth and no longer feels that is complete or accurate.
Regional organization providing a variety of services to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender parents, their children, extended family and allies.
Community-based organization that provides the Minnesota GLBT and allied communities with a variety of programs and services. Minnesota’s largest GLBT organization. Represents the GLBT community full-time at the Minnesota Legislature.
University of Minnesota Program in Human Sexuality
Outpatient clinic serving the health needs of the transgender community. Offers mental health services, hormone therapy and referrals.
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