Monthly column from author/activist
David Steinberg

Comes Naturally #111

A Gender Odyssey

In October, 1999, I attended my first large transgender conference -- a gathering of some 400 people, mostly female-to-male (FTM) transsexuals, in Burbank, California. The conference, titled Forward Motion, moved me deeply and raised a number of questions that have been churning around in me ever since.

What does it mean to be male or female? Is there more to gender than the division of humanity into two distinct blocs? How is a person's gender determined? What exactly do we mean by gender, anyway? How deeply do gender notions color various aspects of our daily lives? What do we do with feelings we have about who we are that don't completely align with our assigned gender or our assigned gender roles?

Going beyond the specifics of gender: How do we deal with inevitable conflicts between who we feel we are and what is expected of us by others? How do we deal with conflicts between who we really are and who we expect ourselves to be? When is compromising who we are to please the people around us, or to avoid causing them distress, a sign of maturity, consideration, and social awareness? When is it, more fundamentally, a failure of courage stemming from a need for approval and a fear of being rejected or misunderstood by society and by the people we love and need most profoundly?

Generalizing still further: How much does a group of people need shared perspectives and assumptions to achieve a sense of community? How much can a group of people benefit from loosening demands for commonality and celebrating diversity around even the most fundamental questions of what it means to be human and to be vibrantly alive?

All of these issues were still rolling around in me a year and a half later as I made my way to Seattle for "FTM 2001: A Gender Odyssey," the sequel conference to Forward Motion. Once again, some 400 trans men, family, friends, supporters, and allies came together to attend workshops, network, make new friends, enjoy
trans-positive entertainment, and share the general euphoria that's guaranteed whenever marginalized people come together in a context that allows them to set their own rules, priorities and expectations. There were a wide range of workshops, a series of large "town meetings" to discuss general issues facing the trans community, and an evening of excellent trans-positive entertainment that served to bring everyone together in laughter and celebration. Keynote addresses were given by sex/gender writer Patrick Califia-Rice (formerly Pat Califia) and Phyllis Randolph Frye, a prominent Texas transgender lawyer.

* * *

Brenda Shrum and Aidan Key

Brenda Shrum is the identical twin sister of conference coordinator Aidan Key. As children, she and her sister Bonnie were the sort of identical twins that even close friends have trouble telling apart. Now, although she and Aidan are still chromosomally identical, Aidan's changed body, closely cropped hair, and bearded chin insure that no one will have trouble distinguishing between them.

At a panel discussion on "Transitioning and Kids," Brenda very straightforwardly tells the story of the difficult adjustment she went through when Bonnie flew to her home in Juneau, Alaska, to say that she was in the process of becoming Aidan -- of becoming a man.

"Being identical twins caused me to have my own identity issues about Aidan's transition," she explains. "I had to ask myself, 'Am I not a twin anymore?' The last time, the issue was Bonnie coming out as a lesbian. Now there was another acceptance issue to face. My initial reaction was fear, fear of being on the fringe of the fringe. One thing that really helped was that Aidan left the door wide open for me to have any feeling whatsoever.

"I shared my feelings with Aidan's ex-partner. We wondered together what this would mean for the children -- for Aidan's daughter, who was seven, and for my daughter, who was nine." The extreme hostility of Aidan's partner to the idea of his transition helped Brenda realize that, even though it was difficult for her, she had to be open with Aidan and supportive of his change. She consciously adopted her daughter, who accepted Aidan's change much more easily than Brenda could, as a role model.

"She kept on saying to me, 'Mom, you're over-reacting. It's still the same person; it's still Bonnie.' Humor helped." Brenda watched her daughter shift over time from talking about "Aunt Bonnie" to "Uncle Bonnie" and finally to "Uncle Aidan." "She's right there with Aidan," Brenda says proudly. "She even wanted to come to this conference and be on this panel."

Aidan describes the process as a "painful story with a good ending -- a hard road that I wouldn't wish on anybody." Faced with his transition, Aidan's ex-partner retained a lawyer and prevented Aidan from seeing his daughter for a year. "I had to be patient beyond words," he dramatically understates. After a year of "paying lawyers to educate them," Aidan won the right to see his daughter and is in the process of rebuilding his relationship with her.

"We got to talk about what was going on. We got to laugh. We got to cry. She got to express her feelings. I got to be there with her. In the end, she was there for me much faster than anyone else."

"Kids look to their parents for how to react," Aidan notes. "If the parents treat [transition] as an awful thing, then the kids will too. The bottom line is that everyone's afraid of losing the person they care so much about."

* * *

Texas transgender lawyer Phyllis Randolph Frye.

A "town meeting" on "FTM's and Dykes," one of several such open-ended forums, brings over 100 people to a large room with several rows of chairs drawn into a circle. The air is charged as facilitator Jamison Green encourages everyone to listen to each other with respect and open minds. Relations between trans men, many of whom spent years as lesbians before transition, and the lesbian community, described by one woman as a "tribe being deserted by people who want the privilege of male identities," have been difficult and conflicted, to say the least.

A number of trans men talk about feeling rejected and scorned by a community that has long been important to them. "The lesbian community," says one trans man, "taught me to be where I am today. It taught me to grow and explore."

"I didn't choose to lose a community," another agrees. "I just chose to move on with my life."

Discussion focuses on what many of the trans men see as anti-male bias among lesbians. Dykes, they say, need to leave behind negative attitudes about maleness, even while challenging aspects of traditional male behavior.

It takes some time before one of the lesbian women in the room stands and reads a long piece she has written about the loss and betrayal she has felt as various women she has regarded as lesbian sisters transition to being men. "I know I'll get over it," she offers the group, but it's a process of adjustment that takes time. Her honesty, her avoidance of blame, and the poetic tone of her writing is welcomed by the group with applause, encouraging other lesbian women to speak their feelings as well.

"I want space to speak about the loss, even if it's just the loss of my perceptions, of my dreaming process," says one woman. "We're so afraid of losing the shred of safety we've managed to pull together for ourselves," says another. "It's hard on everybody. Now, in addition to everything else, trans men are taking lesbian lovers away from other lesbian women. In the end, it's fear that keeps us separated."

"Historically, the dyke community has not deal with difference very well," another woman notes wryly, to everyone's shared amusement. For two hours, both the lesbians and the trans men in the group talk about feelings of loss and pain. A spirit of respectful listening prevails, in place of the blame and resentment that have been all too common in other contexts. Of course, as one person notes, the lesbians who have the most difficulty with trans men are not at the conference, but there is widespread agreement that the session has been an important step forward in communication between the two groups.

* * *

As rapidly increasing numbers of people explore the option of aligning their bodies and gender presentations with who they know themselves to be, issues of transgender acceptance are going to confront not only mainstream heterosexual culture, but the cultures of sexual and ethnic minorities as well. Gatherings such as FTM 2001, and the more numerous male-to-female-oriented conferences that take place each year, give transgendered people and their supporters opportunities to exchange information and support on issues ranging from medical to emotional, from personal to societal. As keynote speaker Patrick Califia-Rice pointed out, the transgender movement also has the opportunity to offer the larger society new ways of being men and women that transcend the limitations of traditional gender definitions.

One trans woman activist, attending her first FTM conference, noted that the movement of trans men had qualities that she would like to see more of in the MTF movement as well. "I see people at this conference dealing with their emotional and relational issues in much greater depth than I have seen at MTF gatherings," she said. "I like being here. I'm really very impressed -- inspired, even."

My own feeling was very much the same. Integrity, authenticity, emotional honesty, and generosity of spirit abound in the growing movement of female-to-male transsexuals -- qualities that I suspect all of us, transgendered or not, are hungry for these days.

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