Baltimore City Paper, see story
The sign on the bathroom door read ABSOLUTELY NO MEN IN THE WOMEN’S RESTROOM.
Cydné Kimbrough couldn’t believe her eyes. Wanting to believe the best, she carefully peeled away the Scotch tape from the corners and brought the sign to the front desk at Health Education Resource Organization Inc. (HERO). The receptionist told her what she didn’t want to hear: The warning was probably meant for transwomen using the women’s bathroom.
“I thought, Does that mean me?” Kimbrough says a year later. She’s sipping hot tea at City Café, dressed in a T-shirt and jeans. Her round, dark face is flawless, her hair perfectly coiffed.
Since August 2005, she had been working at HERO as the coordinator of the AIDS service organization’s transgender program. Her job was to encourage African-American transwomen–some of whom were sex workers–to take advantage of the center’s services. And she was successful. Her clients felt safe divulging personal information to Kimbrough, who could understand where they were coming from.
But she says there were warning signs that HERO didn’t really appreciate the special needs of the transwomen community.
After requesting for clarification about the bathrooms, Kimbrough says she feels that her concerns were not properly addressed. She was fired last fall in a dramatic episode of he-said, she-said, including an accusation that she assaulted another HERO employee. (She adamantly denies that this happened.)
Dr. Leonardo R. Ortega, HERO’s executive director and CEO, would not speak specifically about Kimbrough’s firing, but in an interview he says that the staff has received additional sensitivity training regarding transgender clients and HERO has added gender identity and expression to its non-discrimination clause. Meanwhile, he has hired transgender employees and the city of Baltimore selected HERO to administer its transgender outreach program. Kimbrough filed a complaint with the Community Relations Committee in Baltimore, and on March 5, she learned that they found no probable cause for discrimination. She’s appealing the decision.
One thing is clear: Kimbrough felt that HERO had no more understanding of what it means to be transgender than the general public–surprising for Baltimore City’s oldest and largest community-based HIV organization. Surprising perhaps, but not all that uncommon.
It was 1994, when I was first introduced to the transcommunity. Volunteering and then working full-time for a non-profit organization in Norfolk, Va., I became friends with Raenice, the receptionist, an African-American transwoman and former sex worker with a gorgeous husky voice and perfect skin, who had no plans for surgery, and Jonothan, an African-American transman case worker who, when I met him, had had “top surgery” to remove his breasts and would eventually have “bottom surgery” to create a somewhat functioning penis.
Raenice told me stories of fooling johns–how she would fold her penis down between her legs so that a customer wouldn’t notice he was having sex with a man–and giggled at my shock. I had no idea that Jonothan was a transman until someone let the cat out of the bag. For a few days after learning this, I watched him carefully, looking for some clue that he was a genetic female. He was shorter than the other men in the office and insisted on wearing a tie to work, but that was it.
Perhaps it was easier for me to accept Raenice and Jonothan, because they were completely accepted in the workplace. It was up to me to conform, not them. Yet, when our brains receive mixed messages–an Adam’s apple and a rope of pearls, or a crew cut and a high voice–it doesn’t always know what to do. Because I respected Rae and Jonothan as people, I learned to respect their identity, even though it was different from mine. Turns out they represent only a tiny fraction of the incredibly diverse transcommunity.
Countless–countless because no one has successfully tallied them before–people in Baltimore are living life in the hazy middle of gender, either because they haven’t or won’t have gender-reassignment surgery. Many others have staked their claim and risked financial stability and their health to have the body they believe they should have been born with.
None of these transwomen and transmen was born with the luxury of the one absolute that many of us take for granted moment by moment–their gender identity.
• • •
LET’S GET THE DEFINITION out of the way first. “Transgender people are people who are going from column A to column B,” says Deborah Rudacille, author of The Riddle of Gender and former science writer at Johns Hopkins University.
That’s a pretty big tent, and it enfolds female impersonators, cross-dressers, drag kings, androgynous individuals, queer youth, preop transsexuals, and those who have had sexual-reassignment surgery. Transsexuals usually desire to change their bodies–with hormones and/or surgery–to physically become the opposite gender. Cross-dressers are not transsexuals. And often drag kings and queens are in it for the sheer entertainment value. Most transgender people are born with normal genitals; those who are born with both female and male genitals are considered intersex and may or may not identify as transgender.
Got it? Now here’s the catch. This is not a medical definition, and it changes from time to time, person to person. Some transsexuals do not consider cross-dressers as transgender. Some drag kings are also transsexual. Some transsexuals are not at all interested in sex-reassignment surgery.
Owen Smith, 24, dropped his female persona two and a half years ago, after a serious accident forced him to quit work as an emergency medical technician. “I was home alone for a long time–all that time to think,” he says from a corner booth at Evergreen Café, Elvis Costello-like glasses framing his eyes and a baseball cap shoved down over closely cropped hair. He’s genetically female and has no plans for bottom surgery but is considering top surgery.
But of course this transformation wasn’t out of the blue. Smith knew at a very young age that, despite his female body, he was not a girl. He grew up in Milwaukee, attended Catholic schools, and came to Baltimore in 2000 to attend Maryland Institute College of Art.
“I remember being in kindergarten and telling the person who took me to Mass that I was going to have a sex change,” Smith says. “People teased me about it.” He talked with his mom about it when he was young and remembers that he realized early that he liked girls.
“I don’t remember what happened first, liking girls or wanting to be trans, a man,” he says. But a masculine name doesn’t tell the whole story. “I don’t really want to be a man,” he says. “I’m comfortable with the gray area. I believe in transcending gender. And I’m comfortable with my parts–except my breasts.”
Like many young transpeople, Smith considers himself gender queer–neither male nor female–and perfectly happy living without strict gender labels.
If that’s not complicated enough, there’s the whole sexuality piece. Perhaps the most misunderstood fact about transwomen and transmen is that their gender identity has nothing to do with their sexuality. Transgender people identify as gay or straight or bi–regardless of their sex or gender. This confuses gays and lesbians about as often as it does straight people.
Kristina identifies as a straight woman, her boyfriend, Zak, as a bisexual man. They met one another seven years ago, before each of them transitioned–Kristina from male to female and Zak from female to male. They’ve been a couple since soon after they met, negotiating new gender roles.
“He wants me to be Edith Bunker,” Kristina jokes about Zak’s preference for traditional male-female roles. She puffs away on a cigarette, grins, and tosses her shoulder-length blond hair. Her voice is husky from smoking.
“It’s not so bad,” Zak replies. The quiet, almost shy half of the couple, he takes time answering questions. His hair is short, his flannel shirt does a good job of concealing his genetic gender, and he has a very traditionally masculine job doing restoration work. “I’d work and work and work, because I prefer it that way.”
Each of them has a child from previous marriages. Kristina’s high school-age son lives with his mother, though they share custody. Zak’s 11-year-old daughter, Zoila, lives with him part-time.
“I’m attracted to females,” Zak explains. “But I’m not attracted to the same type of females who are attracted to me.” As a woman, he tried lesbian relationships, but something was missing. “I wanted a more masculine role.”
• • •
“SEXUALITY AND GENDER IDENTITY are separate issues,” says Benita Paschall, executive director of Baltimore Prevention Coalition. In 2002, Paschall, who is not transgender, received funding from the Centers for Disease Control Prevention, the federal Center for Substance Abuse and Prevention, the Baltimore City Health Department, and the Maryland AIDS Administration to create a project for African-American transwomen in Baltimore who were at risk for homelessness, substance abuse, and HIV/AIDS.
Gender is between the ears and sex is between the legs, Paschall says. “Genitalia does not define gender identity,” she continues. “Genitalia is incidental. I started to say to people, `So you define me by my vagina?’ I have to be more than my vagina.”
Through Paschall’s program, which included a support group called TransAm, she got a thorough grounding in how misconceptions about gender identity can endanger these women. Transwomen are often required to live as men while in drug-treatment facilities, for example. Thanks to a devastating cycle of poverty and job discrimination, many are unemployable and turn to prostitution. Many take black-market estrogen–a female hormone that reduces hair growth and can cause transwomen to grow breasts–because they don’t have medical insurance or can’t get their insurance to pay for their treatments. And some are teenagers who have nowhere else to go.
“These teenagers are thrown away–parents are throwing these kids on the street. We buried one child, and there was no family participation at all. But they wanted the birth certificate so they could get the insurance,” she scoffs.
TransAm and Paschall helped get hormones for one client who went to federal prison. And she hired many others to work at Baltimore Prevention Coalition.
“We were a referral source for them,” she says. “We buried them. We did a lot of things for them. We also integrated them into other parts of the [Baltimore Prevention Coalition] program” that were not transgender specific.
What Paschall did most was normalize her transgender clients’ lives–at least within her offices. Cydné Kimbrough became the program’s facilitator in 2002, years before she went to work for HERO.
“I was the most unlikely rescuer,” Paschall says. “I’m a Muslim.” Yet, she quotes, “`Oppression is worse than slaughter.’ That came directly from the Quran. I have a responsibility to them. They are my responsibility.”
Funding for the program ran out in 2006, and Paschall has not found additional monies. “I don’t know if I lost my magic touch or if it was political,” she says grimly.
But it’s important to note that Paschall’s girls were only one segment of the transgender population in Baltimore. “You’re not going to meet the high-functioning ones, because they have fully assimilated,” she says.
While not many transgender people are living a “stealth” life, Deborah Rudacille says, for some gender identity is not something they advertise. “There are plenty of people these days who don’t keep it a secret,” she says. “But they’re not interested in being a `professional transsexual.'” In other words, they don’t do interviews with the media or come out to everyone at their jobs. They pass quietly through life.
“The most classically transgender–those who knew from birth–want to live their lives as fully in the gender they identify with as they can,” says Dr. Eva Hersh, acting chief medical officer and director of primary care for Chase Brexton Health Services, the city’s gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender medical center. She estimates that her clinic is currently seeing around 95 transgender patients for ordinary medical care, hormone treatment, and psychotherapy.
There are “transpeople among you who are completely invisible,” she says. “Either because they want to be or because they can’t help it.”
Lauren Stokeling, founder of the local support group TransWoman, which will merge with TransAm in coming months, says she knows many prominent people in Baltimore who also happen to be transgender. All of them are private about their gender identity.
For Kimbrough and Stokeling, however, being transgender is as much of an identity as their sense of womanhood. “My body is a work of art,” Stokeling says. “If I have surgery, that will not make me any more of a woman than I am now. I’m not a big advocate for sex-reassignment surgery. I’ve lived long enough to know that if people love you, they love you for who you are, not what you have.”
But for those who are not intentionally flying under the radar, there’s pressure in coming out. Kimbrough is dating now, something she calls “tricky.” “It’s more than whether he’s emotionally compatible,” she says. “It’s about whether he is emotionally stable and can handle it.”
More pressure lies in fitting into a society that sometimes unknowingly dichotomizes gender, excluding those who don’t follow the simple and strict rules: penis = man, vagina = woman.
• • •
“I WALKED PAST MY MOTHER for the first time tonight.” Sara Brown, who is thin and tall in a black turtleneck sweater and long denim skirt, tosses her straight blond hair over her shoulder.
Charlene’s eyes narrow as she leans back in her chair. “What did she say?”
“She just stared, and I left,” Sara replies matter-of-factly.
The lights are dim at the Mount Vernon Stable. An eclectic crowd of gay men, lesbians, and what seem like traditional families crowd the small dining room. At the corner booth sit what’s left of the Washington Baltimore Alliance, the oldest transgender organization in the region. They get together about once a month, some traveling long distances for a safe night out.
Julie, Charlene, Carole, and Georgia Ann all identify as cross-dressers. Sara considers herself transgender, though, like many others, she started out cross-dressing. Charlene and Georgia Ann are happily married to women. Carole, Julie, and Sara are divorced.
Gender pronouns are not absolute at this gathering. Occasionally, Georgia Ann calls Carole “he,” despite Carole’s heavy eye makeup and tight skirt. But it’s clear, when dressed in women’s clothes, they are women, no matter who they are at home or work during the rest of the week.
Over dinner, the girls catch up–who’s drinking and who’s not, how Sara is recovering from her heart attack, Carole’s escapades on eBay restoring her jewelry collection, which was stolen on a trip to a transgender conference.
“Some baggage handler in Atlanta is enjoying my jewelry,” Carole says. “I’ll never fly AirTran again.” By the looks of her fingers, wrists, and neck–all embellished with silver–she’s replaced enough baubles to get dressed up for one evening. From fishnet tights to a tousled blond wig, Carole–“I paid extra for a vowel”–is decked out for a night on the town.
“We have life so much better,” she jokes. “We can pick whatever hair we like. We’re not limited to the hair on our heads.”
That’s a good thing for Georgia Ann, who surreptitiously slides a photo of herself in “male mode” under the table. There’s no way anyone would recognize the bald, ordinary-looking fellow in the photo as the bawdy brown-wigged lady in a conservative but shapely floral cotton dress.
“I’m comfortable in either mode,” Georgia Ann says. She jokes about the freedom of being both male and female. “Why not? I’m selfish.” She’s been married for 37 years and out to her wife since six months into the marriage, when her wife unexpectedly came home to retrieve a forgotten book and found her husband in a dress. “That was more terrifying than Vietnam,” Georgia Ann says. (She is a veteran, as is Charlene.) But gradually, the two learned how to have a happy marriage, raise children, and give Georgia Ann space for her cross-dressing.
Her children are now in their 30s. “They know about it,” she says. “They’re comfortable enough to rib me about it.”
Still, like most of the other women around the table, Georgia Ann is not taking any chances with the rest of the world. She won’t reveal her real name and will only say that she is an entrepreneur in West Virginia. When she goes out, she dresses at Carole’s house in Rockville before heading into Baltimore.
The 32-year-old Washington Baltimore Alliance is dying, these women say. “Years ago, the transgender and cross-dresser community was not out of the closet,” Georgia Ann says. “So to meet someone without [using] a computer was very hard. As cross-dressing became more popular, the community had more connections.”
These days, everyone knows what a cross-dresser is, she continues, even if they are confused with transsexuals. Cross-dressers are usually heterosexual men who occasionally or frequently dress in women’s clothing or “feminine mode.”
Charlene–distinguished in a stylish leather suit and high-heeled boots–is clear on the differences between transsexuals and cross-dressers. “They want to be women, we want to wear the clothes.” Reportedly, her shoe collection rivals Imelda Marcos’.
Charlene was 32 and in her first marriage when she first gave cross-dressing a try. She dressed for four years, and then took a 19-year hiatus after having two children and then marrying her second wife.
“I thought I had gotten over it,” she says.
“You never get over it,” Georgia Ann and Julie say in unison and with flicks of their wrists.
“If I had all the money from all the clothes I dumped in the trash, we could all go on a trip,” Georgia Ann says.
“We call them purges,” Julie chimes in. These periodic attempts to stop cross-dressing are about guilt, the girls say–guilt because they aren’t accepted.
“I was married for almost 18 years, and during that time I suppressed the urges to dress,” Julie says. “I fantasized about dressing and would wear lingerie mostly at home. My ex-wife didn’t know about my `other world,’ even though I hinted at it frequently. In retrospect, I know that she would never have accepted a nonvanilla lifestyle. I would dress at home when she was out, but I usually felt guilty about it. Eventually I purged all of my `girlie’ things, but the underlying desire to explore my femme side was not as easy to purge. We got divorced, and I moved on with my life and started to explore my femme side.”
Julie dresses three to four times a month, but when she attends Southern Comfort–an annual national transgender conference–she’s Julie all the time. Carole is different. “I go out in femme mode one to two times per week,” she says, although, “in one form or another, I dress in femme mode daily.”
“For the majority of cross-dressers, this has nothing to do with sex,” Sara says. “Most cross-dressers are totally heterosexual and don’t want to be women.”
Sara is not one of those cross-dressers. “I basically live and work as a male,” she says. She drives a delivery truck and lives in Patterson Park with her brother, nephew, and 84-year-old mother, who is suffering from Alzheimer’s. She dresses up at home and talks to men online, occasionally going out with them, but only as Sara.
“I don’t consider myself as gay,” she says. “If I wanted to date a guy as a guy, that would be gay. But most of the guys I date wouldn’t date another guy.”
• • •
ALL AIDEN WANTED FOR HIS 18TH BIRTHDAY was testosterone. The MICA student turned legal age in November, but in September began seeing a therapist who could OK the shots. Hormone therapy began Feb. 20, but in early February, talking over a cup of coffee at City Café, Aiden was still testosterone-free.
“I’m waiting–I’m anxious,” he says. “I wasn’t anxious until yesterday, when a friend told me that she gave her ex-boyfriend shots and the first one bounced off his leg.”
It’s a big needle. In order to reduce breast size, grow facial and chest hair, and lower his voice, Aiden will have to give himself shots at least once every two weeks. He’s absolutely clear on the decision to take hormones; it’s the shots that make him nervous. His slight build doesn’t give much room for error; it’s not like there’s a lot of flesh to push the needle into. “I’m not really too worried about anything else,” he says.
“I for sure decided that I was going to do this when I was 16,” he says. “I got to the point that [I thought] I can keep fighting myself or be who I really am.” The fighting included a period of time when he was very effeminate. “Dresses, makeup, straight hair–mostly to please my mom.”
Aiden has heard from other transmen that the hormones will reduce the static in his mind, a constant experience that is difficult for him to express. “Every thought that processes through my head is also processed through this gender dichotomy that I have,” he explains. “In my head, it’s just thoughts, and then there’s this gender stuff that’s bundled with it.”
These thoughts are all-consuming and distract him from everyday things. There’s a constant evaluation: Am I being masculine enough to pass? Was that person questioning my gender? Did she mean to call me “she”? Aiden is betting that life will be much better on testosterone, even with big needles.
But the hormones are not a solution for everyone. Sara Brown went that route in 2003. For six months, she took anti-androgen pills to block the testosterone she was naturally producing; for three months, she was on hormone-replacement therapy. But on Feb. 28, 2004, all that changed. After waking up and doing her morning crunches, she suffered a heart attack that may have been brought on by the hormones she was taking.
“It does happen, but it’s not common,” Brown says of the blood clot caused by the four to six milligrams of estrogen she was taking every day. “That’s why I’m scared to try again. If I had the money and the health, I would transition completely.”
So, she lives her life straddling the gender fence. She’s out to most everyone she knows, including the guys at work, but her quiet demeanor allows her to blend into the crowd. She carries a small photo album in her purse to show people what she looks like in femme mode.
“Everybody at work knows and has at least seen my photos, and a few of them have seen me dressed,” Brown says.
Some transwomen only want hormone-induced breasts. Some transmen are only interested in growing a beard. For others hormone treatments are the precursor to surgery.
Kristina talks quickly–with her voice and hands. She stops herself midsentence from time to time. “I’ll slow down,” she says. Her birdlike demeanor is not because she’s nervous; it’s the additional estrogen pumping through her system. She’s been on hormones for about a year and a half–first on a dose that was far too low, now at a more appropriate level.
“I have as much testosterone as an 11-year-old boy,” Kristina explains. That’s thanks to a testosterone blocker, which she won’t need after her testes are removed.
She takes two times the amount of estrogen as an average woman has in her body. Her menopausal neighbor is on .6 milligrams of supplemental estrogen once per day. Kristina is taking eight milligrams of estrogen plus five milligrams of progesterone (another female hormone) every day.
“I go from kiss to kill to cry in 1.2 seconds,” she jokes, but it’s a roller-coaster ride of emotions that is a challenge to stay on from day to day.
Female hormones are not the only nonsurgical treatment for transwomen. Some opt for silicone injections to plump up their cheeks and lips. At illicit pump parties, some transwomen plunk down $300 for a shot of nonmedical silicone gel (similar to bathroom caulk), Chase Brexton’s Dr. Eva Hersh says: “I try to tell them they could save all of their $300s and get good plastic surgery.”
It’s pretty easy to get estrogen, Hersh adds. Transwomen without health insurance might delve into the black-market estrogen trade in Baltimore. “If nothing else, it’s easy to get birth-control pills,” she notes. Some women get the pill, which is a synthetic estrogen, at a free or reduced-rate clinic and give it to transwomen friends. But testosterone is a Class IV controlled substance.
As a preop transman, Kristina’s boyfriend, Zak, won’t take testosterone without having top surgery–surgery to remove his breasts.
“Boobs and beard,” Kristina chimes in. That’s not the look Zak is going for.
• • •
WENDY HAS A BEAUTIFUL VAGINA. She is so proud of the new her that she boots up her laptop to show digital before-and-after shots. It truly is amazing–no one would ever guess it was less than a year old and cost $16,500.
“I was scared to death,” she says of her trip to Canada for the surgery last April. “I was scared if I was doing the right thing.” But now she knows: “It gave me confidence.”
Wendy was 6–two years younger than her son is now–when she remembers first wanting to be a girl. “I went to bed praying to God that I would wake up a girl,” she says. “By the time I was 18, I prayed to God that he would take this curse off me. For a long time, I thought I was a freak of nature, a cross-dresser, a pervert.”
She risked a great deal for this surgery, not the least of which the possibility that she would never orgasm again: “It’s made sex a lot more difficult than I expected. It’s also good.” Anita, her girlfriend of nearly two years, stuck through it all with her, but Wendy is in danger of losing joint custody of her son.
“It’s hard for me, because I see her as beautiful,” Anita says. “I don’t see how people can look at her and second-guess, not know that she’s always been a woman.” Wendy looks better in a pair of jeans than many genetically born women do. And a black turtleneck sweater sets off her California-blond hair.
“The simple fact is I am transgender,” Wendy says. “I was born a male. I am now physically female. My son–it’s not fair, but that’s what he has to deal with.”
Her transition from physically male to female has been a long one. She began dressing as a woman on weekends in the late ’90s. In 2001, she had a motorcycle accident that shattered a bone in her foot. That’s when she first talked to her doctor about hormone treatment.
“At that point, I wanted to let my breasts grow,” Wendy explains. She took hormones for three years. Once she completed the required therapy to be granted a referral for sex-reassignment surgery, things went very quickly. Typically there is a waiting list, but the surgeon had a cancellation.
“I had five weeks to prepare for surgery,” Wendy says, which included going off all hormone treatments. “Next thing we know, we’re in an airplane.” Anita flew to Montreal with Wendy and stayed until after the surgery.
“I couldn’t sign my name, I was so nervous,” Wendy continues. “But it wasn’t a choice. That’s how serious it was.”
She can’t stress enough the severity of the decision. “People think you just go out there and do this for fun,” she says. “No. Cross-dressers and drag queens do this for fun.”
Kristina is so intent on surgery that she’s going to Thailand for it in August. Her procedures will cost $9,000 for castration and vaginoplasty (building a new vagina), $1,200 for a skin graft, and $3,000 for breast implants–that’s a whole lot less than it would cost in the U.S. or Canada. But Zak is not thrilled about Thailand.
“She’ll be gone a month,” he says. “I can’t be gone from work that long. And what if there are complications? I’m just worried that she’s going to go to Thailand and get hurt.”
Kristina got her letter in January from her psychiatrist OKing the surgery. “You’ve got to go to a shrink to prove you’re crazy to get surgery,” she says with a laugh.
Relatively speaking, it’s simple to make a vagina–the skin of the penis is inverted to create the vaginal walls and the sex nerves are clumped to create the clitoris–but a fully functioning penis requires some compromises. With phalloplasty, skin from the forearm, leg, or abdomen is grafted onto the groin area and the scrotum is created from the labia. Additional surgeries are required to allow the penis to get hard. Plus skin grafting causes major scarring.
“Looking into having the bottom surgery–it’s not good right now,” Zak says. “Of course, I want the surgery. Right now. Today. But I want it to look good, and I want it to function.” The price tag, at between $70,000 and $100,000, is another barrier.
Yet, Zak feels that successful bottom surgery would improve his relationship with Kristina. “It causes a lot of problems in the way that I feel,” he says. “Because I feel like a guy, but I don’t have all the body parts. It’s sad, really.”
Top surgery is not a question, though. “I don’t want these at all,” Zak says pointing to his breasts. “I don’t care what they look like [after surgery]. I just want them gone.” Top surgery for transmen–removing the breasts–is a bit more complicated than might be expected. The breasts are in essence deflated in one surgery. After several months of recovery, allowing the remaining skin and breast tissue to retract, another surgery completes the process.
Zak admits that he’s envious of smaller-framed transmen who can pass without having major reconstructive surgery. To get a somewhat similar effect, he must wear two chest binders, a sports bra, and three shirts.
“My ribs feel bruised after wearing a binder and all those clothes,” he says. He’s considering a radical mastectomy, to speed the process and because insurance might pay for it. Anyway, he’s hoping that chest hair would cover the scars.
The binders are also problematic for Owen Smith, who has asthma. He can’t wear them while he’s working, because they restrict his breathing–like a corset, ironically. “I’ve known people to pass out,” he says.
• • •
“IT ALWAYS SEEMS TO COME DOWN to the goddamn bathroom.” Dr. Dana Beyer rolls her eyes.
Beyer, a former eye surgeon who had sex-reassignment surgery in 2003, ran for a state delegate seat in Montgomery County last fall and lost; she is now senior policy and legislative adviser for health and education to Councilwoman Duchy Trachtenberg of the Montgomery County Council. But with all of that success, she still faces some of the same every-day challenges of other transwomen and transmen. Still, she offers a simple rule for the bathroom dilemma. “If you’re dressing as a man, you go to the men’s room. Period,” she says. “You go to the one that relates to your gender expression.”
Seems simple enough, but it’s not that easy. And Beyer knows that. Zak remembers coming home from a trans conference and visiting the rest room at the airport. He wasn’t in male mode, so he stepped into the women’s bathroom, where a woman told him to leave. He didn’t feel like he could go into the men’s bathroom, so he waited until she left and went back in.
“Bathrooms suck,” Smith agrees. It’s not about the bathroom, of course–it’s about passing. Bathrooms are the one place that everyone visits on occasion that is all about gender.
“Yeah, that’s an issue,” Aiden says, although at MICA the dorm rooms have private bathrooms. “That was a big thing for me when I was looking at schools.”
There’s more, of course, especially for those who have not gone through a complete social transformation. Although Smith has been living as a man for more than two years, his driver’s license is still marked with an “F.” “I’m often seen as a 12-year-old boy instead of a 24-year-old transperson,” he says.
Charlene carries a Washington Baltimore Alliance-created “transgender identification card” with her, which includes a photo of her in femme mode and a request to treat her respectfully. If she were pulled over for speeding while in femme mode, for example, she would present the card with her driver’s license. She’s never had to use it.
Legally speaking, Baltimore is a great place to live and work as a transgender person. Since 2002, the city has included gender identity and expression in its nondiscrimination laws for employment, housing, and public access. State senators Lisa Gladden (D-41st District) and Richard Madeleno (D-18th) have introduced a comparable bill in Annapolis.
But none of that means diddley if discrimination cannot be proven. The sad fact is that many transpeople find it extremely challenging to find work. Wendy has been unemployed since just before she had her surgery last April. Kristina has been looking for work for at least as long. Neither of them have had any luck.
“I’ve been on many interviews,” says Wendy, who before transitioning was a highly qualified auto mechanic and extreme sportsperson. She recently applied for a job at a ski shop. She could name four brands of equipment, was qualified for ski patrol, and was able to answer questions about packing for a ski trip. She was told a few weeks later that the shop decided not to hire anyone due to the warm weather. She says she’s not buying it.
“You’re more than qualified, until you get there in person,” her partner, Anita, remarks.
“Right now I have child support to pay,” Wendy says. “I can’t work, and so I can’t pay child support.” Her ex-wife sent legal papers to a former job–documents that used Wendy’s male name. Days later, Wendy says she was told that “things just weren’t working out.”
Kristina, who was once a licensed electrician, has had similar experiences. She felt sure she would get a position she had applied for teaching an electrician class. “I had a good, strong résumé for that job,” she says. She got a message from the employer and returned the call. “I called the guy every day for a week. He never called me back.”
The job interview is not always about passing, either. Donna Cartwright, outreach coordinator for transgender issues at Equality Maryland, the state’s largest GLBT civil-rights organization, says that simple background checks will out a transgender person.
“In a way, the legislative battle is only the first step,” Cartwright says. “I don’t think anyone believes that passing an anti-discrimination law will solve all things.” Legislation will give transgender people legal recourse, but most importantly it changes the discourse of the debate.
Simply being out in public is enough to put some transgender people in danger. Gender identity and expression has been part of the state’s hate-crimes law since 2005, but safety is still a major concern for most transgender people.
“I look presentable enough that I can go out, but I get spotted enough that I know I’m not completely passable,” Sara Brown says. “As long as they’re not hostile, I don’t care.”
When Owen Smith was a sophomore at MICA in 2001, two men attacked him while he was walking home from a friend’s house. He was sexually assaulted and thrown into the fountains on Park Avenue, before he managed to kick one of his assailants in the groin. They both took off.
Smith quit school and began drinking a lot. He ended his relationship with his girlfriend. And then two years later, he was assaulted again–this time after leaving his job at Gallagher’s Bar for more plastic cups from the supermarket. The assault began when a group of guys thought he was someone else. When they discovered the binding around his chest they beat him. He managed to drive back to the bar and call the police.
“They never caught them,” he says. “I never heard anything.
“I went through a period where I was totally paranoid,” Smith continues. “I didn’t want to close the bar by myself. I didn’t want to go out if we ran out of anything.”
In the absence of legal protections, family support definitely plays a role in how transgender people feel about themselves, Baltimore Prevention Coalition’s Paschall says. Cydné Kimbrough is the perfect example.
“She was given to me, and I thought, I must be a very special person because I can handle it,” says Kimbrough’s mother, Sandra Kimbrough. “I try to make her feel as comfortable as possible.”
When she talks about her daughter’s childhood, she slips into male pronouns, but otherwise Sandra is clear that her daughter is a transwoman. “When he came out to me [as a teenager], I was scared,” she says. “I thought that meant he was going to leave me.” Kimbrough assured her mother that she wasn’t going anywhere.
“I called her Cydné when she was in my womb,” Sandra says. “Of course, as a mother, I would have wanted her to have a wife and children, but I’ve got to go with the flow.”
Kimbrough gives her mother a lot of credit for her own sense of self-awareness and esteem: “She’s made it really easy. I don’t think she really gets that. I don’t think she realizes how much she’s responsible [for the person I’ve become].”
“Your home is where you get your love and strength,” Sandra says. Pointing to the window, she adds, “It’s a cruel world out there.”
• • •
“THE SOLUTIONS ARE EASY,” Beyer says of the legal and social issues that transpeople face on a daily basis. All it takes is some inclusive language by legislators and attention to the golden rule. But implementation is a challenge. Although the gay and lesbian civil-rights movement added the “T” to GLBT in the mid-’90s, transpeople have often been “thrown off the bus” by gays and lesbians, Beyer says. That’s turning around.
“The paradigm shifted in the LGBT community,” Cartwright says. “Sometime in 2003, it was no longer acceptable to leave people out.” That year, states began passing anti-discrimination and hate crime laws that protected gays, lesbians, and transpeople.
States and municipalities that already offered protections for gays and lesbians are now enacting “catch-up bills,” adding gender identity and expression to existing legislation. In 2001, Maryland put in place anti-discrimination protection for sexual orientation but left out transpeople. This year, the General Assembly is considering legislation that will add gender identity and expression to the existing law, and passage looks promising. (Baltimore City enacted protections for transpeople in 2002.) Still “transgender catch-up bills” are more difficult to implement, because there are fewer transpeople to push for them.
“We think the time is ripe. Momentum is on our side,” she continues. More and more states and municipalities are considering protections for gender identity and expression, and examples of discrimination–like the firings of Largo, Fl.’s city manager and a faculty member at Spring Arbor University in Michigan–are getting more press attention and support from advocates.
In the meantime, transpeople in Baltimore fight personal battles and celebrate individual accomplishments. Wendy testified in Annapolis in support of the proposed anti-discrimination legislation. In mid-February, Kristina learned that her surgery is a go–she’ll officially become a biological woman during the second week in August. Meanwhile, Aiden was cleared to start hormone shots and is already noticing a difference.
“I just want people to see me as I see myself in my head,” he says.