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Crossing gender boundaries

Whether by biological predisposition or learned social behavior, human nature has historically been to classify and categorize, identify and regroup. We divide ourselves by race, gender, religious preference, sexual orientation, age, socio-economic status, education and ethnicity. Each of us checks the appropriate boxes that apply to us. Some of our traits are obvious, others are latent characteristics that float beneath the surface of our daily façade.

Sexual orientation and gender identification are two personal classifications currently undergoing a very public and difficult social makeover like race underwent only a half-century ago in this country. Like race, sexual orientation is not a right or wrong choice. Like race, gender is not an either-or identification; it is a continuum of biological and social identities within a range of extreme opposites. Unfortunately, fear often inhibits reason and prevents compassion for peers who may be different from the majority is lost in the mire of ignorance.

Education is the first step toward understanding that which is different. Those who are different must find the courage, respect and patience to remind others that they, too, are human and that their differences are not diseases. For four transgendered individuals from our community, their differences could cost them their lives, and yet they commit daily to fighting a battle against the persecution that results from social stigma.

The terms "girl" or "boy" refer to gender, which is a specific set of behavioral traits determined by socio-cultural identification. Children learn to act as a boy or a girl based on what their society describes as appropriate behavior for each sex. The term sex refers to biological identification as male or female. Sex and gender are separate identities, and each is formed in several stages.

Biological sex is determined by the presence of certain chromosomes (XX for females and XY for males). Throughout fetal development, hormone secretion determines the formation of genitalia and conditions the fetal brain to be receptive to either estrogen or testosterone. However, atypical prenatal differentiations, specifically those that result in pseudohermaphrodites (children born with a mixture of male and female parts as opposed to true hermaphrodites who are born with both ovarian and testicular tissue), are as common as one in every 2,000 births. Irregularities can occur within chromosomes where sex is first determined (there are more than 70 such disorders), or differentiation can happen as a result of prenatal hormonal secretion.

Generally, children born with sexually ambiguous traits are surgically assigned a sex and reared accordingly. Some children adapt well into their assigned gender. Others, particularly those who are chromosomally opposite to their assigned gender, have difficulty adapting to the gender role expected of their sex.

Sean Gardner, a 53-year-old female to male (FtM) transgender from a town of 700 in northern Idaho, explains his transgender status in biological terms. The oldest of seven children in a German Catholic farming family, Sean says that from a very young age he felt that he was never any good at being a girl.

"My sisters did it so easily," Sean reflects, "and I spent most of my childhood trying to copy them and be properly sensitive." Describing himself as too arrogant and too determined to have his own way as a child, Sean considered the fact that he was born a girl just an "unlucky thing to have to work around."

After graduating from the University of Idaho with a degree in theater, Sean spent most of his adult life trying to "work around" his gender identity issues by constantly changing other aspects of his life in search of a sense of peace. He lived all over the country, dated men, lived with a lesbian partner in a long-term relationship, but always felt a little off-kilter.

In retrospect Sean describes his life before transition as a silent chaos.

"I tell people that my life was like going into a theater where the sound is off from the picture and everyone's lips are moving but nothing matches ... it was just like that."

In 1976 Sean briefly considered transitioning but at the time little information was available on the subject. Convinced that he would have to move away and transition in secret, Sean was hesitant to hurt his family.

"Instead, I just repressed it like an intense metal illness," he says and poses a particularly poignant rhetorical question, "How did life work for everyone but me?"

In 1996 two events put Sean on the path to transitioning. While at a conference in Santa Fe, Sean met David, an FtM who identified as a gay man, a possibility Sean had not yet considered. Another prod in the direction of transition came when Sean read about a 72-year-old transgender.

"I thought, 'I'm 45 now,'" says Sean, "'this is not a phase, it's not going to go away.'" At the time, Sean was preparing to move to Santa Fe and decided to use the opportunity of a new city to transition. He began the first step: intense counseling. Several months later, Sean was administered his first dose of testosterone.

"That was a pivotal experience because it was just amazing how the testosterone affected me." Before his injections, Sean says he'd always been kind of nervous and unfocused. "With testosterone I felt so good and my brain worked so well. I'd never felt so good or so connected."

Sean appeals to biological reasons to explain his successful response to testosterone in his body. "I think one of the theories is that there are two hormonal baths in the womb, one creates the genitalia and the other creates a male or female brain. And the theory is that with one bath I got female and the other I got male." This theory leads Sean to believe that while he was born as a girl genetically and physically, his brain was conditioned to be male.

Once Sean began the process of transition, his change happened rapidly.

"As human beings we need some kind of niche and someplace where everything fits. Having wasted so much time and so much of my life," Sean explains, "once I made the decision to transition, it was like an obsession."

On testosterone Sean's voice began to drop, the hair on his head thinned and he became more muscular. After six months of binding his breasts, Sean had a double mastectomy to remove his breasts.

"I just wanted to get through that androgynous stage and having my chest removed made it much easier to pass and to present a male persona."

Since 1996, Sean has also had both a hysterectomy and an ovariectomy to remove his uterus and ovaries, though both surgeries were prompted more by cancer danger than a desire to further pursue sex reassignment surgery (SRS).

When asked about his plans to pursue a complete surgical sex reassignment, Sean is candid.

"It's expensive and insurance won't pay for it," he says. "Bottom surgery is not very successful yet. There are a lot of urinary tract infections after surgery and you can lose the ability to orgasm." Currently sex is something that Sean is still trying to figure out in the phallocentric world of gay men where he lacks the necessary equipment. However, for now Sean is content to live without all the necessary equipment and has opted instead for a more conservative partial SRS in which the testosterone-enlarged clitoris is released from the labia.

"Until the surgery gets better and safer," says Sean of a full SRS, "I will say this more conservative method is good enough."

While Sean understands his own gender identity in terms of biological processes, for Olivia, the answer is rooted in her soul.

"I've been acting for 61 years," she says sipping a glass of Riesling. The stain of her lipstick rests gently on the rim of her wine glass and what little makeup she wears is a near-translucent gloss highlighting exactly how and where it should.

"I can't say when I knew I was transgender because a label only came up about three years ago. Prior to that I was just me," Olivia explains. "I knew that I enjoyed passing as a woman and that I was never really a man's man."

Olivia recalls her mother dressing her up as a girl when she was a child, and even kept a wardrobe for her up through high school. Olivia's father counteracted that feminine influence by molding her into a jock that played baseball and wrestled. In college at the University of Idaho, Olivia spent fraternity study time in the library researching the idea of transgenderism long before it had a name or was even a reality. After college, Olivia moved to Boise in the mid-60s. She's been married for 40 years, has two grown sons and is self-employed in a white-collar industry. Unlike Sean, Olivia does not have the same sense of urgency about her transition, and instead loosely plans for her future surgeries and changes based on the lives of the people around her.

Her reason is simple: "I don't want people to suffer because of me," she says. "I will not put my wife through additional stress." Though Olivia says her wife is aware of the changes she has undergone thus far, she worries that fully completing her SRS may unnecessarily put too much stress on her wife whose health is failing. Olivia also expresses concern over causing stress or discomfort for the women who work for her. In a business environment where her transition is not well received, Olivia goes to work each day as Oliver to appease unsupportive and critical employees.

However, as time passes, it's more difficult both spiritually and physically for Olivia to pass as Oliver when circumstance requires. She has a list of surgeries on the docket, including breast augmentation, which will make passing as a male more and more difficult. Recently she enlisted the help of a young woman to instruct her on how to apply makeup, suggest slight changes in mannerisms and offer general advice on how to present a perfectly feminine persona.

"If people see me as female, they'll react to me as such," she says. When a man recently helped her with her coat on a flight and held up the aisle traffic for her to pass, she says her toes tingled.

"He talked to me the whole flight and had no idea," she smiles and then shrugs, "Perhaps I'm further along than I think."

But Olivia's delight over passing didn't come without some trepidation.

"When a man bought me a drink once it scared the hell out of me," Olivia confesses. "There's no instruction manual for transitioning, it's dangerous OJT." Though Olivia frequents a number of places in Boise in relative safety, she worries what could happen if the wrong person discovers she is neither wholly male or completely female.

Earlier this year Olivia and her wife attended Esprit, an annual week-long transgender conference held in Port Angeles, Washington. There, Olivia attended a workshop on self-defense to better learn how to avoid being a victim as a female. Olivia and her wife spent time at Esprit in workshops that taught transgenders how to relate to other people and helped significant others further understand their partner's change.

Though she was initially hesitant to attend Esprit, Olivia's doctor encouraged her to go, telling her that her maturity would enable her to impart rather than to receive from the experience. Olivia says she did both.

"I discovered that most transgenders were just like me--professionals and married." At Esprit, Olivia met and learned from other attendees while enjoying a rare opportunity to be completely out and comfortable amongst supportive peers. By the conference's end, Olivia was named "Most Inspirational First Time Attendee." She'll return to the conference in 2005 to bestow next year's recipient with the award and by then hopes to be a little further along in her transition.

"Getting SRS is kind of like buying a car--what options do you want? Tracheal shave? Breast enhancement? How far do you want to go? How much money do you have? How much pain can you endure?" She says this with a laugh coupled with a joke about her age. Then she echoes a comment made by Sean as well, "If I could go back and do it again, I'd come out." Not being transgender is not an option.

"We're not playing a game, we can't turn it off and on. Being transgender is 24-7." She expresses this concrete sense of self despite being a bit skeptical about where exactly transgenders fit. "We're an unknown person. BGLAD, CD, TG, GLBT ... there are major differences between those letters. Why are we a part of it? Gays and lesbians don't want to be associated with us and we don't necessarily want to be associated with them either. But we deal with the same issues, we need the mutual compassion for one another."

 

Nikki Leonard encourages compassion not only within the local transgender community but also seeks to spread that same compassion throughout Boise.

"I want to do all that I can do to show that transgender people are not just freaks," says Nikki. And she stands by those words, giving multiple interviews to local media, being active in Bisexuals, Gays, Lesbians and Allies for Diversity (BGLAD), editing and writing for Diversity magazine, serving on the board of the Community Center, filling board and co-chair positions for Your Family Friends and Neighbors (YFFN) and speaking at PRIDE.

When Nikki decided to go full-time as a female, she came out to a few people at work and eventually told most of her coworkers one-on-one what changes to expect. She came out at a manager's meeting, but knows that by that point, nearly everyone could see and understand her changes. Nikki describes coming out at work as "awesome," even when she had to give a presentation for the first time as Nikki to an agency she'd worked closely with for years before.

"I just said my new name, said that I was going through some changes and went right on into my presentation," she recalls.

Together, courage and an intense willingness to communicate what it means to be transgender describe Nikki Leonard, a name that has only been her legal name since May 19. Unfortunately Nikki spent a lifetime in a cycle of outing and repressing her transgender status before she was finally able to fully commit to transitioning.

"I realized that I was different in first or second grade but I didn't know how. I was especially different from my two brothers," she says. "At some point I realized I needed to be doing boy things, but at 10-years-old I sort of pieced together that I wanted to be a girl. I didn't even know it was physically possible, but I knew I wanted to do it."

Like Olivia, Nikki spent her childhood and teen years dressing in women's clothes and countering that behavior with typically masculine activities like playing sports. Throughout college and her adult life, including the time when she was married, Nikki constantly purged, that is, she acquired women's clothes and threw them out again and again. In her 20s she came out to friends only to fly right back into the closet and begin a stretch of years in which she attempted to be as masculine as possible in every aspect of her life.

After her divorce Nikki struggled against her feelings of being transgender. She purged again and again but within weeks had reacquired all of the same clothes she'd thrown out.

"It was a big moment for me when I realized that I must deal with this problem and move on mentally," says Nikki. "I knew I'd been trying to deal with it for more than 30 years without it going away and I knew that based on everything I'd read, it wouldn't just go away."

Nearly five years ago Nikki began self-administering estrogen after buying it from an overseas pharmacy without a prescription. She took what she thought was the proper dose until she chose to delay her transition because of the relationship in which she was involved. When that relationship ended, Nikki went through a brief period of self-growth that resulted in her decision to consult an endocrinologist to prescribe a hefty dose of estrogen that would begin her transition process.

"My counselor said that I couldn't switch in one day, that I'd have to ease into it," Nikki says. And she's eased into her new identity by being open and honest with people in Boise about her change. However, she still refuses to disclose her transition to her elderly parents. Despite living full-time as a woman for the last year, when Nikki makes the trek back to native Texas, she borrows men's clothes from friends and attempts to pass as her former male self despite the growth of breasts and chin-length hair. But even these temporary attempts to pass as a male only reinforce Nikki's confidence about her decision to transition.

"For me it's about coming alive," she says trying to sum up her feelings on her transition. "As I become more clear about who I am, it becomes more clear that I can't go back. I can't go back and live."

Amanda is the end to which both Olivia and Nikki strive. In April Amanda had her final surgery to complete her SRS, and though that final surgery was a monumental final hurdle to conquer, Amanda seems to imply that it was really the journey of transitioning that made her a successful woman.

"Discovery is the longest step," says Amanda about the transition process. "People go through decades before they even realize they are tormented because they are transgender." She says many people she knows realized they were conflicted but didn't understand why. If they were lucky enough to understand why they were conflicted, they usually understood it wasn't something to be discussed.

At age 42, Amanda says her discovery lasted until she was 37-years-old. Because she was married with a child, Amanda kept her transgender feelings "under wraps" until it was apparent that her marriage was suffering and she was suicidal. When she began seeing a psychologist the doctor had no experience with gender issues and only worsened Amanda's marriage.

Then Amanda talked to someone on the Internet who recommended a good local psychologist to help her recognize her gender identity.

"Knowing for sure is the most difficult step. I knew for sure in 2001 and once you find out that you want to change genders, the process is pretty easy from there." Like Olivia and Nikki, Amanda began taking estrogen to soften her skin, produce breasts and grow hair. As for her SRS, Amanda chose to take her time and have the surgeries done in steps. First she had an orchiectomy, which is surgical castration. Her final surgery has made her into a woman and only a doctor can tell that she was not born female. She's even required to have a yearly pap smear.

Life post-surgery has been a process of learning to live in her new body and helping her family and friends accept her change. Though still married, Amanda's wife has not been supportive of her transition.

"I would stay with her the rest of my life is she wanted me." Amanda says her wife was not comfortable being in a relationship with another woman, even though that other woman is her husband. "I would love to have my house and my little girl back, but being transgender is at the core of who I am. In this last year I've discovered that I belong in the female world and that I should have always been there."

Like Nikki, Amanda describes her workplace transition as flawless. Employed with one of Boise's largest corporations, Amanda has reached a sort of celebrity status at work.

"Everywhere I go people say, 'don't you know she used to be ...'"

And at the nondenominational Christian church where Amanda is a member, several people know of her transgender status, including her minister.

"My minister knows and he's fine with it," Amanda says. "In fact, my minister has the biggest problem with my marriage because now I am a woman married to a woman." But for Amanda, her newly-acquired body parts are inconsequential to the way she's always felt spiritually.

"The sex change really has nothing to do with it," she explains. "It's just plumbing and since my mind has always been female, I've always been in a lesbian relationship."

For more information on being transgender, visit www.yffn.org, www.gender.org or www.ifge.org.

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