• Was there a specific point that you knew you were trans? If so, please describe it.
I always knew there was something different about me, but I never knew what it was. When I was 14 I thought I was a lesbian, since I was attracted to women. But as I got older, I still felt like something was "missing." When I was 19, our college had Alex Meyer (the first openly trans student at Harvard) come speak. During his talk about the fluidity of gender and about trans people, I suddenly realized what had been missing. I realized I didn't want to be a butch dyke, I wanted to be a guy! And so I began the process of talking to friends, reading, meeting more trans people, and doing a lot of introspective work.
• How did your friends and family react when you told them you were trans?
My friends were fantastic, although some of them questioned if it was the right thing for me to be doing. One person went so far as to say that I was "betraying the lesbian community" by becoming a man. After spending much time trying to talk to this person about my decision and trans politics in general, I decided that they were not being a true friend and that I needed to let them go.
My family was a mixed bag. The sister that I am closest to was immediately supportive and curious. It wasn't until later that she really began to show the struggle of accepting me as her brother. But it wasn't disrespectful or a lack of love- it was just a process of coming to understand what it means to be trans. My parents immediately questioned my desire to transition. But they quickly began to show support- even though they were having a tough time understanding where I was coming from. My parents are now my strongest allies- and fantastic advocates for the trans community! they talk very openly about their trans son and have supported many other parents going through this process.
• Did you know anyone who was trans that you had as a mentor to talk to when you began to transition?
One year after I began thinking about gender and what it meant to me, I moved to Northampton. My girlfriend at the time worked for a local social service organization. One day I met her boss (who I'll call Chris). Somehow, Chris and I got into the conversation about gender. From the moment Chris confessed being in the process of beginning transition, I knew I had found an ally. Not only was he able to be a role model for me in terms of gender, but he did similar work to what I wanted to be able to do in the future. He became my mentor and I looked to him for support on a lot of issues.
• Has anyone (a youth or an adult) ever shared with you a story about their own coming out/transitioning process that particularly moved you? If so, please describe it.
I have heard so many coming out stories. One of the most amazing things about being out and open about my gender is the opportunity to meet so many people who are willing to share their experiences, too. Every time someone shares their story, I feel like I have been given a gift.
There are two stories that stand out for me. The first is a young trans woman (mtf) who lived at the transitional housing program I used to work at. She could not go back and live at home, so she had entered our program. She was extremely artistically talented, and had an abundance of love for the world. I felt an immediate sense of connection to and admiration for her. The other is a young ftm, who at the age of 8 convinced his parents to take him to a therapist. He has been able to live as the person he truly is for the past 2 years, and that is such a beautiful thing. His parents support and love him and just want him to be able to be who he is. I have so much admiration for him.
• What are you currently doing to support the trans community?
One major thing is that I offer to speak at colleges, schools, or community groups. I have done this for the past 5 or so years. I generally share my personal story and then allow time for questions and answers. Political issues do, of course, come up. But I find that by starting a talk by presenting gender on a personal level it allows people to really open up and hear what I am saying.
I started an email/social group in Seattle for the local FTM community (including SOFFAs) so that people could get together in venues other than support group meetings. The email list also allows people to share information and get questions answered- something that can be hard to do sometimes.
I co-founded an organization that will focus on the FTM community by helping to provide physical necessities for transition (binders, etc.) and, eventually, scholarships for everything from tuition for school to medical bills. I have since left the organization, but hope that it will continue its work.
I was involved in a documentary project about the experience of trans people, called TransformNation.
I appeared on the Maury show in January of 2006 in the hopes that I'd be able to educate the public and reach out to other trans people (Still not sure if I did the right thing! lol).
I ran a local center for queer youth. I am most proud of this work, because it allowed me a chance to give back to the community which sustained and supported me. And I learned so much!
I joined the Board of Directors for HeartStrong and we created TAEO (Transgender Advocacy, Education and Outreach). This is an ongoing process, with great potential for long-term support of our community members who have been discriminated against by religious institutions.
I am to Chair of the TransCampus committee at my college, which works to educate by providing Trans 101 trainings and is looking at ways to make our campus more trans-friendly. In the spring of 2010, we got a non-discrimination policy approved that is specific to gender identity and expression.
Is that enough??? lol
• What do you think about being grouped together with other sexual minorities that have nothing to do with transgender people?
I think this is good as far as working for civil rights and creating community. Many trans people find a home in the gay community before transitioning, somewhere they can be accepted for their gender differences. It's important for people to know, however, that being gay and being trans just are not the same thing. One has to do with who you form relationships with, who you sleep with, and who you love. The other is about who you identify as and how that differs from what your body appears to be or what other people may view you as.
The second part is that many trans people DO belong in the gay community! Because sexual orientation and gender are not dependent on one another, you find trans people of all different sexual orientations: gay, stright, bi, pansexual, queer- the list goes on.
• What type of problems did you have growing up?
Wow- what a loaded question! For me, I always knew there was something different about me. I just never knew what it was. I knew I enjoyed playing with the boys in my neighborhood and wanted to be George Michael when I grew up (How's THAT for gender bending?!?). I always envisioned growing up and marrying a woman. It never ocurred to me that my vision was not "normal" for little girls.
I was a pretty mellow kid, so I didn't protest much (if at all) about wearing dresses and other girly things. It wasn't until I was older that I began feeling more uncomfortable about "girl stuff." Puberty was NOT fun. I didn't believe that I should have breasts, and I certainly didn't think I needed to get my period! But all of this confused me, because I knew I was a girl (I had been told so all my life!).
When I was 14, it dawned on me that I must be a lesbian. I mean, if I was a girl and liked girls, didn't that mean I was gay? I knew nothing about trans people- didn't even know the term "transsexual." So it worked for me to identify as being gay.
Looking back, I realize that the majority of the struggles I had were after I came out as a dyke. I wanted to cut my hair, wanted to present as being more "butch," and this did not set well with my mother at all ("Why can't you be a PRETTY lesbian?") lol
So the majority of my struggles, I believe, were lack of information and resources. I think that if I had known about trans issues and trans people that I probably would have figured out what was going on much sooner than I did.
• How did you explain how you feel to your family?
I came out as being trans in much the same way I came out as a dyke. I started reading trans related books and getting involved in trans related politics. I kept trying to drop subtle hints and, when that did not work, I just said to my mom "I think I'm trans." It was a short conversation and soon forgotten.
Then I got a call one day from my mom, saying that my parent's car insurance couldn't find my name in the DMV files and couldn't put me on their new policy. I told my mother that it was most likely because I had changed my name (something I'd been waiting to do!), and she said "To what?!?" I told her I had legally changed my name 2 months before to Alex and she said "Why would you do that?" My response was "Remember that conversation we had a while ago?" and she claimed to not remember any conversation about changing my name. So I went through the whole thing of "In case you haven't noticed, I'm not really a girl" again.
It was messy and tough for a long time. Both my parents felt like I was searching for something in my life and had just "stumbled upon" trans issues as an answer. They also felt like I'd been influenced by trans friends I'd made during the previous 2 years. Much like coming out as a dyke, I had to explain that it had nothing to do with other people and it was something I'd been dealing with all my life but didn't realize until recently. It also helped that I could point to my childhood gender expression as support for what I wanted to do.
I don't think either of my parents accepted this as the right path for me until after I had my chest surgery. When they saw how happy I was to go shirtless- even with stitches in and a binder compressing the post-surgical chest- it was like everything changed. They are now advocates for transgender rights and are very open about having a trans son.
• What type of problems have you seen in society dealing with transgender people?
Wow- where to start? There are so many insane legal issues. For instance, I cannot change my birth certificate to male unless I have genital surgery. Texas (where I was born) is very strict about this, and the legal fees would be too much for me to deal with. Nevermind that genital surgery options are not very advanced and that most trans people cannot afford to pay for them. Not being able to change my birth certificate, of course, means that social security will not consider me legally male, either.
Then there are the issues of marriage- some states are arguing that trans people should be considered for marriage based on their birth sex. So if I wanted to marry my wife legally outside of Massachusetts, we would be denied.
There are custody cases, like the Kantaris case in Florida. And although he won the case, it was a messy and invasive ordeal.
There are issues of hospitals and doctors refusing to treat trans patients who require medical care, or treating them disrespectfully.
And there is the legal discrimination in employment and housing if you are not fortunate to live in a state or city which includes gender expression as part of their non-discrimination code.
On a more basic level, there are the issues of bathrooms. Almost once a week, I hear of a new person who has been told by their employer that they must use the bathroom for their "correct" gender (birth sex) or are given a "special bathroom" so they don't offend anyone. There is case upon case of trans people who have been arrested for using the "wrong" bathroom. What is so terrifying of a transsexual peeing in the stall next to you?
There are the problems with people who view transsexuals as nothing more than a fetish. Trans people are entertainment on television. They are "chicks with dicks"- porn stars and escorts. (Nevermind transguys. Apparently, we don't really exist.)
There are problems with people who feel it's ok to ask incredibly personal questions when they find out you are trans. Unless I am speaking in a classroom or doing interviews, it is no one's business what is in my pants! And what does that really tell you about who I am, anyway? I've been told that unless I have a penis I can never be a "real" man. My usual response is to ask, "so, if you were in an accident and you lost your penis, would you suddenly be a woman?" Trans people are not test subjects or public curiosities. We deserve the right to privacy if we choose it.
And then there are the issues of those trans people who don't fit into any one box. What's a person to do when they don't want to take hormones, or can't afford chest surgery? Does that mean they cannot identify as male? We've created such limited identifications for gender that the majority of the population (whether or not they identify as trans) simply do not fit what is "expected" of a man or woman.
Bottom line- there is a lack of education. This is one reason I am so willing to talk to people/classes/etc. The more you know about a subject, the less foreign and scary it seems.
• How do you think individuals can help transgender people feel more comfortable in society?
Aside from the above things I mentioned? I think one of the biggest things is to be respectful. If you are unsure of how someone chooses to identify, ask! Something along the lines of "I've heard some people referring to you as 'she' and some as 'he.' Is it ok for me to ask which you prefer?" Instead of asking "So, when are you having the surgery?" try asking if it's ok to talk about the person's experience of transitioning. It's also important to recognize that many trans people do not wish to live openly as trans. They prefer to "blend in" and pass completely. It's natural to be curious about things we have no experience with or do not understand, but we must also remember that we are dealing with *people* and need to be respectful.
• How does (or how do you think) society view transgender people? What issues arise from this perception?
I think the perception is starting to change. Oprah had a show about trans children and I think that exposed a whole new group of people to trans issues. I also know that polls have shown that people are more willing to accept people who are trans than people who are gay. The reason most people gave was that they felt that gay people chose to be gay, whereas trans people had no choice to be "born into the wrong body." While this seems like an overly simplistic view of what it means to be trans, it's a step in the right direction.
In the grand scheme, gender has always been a giant social issue, culminating in that wonderful thing we call "Sexism." Why is there such a stigma (in some circles) on gay men? Certainly not because of who they love. It's the idea that one man has to be "the woman" in the relationship- someone has to give up their maleness. Most of us know this isn't true, but there are a lot of people who believe this. Women who act assertively are labeled as "bitches" or "man eaters". Women who want to be men? Well, hey, who wouldn't want to be a man! But a man who wants to be a woman? What kind of guy would voluntarily cut off his dick? (please note my sarcasm) Modern society has had a long history of trouble accepting gender transgressions of any sort, even if the person in question is not transgendered.
As a side note, you should check out Leslie Feinberg's "Transgender Warriors" if you haven't already. It's a fantastic look at gender transgression throughout history and how the attitudes towards trans people have shifted dramatically during modern times.
• What do you perceive to be the community's needs? How have the public and other advocates been endeavoring to create change?
I've spoken to most of the needs that I can identify in the question above about problems trans people face. I believe most of these needs can and will be met through continuing public education about transgender issues and discrimination. I believe that doctors, therapists, teachers, parents, lawmakers, religious leaders, etc. need more people to offer them resources about issues facing trans patients/constituents/spiritual community members.
I know that I do not always seek out "trans friendly" doctors or therapists or other professionals. I seek out people who I feel are good at their jobs and will listen with an open mind. Each time, I allow myself to be open about who I am so that they can learn. In some sense, I feel it is my responsibility to be open to questions in order to help facilitate change. At the same time, I do not feel that every trans person should be made to feel as if this is their duty! Every individual has the right to privacy if they choose it.
I believe that there are many groups working for change- on both community and national levels- in social realms and legal realms. There are so many groups to name and many are listed on my links page, so I will choose only one to speak about.
PFLAG (Parents, Family and Friends of Lesbians and Gays) is a national organization started in 1973. (you can read more about PFLAG here. ) In 1998, PFLAG officially included trans people in their mission statement. All across the nation, parents of LGBT people lead groups to help parents and families just learning that their loved one identifies as LGBT, and also works to educate the public.
My parents joined when I came out as a lesbian and eventually became the co-chairs for their local chapter. Although they are no longer running the local chapter, they stay involved and do much activism on a personal level. My parents speak very openly about their trans son. They write letters to the local papers and to legislators. They contribute to scholarship funds for GLBT youth struggling to go to school, and my mother contributes stories to various publications.
In my mind, this is one of the most powerful methods of creating change within our communities- to speak openly about our loved ones without shame, to show pride in the accomplishments of a trans family member, and to convey just how "normal" it is to be "different".
| Content & Personal Photos Property of PhoenixRisingFTM.net & Alexander Pangborn | All Rights Reserved |