COMES NATURALLY #90
November 19, 1999
Copyright © 1999 David Steinberg
During the one-hour flight from San Jose to Burbank I try to get clear on why I am on this plane, on my way to a conference that I know almost nothing about.
I know that the conference, titled "Forward Motion," will be an international gathering of female-to-male transsexuals, together with their friends, lovers, and allies, for a weekend of workshops, cultural events, networking, and mutual support. "Celebrating Cultures, Advocacy and FTM Lives" reads the somewhat predictable conference subtitle. My friend Jamison (James) Green, a leading FTM advocate, assures me that it will be a significant event -- only the fourth time that FTMs have come together in such large numbers, and the first time in over two years.
James knows that I have long been interested in transgender issues, both as a journalist and as an individual questioning the assumptions of traditional gender roles and gender identity, and that I consider the issues raised by the mutability of gender to be significant far beyond the community of people who are themselves transgendered. He is subtle, but he strongly encourages me to go. People will be there from all over the world. There will be workshops on all aspects of transgender issues, art exhibits, a slide show of Loren Cameron's photography. He'll be there. My friend Mariette Pathy Allen, who has been doing wonderful photography in the trans community for years will be there. How can I resist, even if the conference comes at an inconvenient time?
James has played a big role in my expanding interest, understanding, and awareness of transgender issues, as he has with thousands of other people. I first met him some ten years ago at a party in San Francisco. A woman friend had been dating him, ever since she interviewed him for an article she was writing about female-to-male transsexuals. At the party, forgetting that she has told me she is dating a transsexual man, she watches to see if I can tell that James is not genetically male. Without her advance information, the thought would never have crossed my mind. James gives no sense of gender ambiguity. His stance, posture, voice, and gestures are, if anything, exceptionally "male." He is handsome, confident, articulate, and outgoing, with a full, dark, trim beard and twinkly eyes.
We talk easily and warmly. He tells me the story of his transition from woman to man, and of how his transition overturned his previously lesbian relationship, and therefore his relationship with the two children he and his partner shared as well. James was in deep anguish over this recent and ugly turn of events, but he told the story of his betrayal with more understanding than anger, more amazement than bitterness. I was moved by the depth of his compassion for a partner who had so deeply and, I thought, so unfairly hurt him.
I was also struck by how similar James's questions and dilemmas about male images and roles were to my own. We both deeply valued our masculinity. We were both deeply repelled by much of how male roles and masculinity had come to be defined by mainstream culture. We were both devoted to our children and to the meaning that being fathers had brought into our lives. We were both sexually active and curious. We said "me, too" and "I feel exactly the same way" so many times that we began to laugh at both the irony and the underlying sensibility of our similarities.
My introduction to the FTM community also came through James a couple of years later, at his 50th birthday party, where thirty or forty people gathered to celebrate James and the influence he had on their lives. At the party, I feel like something of an outsider since my connection to the transgender community is so slight, but my discomfort quickly evaporates as I fall into easy, personal conversations with different welcoming strangers. I am struck by the warmth, openness, and genuineness of the people I meet, their relative lack of pretense and chatter. They tell me the rich, complicated, and often painful stories of their lives -- straightforwardly and with remarkably little hesitation; with commitment, but little fanfare. Stories of realizing that they felt distinctly male, even though their bodies at birth were just as distinctly female. Stories of gathering the courage to affirm who they knew themselves to be, despite the inevitable upset and misunderstanding of the people around them. Stories of entering a process of hormonal, and in some cases surgical, gender shift, to bring their physical bodies into line with their emotional realities. And stories of finding ways to deal with the misunderstanding, scorn, ridicule, hostility, and even violence of people whose gender realities had no room for anyone who fell outside the simple duality of genitally-defined men and women.
I came away from the evening moved and confused. It had been a long time since I had felt so solidly connected and so deeply comfortable as I felt with this community of relative strangers whose bond with each other was one that I did not share. What was it about being in this group that felt so sane, so correct, so confirming? Why did these people feel so much like me, in some fundamental way? Did I have more personal questions about my own gender identity than I was aware of? Or was there something about the essential spirit of this group that went beyond the specific issue of gender transformation?
I arrive at the conference early Thursday evening and try to get oriented. I see lots of people reuniting with old friends, delighting in the special way marginalized people celebrate when they have an opportunity to clear collective space within which they will be the rule rather than the exceptions. (Jews sometimes talk this way about how it feels to be in Israel, and African-Americans have said the same about visiting post-colonial Africa. Everyone enjoys having a homeland.)
People from the conference organizing committee welcome me enthusiastically. (I am press and therefore have a specific function to play.) They fill me in on the process of pulling the conference together. While large conferences are relatively common among male-to-female transsexuals, this is only the fourth conference of this sort for FTMs. The first, held in San Francisco in 1995, drew about 400 people. Two subsequent gatherings followed in Seattle (1996) and Boston (1997), organized by local FTM groups. This is the first time an FTM conference is being held in the relative luxury of a major hotel.
Happily, I am told, the hotel's management has been cooperative and respectful throughout the conference planning process. "They have been completely professional," says Nick Adams who has been handling hotel liaison. "Right from the start, they sent a letter addressed tome as 'Mr. Nick Adams' -- and this was before I was on hormones, when I looked much more female than I do now. When we showed up to do sensitivity training for staff, the hotel had already raised all the issues we were going to bring up -- most notably about courtesy and respect, and also dealing with the public bathroom issue."
(Hotel policy would be that any guest could use whichever public bathroom they chose. If a non-conference guest complained, they would be educated on the ethics of bathroom choice for trans people.)
My press packet includes a tip sheet emphasizing confidentiality and privacy. Even material presented at workshops, and the identities of workshop leaders, are to be considered confidential unless people give permission to be quoted and named. A "transgender style guide" offers orientation to language issues specific to transgender concerns: distinguishing between sex (assigned at birth according to bodily characteristics), gender (a person's internal sense of being a man or a woman), and sexual orientation (who a person is attracted to sexually); substituting respectful terms for those that have become pejorative or sensationalized in the media ("sex reassignment surgery" rather than "sex-change operation," "cross-dresser" rather than "transvestite"); and particular attention to the use of gender pronouns. ("Ask the person which pronoun they would like you to use. A person who identifies as a certain gender should be referred to as that gender.") Matters of simple understanding and respect -- basic, yet sometimes not easily obtained.
Friday morning's all-conference meeting welcomes everyone and exults in having brought such a large and widespread group of trans and trans-friendly people together in one place. Over 400 people are registered for the conference, coming from all parts of the U.S., and from such other countries as Canada, France, England, Australia, and Iran, to have three days, as one organizer puts it, "in the company of our peers."
The conference program lists a rather overwhelming spectrum of over 130 workshops, covering topics that range from the personal to the anthropological, from the historical to the medical, from the emotional to the political. There are workshops not only for transgendered people themselves, but for their significant others, families, and friends as well.
The list is mind-boggling. "Therapy with Transgender Clients," "Transgender Feminism," "Living Long Term in FTM Bodies," "Evolution of the Transgender Community," "Trans-Trans Intimacies," "Masculinity, Testosterone and Emotions," "The Balkan Sworn Virgin," "Gynecological Health for Transitioning FTMs," "Youth Issues and Experiences," "Bisexual FTM Issues and Experiences," "Insurance Issues," "Making Culture," "Media Activism," even "The Fine Art of Cruising and Flirting with Women."
Kit Rachlin, a New York therapist, presents a study of therapy issues particular to transgendered clients. She notes that therapists play an unusual role for trans clients in that they are the gatekeepers for gender-related medical services such as prescribing hormones and authorizing surgery. Most FTMs in therapy, she reports, have had or are considering "top surgery" (mastectomies), while fewer contemplate genital surgery. Among people considering genital reconstruction, more choose metoidioplasty (in which a testosterone-enlarged clitoris is freed to function as a small phallus) than phalloplasty (where an artificial phallus is constructed out of muscle tissue taken from an arm or a leg). Metoidioplasty involves significantly lower risk and is far less expensive. Rachlin emphasizes how the Internet has played a revolutionary role in educating trans people about both the possibilities and the dangers of genital surgery. Over 60% of clients surveyed had seen photos of, or been introduced to, people who had actually had genital surgery, she said.
A workshop on "Relating to People Outside the Queer Community" provides an opportunity for trans people to share experiences and strategies for dealing with friends, neighbors, and co-workers. Several people talk of how difficult it is to be openly trans at home, while carefully closeted at work. Most are sure that they would have to deal with extreme ostracism and hostility if their neighbors or co-workers knew who they really were.
Isolation is an issue that comes up again and again -- being the only trans person, or one of a very small group. One man lives in a small town in Montana. If people in his town knew he was genetically female, the consequences would be severe. ("Get out of Montana," someone quickly advises, as if leaving one's home were that easy.) The shadow of Brandon Teena, the trans man who, when discovered, was raped and murdered in a small Nebraska town, hangs over everyone. Teena's case is unusual, but violence against trans men and women is not. One man tells of moving to a new state when he began his transition, so that he could start a new life where no one had ever known him as a woman.
Men who spent years as butch lesbians before deciding to go into transition, speak of the culture shock of moving from a lesbian world into the culture of heterosexual men. Many are shocked and offended by the misogyny and homophobia they find around them, but cautious about challenging terms like "bitch" and "fag" because they are afraid to draw attention to themselves.
Others, often people who live in metropolitan areas with emerging or developed trans communities, emphasize the importance of being public about their authentic selves, even if it makes the people around them uncomfortable. "I'm told I smile too much and look people in the eye to much [for a straight man]," one says, "but that's just who I am." An executive in a large corporation is sure that being clear about who you are can transform the way people respond. "If I'm walking around afraid," he says, "everyone's going to be afraid of me, but if I don't project uncertainty, it's another story."
At a very different workshop, California anthropologist Jeffrey Dickemann (who transitioned from woman to man at age 65) reads a paper on the long-standing, socially-sanctioned role of "sworn virgin" that allows women to become men among the various Muslim, Serbian Orthodox, and Roman Catholic mountain cultures of Serbia, Montenegro, and northern Albania. Reported by travelers and anthropologists for well over a century, these cultures allow pubescent women to swear lifelong celibacy before a council of tribal elders and thereafter live, work, dress, smoke, carry arms, engage in warfare, and share the substantial cultural privileges of being men, without social stigma of any kind. Changing gender is not something specific to American or Western culture. Nor, as it turns out, is it new historically. Indeed, the rigidity wi th which our culture addresses gender is unusual, in the broader picture of things.
Plenary sessions discuss issues of more general concern. One is devoted to airing long-standing tensions between the newer and smaller male-to-female community and its more well-established female-to-male counterpart. Conflicts between the two groups are hardly surprising. "What MTFs are busy discarding," notes panelist Jessica Xavier, "FTMs are saying is important to them." Outreach to trans women has been a specific goal of the conference, and one of the big successes of the weekend is the welcome that is felt by the trans women present, and the climate of mutual respect and concern that emerges.
Another plenary is devoted to medical issues, a universal transgender concern and frequent nightmare. Alejandro Daviko Marcel, director of the Massachusetts Public Health Department's Transgender Education Network, speaks of progress in getting doctors to treat trans patients with respect and understand their circumstances and health care needs. He notes recent shifts in the state-sanctioned Standards of Medical Practice in Massachusetts. On a more pessimistic note, James Green notes many medical interventions commonly covered by insurance are still often refused as non-essential when requested by trans people. Marcel and Lori Kohler, a doctor and professor of medicine, answer dozens of nuts and bolts questions, offering advice on how to negotiate the labyrinths of medical and insurance resistance in order to get proper medical care and insurance coverage.
Aside from being an opportunity for education and networking, the conference is also a celebration of community, and an affirmation of the growing public awareness and political clout of the movement for transgender rights. A Friday night evening of entertainment features a hilarious and elaborately produced version of "The Dating Game," emceed by longtime gender advocate and immaculate stage personality Kate Bornstein (author of Gender Outlaw, The Opposite Sex Is Neither, and Hidden: A Gender), as well as the sultry, powerful music of trans singer/songwriter Veronica Klaus, accurately described by SF Weekly magazine as "Vanessa Williams, Cat Woman, and Jessica Rabbit rolled into one."
"Trans Art 99," is an exhibit of art, sculpture, and photography by and about trans people. An ongoing program shows videos on transgender issues including two important documentaries, "You Don't Know Dick" and "The Brandon Teena Story." On Saturday night, James Green presents a beautiful and powerful slide show of groundbreaking imagery by trans photographer Loren Cameron.
By the time the conference closes late Sunday afternoon, it is clear to everyone that it has been an overwhelming success. FTMs, MTFs, significant others, friends, health care providers, and allies have all felt welcome as both participants and presenters. A spirit of respect, acceptance, loving support, and cooperation has brought everyone together into an atmosphere of shared community, despite the group's many differences of opinion, circumstance, and perspective.
At a final town meeting, dozens of people speak of how important the weekend has been for them. For many the conference has been an opportunity to break out of isolation, and they speak of the importance of realizing that they are not alone. One man from Iran, "a country that is killing trans people whenever we are discovered," thanks the group for giving him the strength to go on with his life. Others speak gratefully of the love, support, and encouragement they have received, of how they will go home with new strength, courage, and commitment. One speaker specifically thanks the MTF people who have attended, drawing cheers from everyone. A trans man in his 20s thanks the conference for giving him access to older trans people, people who he values as role models for his own journey. Someone from Minneapolis, a city with a surprisingly well-developed trans community, suggests the possibility of having the next large conference there.
The issue of gender is a fundamental one. By confronting the established notion that people are simply born male or female and therefore destined to pursue fixed, gender-determined paths, roles, and lifestyles, transgendered people are raising issues that also have important meaning for people who are quite happy with their birth genders. A basic sense of creativity and empowerment, of the possibility of making more of one's life than the choices dealt out by society. The importance of staying true to who we know ourselves to be, even when social roles push and pull us in other directions. The freedom that comes of taking your life with both hands and claiming it as your own. The strength of finding a community of like-minded people, of having the context of a supportive culture to counteract the toxins of social conformity.
Not surprisingly, I came away from Forward Motion moved, challenged, and delighted to have spent the weekend in such a radical and simply sensible environment. Most of all, I was impressed by the courage of so many different individuals who had chosen to pursue the heart and soul of who they know themselves to be, despite guaranteed emotional, financial, and relational hardship, and the likelihood of ongoing danger, conflict, scorn, ridicule, and social ostracism.
One might think that people who are wrestling with such profound issues, and who are so powerfully feared and misunderstood by outsiders, would for the most part be severely emotionally damaged, and there are certainly many transgendered people who are deeply troubled emotionally. But, all in all, the people at Forward Motion were exceptionally sane, responsible, thoughtful, loving, undefended, spontaneous, and mature -- a relief from the confusion and artificiality of what is generally considered "normal" American existence.
Of course, the experience of being at a conference of this sort -- of creating and inhabiting a common place of safety and support -- brings out the best in everybody. But the collective statement about the importance of pursuing lives based on real personal integrity is unmistakable. The individual and collective authenticity that comes from knowing who you really are, believing in yourself, and pursuing your inner destiny despite obstacles and difficulties, is something worth struggling for, even at the cost of social acceptability and ease. The personal benefits are both deep and far reaching. Generosity of spirit, lack of defensiveness, acceptance of other people for who they are, the ability to spontaneously experience joy and love, dealing with life creatively day to day, and the security of having your feet firmly planted on the ground, all immediately come to mind. Not to mention the sense of soulful reality that comes from reaching through layers of artifice and pretense to find what for each of us is truly meaningful.
There are already tens of thousands of transgendered people, people who do not identify as men or women, traditionally defined, who are in the process of redefining their gender in order to more creatively express who they really are. As both FTM and MTF trans communities and individuals become more publicly visible, and as mainstream culture becomes increasingly aware of these issues and possibilities, the numbers of trans people is going to increase dramatically. Issues related to the mutability of gender are already cropping up frequently in mainstream culture, and in more positive and appreciative ways than one might expect. The question of personal authenticity, which lies at the heart of the transgender movement, is ripe for all Americans who are tired of the repetitiveness, superficiality, and sham of everything from politicians to television to supermarket food.
[This column was originally published in Spectator Magazine (see www.spectator.net). Three books by David Steinberg -- "Photo Sex," "Erotic by Nature: A Celebration of Life, of Love, and of Our Wonderful Bodies," and "The Erotic Impulse: Honoring the Sensual Self," are available from David by mail order at firstname.lastname@example.org. If you would like to receive Comes Naturally columns, and other writing by David Steinberg, regularly via email, send your name and email address to David at email@example.com. Columns are sent as blind carbon copies, meaning that no one will have access to your name or email address.]
If you're new to this site, we recommend you visit its home page for a better sense of all it has to offer.