Photo by Kris Drake
In his early 20s, Alex Nelson became a cop. It was his dream job; the only job he’d ever wanted. Unfortunately, his dream didn’t last long. A problem surfaced right away-a big problem. The department told Nelson he had to use the women’s bathroom.
During the extensive testing and numerous interviews that preceded Nelson’s hiring, he’d been open about the fact that he was a pre-operative transgender man: biologically a woman but understanding himself to be a man. The department had all the files of his therapist and his medical doctors when they welcomed him to the force. But once he was hired, they balked at allowing him to decide which bathroom to use. A city ordinance, they said, made it illegal to let a person use a bathroom meant for the opposite sex. Nelson countered that they were discriminating against him and that the Minnesota Human Rights Act made transgender discrimination illegal. Meeting after meeting with department administrators didn’t solve anything, and within a few months of being hired, Nelson filed a lawsuit against the department.
In spite of this, he stayed on the force for two and a half years. For the most part, his colleagues accepted him, Nelson recalled. “They’d say, ‘As long as you can back me up on the street, I don’t care what your deal is.'” But those in higher ranks had different feelings. At one point, Nelson said, the chief issued a directive that it was illegal to call Nelson “he.” The bathroom issue was never resolved. Nelson was barred from using men’s bathrooms while in uniform, so he just didn’t go-for the entire 10-hour shift.
During that time, Nelson also continued to “transition”: to move from his life as a woman into life as a man. He changed his name, first in his social circle and then legally; he had surgery; he began to tell members of his family.
Finally, Nelson got word that he was going to be fired. He resigned before that could happen and changed the nature of the lawsuit-he now sought damages. The lawsuit got as far as appeals court before it was dismissed.
It’s been almost 10 years since Nelson began his dream job. He’s spent the last six years as the homeless outreach coordinator at District 202, a local nonprofit, and he knows that because of the lawsuit it’s unlikely he’ll ever work as a cop again. But he says there are benefits to the job he has now: “At least I can use the bathroom,” he laughed.
Alone and not alone
No one knows how many transgender people live in the U.S.; for one thing, the term means different things to different people, so a definition-much less a total number-is hard to come by. Transgender is often used as an umbrella term, encompassing crossdressers, transsexuals, intersexed people and others. In this article, the term is used to mean people whose internal identity is at odds with their biological body and who are living as their internal gender dictates.
Plenty of movies, books and TV programs have featured transgender folks in recent years. The Sundance Channel’s 2005 miniseries TransGeneration, which documented the lives of four transgender college students, met with wide acclaim. Felicity Huffman was nominated for an Academy Award for her performance in this year’s popular film Transamerica. Jeffrey Eugenides’ 2002 novel Middlesex won the Pulitzer Prize. But if the term has become more familiar, the concept is not yet mainstream, say those who live trans lives. The challenges come from all sides: language, law, relationships, jobs, community. The struggles range from finding a date to keeping a job; from dealing with overwhelming guilt and shame to raising money for an operation that’s not covered by insurance. Many trans folks find themselves criticized or castigated by the GLB and feminist communities; the decision to transition puts many in conflict with friends, families and loved ones.
Even the decision to “come out” is wrenching, said Nelson. “It’s the struggle between myself and the rest of the world,” he explained. “Do you struggle to be who you are or do you struggle to just pretend?”
The twist: happiness
Debra Davis knew when she was 3 or 4 years old that she was, as she says, “different.” She says that’s the way it is for most people who are transgender. “But we don’t do anything about it because we want to be good little people for our parents,” she said. “We’ve always known we were different. You just decide when and how you’re going to deal with it.”
For Davis, that time came when she was in her mid-30s. “My family was OK, my job was OK, my relationship was OK, I could pay my bills. Everything seemed like it was OK, so maybe I gave myself permission to look inside and see who I really was.”
Even after coming to terms with her gender identity, Davis continued to live for years as David Nielsen, a librarian with Minneapolis Public Schools, a spouse and parent of two. She transitioned gradually, first in her private life and then in the public sphere, where she did speaking and training on transgender issues for local agencies. She founded the Gender Education Center in 1994, which she still runs from her home. In 1998, she came out at work in a highly publicized final step; just a few years later, in 2001, she retired. Now she spends most of her time with family, she said, and giving educational presentations and leading workshops-80 to 90 a year.
Davis considers herself extremely lucky: she loves and is loved by her family, she’s confident and happy with herself and she loves the work she does. “What a wonderful way to live your life,” she said. “To do what your heart’s passion is. I have been truly, truly blessed.”
She admits there’s a small flaw in this otherwise perfect life: she can’t find a sweetheart.
“We’re not on a lot of people’s radar,” she said. “Who would ever look for a transgender person as a datable person? Nobody. Absolutely nobody. Nobody thinks of us.”
All she wants is a “sweet, lovable, kind man who doesn’t care about a girl’s past,” Davis laughed. Aside from that, she’s got it all. The transition couldn’t have worked out better.
“I can’t and won’t hide, ever again,” Davis said.
The price for some: rejection
Nelson’s transition was, in many ways, the polar opposite of Davis’. Things didn’t go smoothly at work, with his family or in his personal life. “Everything kind of fell through in the way I had kind of anticipated,” he said.
The worst blow, in a way, was rejection by his friends. “I hung out with mostly women, feminist women, and my community was like ‘How could you want to be a man?'” he said. “I got kicked out of this community that I felt would catch me if I was falling….I don’t want to be a man, I don’t want to fall into these categories that everybody has had a hard time with, but I am.”
Julie Tilsen, a Minneapolis psychologist and founder of 2 Stories, a counseling and consulting business, works with many couples in which one person is transgender. She’s seen the kind of rejection that Nelson faced. “There’s some tension within the feminist community, [a feeling that] transgender people, female-to-male, these are women wanting to gain male privilege,” she said.
Ironically, said Tilsen, feminists who hold this belief are mimicking mainstream gender stereotyping by refusing to honor people trying to break out of what’s sometimes called the gender binary (the belief that there are two, and only two, genders: masculine and feminine)-and in doing so, they’re upholding the same system that they’re fighting to change. “We’re reproducing the same thing that we’re trying to scratch our way out of,” she said.
Tilsen has also seen sensibilities work in the opposite way: a partner may feel guilt and shame because she’s no longer attracted to her transitioning partner or is struggling to understand the dimensions of the new relationship. “These are lesbian and queer women [who] already consider themselves as gender transgressors, trying to smash the binary, but when their partner is transitioning…The idea of it [they support], but it becomes different in their relationship. In terms of the body, biology and social construction bump up….People start feeling like ‘I’m being shallow, I should love what’s going on, because it’s so important to him.'”
Within both queer and mainstream communities, said Nelson, there is confusion over the term “transgender.” The term “GLBT” implies that these four things are similar, he said-gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender-when in fact, the T doesn’t fit. “GLB is about sex. The T is about gender identification; it has nothing to do with sexual orientation at all,” he said. For instance, he said, “I could be a transgender gay man. If I were gay.”
Heart to heart
Confusion over trans language is a knotty problem, but many trans people are too busy trying to find a job or a place to sleep to worry about the T in GLBT, said Tilsen. “The reality is, transgender people experience economic hardship at a greater rate than other people do,” she said. “Trans youth are more likely than other youth to be kicked out. A lot of homeless kids are trans.”
Malcolm Himschoot, a transgender minister at Plymouth Congregational Church in Minneapolis and the subject of the documentary film Call Me Malcolm, tries to educate nontrans folks about the difficulties of the trans life. “There’s a zillion different ways to face struggles if you’re a transgender person,” he said. “If you have to seek shelter, will you go to a men’s or women’s shelter? If people [at your job] have disdain for you, and you lose your job, how do you get a new job? The worst of it is very oppressive because there’s no place to go for acceptance: not inside yourself, not in family, not in community.”
As far as the law is concerned, Minnesota is a place of acceptance: in 1993, this state was the first in the country to pass an antidiscrimination law that specifically mentioned protections for transgender people. Twelve years prior, Minneapolis became the first city in the U.S. to outlaw discrimination against the transgendered.
As Nelson found out, though, just having a law on the books doesn’t prevent discrimination. “The problem is, the law is just on paper. There’s no case law,” he said. “Until there’s case law, the department can say, ‘I don’t think that means you should be able to go to the men’s bathroom.’ The only way [to change that] is to have it go to the Supreme Court and have the judge say, ‘Oh, this is what this means.'”
Himschoot, on the other hand, has been pleasantly surprised by the friendly climate in Minnesota. “Minneapolis is just really different from some other places,” he said. “[Here] I have a choice of physician, I have some insurance coverage, I have the right to adopt children. There’s still places in this country where the conversation is ‘Do they have the right to exist?'”
When trans folk call on Himschoot for comfort or advice, he tells them two things. “There are enough people, enough like you in some way, for you to carve out your own niche,” he said. Then again, “There is maybe no one like you…and isn’t that wonderful?”
Transgender hoops and Catch-22s
• You legally changed your name. You petitioned the state to change your gender on your ID. Now you want to get a new passport. In order to do that, you have to have medical documentation of your gender reassignment surgery. You might be able to get a temporary passport if you haven’t had the surgery yet but can prove that you’re going to.
• Typically, it’s recommended that you live as your chosen gender in all areas of your life before you get the surgery. Some doctors won’t perform gender reassignment surgery on you unless you’ve done this. If you have a job where you can’t transition, or can’t use the bathroom of your chosen gender, you might not be able to get the surgery.
• If you do come out at your job, and you lose your job, you lose your health insurance and any coverage for therapy and hormones you might have had; and your chance at having gender reassignment surgery.
• If you don’t want to have, or can’t pay for, gender reassignment surgery…don’t ask
Transgender: a broad term used to encompass all manifestations of crossing gender barriers. It includes all who crossdress or otherwise transgress gender norms, and all others who wish to belong. The Minnesota Human Rights Act includes transgender people and defines them as: “having or being perceived as having a self-image or identity not traditionally associated with one’s biological maleness or femaleness.”
Crossdresser: the preferred term for one who enjoys dressing as their opposite sex; a part-time activity which can involve a degree of exploration into gender identity.
Transvestite: the original term for “cross-dresser,” which has acquired a connotation of fetishism and perversion.
Bi gender/dual gender: a person who possesses and expresses a distinctly masculine persona and a distinctly feminine persona. Is comfortable in and enjoys presenting in both gender roles.
Pre-op transsexual: one who feels their anatomy should be altered to correspond with their dominant gender; may live full time in their dominant gender, but hasn’t yet had gender reassignment surgery (GRS) or may never be able due to health or financial problems.
Two spirited (berdache): term used by most anthropologists for transgendered Native American shamans, whose traditions varied between tribes.
Drag queen/king: a man or woman dressed as the opposite gender, many times overdone or outrageous and may present a “stereotyped image.” Often lesbian or gay.
Gender blending: dressing in such a way as to question the traditional feminine or masculine qualities assigned to articles of clothing or adornment. Gender bending may be a part of fashion, or possibly a political statement.
Intersexed (hermaphrodite): one who is born with ambiguous anatomical features or features of both male and female.
(Source: Gender Education Center, www.debradavis.org)
Trans in pop culture
• Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides (2002)
• I Am My Own Woman by Charlotte von Mahlsdorf (1995)
• Trans-Sister Radio by Chris Bohjalian (2000)
• She’s Not There; A Life in Two Genders by Jennifer Finney Boylan (2003)
• Normal: Transsexual CEOs, Crossdressing Cops and Hermaphrodites with Attitude by Amy Bloom (2002)
• My Gender Workbook: How to Become a Real Man, a Real Woman, the Real You, or Something Else Entirely by Kate Bornstein (1998)
• Boys Don’t Cry
OutFront Minnesota, www.outfront.org
OutFront’s mission is to create “a place where GLBT Minnesotans have the freedom, power and confidence to make the best choices for their own lives.”
District 202, www.dist202.org
District 202 is a nonprofit youth community center committed to providing social, cultural and educational opportunities by and for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender youth and their allied friends, ages 21 and under.
Provides social events for the trans, gender-queer and allied communities.