Thursday, May 19, 2011

Why are we different? And does it matter?

Opening remarks at the Trans Actions conference taking place today in Chicago, delivered this morning by Pete Subkoviak, AIDS Foundation of Chicago Policy Coordinator.

Gotta love Oprah. I mean really, if there is one person over the past decade who has helped out the trans community, it's Oprah. She’s done some ten or so shows dealing with transgender issues in an intelligent way.

And after 20 years of Jerry Springer completely assaulting this community, we needed it.

So Oprah’s new channel – OWN – recently had a special on transgender lives, and interviewed a seven-year old girl, who had been born a boy, named Haley. Haley and her family live in a small community, she was diagnosed when she was five, and her family was advised to let her live as female.

I can’t tell you how lucky this little girl is to live in the post-Oprah world of 2011.

I won’t go into my entire life story, I’m not going to pull out old family photos, but let me give you the Cliff Notes to make my point, and I’ll qualify this by saying that every transgender individual’s experience is different:

• I was born into an idyllic family: two loving, religiously-devout parents. I suffered no physical, emotional or sexual trauma
• I was born physically female. I began telling my parents I was a boy at the age of three. This in not uncommon among gender variant people
• Because of my vocalizations, my parents brought me to numerous mental health professionals, all of who instructed them to encourage more feminine behavior – total fail
• By the age of 11 I was suicidal
• It wasn’t until the age of 17 when a therapist suggested I was transgender and could transition i.e. change my body and live as male.
• I began the process at 18, and I am certain it saved my life.
• To this day my only regret is that it didn’t happen sooner.

Haley is lucky because she won’t have to wait until she’s 18 and has struggled with depression and suicidality.

She lives in a day and age where there is a name for her difference, and more importantly, many medical and mental health professionals are aware what it is and how best to deal with it. Thus, her parents were educated by her doctors, and instructed to embrace their child for who she is.

Haley will still have a tough road ahead, but no doubt that her chances for a happy and healthy life have been greatly improved because of the knowledge and cultural competence of her health providers.

Why are we different?

We don’t have a definitive answer to that; there have been a few small-scale studies showing brain differences in transgender people, but as you can imagine, governments and private funders aren’t exactly chomping at the bit to support research on this issue. What we do know is that while everyone’s story is different, gender variant individuals have a strong and persistent sense of self from a very early age, and to one degree or another, that identity does not match the body we were born with.

But the bigger fact is this: The origins of this difference are immaterial.

Transgender people are who they are and have always been, and the world needs to come to terms with that fact.

Transgender individuals are not confused, disturbed or troubled, but our society is certainly confused, disturbed and trouble by our existence. If supported by their friends, families and employers and allowed to live as our true selves, transgender people can have happy, fulfilling lives.

But that’s a big “if”. Unfortunately, too many transgender people continue to be disowned by their communities, fired, legally, from their jobs and subjected to verbal and physical violence. It is this rejection, and not the gender variance itself, that leads to the maladies of depression, suicide, substance abuse and HIV amongst transgender people.

Thankfully, there is an emerging awareness of and response to the needs of transgender individuals. Our community is lucky enough to have wonderful trans-specific programming at places like Howard Brown, the Broadway Youth Center, Center on Halsted, the Chicago Women’s Health Center, Transactions, Affinity Social Services, the Transformative Justice Law Project and the Young Women’s Empowerment Project, just to name a few.My hope for this conference is that with greater consciousness and education this audience can help lead change here in Chicago.

***This evening, join LifeLube and friends for The [other] T-Party - Trans Body Politics, a free forum at the Center on Halsted. Doors open at 6pm.

1 comment:

  1. Great post, and we could add to this that most First Nations of America (North and South) recognized the existance of two gender. The "Two-Spirit" were thought to have a special spiritual awareness. We find the same thing in many Asian traditional culture.


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