The Last Closet?
A memorial event opens a dialogue about transgendered people
Gender-bending seems implicit in "The One Who Was Different," a 1965 Randall Jarrell poem about the death of a friend who had lived on the margins of what society calls normal: "But I identify myself, as always, / with something that there's something wrong with," the late Southern writer muses. "With something human."
Something human is the essence of the new liberation movement launched by those who are transgendered, the umbrella term for anyone who doesn't fit within the standard binary male-female classification. It's about the whole persona, supporters say, not sexual orientation. In fact, such people could be gay, straight, bisexual, pansexual or asexual. They might be biological women who feel more like men, men who feel more like women, or those who cannot categorize themselves as purely one or the other.
Whatever their persuasion, they tend to remain outcasts even as gays and lesbians have finally begun to find some measure of acceptance. "Trans folks have been stuck in a sort of gender netherworld," suggests Christopher Kaufman, executive director of the R.U.1.2? Community Center in Burlington - which provides resources for the local "queer" population. "They have a very hard struggle. In this state, like elsewhere, they are physically and verbally abused on the streets, in public bathrooms. I've heard reports here just in the last year."
Last week R.U.1.2? and other gay advocacy groups joined Outright Vermont for a Transgender Day of Remembrance. About 70 participants held a candlelight walk from City Hall to Union Station. There, the standing-room-only crowd gathered under a grim "Wall of Names" listing more than 200 transgendered people worldwide who have been killed, or, in some instances, who killed themselves in despair.
According to http://www.gender.org, the murder rate is one a month for "gender-variant" people. Brandon Teena was the victim of what is probably the most infamous transgender-related hate crime. His 1993 saga became well-known thanks to the Oscar-nominated film Boys Don't Cry, but others without strong ties to any particular community have died in complete anonymity.
"I fear that some day I won't be up here memorializing strangers," Kate Jerman, Outright Vermont's program specialist, cautioned at the transgender event.
An organizer introduced as Eli, who had assembled the "Wall of Names" display, talked about the emotional impact: "I have been frightened, knowing this could be me."
A singer named Noel - her slinky and sleeveless black dress a contrast to everyone else's more cumbersome winter wear - provided entertainment and humor. But the evening was otherwise rather somber, especially during a speak-out for audience members. The most startling testimony was offered by a trans man from the Northeast Kingdom who recently contemplated suicide.
In the crowd, Paul Guiffre of Barre was there to show his solidarity. "I'm openly gay and want to be accepted, so why shouldn't everyone be respected?" he asked rhetorically.
"We have friends who are female illusionists," his partner Chris Maloney added. "They come alive in drag. Every year, a little more of their personalities comes out and stays out."
The closet may still be full of transgendered individuals living in fear, speculated event volunteer Catharine Donahue: "There are so many people we don't know about."
Grant Perry - not the real name of this transgendered activist - talks of being "liminal," which means in-between." Although the dictionary definition points to "a sensory threshold," the 39-year-old Chittenden Country resident asserts: "I identify as neither a man nor a woman."
As such, Perry wishes the English language offered a "common-usage, third-person singular, gender-neutral pronoun other than it" for referring to the liminally inclined. "For me, 'he' is not all the way right and 'she' is not all the way wrong. But 'he' is better than 'she,'" he explains.
The politically correct lingo can get complicated. Perry says that some trans people prefer "ze" for those with male-to-female identities, "se" for female-to-male, "zir" instead of "her/his," and "hir" to replace "her/him."
The "female-bodied" Perry grew up in a rural West Coast town as "a garden-variety tomboy," he recalls. "At about 11 or 12, I became aware that I didn't feel like a girl or a boy. I had a lot of confusion. In the 1970s, there were no gay or lesbian people around that I knew of, no gay or lesbian characters on TV, none in the books I read."
All that changed when Perry went to college. "I came out as a lesbian within eight months," he says. "And I spent the next 15 years living very comfortably as a butch dyke."
Yet this designation proved to be inaccurate. "In the early 1990s, as the trans community was evolving, it opened a door to reframing what I am," Perry points out. "It felt like a more expansive place for me than being a lesbian. The change was very much a visceral realization."
Perry's slow transformation allowed him "to grow into my own skin, to step out of being a woman. I hadn't worn a dress for 25 years, but I had continued wearing women's slacks and blouses. When I came into my trans self, those clothes began to look like drag to me."
Another important shift was adopting - and legalizing - a more masculine name. "When I traveled before, going through airports, the name on my ID didn't match what they were seeing," Perry says. "Moving through the world is a lot easier now."
Despite his metamorphosis, the former "butch dyke" has been romantically involved with a male partner for the last few years - perhaps further proof that gender and sexual preference should never be taken for granted. Perry still faces a daunting challenge away from the relative harmony of home. "Using the men's room means I can pee in peace," he notes, "rather than getting harassed every time I use a women's bathroom."
Lack of understanding breeds intolerance. "The trans liberation movement is not about prescribing gender, creating a new gender system or doing away with the genders of woman and man," Perry contends. "It's about learning that gender is a whole multiplicity of identities."
The Day of Remembrance, which has taken place in other U.S. cities since 1999, was a first for Vermont. But in the only state with civil unions available to gays and lesbians, trans lovers might still have a hard time getting hitched.
"We had two people seeking a civil-union license last year who were seemingly both the same gender, but one partner had actually undergone a [female-to-male] sex-change operation," recalls Jo LaMarche, Burlington's assistant city clerk. "Unless the original birth certificate reflects that change, we can't issue a license. We had never even thought about it before. They could've presumably married but didn't want that. They wanted a civil union."
The state health department's decision to deny the couple a license was based on the letter of the law. But birth certificates can be amended in probate court, according to William Wargo, the department's legal counsel. He's aware of several such gender-amending cases in Vermont.
Could looks - a couple who appear to be single-gender but are biologically male and female - get in the way of a conventional marriage? "I would hope that persons would not be refused a marriage or civil-union license simply because of gender appearances," Wargo adds.
The persecution experienced by the trans population is complex. In 1999 Texas refused to recognize the will of a deceased biological man married to a trans woman who had undergone male-to-female surgery. An appeals court judge ruled that the marriage itself was invalid because "chromosomes, not genitalia, are the determining factor in deciding a person's sex."
"We're dealing with incredibly fuzzy laws and widespread prejudice," surmises Christopher Kaufman of R.U.1.2.? "Even in Vermont, it's potentially a court case waiting to be tried."
In addition to encountering violence, trans citizens frequently face discrimination in medical services, housing and employment. Kaufman calls himself "a transgender ally," but worries that gays have neglected their more outre brothers and sisters. "We produced a guidebook to health-care providers last year that didn't take into account how the issues are different for trans people."
"In our second edition, we have to be more GLBT-friendly," he says, referring to the abbreviation for gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender.
In fact, it's often GLBTIQ& A: tagging on intersexed, questioning and allied. "Intersexed" has replaced "hermaphrodite," someone born with sexually-ambiguous genitalia, just as "cross-dresser" has overtaken "transvestite." Instead of "sex-change operation," the preferred term is "gender-assignment surgery."
Gays and lesbians are not always keen to explore trans issues, however. "Many mainstream gay groups want to be seen as 'normal,'" Kaufman suggests. "Maybe there's internalized transphobia. Trans folks are often labeled 'freaks,' and it's easy to be scared of people who are different from us. I think we're just beginning to recognize how much we all have in common."
Something human, no doubt.