Category Archives: trans

The Transgender Outing On Survivor

Two weeks ago on Survivor, one of the contestants, Zeke Smith, was forcibly outed as transgender by another contestant. It made the news, or I wouldn’t have heard about it. Outing people without their consent is a majorly uncool thing to do, and the incident prompted me to watch my first episode of Survivor in at least a decade.

Several initial thoughts come to my mind before I address the matter of the outing. I’ve itemized them.

  1. How is Survivor still a thing? Does it have any relevance today? Do people actually watch it? I see from Wikipedia that it still draws decent ratings, although they’re miniscule compared to those of the first few seasons. I don’t know that I know anyone who still watches the show, but obviously it’s still profitable. I watched Survivor faithfully in its early seasons. The season I remember best is the second one, set in Australia. I liked the aw-shucks charm of boy-next-door Texan Colby Donaldson, and had a major crush on the contestant who, sadly, later became a talking head on The View and revealed herself to be a right-wing buffoon.
    After several more seasons, the show had become so repetitive, with the tropical island watersports challenges, the predictable deal making and backstabbing, that I’d had enough. By the middle of the Aughts, I no longer watched the show. The last season I watched was the season nicknamed “Survivor: Race War,” in which contestants were sorted into tribes of white people, black people, Latinos, and Asians. For reals. Despite all the exotic locales the show has visited, it has struggled to find moral high ground.
    Apparently Jeff Varner, the wrongdoer in this recent incident, had also been a contestant in the Australia season that I remember so fondly. I have no recollection of him.

    Zeke Smith, the aggrieved party.

  1. This season is titled Survivor: Game Changers, and all the contestants have competed before. Is every season now an “all-stars” kind of thing? After 34 iterations, has the show run out of new people who are interested in competing on the show? And speaking of which:
  2. Thirty-four seasons? How ridiculous is that? Those are numbers you associate with Meet The Press or 60 Minutes, not a show that has only existed during this millennium. Does Jeff Probst aspire to do nothing else? Does he like spending two months of every year primitive camping on tropical islands that much?

I’ll say one thing for the show: it has stuck with what must be a winning formula. Even the dialogue is unchanged. Jeff Probst still beckons the tribes in to the challenge areas with “come on in, guys,” with exactly the same wording and inflection he’s always used.

The reward challenge, with some minor treat symbolizing the comforts of civilization at stake (in this episode, it was ten pizzas accompanied by cold soda), is the same as it’s always been. The immunity challenge, with immunity from tribal council at stake, also has not changed.

What also hasn’t changed is that both challenges were done and dusted before the episode was half over. The rest of the episode’s running time was consumed by the losing tribe’s members scheming, wheeling and dealing about the upcoming vote, and by the tribal council itself.

The contestants all had moments alone with several of their tribemates, including Zeke, and also some time alone with the camera. I might have followed everyone’s strategy talk better if I had been watching this season all along, but there’s really not a lot of variation in these things. There’s always a group of contestants who talk about loyalty and honesty; there are others who say all’s fair in “the game,” and that they’re “not here to make friends.” Still others act as if they’re above the politics and claim they just want to go along to get along.

Jeff Varner, the villain.

And then there’s always one guy—it was legendarily Machiavellian Richard Hatch in the inaugural season of the show—who juggles his team’s feelings like bean bags, promising everything to everyone while clearly only caring for himself.

This character was personified by Jeff Varner in this episode. Varner discussed his plans with the camera like Iago to his audience in Othello. He said he liked Zeke, but that he thought he knew something about Zeke, some secret that Zeke hadn’t told anyone, and that while he didn’t want to have to use this secret against Zeke, he wouldn’t hesitate to do so if it looked like he (Varner) would be on the short end of the torch at tribal council.

In hindsight it’s obvious what he meant. Not obvious is how what Varner was hinting he’d be divulging could in any way save him from being voted off the island. Was he thinking his teammates would be so disgusted by the presence of a trans person in their midst that ejecting Zeke would override any other concerns? We can only guess.

Before the vote, Varner continued to play the standard villain role. He told several of them that Zeke and another player, Ozzie (a veteran of the show starting with the Survivor: Race War season) were plotting against them, and they appeared to believe it. Again, it’s astounding that the show can still find people this naïve to be contestants. Even I, dropping in on this one episode, could easily see Varner wasn’t to be trusted. And apparently everyone on the show this season had competed before, so it’s a fool-me-twice situation for anyone who gets bamboozled by another player.

At the tribal council, Varner acknowledged that he would likely be voted out, but still tried to make the case for voting out Ozzie instead. Standard desperation ploy.

But then his argument took an abrupt turn. He told Jeff Probst:

“There’s deception here. Deception on levels, Jeff, that these guys don’t even understand.”

He paused then, and Probst asked him to continue, which he did.

Varner turned to Zeke, and without further ado, asked bluntly, “Why haven’t you told anyone you’re transgender?”

I knew that outing was going to happen—it’s the only reason I was watching in the first place. And yet, I still found the outing so shocking I had to pause the episode and take a moment before continuing.

Transgender men, in general, enjoy a privilege that transgender women, in general, do not. That is, trans men are more likely to look cisnormative, which means they get to choose whether or not to live their lives in “stealth” mode. It’s up to them to disclose their transgender status, and if they keep it to themselves, no one’s the wiser.

I don’t know how Varner figured out that Zeke was trans; as a gay man himself, maybe Varner has met more transgender people in his life than people outside our community, and so recognizes subtle clues. That doesn’t make what he did in any way okay. He should know himself what a horrible act of psychological violence it is to out another person. Even worse, the phrasing of his question made it seem Zeke had some obligation to disclose his transgender status to the rest of his tribe.

Let’s be clear about this: Survivor is a game show. It requires a much larger commitment than The Price Is Right or Jeopardy!, but it’s still just a game show. While there are a small number of situations in which a transgender person could reasonably be expected to reveal their transgender status to others, none of those situations are likely to arise in the course of competing on a game show.

There are zero situations in which it’s reasonable for another person to out a person as transgender without that person’s consent.

Zeke looked shocked when Varner outed him, and he didn’t answer or respond in any other way.

To the great credit of the rest of the tribe, they immediately rose up against Varner.

“That’s personal!” one dark-haired woman said. “That is so wrong of you to bring that up!” the older Asian man shouted.

“You should be ashamed of yourself,” Ozzy told Varner.

To a person, the tribe rejected Varner’s premise that Zeke was in any way “deceiving” people, or had done anything wrong. To a person, they were livid.

Even Jeff Probst, who typically adopts a pose of objectivity at the tribal councils, essentially told Varner he was being a creep. It really was a sight to behold.

In the face of this backlash, Varner folded like a broken umbrella, expressed regret, wept, and begged Zeke to forgive him. He did seem sincerely contrite. I can say that much for him. But I wonder if he would have backpedaled if the tribe hadn’t been so quick to condemn him.

Prompted by Jeff Probst, Zeke turned this clusterfuck into a teachable moment about living one’s truth; he said that he had only ever wanted to be “Zeke the Survivor contestant,” not “Zeke the trans Survivor contestant.” Now that it was out, he shrugged, and said he hoped living his life “out” from this moment on, before the millions of viewers of the show, could help bring solace and courage to some kid watching who’s contemplating their own transition.

He was a class act, in other words.

Varner then left the show in a voice vote, which I’ve never seen happen on the show before. In his exit confessional during the closing credits, he told the camera “No one should ever do what I did,” then buried his head in his hands.


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The Trans List.

Atlanta’s LGBT film festival, Out On Film, is going on right now, and on Monday evening I went to a screening of The Trans List at Landmark Midtown Cinema, on the edge of Piedmont Park. The film will be broadcast on HBO later this year.

It’s not feature-length; it runs about an hour, and features interviews with 11 prominent transgender Americans. The interviews were conducted by fashion editor Janet Mock, although we never see her on screen after her brief introduction. The subjects are presented alone on the screen, talking about their lives, with a few intercuts to home movies and childhood photos.

The interviewees run the gamut of the transgender experience in the United States. They’re black, white, and Hispanic; teenage through senior citizen; men, women, and nonbinary; famous and virtually unknown (to me, at least, and I like to think I keep up). I won’t recap all the interviews here, but I’ll touch on some of them.

Kylar Broadus was up first. He’s an African-American attorney, and a few years back he addressed a U.S. Senate committee about the importance of passing the Employment Non-Discrimination Act. He briefly told his story about growing up an awkward tomboy in Missouri, usually “mistaken” for a boy even when his parents managed to get him into a dress—years before he transitioned for real. He spoke with a quiet dignity, and it was hard not to be moved by his struggles with the double whammy of being both gender-variant and black in a world that’s too often both transphobic and racist.

Nicole Maines’ segment helps illustrate the better world that all of us are creating by being out and proud in the 21st century. She’s still a teenager, but she has been out and an activist since she was very small; she never had to endure (and then undo) male puberty. Her family, including her (formerly?) identical twin brother, are accepting and supportive. Nicole has fought her high school for her Title IX right to use the correct restroom. Could a story like hers have happened 20 years ago? I find it unlikely; the information, the understanding, and the role models to help such a young person simply didn’t exist until quite recently. Nicole’s is an inspiring story of possibility.Borrowed from bambysalcedo.com

Shane Ortega is an Army non-commissioned officer, and one of the first U.S. military members to transition on active duty. Another transperson of color, he’s charming, very good-natured and funny, and a veteran of two combat tours. As a veteran myself (though not of combat), I’m proud to know he’s out there, fighting for every transperson’s right to serve. Transgender people historically have joined the military in numbers far higher than the general population. Thanks to people like Ortega, soon we’ll be able to do so openly.

Miss Major Griffin-Gracy was the most colorful personality interviewed. She was at Stonewall and was a leader in the riots. She’s had a long life full of activism.

Rounding out the list were Alok Vaid-Menon, a writer with a nonbinary gender identity; Amos Mac, photographer and founder of “Original Plumbing” magazine; Buck Angel, the porn star famous as the “man with a pussy”; Bamby Salcedo, a Mexican-American activist and organizer, Caroline Cossey, model, former Bond girl, and current Atlanta resident; and Laverne Cox, internationally-famous television star.

Oh, and finally, Mock interviewed Caitlyn Jenner. I’m glad Jenner was included, because I don’t think the former Olympian and Kardashian-by-marriage has received much media attention since she transitioned last year.

This points up the biggest flaw with The Trans List: it’s much too short, or else there were too many subjects. For the really famous interviewees, like Cox and Jenner, I didn’t learn much I didn’t already know about them. For the more obscure ones, like Amos Mac, I learned enough about them to know they’re interesting people, but got nothing really substantial to take away with me. They’re superficial sketches of personalities that deserve in-depth portraits.

Maybe that was the purpose behind the film. In an era when we all have Google in our pockets, I guess a project like The Trans List only needs to put names in front of us. If we want to know more, we can go learn more on our own.

If that’s the case, I’d call the movie a success, because I’ve certainly done that with many of these fascinating individuals. I hope there will be more; maybe this could become a series.


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Mara Keisling Visits Atlanta.

This week Mara Keisling of the National Center for Transgender Equality (NCTE) came down from Washington to speak at the Philip Rush Center in Atlanta about the current state of transgender rights and advocacy in the United States. I was excited to attend and see Mara again; I’ve known her since 2009, when she was instrumental in getting me to speak before the House committee on labor on the importance of passing ENDA. She’s a hard-working and dedicated advocate who has improved all our lives in her time at NCTE.

Mara spoke for about two hours, and I live-tweeted the event. I’ll paraphrase and flesh out my tweets in this post, but don’t think this is all-inclusive; I didn’t catch everything that was said. This is just all that I tweeted or remember of the meeting. Any errors or omissions of fact are my own.

After stressing that NCTE is not a political organization and cannot endorse candidates for office, Mara noted that the Obama Administration has been quite good for the transgender community. If I heard her correctly, under President Obama there have been 111 discrete actions by the federal government that have made life a little better for transgender Americans.

While the so-called “ENDA executive order” is a famous example, there have been many others most people don’t even know about, and some that came as a surprise even to NCTE. A bulletin last week from the General Services Administration, for example, mandated that transgender people may use the restroom matching their gender identity in all federal buildings (the GSA’s job is to manage federal buildings), and Mara said nobody told NCTE ahead of time that would be coming.

She talked for a while about identity documents and the gender markers that most of them have. Medicare, for example, apparently has “F” or “M” in big letters in the center of the cards recipients use. This means some transgender Medicare recipients have no choice but to out themselves to their medical providers.

Gender markers are also used on the DD 214 forms that all military veterans receive upon discharge, and which are needed to obtain VA medical care and all other veterans’ services. They’re also on passports, and of course they’re on all our driver’s licenses.

NCTE is lobbying hard to get [gender] markers removed from most or all identity documents

NCTE is lobbying hard to get these markers removed from most or all identity documents, since they serve no function except to invite discriminatory behavior. Someone in the audience noted that gender markers are an artifact of the time when such documents didn’t incorporate photographs; now that they do, they’re no more needed than is information about eye and hair color, which are pretty much gone from IDs today. Mara thinks it will take several more years of lobbying before gender markers will be removed.

The “bathroom bills” like HB2 in North Carolina are a direct result of the achievement of nationwide marriage equality last year. Denying LGBT people the right to marriage equality was the central front in the culture war for many years; now that it’s lost, the religious right has set its sights on the transgender community instead.

Texas will probably pass a bill like HB2 next year. It will be the next state to do so, but it won’t be the last. Expect the religious right to be very creative in the ways it finds to attack, humiliate, and restrict the rights of transgender people in the near future. While life has steadily improved for us in recent times, and will continue to in the long run, the next few years will suck while we’re in the crosshairs.

In 2010, NCTE worked with other organizations to produce Injustice At Every Turn, a comprehensive nationwide survey about being transgender in the United States and the discrimination and other ills we face. An update is in the works this year, and there have been over 28,000 respondents. The results will be out next year.

For the 2010 survey, a question about suicide was included at the last minute, and results indicated that 41 percent of transgender Americans have attempted suicide during their lives. It was discovered after the fact that the question was poorly worded, to the extent that the responses were unlikely to be accurate. This time around a similar question was carefully designed with a suicide prevention group with expertise in these matters. The results were about the same.

Mara was in the news last year when she (and other activists) used the restrooms in North Carolina’s Capitol as a protest against HB2, intending to get arrested. Mara said NAACP members who are veterans of the 1960s civil rights era, including Rep. John Lewis, coached her in how to get arrested.

Most of the money funding used by transgender rights groups comes from gay groups. Mara didn’t offer speculation as to why this might be the case, but it seems obvious to me: most trans people are too broke to be donating to nonprofits.

A trans movement, Mara declared in conclusion, must also be antiracist, antipoverty, anti-incarceration, pro-immigrant, feminist, and pro-worker.

Summary: life is incrementally better for us in 2016. But strap in for a tough ride to come.

It was good to see Mara again. It always is.


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Making Faces.

MakingFacesfavA few months ago I talked about body shapes, and the gendered differences between them that lead us to conclude “That’s a man,” or “That’s a woman,” when we see someone for the first time. “Sexual dimorphism” is the technical term for these differences.

This time I’m going to talk about sexual dimorphism in faces, and what it means for transgender people. There’s more to talk about here, because the differences are less obvious until you get in close. Bodies are unsubtle in their shapes; faces are all subtlety.

I’m an expert at reading faces. We all are, unless we suffer from prosopagnosia (face blindness). Almost all of us have a powerful ability to distinguish one face from another. It’s probably humanity’s most amazing talent. Look at these two faces:

BenAffleckHenryCavill

It’s obvious these are two different faces. Most of you will recognize the individuals in these photos as movie stars Henry Cavill and Ben Affleck—or at least, since Affleck’s more famous, you’ll recognize that they’re Ben Affleck and someone else. The two co-starred in the same super-hero movie blockbuster this year.

There’s very little difference in looks between the two men. Both are Caucasian and have short dark hair. In these shots, both have a little stubble. Neither has a distinguishing scar or mole. They even both have clefts in their chins, although you can’t see Cavill’s very well in these shots. If you walked up to both men with a pair of calipers and a ruler, the dissimilarities you’d be able to document, before they pushed you away and called the police, would be measured in just millimeters, at most.

And yet, even when their characters weren’t in their iconic costumes, I’m certain no moviegoers had any trouble telling one from the other. It’s how we’re wired. Our brains devote significant processing power to the task of telling one face from another. Those tiny distinctions in shape and features add up to an enormous gulf in recognition.

You can test yourself on this ability. Go to imdb.com and look up the cast of a movie you’re familiar with. Even if you cover up the actors’ names on your screen, you’ll be able to identify most of them just going by the tiny thumbnail images of their faces. It’s really an astonishing ability. Those thumbnails are only a handful of pixels wide, and yet we can both tell the actors apart and usually identify them by name. It’s really an astonishing ability we have, when you think about it.

Martian_face_viking_cropped

Not a face on Mars.

We aren’t only good at spotting one face from another; we see faces everywhere we look, even when there’s no face to see: in coconuts, in light sockets, and in a colon next to an open or close parenthesis symbol. This phenomenon is called pareidolia, and it’s why some idiots think extraterrestrials have been building monuments on Mars.

In addition to identifying individuals, this super-power lets us tell other things about people, too. Age, for example. We can look at side-by-side photos of a person at 20 and the same person at 30 and 40 and usually tell which version is which, even if the person has aged pretty well and we can’t point to any specific differences among the faces. The same goes for spotting familial relationships, and sometimes even a person’s ethnicity.

And it’s especially true for determining the gender of a face. When we see a face for the first time, dozens or hundreds of small indicators flood into our brains through our optic nerves, and they add up into a conclusion that’s usually “male” or “female.” Our brains are resistant to concluding “a little of both,” or “possibly neither,” and despite our best intentions, will try to reject any data that conflict with that initial conclusion.

This is a source of consternation for transgender people, and for well-meaning allies. Most transgender people work hard to make our faces match our gender identity; to look “cisnormative,” for reasons of safety as much as for vanity. But it’s often very difficult, even with surgery. Here are some of the major ways male and female faces look different that most people never realize, or even think about:

A man’s eyebrows are usually lower, closer to his eyes.

In profile, the septum of a woman’s nose usually describes a right or obtuse angle with her upper lip; a man’s septum more often points downward in an acute angle.

Men’s faces are wider, and their heads are larger in proportion to their bodies than women’s.

A woman has a lower forehead, and her hairline is more like the top of an oval. Meanwhile, a man’s hairline (if it hasn’t begun receding) is shaped vaguely like a capital “M.”

Men’s upper lips are flatter; a woman’s lip is likelier to have a “bee-stung” appearance.

Women have more vertical foreheads, while men’s foreheads slightly slope back.

The most obvious difference, the one that most bedevils trans women, is the beard shadow. It’s the single most powerful indicator of gender, and it’s almost always visible—no matter how light in color are the whiskers and no matter how recently and close one has shaved. And when people see a beard shadow, their brains tell them they’re seeing a man. No other indicator of gender is so powerful.

It sort of works the other way for transgender men who haven’t developed facial hair, but it’s usually more understated and therefore unconscious. People don’t realize they’re not seeing a beard shadow, specifically, but it does seem to them there’s something feminine about the face that they can’t put their finger on.

It’s why I was willing to spend thousands of dollars and endure dozens of hours of painful electrolysis having mine removed; it’s why I never even considered presenting as female full time until it was completely gone. Nothing gets a transwoman “clocked” like a beard shadow, and when a transwoman is clocked, her life is in danger.

Think about this post the next time you look in a mirror. What is the face you wear saying about you?


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Gender dysphoria is nothing like anorexia.

NotAnnNoTextYet another piece of … writing, this time by Moira Fleming at right-wing blog The Federalist, has tried to compare gender dysphoria to anorexia. In making this particular argument, Fleming’s post joins a tall stack of similar half-assed blog posts and position papers from transphobic “pundits” in recent years. Here’s the crux of Fleming’s piece, which is headlined “Why Is Transgender An Identity But Anorexia A Disorder?”:

The certainty that one is a woman despite being born a man sounds awfully similar to the conviction that one’s body is overweight even when body-mass index is at starvation levels.

You can almost see the wheels turning in the minds of people making this argument: “Anorexics think they’re fat, even though they’re really thin; transgender people think they’re women, even though they’re really men.” And everyone who says this seems to think it’s some brilliant revelation, and they’re the first to ever think of it.

Fleming, like former doctor Paul McHugh, Fox News contributor Keith Ablow, the Witherspoon Institute, and many other “experts” who have asserted this gender dysphoria = anorexia correspondence, makes a critical error. Ablow even goes so far as to assert that gender dysphoria is an “exact parallel” to anorexia nervosa (the clinical name for the condition).

The type of anorexia these “pundits” are describing (the condition presents differently in different people) is the delusion that the sufferer is fat or is at risk of becoming fat, when she (they’re almost always women) is actually thin. She looks at her body in the mirror and sees something that is at odds with reality.

Transgender women (Fleming doesn’t seem to be aware of transgender men) are not delusional. You may deny that our gender identity is really what we say it is, but that is not the same as saying we’re delusional. When we look

You may deny that our gender identity is really what we say it is, but that is not the same as saying we’re delusional.

at our bodies, we see them correctly as being biologically male, not female. Indeed, that’s the problem. If we truly were delusional, the OEM genitals and contours wouldn’t be a problem, because we wouldn’t recognize their maleness. We’d believe we already looked like Marilyn Monroe, or Beyoncé, or whoever our personal ideal of womanliness happened to be.

To be transgender is to be acutely aware of our biological birth sex, and to be sufficiently unhappy about it to want to change it.

Now, the difference between how an anorexic woman sees herself and how a transwoman sees herself could conceivably put down to semantics. Maybe the people making this equivalency are talking less about self-perception and more about outcomes. What happens when an anorexic’s belief about herself is indulged and supported, versus the result when the same is done for transgender women?

In a sense, it’s not a fair fight, because I’ve never heard of a woman with anorexia whose loved ones and friends told her, “yeah, totally, you’re fat! Let’s take some pounds off,” while it’s the standard treatment paradigm to accept a person’s well-diagnosed gender dysphoria and recommend they embrace their gender identity.

But there certainly have been many people with anorexia who persisted in their beliefs and continued to shed weight, despite the efforts of those around them. Here are some famous examples.

Karen Carpenter
The singer of the 1970s brother-sister duo, The Carpenters, lost a dramatic amount of weight and died of related heart failure at the age of 32.

Christy Henrich
Henrich was a world-class gymnast in the 1990s. Her weight dwindled to 47 pounds before she died of multiple organ failure.

Michael Krasnow
Author of the memoir, My Life As A Male Anorexic. The 5′ 9″ American weighed 64 pounds when he died at age 28.

There’s another case, which is looking to turn out better than those three; that of Rachael Farrokh, a 5′ 7″ actress in her thirties whose weight dwindled to under fifty pounds. I’m not linking to any of the stories about her, because most of them contain some shocking photos of her ravaged, wasted body. You can Google her forewarned.

Ms. Farrokh is on the road to recovery, but only because she managed to break the hold her disease had on her and began gaining weight. She was on the brink of death before then.

Now, here are some transgender people whose self-perception was validated:

Jennifer Finney Boylan
Boylan transitioned over ten years ago. She is a respected novelist, college professor, and New York Times columnist.

Laverne Cox
Since transitioning, Cox has become a motivational speaker, activist, and an Emmy-nominated actress.

Jamison Green
Green is an academic, activist, and author.

All three of these individuals are affirmed and respected in their gender identity, and all are thriving, by any objective standard. Yes, this is an anecdotal list of names that I selected myself. Yes, you’ll be able to find transgender people who haven’t done this well after they transitioned. Poor outcomes include detransitioning and suicide. But the evidence is overwhelming that transitioning makes the vast majority of transgender people happier; in almost every case where it hasn’t, the reason is likely to be transphobic persecution, which originates outside the person, or that the person was misdiagnosed with gender dysphoria in the first place.

But finding transgender people who haven’t thrived isn’t necessary for the analogy to fail. If even one transgender person transitions and does well, it’s bullshit to compare gender dysphoria to anorexia, because anorexia’s sufferers always, 100 percent, grow weak and sick. Either they overcome their disorder, or they die. Every single time.

Show me even one verifiable counterexample of a person with anorexia flourished after she came to believe she was overweight when she wasn’t, and I’ll start taking this claim seriously. It’s not going to happen.

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Cisnormativity.

In my last post, I talked about Caitlyn Jenner’s recent unfortunate statements about transgender people, in which she suggested we have a responsibility to look “authentic” and to “play a role”—in a word, to be cisnormative—in order to put cisgender people at ease. She was rightly condemned for these remarks by many opinion leaders across the Internet, because nobody has a responsibility to put others at ease by the way they look. People look the way they look, as I wrote in that post; nobody has the right to prescribe another’s appearance, and no one’s gender identity is beholden to what someone else thinks it should be.

That said, it’s also true, speaking very, very generally, that transgender people strive to look cisnormative, and furthermore, that most of us don’t look as cisnormative as we would like to. That’s simply a fact of life for most people with gender dysphoria. The reasons we feel this way probably would (and probably have) filled books on sociology and psychology, but simply put, transgender people were born and raised in a predominately cisgender society, so we’re freighted with the same biases and assumptions toward the gender binary as cisgender people. We flipped the script, but we still play by it. Maybe we shouldn’t want to, but that doesn’t make it not the case.

Which raises a fair question: what is cisnormativity? That is, when we see a new person and mentally assign them a gender, what are we seeing (or failing to see) that informs that assignment? Most cisgender people never think much about this—why would they? I know I didn’t, until 2005, when I embarked ardently on my transition. Pretty much every gender nonconforming person has given this a lot of thought. Today, and later in a follow-up post, we’ll take a closer look at the matter. It’s kind of a doozy.

Obligatory male/female sign.

Obligatory male/female sign.

In the 1970s, NASA launched the Pioneer 10 probe. It surveyed parts of the outer solar system (mainly Jupiter and its moons), then charged on out of the solar system into interstellar space. It carries an illustrated metal plaque containing information about our planet, in case the spacecraft is ever found by extraterrestrials (friendly extraterrestrials, we hope, although if they turn out to be enslaving monsters, don’t blame me; I voted for Kodos).

The plaque includes a line drawing of a nude man and woman standing side by side. The man holds his right hand up in a wave, as if to say, “Hello from Earth! If you’ve been receiving our TV signals, please don’t get any ideas from that ‘To Serve Man‘ episode of The Twilight Zone!”

These drawings are meant to be archetypes of adult humans. As such, they present a handy example of what we mean when we talk about cisnormativity. So let’s use them for a thought experiment. Let’s imagine you’re outdoors on a wide, flat plain. You see the man and woman from the plaque far in the distance. They’re silhouetted against the horizon, walking toward you. As soon as they become more distinct than hazy blobs far away, you begin to notice how their bodies differ. The closer they get to you, the more gender-distinguishing features you’ll spot.

First, you’ll see that the woman is slightly shorter than the man, and she has longer hair. The man is broad-shouldered compared to his waist; his torso is roughly an inverted trapezoid. The woman’s torso has more of an hourglass shape. Her waist is much smaller than her hips and shoulders.

From just these cues you’d probably already have a guess that one figure was a man and the other a woman. But you wouldn’t be positive; every characteristic you’ve seen so far can vary widely from person to person. As the couple draws closer to you, finer distinctions begin to emerge.

"Hello from Earth!"

“Hello from Earth!”

The way they walk is different. The woman has a lower center of gravity than the man, and since she’s also shorter overall, her legs are also shorter, which gives her a shorter stride, which makes her walk look different.

Another factor: while this archetypal pair is naked and therefore barefoot, as I’ve said, most people wear shoes, and women wear high heels more often than men. This also visibly affects a person’s walk; you can usually tell if someone’s wearing high heels, even if you can’t see their feet.

So as this couple continues toward you, their movements give you information about their gender identities. After a while they’re much closer than the horizon, and you get a better look at their bodies and how they differ.

The man, due to the muscle-building effect of testosterone, has greater muscle development than the woman. Women can also exercise, lift weights and get toned, of course, but generally they don’t get the bulked-up muscles testosterone makes available to men.

Men also have more body hair than women. The Pioneer 10 archetypes are hairless, for some reason, but this is true generally. There’s usually hair on a man’s chest, and maybe on his belly as well. It may be sparse, but it may also be quite thick (as anyone who’s seen Robin Williams in the movie The Fisher King can attest). There’s also hair on his arms and legs, usually sparser than that on his chest. The thickest hair below his neck is at his armpits and pubes.

2pxPioneerplaquehumansWomen have body hair too, but not as much. There’s usually none or very little on her torso, and it’s wispy and sparse on her arms. There would be wispy hair on her legs, too, but in the West women usually shave their legs. The same goes for women’s armpits. Only the pubes will have thick hair, and the recent vogue for Brazilian waxes means that may not be true either.

Speaking of the pubes, the couple is probably close enough now for you to see their secondary sexual characteristics. The woman has a vagina, although that’s not so apparent for Pioneer 10 woman, and on her chest are two nippled breasts. The man has nipples, but no breasts, and between his legs, like the constellation Orion, he clearly has a dong.

Okay, they’re only a few yards from you now. They’re so close you can see the man has an Adam’s apple, but the woman doesn’t. Finally, you have a good look at their faces.

I could devote an entire post talking about the faces. And I will! Stay tuned.


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Autobiography: Hallowe’en 2006: Epilogue.

(Read the first two parts of this excerpt here and here.)

To say I was dismayed would be like saying Louis XVI owned a supply of wig powder. I’d been working at the Capitol for over a year, and it had never crossed my mind that any of my bosses might have a problem with my transition. It was a government workplace, I reasoned, and I had always believed governments in the United States didn’t discriminate against their employees in that way. That belief had been a big part of the reason why I left the corporate world, with its unpredictable caprices, for the Office of Legislative Counsel. It’s the trade I thought I was making, in exchange for the much higher salary I’d been making in the IT industry.

In hindsight, I know that sounds naïve. I didn’t predict how conservative and xenophobic Sewell Brumby could be, or that the lack of written and agreed-to office procedures meant he could be an autocrat with great leeway to run his fiefdom however he saw fit.

But hold the phone: Sewell and I were living in different realities. On that day I was a transitioning gender-dysphoric person expressing her true self on the job for the first time. But as far as Sewell Brumby could see—as far as anyone had told him—I was simply one of his male employees who had costumed as a woman as a lark for Hallowe’en.

He was definitely, if unfortunately, within his bounds to send me home for that reason if he didn’t like it. But maybe, I later reasoned, he would have had a different reaction if he had fully understood the situation.

I clung to that possibility for most of the next year.

In the fullness of time, after Sewell fired me and I initiated my lawsuit, I didn’t think the “Hallowe’en 2006 Incident” counted for much. Since he hadn’t known I was transgender at the time, and didn’t fire me then, I thought his sending me home for wearing a costume he didn’t like wasn’t relevant to my case. I almost didn’t even mention it when my Lambda Legal attorneys interviewed me during their fact-finding phase.

The incident was, in fact, of critical importance to the case.

It made all the difference that other people also came to the office in costume that day. Sewell may have seen Barbara in her witch costume, but he definitely saw Eugie in her phouka drag—and he did not send either of them home or tell either of them to remove their costumes. This showed that it was not the wearing of a costume itself that he objected to, but the specific nature of my costume. As Sewell put it three years later when my Lambda Legal attorneys deposed him:

“When I looked at Mr. Morrison, I did not see what to me was a Halloween costume. I saw what to me appeared to be a man who had cross-dressed with some degree of apparent practice and expertise in doing so.”

I saw what to me appeared to be a man who had cross-dressed with some degree of apparent practice and expertise in doing so.

Sewell Brumby was unable to explain why my “apparent practice and expertise” was a problem, so my attorneys explained it to the courts on his behalf, and over his protests: he was creeped out and disgusted by gender nonconforming behavior.

Throughout the lawsuit, Brumby and his attorneys had maintained that he had no problem with gender nonconformity; that it was my transition itself, and the disruption to his workplace that he believed it would cause, that forced him to fire me. But the Hallowe’en affair, which happened before he even knew I was transgender, indisputably put the lie to that claim, and both of the federal courts that ruled on our case got this.

Anyway, on that day he told me to go home, so I went home, shocked and a little heartbroken. And fearful. Sewell hadn’t said, “Go home, change your clothes, and return to work.” All he’d said was, “Go home.” I wasn’t sure if I had just been fired or not.

I decided to act as if I hadn’t been fired. This meant I should return to work, even though it was the last thing I wanted to do. Although there were still some doughnuts left. When I got home I changed back into boy mode and then drove back to the Capitol, arriving around noon. I considered going to Sewell’s office and confronting him, but I’ve never been good at confrontations. I avoid them when I can.

Besides, he’d obviously been seethingly angry when he sent me home. I didn’t want to poke a hornet’s nest; I thought it wise to avoid him until he’d cooled down a little. I went directly back to the editors’ office instead, using the mezzanine stairs. Odds were low that I would encounter Sewell again before the end of the day.

I didn’t see him again that day. A few coworkers asked me why I’d changed out of “costume”; I told them candidly it was because Sewell had told me to. They all looked disappointed; especially the ones who’d heard what I was wearing but hadn’t had a chance to see it yet.

They were puzzled, too. They didn’t understand Sewell’s reaction any better than I did. This reinforced the opinion I’ve always held, and which turned out to be true: Sewell Brumby was the only person working in that office who would ever have a problem working with a transgender person.


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Autobiography: Hallowe’en 2006, Part 2.

This s Part 2. Find Part 1 here.

Hallowe’en fell on a Tuesday that year. I woke up much earlier than usual, and for the first time in my working life I dressed in a way I would one day dress routinely. I put on black tights, a black pencil skirt, knee-high black boots with a moderate heel, and a red turtleneck sweater. I took my time applying my makeup; it was complete, but understated. I didn’t carry a purse; I was already in the habit of bringing my essentials to work each day in a messenger bag I’d received from WABE 90.1 FM during a pledge drive, so I just stuck with that.

I looked as professional, as normal, as ordinary as any other woman working in the Office of Legislative Counsel. No one would have looked twice at me outside the work context.

When I was ready to leave the house I realized I’d allowed much more time than I needed, so on a whim, I drove to the Krispy Kreme on Ponce and bought two dozen doughnuts for my colleagues. It wasn’t the first time I had brought doughnuts to work. I’m not sure why I did it this time. I guess I was a little nervous, so maybe I hoped they’d be a distraction. “Good morning! Yes, it’s me, Glenn, dressed as a girl. Hey look, a fresh hot glazed!”

When I got to the Capitol I passed the first hurdle. Obviously, my “costume” didn’t look like a costume—I looked like a woman, as I did every day outside the workplace. But my employee badge had my photo on it, and I didn’t look like a woman there. And the state troopers at all the entrances check badges. I didn’t know how to play it.pumpkin-157050_960_720

I decided just to motor through. I clipped my badge to the bottom edge of my sweater, shouldered my messenger bag, and took the doughnut boxes in my arms. Just inside the basement entrance, I confidently strode toward the troopers, bypassing the conveyor-belt scanner which non-employees are obliged to use. The troopers looked at me, nodded, and let me on past. Maybe they recognized me and realized I was in “costume;” more likely, they saw my badge but didn’t bother to examine it, and just assumed I was an employee because I had a badge and acted like one.

I usually climbed the grand marble stairs up to our office. This day, since I was carrying precious cargo and wearing heels, I took the elevator. This put me half a floor too high, since our level was a mezzanine, but it was easy to walk down a few stairs than to walk up twice as many. Make gravity your friend whenever possible. I live my life by that maxim.

Once inside the office I went to the kitchen/break room to drop the Krispy Kremes on the dining table. Two of my coworkers were already there. Jimmy, one of the attorneys, was making the morning coffee. He wasn’t in a costume. Barbara, a legal secretary, was putting candy on the table. Barbara was in costume.

Barbara was wearing a voluminous black dress, a pointy witch’s hat, and a witch mask—one of those cheap ones with the elastic band they sell at Target and Party City. She was really camping it up, too. I want to say she was carrying a broom, but I wouldn’t swear to it. She definitely was making with a manic wicked-witch cackle of a laugh, and threatened those present with various fearful transformation spells. She really committed to the Hallowe’en spirit.

Sort of like this one.

Sort of like this one.

She and Jimmy both failed to recognize me until I told them good morning. Then they both knew it was me, and both laughed. Jimmy’s laugh sounded a little nervous, but Barbara was delighted and praised my look.

I headed on back to the editors’ office. Eugie was already at her desk; she was almost always there first. Today she was also in costume. Like Barbara, she was wearing a black dress; unlike Barbara, Eugie’s dress was fitted, and she was also wearing what appeared to be a pair of black rabbit ears.

She looked up in delight when she saw me enter the office. I’d told her about the plan, and she thought it was a good one. And she liked my outfit. I complimented her costume, then asked her what kind of rabbit she was supposed to be.

Turns out she wasn’t wearing a rabbit costume. She patiently explained to me that she was a phouka, a mischievous spirit from Irish folklore, like the title character in the Jimmy Stewart movie, Harvey. I accepted the distinction with a nod. Eugie was nothing if not idiosyncratic, and she reveled in obscure cultural references. I knew I wouldn’t be the only one who made that mistake today.

The workday began normally at 8:30. I should mention that Beth was out sick that day. Over the next couple of hours, several other coworkers (most of them secretaries, but a couple of the attorneys as well) ducked into our office to take a look at me. None of them seemed freaked out or disapproving; the general take was amusement, or even admiration. “He makes a better woman than we do!” said one of the secretaries, all of whom were women.

Eugie looked nothing like this. Source: stefi-heartlilly.deviantart.com

Eugie looked nothing like this.
Source: stefi-heartlilly.deviantart.com

I should note that most of the around 30 people who worked at the Office of Legislative Counsel were not in costume that day. There was no strong tradition of wearing Hallowe’en costumes at the Capitol. But several of us were in costume, and there were no official rules against wearing costumes on special occasions.

There were no rules whatsoever, for that matter. The OLC had no employee handbook. There was no dress code. No code of behavior of any sort, and no human resources department to vet such a code if it were ever created. As I’ve said on many other occasions, the OLC was like an office out of the 1950s, where traditional values and conformist behavior were simply presumed and counted upon. In the short run, this lack was not a fact that favored me.

Around 10:30 Sewell Brumby walked through the door of our office. As I noted before, he never did this. Ever. Inside our department there were many stairs and a long hallway between his office and ours, he was a chain smoker, and he was rumored to have a heart condition. In all the time I’d been there, he’d never found it necessary to enter the editors’ domain.

Yet here he was, striding straight across the room to my desk, glaring at me through narrowed eyelids. He stopped at the corner of my desk, and without any preamble, said, “Glenn, the way you’re dressed is inappropriate, and you need to go home.”

I was dumbfounded. My mind had trouble processing the presence of Sewell in our office in the first place; adding in his state of such extreme agitation at such a small provocation, and I didn’t know how to react at all. My mouth gaped.

[T]he way you’re dressed is inappropriate, and you need to go home.

I blinked and glanced over at Eugie, who looked every bit as shocked as I felt. Sewell followed my gaze over to Eugie, then turned back to me, the anger in his face unchanged. He must have taken in Eugie’s costume, but he gave it no thought at all.

“Are you serious?” I finally asked. He was obviously serious, but it was all I could think to say.

“I’ve never been more serious in my life,” he said back, and I don’t think he was being hyperbolic. “Go home.”

He turned around and stomped out.

I knew better than to defy him. I gathered up my things and left.


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Autobiography: Hallowe’en 2006, Part 1.

In October of 2006 I was happily ensconced in my job as a legislative editor at the Georgia State Capitol and about a year and a half into my transition. I worked in a faux-wood-paneled, L-shaped room with three other editors: Larry, Eugie (who had been hired over the summer), and another woman. Our office was next door to the office of the senior editor, Beth Yinger.

I was still presenting as male, of course, but my transgender-and-transitioning status was essentially an open secret to my peers. Larry and Eugie had both been my friends for years, since well before any of us worked at the Capitol (Larry began there first, then recommended I apply when there was an opening, and then I got Eugie to apply when there was another opening). I hadn’t officially talked with the other editor about what was going on, but the room wasn’t that large, and I did talk about transition-related stuff with Eugie, within earshot of the that woman, and often at times when one or another of the legal secretaries were passing through. My therapist, Erin, called this deliberate recklessness “systematic desensitization.” I called it “unfurling my freak flag.”

My therapist, Erin, called this deliberate recklessness ‘systematic desensitization.’ I called it ‘unfurling my freak flag.’

Beth, as the senior editor, was our immediate supervisor. Since she sat in a different office from us, I figured I should have a semi-official conversation with her to explain what was going on with me. Naturally, I wanted to fully transition in this workplace someday, and the channel I’d go through would begin with Beth.

I didn’t make up a pseudonym for Beth, because that would have been pointless. Her name’s all over the various briefs and filings that constituted Glenn v. Brumby. Depositions of the parties to the suit all include mention of her, and she was deposed herself. She’s bound up inextricably in the narrative; pretending to preserve her anonymity or indemnify myself by giving her a fake name would be like ignoring an elephant in a room. Or some more flattering metaphor.

But there’s not much to say about her here, anyway. My work relationship with her was pretty straightforward. She was originally from West Virginia, had been at the Capitol as a legislative editor for almost thirty years, and had been senior editor for more than a decade. She’s the person who interviewed and hired me, and over the past year she’d given me mostly complimentary feedback about my work. She was generally easygoing, an avid reader like the rest of us, never got visibly angry, and often wore Crocs to the office.

She was also our sole intercessor with Sewell Brumby. All directives from or feedback to Mr. Brumby went through Beth. We never spoke to him directly unless we edited one of his bills, and then he rarely offered more than a curt “thank you” when we returned it to him. He never entered our office, which was separated from his by a flight of stairs and a long hallway. I don’t think I was formally introduced to him even when I started the job. If he needed something communicated to the editors, he communicated it to Beth.

I decided to have my conversation with Beth on October 11th, which is “National Coming-Out Day” (I’m often motivated by arbitrary symbolism; don’t judge). Also, this was during the nine months of the year when our office wasn’t very busy, so she’d have time for a téte-a-téte without being distracted by work.

I got up from my desk and walked out into the hall. Beth usually left her door open, so I stood in the doorway and lightly rapped on the jamb with my knuckles, just to get her to look up.

Source: sdsmt.collegiatelink.net/organization/lgbtservices

Source: sdsmt.collegiatelink.net/organization/lgbtservices

“Got a minute?” I asked. “I need to talk with you about something.”

“Sure,” she said. “Shut the door.” I closed the door behind me and sat down in the chair in front of her desk.

If I’d hesitated, I would have lost my nerve. I knew this was a ripping off the Band-Aid situation. So I just blurted it out. “I’m transgender,” I told her. I’ve been taking female hormones and doing other related things for some time now, and eventually I’m going to start coming to work as a woman.”

She nodded slowly, not looking very surprised. “All right,” she said. “I think I noticed something was going on.”

“I hope that’s okay,” I said. In hindsight I’m a little angry that our society was in such a place at the time that I felt the need to say something like this. Imagine an employee asking her boss if it was “okay” that she had psoriasis, or diabetes.

“Of course it’s okay,” she said. “I don’t think there will be any problem with that around here. After all, it’s a medical condition, right? I don’t know why anybody would have a problem with that.”

I didn’t hide my sigh of relief. I’d had no reason to doubt she’d be supportive; she was socially progressive, and also kind. But gender stuff is at the edge of the envelope, even now; you can’t always predict how people will react when you come out to them. Not everyone is as broad-minded as they believe themselves to be.

Beth took the news fully in stride, assuring me this was no big deal to her. Not for the first time or the last, I was dealing with someone who went out of her way to assert her hipness bona fides by demonstrating how accepting and well-informed she was about this sort of phenomenon. “I used to live in Midtown,” she said, with a knowing nod.

What "Midtown Atlanta" means to most people. Source: Georgia Voice

What “Midtown Atlanta” means to most people.
Source: Georgia Voice

We talked for another ten minutes or so. We mostly talked about administrative stuff: my legal name change and adjusting various work-related documents.

I told her my rough timetable, which was to begin what’s clinically known as the “real life experience” the following spring, sometime after the General Assembly’s annual legislative session. She was relieved I didn’t intend to do this during the legislative session. I never would have done that; the session was a grueling three- or four-month interval of long, stressful days; transitioning during that season would have been harder on me than on anyone else.

And one more thing. Beth and I both recognized that my coming-out to the rest of our department would be more complicated than coming out to her, and I couldn’t do it one at a time. With Hallowe’en coming soon, I suggested it would be a good opportunity for us to gauge our coworkers’ reactions to the idea of a transgender person working among them. I would come in to the office en femme that day, when many others among us would also be in costume.

She liked this idea, and gave it her blessing. As I got up to leave, she reassured me again that everything was going to be all right.

“Nobody’s going to care, and it’s none of their damn business even if they do.”

At the time I had no reason to doubt her.

Next: a reason to doubt her.


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Autobiography: In Therapy, Part II.

That first session wasn’t actually the commencement of our “talk therapy;” I spent the whole first hour with Ms. Smith (still not her real name) filling out forms and discussing treatment goals and taking care of other such administrative matters. It wasn’t until the second session on the 26th, also a Wednesday, that we got down to business.

I drove down to her office after work, as before. I was excited. I’d been taking steps toward transitioning for several months, as I mentioned last time; these steps had consisted mainly of superficial things like learning about makeup and women’s clothes, although I was also enduring my excruciating first sessions of permanent hair removal via electrolysis.

That’s as much as I felt I could do on my own, but I was impatient. I wanted to receive an official, medical diagnosis, in accordance with the Standards of Care (SOC), so I could begin taking official, medical hormones. Ms. Smith could do this for me, just as she had done, she’d reassured me during our first session, for many other patients.

In her office for that second session, I eased down into the chair opposite her desk and shifted my weight around, finding the most comfortable pose. This was a historic occasion; I wanted to be as completely at ease as possible when I began sharing these thoughts I’d never spoken aloud before.

Ms. Smith sat at her desk chair and picked up a notepad and pen. I nodded in recognition informed by 142 reruns of The Bob Newhart Show. Yes, psychotherapists use notepads and pens. This seemed legit.

Source: blog.transgenderzone.com

Source: blog.transgenderzone.com

She wrote something at the top of her pad, probably my name and the date, then drew a horizontal line straight across. Then she spoke.

“So tell me,” she said, “When was the first time you remember feeling a sexual attraction to another man?”

If I were a filmmaker, and indulged in clichés, here’s where I’d add the sound effect of a needle being dragged across a vinyl record. My jaw fell open.

“Uh …” I said. My eloquence failed me. I was astounded. If I’d made a list of twenty questions I thought were likely to be the first thing my gender therapist asked me, this would not have been one of them. The question practically dripped with ignorance.

If I’d made a list of twenty questions I thought were likely to be the first thing my gender therapist asked me, this would not have been one of them. The question practically dripped with ignorance.

Nothing else she could have said would have filled me with more dismay. I’d embarked on this relationship confident I was putting my fate in the hands of an experienced professional, and with her very first question I realized she didn’t know shit about gender dysphoria or transgender people.

“I, uh …” I continued. Seriously? I thought. She’s really asking me this question?

Maybe some of my cisgender readers don’t understand what the problem was. Probably not many of you, if you’ve been reading this blog for long, but I’ll explain. “Gender dysphoria” describes an individual whose gender does not match the sex he or she was assigned at birth. “Sexual orientation” refers to whether a person is gay or straight or something else. Put simply and universally, “gender identity” is who you want to be, while sexual orientation is who you want to be with.

So a person assigned male at birth, but who is transgender, may be attracted to men, like heterosexual women, or may be attracted to other women, like lesbians. I don’t know the percentages, but they’re not important. What’s important is that sexual orientation and gender identity don’t track with each other; one doesn’t predict the other. That’s a Transgender 101 fact.

Ms. Smith’s question revealed not only that she was unaware of this, but moreover, she took it for granted that, as a person raised male who was seeking treatment for gender dysphoria, I must naturally be sexually oriented toward men. And that this “fact” was somehow so basic to my nature and so necessary to a diagnosis of my condition that it was the very first thing she asked me about.

“Never,” I finally answered. “I’ve never felt sexual attraction toward men. Why would you ask that? That doesn’t have anything to do with my gender identity.”

Now it was her turn to look shocked. “Uh …” she said.

Inside my head, I was spiraling into dismay. Since the epiphany I’d experienced the previous summer, transitioning was all I could think about. I was impatient to begin the medically sanctioned component of my transition. I wanted it done yesterday. But the SOC was both gatekeeper and keymaster—without an official diagnosis, there would be no Dana (or Vandy Beth), only Zuul. It was almost February now; if I left this “professional” and sought out another therapist, it could delay me another month or more getting the help I needed.

Gratuitous Ghostbusters references are always in order. Source: tashasthinkings.blogspot.com

Gratuitous Ghostbusters references are always in order.
Source: tashasthinkings.blogspot.com

“I thought you said you’d treated this kind of condition before.”

She nodded vigorously. Her tone of voice was defensive. “I have, yes! And, I—you mean to say you’ve never been attracted to another man?”

Oh, brother, I thought. This is going to be a bumpy ride.

I decided to keep seeing her rather than start the process over again, but we didn’t have the therapeutic relationship I had expected. I spent most of our sessions explaining the transgender experience to her instead of the other way around. In addition to the gender identity/sexual orientation blind spot, she admitted she’d never even heard of the SOC. I ended up printing out a .pdf of the latest version I’d found online and giving her a copy.

Of course I was irritated. I understand the need for “gatekeepers;” a gender transition wreaks great changes in a person’s life, and while it’s uncommon for a person to misdiagnose him- or herself, it does happen. It’s valuable to have an infrastructure in place like the SOC.

But that’s just it: the procedure is badly flawed, if therapists who don’t really know what they’re doing, like Ms. Smith obviously didn’t, can advertise that she has expertise in these matters. It can ruin lives.

Still, I got what I needed from her. About a month and a half after our first session, after four or five sessions total, she wrote what’s called a “referral letter.” This was a letter addressed to my primary care physician, printed on her letterhead stationery, confirming my self-diagnosis of “gender identity disorder” (which, again, is what it was called at the time).

We finished that session, and I was done with her. I would resume psychotherapy some time in the future, but never again with Ms. Smith. I would only see her one more time, and that wasn’t for psychological reasons.

Links to other excerpts in this series are gathered together on this page.


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Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.


Autobiography: In Therapy, Part 1.

In my last post, I shared a correspondence from an acquaintance who wanted guidance answering the question, “Am I transgender?” You can read my reply at the link provided.

My acquaintance followed up with a question about next steps:

When looking for someone to talk to about these matters, should I seek out an analyst who specializes in transgender issues, or is a therapist with a more general practice focusing on all sex issues sufficient?

Of course, as before, I paraphrased the question’s actual wording to help preserve my correspondent’s anonymity. But you guessed that, since nobody uses the word “analyst” outside of Woody Allen movies. And inside Woody Allen movies, analysts charge too much.

This is a difficult question to answer. No one’s sure ahead of time what one’s needs are in the psychological treatment realm; that’s part of the point of seeking treatment in the first place. It’s hard to know if the therapist you choose is going to be able to meet those needs. And your choice of therapist is going to be limited by what you can afford and who’s available under your health insurance umbrella.

So as a way of dodging the question entirely, I’ll just share my own experiences with mental health professionals as they relate to my gender identity journey. Maybe that can itself be instructive.

I’ve written before about my aborted “first transition” during my Navy years on Oahu. My second, successful transition began in late 2004, when I realized transitioning was the only way I’d have any hope of a happy and fulfilling life in the long run. I began looking into how to begin transitioning, and my research showed me that gender identity treatment in the United States (and in most of the world) was mediated by the Harry Benjamin Standards of Care (and it still is today, but now it’s more generally known as the WPATH Standards of Care. Any medical or surgical steps toward asserting my true gender, if I wanted to do it the legal and aboveboard way (as opposed to seeking out black-market hormones or silicone injections), would have to be in accordance with the Standards of Care (SOC).

That meant I had to find a psychologist or other mental health therapist and receive an official, medically-approved diagnosis of Gender Identity Disorder, or GID (as it was called by the DSM-IV at the time; now it’s “Gender Dysphoria”). I liked to imagine therapists had this phrase written on a rubber stamp with wide-serif capital letters, and when they accepted my self-diagnosis, it would be stamped on my chart in red ink.GID

I decided to wait until early 2005, when the new year’s health plan kicked in, before seeking treatment. During the open enrollment period in the fall of 2004, I made sure I selected options that would offer me the most coverage for the kind of treatment I thought I’d need.

In January 2005 I began to browse listings of in-network providers from my desk at work, seeing who had the specialty I sought. There was nothing illicit about this, generally speaking, but given the nature of my inquiry, internalized transphobia, and the general state of transgender acceptance at the time, I twisted my body into an unnatural, awkward position to hide my monitor from view of any passing coworkers. You know, because that wouldn’t raise any suspicions itself.

I found two or three counselors whose practice descriptions claimed they had experience with gender matters. None were close to my workplace, but one was way south of town, easy to get to from my house. She didn’t have a doctorate, but there were several letters after her name, which was Ms. Smith (note: her name was not Ms. Smith). I called her up and asked if she could help me. I spoke just above a whisper, my hand cupped over the receiver.

Two-thirds of her responses were, “I’m sorry, could you repeat that? I can barely hear you.” But she sounded confident she knew what she was doing and could help me. I made an appointment for late in the afternoon on the twelfth of January; a Wednesday. I would leave work early so I could just go home afterward.

I arrived early on the day; I’d left work way early in case the traffic was bad, but it hadn’t been. The walls of Ms. Smith’s (empty, except for me) waiting room were covered in inspirational posters, like that cat that’s been clinging to a bar since the early 1970s. On her coffee table, amid the months-old issues of Newsweek and People, were various brochures and pamphlets related to beating substance abuse. I realized that addiction counseling must be the main part of her practice. This didn’t ring any alarm bells; many therapists, I knew, have special interests. It doesn’t mean they can only treat one kind of patient, or that they’re ignorant of a variety of diagnoses. There aren’t many transgender people, so GID probably isn’t the main focus of most therapists. 

There aren’t many transgender people, so GID probably isn’t the main focus of most therapists.

After I’d been in the waiting room for twenty minutes or so, the door to Ms. Smith’s office opened. One woman walked out and headed for the exit, glancing at me only furtively; another woman, middle-aged, kind-faced, wearing a khaki skirt suit, stood in the doorway.

“Are you Glenn?” she asked. I nodded. “Come on in here, then.” She grandly waved me toward the office. She turned and headed back to her desk ahead of me; I followed.

There was no couch, because this was a real therapist’s office, not a New Yorker cartoon. Instead there was a comfortable chair positioned to face her desk chair when the latter swiveled away from the extremely cluttered desk. On the floor, next to the desk, was a white-noise generator, which Ms Smith turned on as she sat. Its purpose was to keep any Nosy Parkers in her waiting room from listening in on her sessions. Of course it wasn’t necessary now; I was her last appointment of the day.

As I sat down I noticed on the wall opposite my chair was a crumpled-up, empty pack of Pall Mall cigarettes, in a frame and captioned with the date of Ms. Smith’s last cigarette.

Aha! I thought. Like the Hair Club for Men president, she’s not just an addiction counselor; she’s a former addict herself!

This made a certain sense; many people with problems draw hope from knowing the person helping them has overcome the same sort of problem. Idly, I wondered what would be hanging in a frame on the wall if Ms. Smith had triumphed over being assigned the wrong sex at birth.

To be continued.


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I Get Letters.

I recently let it be known on social media that I welcome questions about the transgender experience, and that such questions can be anonymous if that makes correspondents more comfortable. Among other responses, I got an anonymous email from someone who says we’re acquainted on social media, but aren’t friends otherwise. The question the person asked is reproduced below:

I cross-dress. In the last several years, it’s dawned on me that, in part, this predilection stems from a childhood incident wherein I was sexually abused.

How would I determine if my crossdressing is just a fetish or if I’m farther along the spectrum?

You can probably guess that I’ve paraphrased the language of the question a little to further preserve the individual’s anonymity. Normal people, unlike me, don’t use words like “wherein.”

Below is my reply. I hope you readers may also find it helpful, or at least informative:

You say you believe you’re a crossdresser, in part, because you were molested as a child. I’d be interested to know if you have you been told this by a therapist or psychologist. I’m not a mental health professional myself, so I don’t state this with any sort of authority, but it’s my understanding that such a one-to-one correspondence between a childhood trauma and an adult paraphilia is a myth. In other words, if you crossdress, that’s probably just something you happen to be into—the way you’re wired. I very much doubt that your crossdressing is related to what happened to you as a child, even if that was a part of what happened to you.

(And by the way, my sympathies over having had that experience. That shouldn’t happen to anyone, and I can’t imagine how hard it must have been to go through that.)

As for whether your crossdressing is “just a fetish” or if you’re elsewhere on the spectrum, I don’t know if I have much to tell you about that either.

For starters, I wouldn’t say anything is “just a fetish.” “Fetish” isn’t even the right word; the technical term for this behavior is a “paraphilia,” if you want to do an in-depth search of the psychological literature. But

whatever you call it, it’s a part of who you are. A small part or a larger part (TBD), but it’s valid either way. There’s nothing wrong with it, it doesn’t make you dysfunctional or bad, and you should embrace it. And celebrate and acknowledge it, if you can do so without putting your safety or livelihood in jeopardy.

To your question about whether you’re “farther along the spectrum”—well, the spectrum model has its uses, but sometimes it’s better to think of the variety of gender identities not as a spectrum, but a road. Let’s say Point A is a gender dysphoric person who lives full time in his or her sex as assigned at birth, never crossdresses and has taken no outward steps toward transition.

Point B would be a gender dysphoric person who has legally changed his or her name and the sex marker on all legal documents, lives openly and full-time in the gender they were not assigned at birth, is on a regimen of hormone replacement therapy, and has availed him or herself of all possible transition-related surgeries and medical procedures.

Very few transgender people reach Point B. Point B is a long way from Point A. Most transgender people don’t have the resources they’d need to get there. But here’s the point too many people miss: not everyone even wants to get there. It’s an arbitrary goal, and one that doesn’t define us.

Therapists and pop culture tend to assume we all want to go to Point B, and it’s common to internalize that assumption. But you can stop and pitch your tent anywhere you want along the road. Returning briefly to the spectrum model, you’re trying to find your personal wavelength.

If occasional crossdressing satisfies you, then be satisfied with it. If you decide later that it’s not enough, and you want to spend a larger percentage of your time presenting as the other gender, then go with that. If you later come to want people to call you by a name more associated with the gender other than your birth sex, do that too. Etcetera. Maybe you’ll reach a place where you’re completely comfortable and don’t need to make any more “progress.” That’s fine, and it’s a process that all of us have gone through.

There’s no wrong way to be transgender. Look at Stu Rasmussen, the mayor of Silverton, Oregon. His journey doesn’t in any way resemble the iconic model of “transitioning” put in our heads by the likes of Renee Richards, Jenny Boylan, or Caitlyn Jenner. But Stu seems happy with who he is, and that’s the only standard he or you or I ever have to meet.

Put simply, don’t overthink it. What matters in your transition is that it’s your transition. And you are transitioning; by occasionally crossdressing, you’ve already left Point A. Your eventual destination is entirely up to you.


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The Thousand Days.

I’m a big fan of the BBC period TV series, Call The Midwife. I particularly like the 1950s slang and Britishisms spoken by the nuns and nurses[1] on the show. There’s one that I hear a version of approximately eleventy times per episode: “every day God sends,” or “all the hours God sends.”

I like the thought behind this expression; the idea that the day after this one isn’t guaranteed; it’s instead a fresh packet of time, constructed as-needed by the Creator and sent down to us so we can get on with the next little bit of the future. It puts me in mind of a locomotive chugging down a track that’s being built right in front of it. It can’t go forward another length of rail until the next pair of rails has been laid.

I began a daily running streak on February 17, 2013. I’ve blogged before about the reasons why. Since that date, running every day has become an essential part of my life, and I no longer feel any angst or worry about breaking the streak due to laziness or fatigue, or simply forgetting. It’s easy to plan my days around my runs, to find the minimal motivation required, and to deal with the unforeseen. When I get busy with some project, or am called out of town, or have a medical emergency (as over the summer, when I broke a finger), I find a way to accommodate the daily run. I’ll do it. Every day. #RunningEveryDay, if you follow hashtags.

Where all the magic happens.

Where all the magic happens.

Yesterday I reached a minor milestone: Run 1,000. It looks like a bigger deal than it is. Yes, I’m now in the quadruple digits, and it took a long time to get there (999 days, to be precise), but it really wasn’t so hard. According to the United States Running Streak Association’s Official U.S.A. Active Running Streak List, any streak under five years is still “Neophyte” level (some of the runners on that list are in the quintuple digits). And while people often use “a thousand days” as a synonym for “three years,” this milestone isn’t even that; my third anniversary is still three months away.

Still, I’m going to take some pride in this. I’ve loved running most of my adult life, but there isn’t much that distinguishes me, among all the world’s runners. I’ve never been very fast, and these days I’m embarrassingly slow; thanks to age and estrogen, it’s rare that I get below a ten-minute mile anymore.

And the time of long-distance runs appears to be behind me. I logged a marathon many years ago and have lost count of all the half-marathons and 10ks I’ve run, but these days it’s very uncommon for me to reach ten or even eight miles. I’d love it if I could run another marathon one day, but I don’t think it’s likely. I no longer have the juice.

So I do slow, short runs (although never less than three miles anymore). Nothing special, nothing to impress. But I do it every day. That’s my thing. I run every day.

I know that eventually something will break my streak. That’s inevitable. I’ll break an ankle, or have another medical emergency, or get trapped in an elevator, or some other crisis will befall me. It’s only a matter of time, whether it’s in a month or 10,000 days from now: eventually, the streak will be broken.

So I don’t take it for granted, ever. When speaking of tomorrow, I always say “if I run,” not “when I run,” because I can’t be certain the run will happen, and someday it won’t.

Until then, I’ll continue to get up each morning and only plan to run that day. Every day God sends.


[1] New role-playing game!


Autobiography: Congress, Part 2.

Wait, yesterday’s post was wrong. I didn’t speak first; Representative Barney Frank did:

(You can see me sitting behind Frank’s right shoulder; my attorney, Cole, is to my left.)

He went first because he had somewhere else to be. He spoke, then left. He wasn’t a member of the committee, anyway.

Frank’s testimony was much anticipated and scrutinized, because the last time ENDA had come before Congress, in 2007, he had allowed transgender protections to be stripped from the language of the bill. He justified this change by saying the bill couldn’t have passed the House of Representatives if the transgender language remained in it.

This was a bullshit argument. In 2007, the Senate was in the hands of a Republican majority that would not have passed any version of ENDA, and living in the White House was a bigoted Republican President who would not have signed any version of ENDA. So there was no reason not to swing for the fences with the House’s wording of the bill. Compromising on a bill that had no chance of passage anyway served no purpose other than pissing off almost every national LGBT rights group (except the Human Rights Campaign (HRC); its director at the time, Joe Solmonese, was always ready to throw transgender people under the bus) and changing the perception of Barney Frank from that of an ally to a villain.

As you can hear if you listen to the video above, in 2009 Frank’s remarks had an unmistakable “transgender employees, yay!” quality to them.

Rep. Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin also spoke. At the time, she and Frank were two of only three gays in Congress at the time; the third, Jared Polis of Colorado, didn’t speak, but I think he was there as a committee member.rsz_enda_hearing1

Then it was my turn. Cole had written my testimony, as I’ve noted. Most people assume I wrote them myself, but I try to remember to give Cole the credit he’s due. Sure, I’m also a writer, but for this purpose Cole brought certain skills to the task that I didn’t have. With only five minutes to work with, my words had to have maximum information content, yet still tickle the committee’s compassion bones in a way that convinced them that passing ENDA would help people like me.

The words were all accurate and true to my experiences, and the break in my voice was all me.

Several of my coaches at NGLTF the day before had wanted some mention of my Navy experience in my testimony, because letting it drop that you’re a veteran always plays well in the cheap seats. I successfully argued against that, on several grounds.

For one, my Navy service was a pretty important and formative time in my life, but it was still only four years out of my life, and they didn’t have anything to do with my case or with ENDA.

Secondly, I wasn’t a very good officer, so it felt wrong to try to make hay out of that experience.

Third, and most of all, it feels like a cliché to me to mention a transgender woman’s military service. The media loves to find the irony in a story, and since serving in the military is often characterized as the epitome of masculinity, they can’t resist contrasting it apparently going to the other extreme. This angle goes back at least as far as Christine Jorgensen in the 1950s, with “Ex-GI Becomes Blonde Beauty!” and similar headlines. I wanted no part of it.

ExGIBlondeBeauty

Thank you, but no.

My testimony did its job nonetheless. Chairman George Miller of California (not the director of the Mad Max films) seemed genuinely stunned that anyone could be as callous and closed-minded as Sewell Brumby had been. Several other committee members also seemed moved. They didn’t ask me many questions, though. Beyond my testimony, there wasn’t much else to say.

After I spoke, the other witnesses took their turns. One was a pro-equality rabbi; another was Stuart J. Ishimaru of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Craig Parshall of the National Religious Broadcasters predictably spoke against the passage of ENDA. I didn’t know of him, but his wife was asshole radio host Janet Parshall.

The committee spent most of its time talking with Ishimaru about the nuts and bolts of implementing ENDA: how it would affect American workplaces, what accommodations would need to be made, how many people would stand to benefit from it, etc.

They were pretty much done with me now. Mara Keisling of NCTE had encouraged me to insert myself into the conversation wherever possible, to help focus the attention on the specific needs of transgender people and to remind everyone just what’s at stake. But I wasn’t able to; the hearing became very technical, very quickly. I had neither the credentials nor the knowledge to contribute anything further.

And then it was all over. The hearing adjourned. The aftermath is all a blur. I remember shaking the hand of Dennis Kucinich, who praised my bravery (in 2009, everyone I met praised my bravery). David snagged my notes and grabbed my nameplate off the witnesses’ bench. “For history,” he said. I think he may still have them.

Back at … somewhere, I was handed a phone and told a reporter from the ABC News website, Devin Dwyer, wanted to interview me. He’d been watching the committee’s feed in some

This was the guy with all the answers.

This was the guy with all the answers.

Capitol press room. This is the story he wrote. Like all journalists who’ve ever interviewed me, he got several of his facts wrong, but since one of his errors was to say I was 30 years old, I’m overall pleased with his reportage.

Then David, Cole, and I found ourselves in the office of Rep. John Lewis, chatting with Lewis and his chief of staff (whose name I’ve forgotten; sorry!). Cole and I both lived in Lewis’s Congressional district, which we were proud to tell him. He hadn’t been able to attend the hearing, but he was, and is, and always has been a strong ally. In his mind, he told us, the fight for civil rights for LGBT people is exactly the same as the fight for equality for African-Americans and every other minority.

He gets it. He has always gotten it. We spent half an hour chatting with him, and it was the only time that day I felt star struck.

No time for sightseeing. After we left the Capitol, Mara ordered up a Zip car and drove us all back to the airport. We boarded our plane and I went almost immediately to sleep. I don’t even remember takeoff.

And why shouldn’t I sleep? I’d helped convince a Congressional committee that ENDA was necessary, and it enjoyed support among the majority in both houses of Congress and the sitting President. I still didn’t know whether I’d win my lawsuit, but I could rest easy knowing that, by the end of 2009, the discrimination I’d endured would be illegal.

Yeah, I was an idiot.


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Autobiography: Congress, Part 1

Here’s another post in my ongoing autobiography project. If you like reading these posts, please consider helping me out financially; I’m crowdfunding this project via my Patreon account. You can read more about my ambitions here.

Today, September 23, is an important anniversary for me. It’s the day I became the first openly transgender person to testify before a Congressional committee. Here’s the first part of the story.

In mid-September 2009 I got a call from my attorney, Cole Thaler. He had a proposition for me. The Education and Labor Committee of the U.S. House of Representatives was preparing to convene a hearing where it would receive testimony about the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA), which would extend federal employment protections to lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) Americans. Several versions of the bill had languished in Congress for over fifteen years; now, with a friendly President, friendly veto-proof majorities in both the House and the Senate, and support by wide majorities in issue polls, equality-minded progressives had decided it was time to finally pass it.

This hearing would be the first step. Testimony would be given by the usual policy wonks and attorneys, but they also wanted a witness whose life had been adversely affected by the lack of ENDA. A call was put out nationwide by the National Center for Transgender Equality (NCTE) and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force (NGLTF, but they’re now known as the National LGBTQ Task Force) to find such a witness, and the powers that be at Lambda Legal had asked Cole to ask me if I was interested.

During the course of my lawsuit, Cole (and my other attorneys, Greg Nevins and Dru Levasseur) asked me to make appearances at several public events, and whether or not I accepted was governed by these two questions, in order:

1. Will it be good for the LGBT community?

2. Will it be good for our case?

If the answer to #1 was “yes,” I always accepted. (If the answer to #2 was “no,” they usually didn’t bring the idea to me in the first place, but I tried to do everything I could that was good forNCTE-logo the community, even if it might be bad for the lawsuit.)

This time I said “yes,” of course. This one was a no-brainer. The passage of ENDA would make what Sewell Brumby had done to me illegal, nationwide. If my testimony could help make that happen, there’s no way I could say no.

There were three other people under consideration for the role. I don’t remember the details, but I believe they were all also transgender, and their stories were also compelling. I think the committee wanted a transgender person, because we stood even closer to the front lines of this fight than lesbians and gays.

At that time, our lawsuit had been filed about 14 months previously, and over the summer our district court judge had turned down the plaintiffs’ motion to dismiss with a lengthy, point-by-point refutation of their justification for firing me. He hinted broadly that, if everything we’d alleged was true (and it was), he would eventually rule in our favor.

Counterintuitively, we suspected this would make the committee less likely to choose me as a witness: if I was on track to win my lawsuit, it sort of suggested I didn’t need ENDA, right? Certainly hundreds of LGBT people are fired from jobs every year, and most of their circumstances didn’t give them the option to sue that Lambda Legal and I had pounced upon. It seemed likely that one of these other three candidates had more woeful tales of woe.

I’ll probably never know, since I wasn’t privy to the decision-making process. But in the end, they did choose me. I had to keep it a secret until the day before, but I wasn’t telling anyone then, because I spent that day traveling.

Cole and I flew up to Washington together early on TuesdayTF_logo_pos_arrow morning, the 22nd. My best friend, David Deriso, came along on his own dime. Mara Keisling of NCTE met us at the airport and drove us into the district, where we were installed in a hotel near the Congressional office building where the hearings would be held. Then walked a few blocks to the headquarters of the NGLTF.

Cole had written my testimony, which was strictly limited to five minutes. We spent all afternoon at a conference table. Some of the biggest names in LGBT political activism told me what to expect from the hearing, how I should respond to questions, and how best to comport myself. I may or may not have walked the length of the room balancing a book on my head.

I memorized my testimony, although I’d also have notecards the next day. I rehearsed it over and over as Mara timed me with her iPhone’s stopwatch app. By the time we were done, I was hitting within a few seconds under the five-minute mark.

Finally, I was as ready as I was going to be, and we knocked off to go relax a little. We found ourselves at a nearby restaurant/bar in what I was told was one of D.C.’s many gay neighborhoods.

While there, I saw a face out of the past. At a booth near the front door was my old shipmate, Trey, dining with another man. I hadn’t seen or spoken to him in years. I wanted to go say hello to him, and to this day I regret that I didn’t, but at the time my thinking was that there would be more explaining to do than I had the excess emotional energy for. I did Google him later that night, and learned that after he’d also left the Navy, he joined an association for gay Annapolis grads. And the wheel keeps turning.

I didn’t sleep well that night, but I was so adrenalized and nervous the next morning that it didn’t matter. We took a taxi to Congress and went into an antechamber to the hearing room. It was here that I met Tico Almeida, who at the time worked for George Miller, a California Congressman and the chairman of the committee. It was Tico’s idea to bring a victim of discrimination to speak at this hearing. He later founded Freedom to Work.

This was the panel of witnesses (h/t bilerico and my friend Jillian Weiss). You can see a couple of anti-equality conservative names there, added by the Republican vice chairman. I don’t know why he insisted, since not a single Republican committee member showed up for the hearing.

Each of us gave our testimony, then took questions. I went first:

Tomorrow: Part 2.


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Autobiography: 20th Century Man, Part Two.

Here’s Part Two of this excerpt from my in-progress autobiography. Part One is here. If you’d like to help me crowd-fund this project, please click the “Donate” button at the bottom of this post, or visit my Patreon page. Thank you!

I got up and left, Beth following behind. I moved briskly, despite my mood. I was glad it was lunchtime and most people were out; I didn’t want to encounter anyone on my way back to the editors’ office. I liked my coworkers, every one of them, and seeing them would have punctuated what I had just lost, and cost me the composure I was barely hanging on to. Now that the worst-case scenario had come to pass, I wanted to escape the Capitol as soon as possible and go commiserate with my cats or a bottle or both.

At the landing halfway up the stairs, while briefly out of Beth’s sight, I stuck my left hand into my trouser pocket for a moment, then quickly withdrew it.

I shouldn’t have been shocked by what had just happened. All the evidence, beginning with the incident on Hallowe’en the previous year, had pointed to this action as inevitable. I’d had no reason to believe Brumby would act according to compassion or empathy. Or, if he’d fired me because he thought it would please his “bosses,” as he called them, the conservative Republicans who ran the General Assembly, I’d wrongly credited him with a courage and loyalty to his subordinates that he obviously lacked.

Either way, in firing me, he’d revealed himself to be small-minded and mean, entirely deserving of a name like a villain in a Charles Dickens novel.

"I don't believe this guy." SOURCE: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charles_Dickens

“I don’t believe this guy.”
SOURCE: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charles_Dickens

Back in the editors’ office, I sat down at my (now former) desk to pack. I took a breath and willed myself not to rush. I’d been caught off-guard, but I was going to do this right and protect myself as well as I could. While I doubted I could find an attorney willing to take a case like this in deep-red, “right-to-work” Georgia, I was going to do everything I could to preserve as much of a chance for myself as possible.

I opened Outlook and forwarded to my personal email account any and all messages I thought might conceivably relate to my job, my work performance, my relationships with my colleagues, or my gender identity. Then I trashed my email file and browser history and cleared my browser cookies. I didn’t think there was anything questionable among those items, but I didn’t want to have to worry whether there was. Not that it would have occurred to anyone to tell the IT department to examine the machine; I have no doubt the Acer desktop was reformatted and issued to someone else by the end of the week.

Beth stood next to my desk, arms crossed, a look of deep unease on her face. Larry and Eugie were looking at us querulously from their desks.

“Tell them what just happened,” I told Beth. Her lips parted, but she didn’t say anything. In that moment I realized Sewell must have admonished her to be reticent. It was my first hint he was in any way concerned that firing a transgender employee could come back to haunt him.

“They deserve to know,” I persisted. Put on the spot, Beth finally spilled it.

“Sewell has just fired Glenn.” She stopped abruptly, like she knew that wasn’t a complete answer, but was afraid to continue it.

“Tell them why,” I prodded. She hesitated again.

“For … the obvious reason.” Eugie bit her lip and looked shocked. Larry didn’t show any emotion. He wasn’t surprised.

Done flushing my electronic files, I shut down my computer and looked around my desk. I’ve always been too much of a pack rat, but I was still surprised at all the things I’d accumulated in just two years. Pens, pencils, cartoons tacked to the wall, a page-a-day calendar, a few books, paperweights… In the drawers were employment-related documents: tax forms, direct deposit paperwork; plus a few blocks of ramen and cans of fruit. “I’m going to need a box,” I said. An empty printer-paper carton appeared from somewhere. Larry produced a second and placed it on top of my inbox.

It took me at least ten minutes to empty my drawers and stuff everything into the boxes. I was systematic and thorough. I wanted to be gone, but I wasn’t going to leave anything behind; again, if I hoped to ever win justice for this outrage, the more material I retained in my possession, the better. I couldn’t see any reason to hurry.

Clearly growing impatient, Beth tried to hurry me along. “I think Sewell wants you out of here as soon as possible,” she said urgently.

Despite myself, I nearly burst into laughter. Why would she think I cared what Sewell wanted? He wasn’t my employer anymore; was he going to call the Capitol Police to drag me away? But I didn’t say anything.

The founder of Georgia does not approve. SOURCE: georgiainfo.galileo.usg.edu/statues_monuments

The founder of Georgia does not approve.
SOURCE: georgiainfo.galileo.usg.edu/statues_monuments

Once I had all my belongings boxed up, the four of us left the office via the mezzanine door. I carried my jacket and my messenger bag; Larry and Eugie each had one of my boxes. We went halfway down the divided main steps to the bust of James Oglethorpe, then down the rest of the way to the basement. I looked morosely at Oglethorpe, and at the other familiar monuments and embellishments. I saw everything with the certainty that it was for the last time. No matter what happens now, I remember thinking, Even if I can sue, even if I win—I’ll never work here ever again. It was the saddest thought I’d had all day.

We went out the doors and across Capitol Avenue to the employee parking deck and my truck. I put my things in the front passenger seat, handed my badge and key to Beth, and shook her hand. “It was great working with you,” I told her. I meant it.

“Good luck,” she replied. “I’ll give you a minute to say goodbye to Eugie.”

I shook Larry’s hand. Eugie and I hugged. She smiled at me sadly. I think I wanted to say something to her, but I don’t remember what. It didn’t matter anyway; Eugie and I were friends before we were also coworkers, and that was never going to change.

I got in my truck and drove out of the deck.

A mile away I pulled into a space at the Grant Park CVS Pharmacy and parked. I got out my phone and called Lorraine at Lambda Legal. I’d spoken to her a couple of times before. She was one of the legal assistants, and she’d given me general advice about how to protect myself, but couldn’t do more until I’d actually been fired. Part of her job was to be a gatekeeper for Lambda Legal’s attorneys; they were overworked and didn’t have time to discuss hypotheticals. If and when I got fired, then they’d have something to respond to.

Lorraine answered.

“It’s happened,” I said. “My boss just fired me for being transgender.” I transferred my phone to my right hand and dug into my trouser pocket with my left.

“It’s happened,” I said. “My boss just fired me for being transgender.”

I heard her reach for a notepad. “Are you sure that was the reason? Did he put it like that?” Work like Lambda Legal’s requires rigorous attention to detail.

“That’s definitely the reason,” I answered, “but those weren’t the exact words he used…”

“We need to know his exact words,” she said.

“No problem,” I replied as I pulled the tiny electronic device out of my pocket and unplugged the wire of the lavaliere mike tucked inside the cuff of my left sleeve. “I recorded the whole conversation.”

Posts in my ongoing Autobiography Project:
Rock In the Stream.
Paradise Glossed.
Paradise Glossed, Part 2.
2003.
20th Century Man, Part One.
Perspective.

If you’d like to support my writing efforts, please consider making a monetary contribution:


Thank you!


Bruce Jenner.

Here’s a panel from Mad Magazine’s parody of the 1970s “Incredible Hulk” TV show, which appeared in issue No. 204 in 1979:

ElloBruce

Wait long enough and everything becomes ironic. Last Friday, April 24, after months of gossip, speculation, and some rude and unkind jokes, Bruce Jenner came out as a transgender woman in an interview with Diane Sawyer of ABC News. It’s a big deal.

The viewing audience was told Jenner prefers to use male pronouns until he begins presenting as female in public. That’s what I’ll go with here.

Jenner is not the first famous transgender American; there’s a small crowd of them now. But he’s the most well-known by far, especially within that small club who transitioned after they were already famous. Apart from Jenner, I can only name three: Alexis Arquette, Lana Wachowski and Chaz Bono.

It’s silly even to call these three “famous” compared to Jenner. I’d bet everyone who reads this will have to look up at least one of those names. Bruce Jenner has been in the public eye for decades, and is better recognized than anyone else I’ll mention in this post, including Diane Sawyer. He’s known as an Olympic gold medalist, businessman and TV star. That’s why his journey has garnered such intense scrutiny. We’ve never seen this scenario play out on this level before.

Source: US Magazine

Different days.

Many LGBT people I know, especially in the transgender community, are enraged by the attention, and hurry to observe how easy his transition has been.

It’s true; Jenner has every advantage one could wish for. He is white, wealthy, surrounded by supportive family (even his ex-wives have been spirited cheerleaders), and resides in the most progressive state in the nation. His transition will be smooth sailing from start to finish.

He won’t have trouble meeting transition-related medical or surgical needs. He won’t be hassled by a county judge when he goes to complete his legal name change. The TSA will never single him out for a humiliating body cavity check if he tries to fly while his identity documents don’t match his appearance. If his children were still minors, their other relatives wouldn’t try to take them from his custody, citing his gender dysphoria as the sole and sufficient reason.

His circumstances don’t put him at higher risk for suicide. He has the means to protect himself, so he has no reason to fear homicide at the hands of violent transphobes.

He won’t get fired from his job. In fact, he’ll probably make money off his transition, if his new reality show is a hit.

All those horrors have happened, and continue to happen, to less fortunate transgender people—especially the ones who are women, or impoverished, or nonwhite minorities—or who are all three. Follow the links. After the interview aired, while Lady Gaga and other celebrities were tweeting their praise to Jenner for his “bravery,” Ashley Diamond, a black transgender woman, continued to languish in the Georgia men’s prison system, where she has been mocked and misgendered by other inmates and corrections officers, denied hormone therapy, and repeatedly raped. In the unlikely event Jenner must do prison time for the fatal accident he caused back in February, it’s a certainty his straits will never become as dire as Ms. Diamond’s. The two may as well live in different universes.

Source: General Mills

Were the photos really in black and white back then?

Life isn’t as bad for all of us as it has been for Ms. Diamond, but it’s bad enough, for enough of us, that to call Jenner brave is like praising my cat for all her hard work in curling up on a warm cushion and sleeping all day. It’s not right that we’re so taken with him, so impressed, when so many others are forgotten or maligned or thrown away to die.

And yet, that’s exactly why Bruce matters so much. Yes, of course the public should care more about transgender people who aren’t white or famous or rich. But they don’t. That’s human nature. We sympathize better with others we perceive as being like us. For the white, middle-class majority, that’s someone like Bruce Jenner. Because he’s like them, they can’t dismiss his transition as some bizarre, foreign otherness; something only “those people” do. He’s bringing gender dysphoria into the suburban house next door.

The male image of Bruce Jenner is in people’s heads. Soon it will be joined by the female image. People will be forced to reconcile one with the other, and to comprehend that all the things they appreciated about the previous version are still there in the update.

Everyone goes through this process when a friend or relative comes out as transgender. Now, through Bruce, everyone who hasn’t had that experience will have it by proxy. And when they realize it’s okay for him to be transgender, they’ll realize it’s okay for everyone else as well.

This is what we’re striving toward: a society in which being transgender by itself isn’t remarkable, and we can earn distinction instead through our unique achievements. As author Jennifer Finney Boylan says, we’ll know the fight for acceptance is over when “[W]e are as boring as anyone else.”

A version of this post also appears this week as a column in Georgia Voice.

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Transparent.

Last month Amazon.com’s Instant Video service debuted its new TV series, Transparent. All ten episodes went live to stream via the Internet in a model copied from Netflix, with its many original series.Transparentposter

Transparent, a comedy/drama, is the creation of filmmaker and television writer Jill Soloway. It stars Jeffrey Tambor as Maura, a Southern California transgender woman who has lived most of her life as a male and is now, late in life, beginning her transition to female. She has an ex-wife and three adult children. The show is about her transition and the effect it has on herself and her family.

Jeffrey Tambor is not a transwoman, of course, and this fact has made Transparent the subject of some controversy in the transgender community. In July the pilot episode was screened in Los Angeles at the Outfest Film Festival, and in the panel discussion afterward, a transgender blogger criticized the casting of Tambor in the leading role, calling it “transface” and insisting a transgender actress would have been a better choice.

Soloway defended her casting decision thusly:  “Maura is coming out late in life. A lot of people in that situation do not physically transition. At this point in the story, it’s possible to have a cis male play the character.” She added, “Jeff was in my head before the issue became politicized to me. I didn’t see a controversy.”

I’m guessing by “do not physically transition” she meant that for someone so old (I don’t know exactly how old Maura is supposed to be, but Tambor is 70) hormone replacement therapy does little to affect a transwoman’s appearance. Breast growth will be minimal, and facial features won’t soften and become more feminine in appearance as they would for someone who transitions earlier in life. It was an odd way for Soloway to phrase it, but if that’s what she meant, she’s probably correct. And she’s not without experience in these matters; her own father came out as transgender in 2011. Transparent is fiction, but it’s informed by her own family’s experiences.

My partner and I have seen the first three episodes so far. Maura’s experiences in the present day, and especially the flashback scenes set in her repressed and closeted past, dredge up powerful emotions in me, so it’s not the sort of show I could binge on. But I’m enjoying it, and I think it’s fine that Tambor was cast in the part.

I agree it’s usually best to cast an actor who is a member of a particular race, minority, or community when making a film or TV show about a character in that category, when possible. Transgender people should play transgender people; Asians should play Asians; actors with Asperger’s should play people who have Asperger’s.

Not a Chinese actor.

Not a Chinese actor.

This is especially true when the minority in question has a history of being marginalized by Hollywood. I’m thinking of the Chinese detective Charlie Chan, who notoriously was played in all of his popular movies by white actors. Caucasian actress Donna Reed played Sacajawea, who was Shoshone, in The Far Horizons. A year later, Shirley MacLaine played an Indian princess in Around The World In 80 Days.

All outrageous casting choices, and I’m certain they were a result of the racist assumption, which I hope is going away, that Caucasians are the “default” race in the U.S., and they’re who Americans wanted to see as protagonists on screen, even in roles that aren’t Caucasian.

watermelonman

Not a Caucasian actor.

But sometimes the story makes it impossible to cast authentically. Melvin Van Peebles’ great comedy Watermelon Man was about a racist white man who spontaneously turned into a black man overnight. Since one actor played the role both before and after the transformation, would it have been “right” to cast a black man or a white man?

Sally Potter’s movie Orlando is about a person who lives 400 years, half as a man, then half as a woman. Whomever Potter cast would have to play against sex and gender for 50 percent of the scenes. She cast the great Tilda Swinton; should she have cast a male actor?

Not an actor.

Not an actor.

Another example that comes to mind is Gary Sinise in Forrest Gump. His character, Lt. Dan, lost both his legs in the Vietnam War. Sinise has both his legs; the director painted them out using CGI special effects. Ideally, you’d hire an amputee actor to play an amputee, but Lt. Dan’s story begins in the time before he lost his legs. Casting Sinise was a practical choice. An amputee couldn’t have played the character with legs as easily as Sinise played him without legs.

If Transparent were set entirely in the present day, and Maura were past her transition, I’d also have been critical if a transgender actress hadn’t played her. That’s not the case. Maura is just beginning her transition; in the first episode she hadn’t told her loved ones her secret and still presented as male most of the time. Furthermore, many scenes are set in the past, in the time when Maura, still Mort to everyone she knew, was still learning how to cope with her gender dysphoria.

A transgender actress could play those scenes, sure, but it would be a lot to ask of her emotionally (I know I couldn’t do it), and could be a makeup and special effects challenge, depending on how different the actress looked from her pre-transition self. I remember thinking how brave it was of Laverne Cox to play her character’s pre-transition self in flashback scenes in Orange Is The New Black; later I learned it hadn’t been her, but her (formerly identical) twin brother in those scenes. That was a brilliant casting move, but one that wouldn’t be available for most productions.

Tambor is good in the part because we still see so much of Mort in the show. He’s also good, I’d argue, precisely because he’s not transgender.

Much of the U.S. still thinks transgender people are bizarre, exotic, even mentally ill. There’s a whole lotta Othering going on. Jeffrey Tambor is a well-known actor who has been on TV screens for decades now. People know him and like him, and know he’s not transgender himself. That makes him the perfect guide to take audiences along on this journey, to show them that, just as Jeffrey Tambor is an ordinary, sympathetic individual, so is Maura, and by extension, all transgender people.

Parenthetically, Tambor was also in the cast of Arrested Development a show I enjoyed, but which was guilty at times of some shockingly transphobic attempts at humor. So another good reason for Tambor to play Maura is so he has a chance to pay off that karmic debt.

Yes, casting Tambor to play Maura meant a transgender actress didn’t get the job, and it’s fair to guess unemployment is even worse among transgender actresses than for transgender women in general. But Soloway’s not ignoring the transgender community. According to this New York Times story from August 31:

Soloway enacted a transfirmative action program, favoring the hiring of transgender candidates over nontransgender ones. It wasn’t just a corrective to the trans community’s high rates of unemployment. Soloway wanted to create a set on which inclusivity was more than a buzzword, a place where no one should ever feel that they are part of a majority — not even the majority, whoever that might be on a particular day. ‘I really want it so that there’s no moment, on the set, when trans people are being otherized by people in the crew because they don’t think there are any trans people listening.’ As of this writing, 20 trans people had been hired in the cast and crew, and more than 60 had been employed as extras.

She also hired two full-time transgender consultants to steer her away from any pitfalls.

Those two consultants are Zackary Drucker and Rhys Ernst, who know as much about being transgender as any three people, even though they are only two.

Transparent is doing right by us. It is respectful, carefully thought out, and thoroughly researched, and by her life experiences and by her hiring, writing, and production decisions, Jill Soloway has shown she has the authority and credibility to tell her story the way she’s telling it. It’s not transphobic in any way, least of all in the casting.

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Dye My Eyes And Call Me Pretty.

A friend of mine, a cisgender man, recently posted this question to my Facebook wall:

Okay, so a question that’s thrown a wooden shoe into my gears: I’ve been raised to accept that gender roles are generally bullshit. It is acceptable for women to fix cars. It is acceptable for men to bake cakes. A woman fixing a car does not make her less “ladylike.” A man baking a cake is not more feminine due to the baking of said cake. Transgendered [sic] people seem to welcome gender roles (beyond dress and outward appearance) as a method of reinforcing their identity. Is that regressive, and if not, how?

It’s a fair question, based on his experiences. I assured Emmett (his name is Emmett) his experience is specialist, anecdotal, and wrong. I know hundreds of transgender people, men and women, and their range of acceptance or rejection of gender roles and expectations is as broad as it is for cisgender people. Also, it’s possible there’s confirmation bias at work: Maybe he’s not noticing the clichéd behavior in cisgender people so much because subconsciously he’s more evaluative of transgender people.

It may be true that transgender people as a group are slightly more likely to exhibit stereotypical gendered behavior and preferences. That’s probably true, in fact. Several factors contribute to that. Here are some that come to mind.

First, and probably most significantly, many transgender people go out of their way to embody gender stereotypes when they’ve just begun their transitions. This is a way for them to revel in and celebrate this aspect of themselves that they’ve finally come to accept. Transwomen may buy of floral prints and jewelry; transmen may complain about shopping or buy cowboy boots. Chaz Bono talked in a 2011 interview (early in his transition) about how “testosterone” had changed his behavior:

There is something in testosterone that makes talking and gossiping really grating. I’ve stopped talking as much.

Elsewhere in the interview he talked about his growing interest in “gadgets,” implying there’s something essentially male in that interest, or that male hormones (and transitioning) had brought it to the fore in him. It’s a cartoonish and untrue stereotype that has historically (and wrongly) discouraged women from entering math and science fields, but apparently Chaz believed it, and used it as an example of his new “maleness.” Really, he was just being a jerk. Maybe he even believed “being a jerk” is also a male trait.

I wrote above that new transitioners “celebrate” their gender. That’s not always the right word. Some low-information transgender people indulge in this hyper-masculine or hyper-feminine behavior because they believe they should want to. Their understanding of gender is as simple and wrong as everyone else’s, and badly outdated.

Outdated at least back to the mid-twentieth century, when Johns Hopkins University was the only place in the United States to get reputable treatment for “transsexualism” (as it was called at the time), the university’s diagnosis protocols required people seeking hormones or surgery to conform to these stereotypes. Transwomen had to pretend to like crinoline dresses and dating men, even if they didn’t. The university was the gatekeeper, and if its diagnosticians doubted their patients’ sincerity, they got no treatment. While medical and psychological care has improved vastly since then, but many transgender people still think this way.

Also, especially for transgender women, conforming to stereotypes is simply a survival strategy. It’s easier for a transgender woman to “pass” if she’s wearing makeup and a skirt and walking with a sway in her hips, and if she fails to pass, she could literally be risking her life.

There’s a lower-stakes version of this, too. The world misgenders us all the time, calling us “sir” or “ma’am” where the reverse would be preferred, or using the wrong pronouns with us. It’s not always malicious; some folks just do it absentmindedly or subconsciously. I briefly worked with a sixtysomething man a few years ago who had been a military pilot, and the whine of aircraft engines had destroyed his ability to hear the upper registers of human speech. As a result, certain qualities in my voice meant he often said “he” when mentioning me to a third party. He didn’t mean to, and always hastened to apologize. The cognitive error got into his brain at a deep, primitive level, and it was hard for him to excise it. I corrected him, and he was contrite when I did so.

Firmly asserting our gender identity from time to time, in small ways or large, can be a subtle, nonconfrontational way to remind others how to be respectful of our gender identity.

Perhaps most of all, transwomen are still women and transmen are still men. If they perpetuate behaviors stereotypical of their gender, it’s because at least a plurality of people of that gender exhibit those behaviors. And that’s okay. There’s nothing wrong with women being feminine or men being masculine, as long as we acknowledge that’s the norm, but not normative. It’s fine for women to be masculine and men to be feminine as well.

I myself love embrace my femininity without fetishizing it. I like high heels and usually wear makeup, but I more often wear jeans than skirts. I’ve been known to cry when watching insurance ads on television, but I’ve also been seen to drool when browsing the tool department at Home Depot. If the 21st century is teaching us anything, it’s that we should all finally feel free to simply be who we are.


Freedom of Speech in the United States

This is how the First Amendment’s protection of our right to free speech works:

Person A: My opinion is [states opinion].
Person B: I disagree. My opinion is [states contrary opinion].

This is how too many people today think the First Amendment’s protection of our right to free speech works:

Person A: My opinion is–
Person B: SHUT UP!