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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Thursday, April 24, 2014

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In Living Commentary

It's not always as cut and dry as one might think...

Living life as somebody else


We all wonder from time to time if we are the person we're supposed to be. Usually we base the answer on our career, relationships, lifestyle and successes, and sometimes if we don't like the path our lives have taken, we have the power to change most of it.

What if change wasn't that easy or even realistic? Imagine what life would feel like knowing you aren't who you should be and that taking the steps to become 'the real you' means risking every one of your relationships, as well as your job and your health. For transgender individuals this is a reality. They've spent their lives living as a gender they feel is the opposite of who they truly are inside and for some the struggle is a lonely and painful process.

I went to high school with a young woman besieged with just this issue.

Honestly, for the first week I knew her, I thought she was a boy, and a cute one at that. When I finally realized that she was a she, and as our friendship progressed over the next four years, it was clearer each day that she was always meant to be a he.

As if being a teenager isn't difficult enough, she had that overwhelming confusion of self-discovery and the 'joys' of puberty compounded by the fact that her gender was not who she really was.

Here is a glimpse into one man's path through acceptance, understanding and transition. For the sake of personal privacy, he will be identified simply as "S.

Sarah Foster: When did you recognize that you either weren't happy being female or knew that something about your gender didn't fit what you felt was the real you?

S: I think there are definitely different levels of cognition. I cannot remember ever identifying as anything other than male, but having a name and a diagnosis for the condition came much later. I began referring to myself as a boy when I was three, and it really didn't stop until I was seven or eight and understood the social rules I was breaking on a daily basis. But even then I identified as male, but I never verbally expressed it.

SF: For many transgender individuals, support from family and friends can make a huge difference in terms of acceptance of self, and the process of coming out. What was your experience when you came out to your friends and family? What level of support did you receive?

S: My family was very supportive. My parents and extended family are all active in the Catholic Church so there was a lot of effort to change me, but always with love. I was never put down for who I was, but I was sent to a lot of shrinks who encouraged me to be feminine – a feeble attempt at reparative therapy. Eventually my parents came to understand that there was nothing that could change me, so they fully supported my transition, emotionally and financially. They now co-run a support group for Catholic families of LGBT individuals.

SF: Of course your story is not always the case. The sad fact is many transgender people find themselves ostracized and even disowned by their family and friends. What impact did you think all of this would have on your future and the possibility of relationships whether they were romantic, professional, friendships, etc.?

S: I had no idea what the future held, but I didn't care because I was suicidal from the age of 11. Prior to my transition, I didn't think I had a future because I wanted to die. It was a really unlivable situation. Once I transitioned, at first I was quite careful whom I told for fear of rejection or lack of employment opportunities. As I've grown and opened up more about it, I find that it's actually made me more confident and secure.

SF: There seems to be some confusion and blurred lines when it comes to transgender vs. homosexuality. Is there any relationship or is that just the ignorance of society screwing up definitions?

S: Transgender and homosexuality are two totally different things. Transgender refers to the way one identifies as male or female. Homosexuality is about being attracted to members of the same gender. The only relation between them is that transgender people, like all other people, can be gay, straight, bi, etc.

SF: What kinds of society/political issues do transgender individuals face day to day?

S: Where do I begin? Employment is a key issue. It's perfectly legal in most states to fire someone due to sexual orientation or gender identity. Other issues include lack of qualified health care professionals that understand gender identity. Transgendered individuals are routinely denied care at health centers and hospitals, even for common problems such as the flu, lacerations, etc. HIV is wide-spread among transgender women. And on a day to day basis, one of the biggest issues for transgendered people: access to public bathrooms.

SF: It's pretty mind-boggling to think in this century it's still legal to fire someone because they're gay or transgender. What legal/political steps are being made to try to end this?

S: Congress has a bill called the Employee Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) that would address this, but there hasn't been enough support to pass it. It's extremely difficult for an openly transgender person to get a job – even if they are qualified. Employers are often afraid of other staff or customers having a problem with it, even if those fears are unjustified.

SF: What advice would you have for someone that feels they may be transgender but either isn't sure, or doesn't have the support to feel comfortable coming out?

S: I think it's important for transgender people to educate themselves on the issue and realize that they are not alone. There are tons of great books about transgenderism such as True Selves by Mildred Brown and Becoming a Visible Man by Jamison Green. The other thing is combating isolation as it will hamper any progress they are trying to make in addressing the issue. Most large and mid-sized cities have confidential support groups and that's a good place to start. I also think it's good to speak with a counselor experienced in transgender issues. There is also a ton of online support.

It was hard to hear some of the things my friend had to tell me but I can feel good about the strength he has found in himself at this point in life. Nonetheless, he has traveled a difficult road. It is roughly estimated that between 100 and 500 gender-reassignment surgeries are preformed in the United States annually. Sex change surgery is expensive. The cost for male to female reassignment is $7,000 to $24,000. The cost for female to male reassignment can exceed $50,000.

No one should be shut out or resort to suicide simply because they don't fit into an invisible pigeonhole society wants them to reside in. Keep in mind that anyone going through this process likely feels very alone and confused. Showing your support and being open to listening can make worlds of difference. Make sure they know that their coming out and transitioning doesn't make you love them any less.

If you or someone you know is seriously struggling with their gender identity, sexuality or bullying, please don't wait to get help.

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