Sunday, October 15, 2006

Being True To Themselves

Transgender people are born one gender but identify with other

By Angie Fenton
The Courier-Journal

Monica Roberts gently circled a fingertip around the lip of her
coffee cup, the perfect manicure a stark contrast to such large,
strong hands.

"Gender is who you are," said Roberts, 42, an organizer of a
conference this week in Louisville for transgender people. "Sex is
what you do and who you do it with."

For the past 16 years, Roberts, who was born male, has been living as
a female, since finding the ability to accept herself, with the help
of a therapist, and receiving hormone therapy.

As to whether she's undergone sex reassignment surgery -- a procedure
that alters a person's physical appearance and function of their
existing sexual characteristics to that of the other sex -- Roberts
considers that her personal business.

She does admit that once the body matches the internal feelings, it's
a huge relief.

"When we finally do get to the surgery, it's icing on the cake," she

"I've always looked at life through a feminine prism. It's nothing I
did consciously," Roberts said. "The only thing that's wrong with us
is the discrimination that's happening to us."

No one has hard, fast statistics on the total number of transgender
people -- individuals whose gender identity and the way in which they
express it differs from the gender they were assigned at birth.

But according to the World Professional Association for Transgender
Health, a 500-member organization whose mission is to further the
understanding and treatment of gender identity disorder, one in
11,900 males and one in 30,400 females are transgender individuals.

"We don't know" what causes transgenderism, said Dr. Jack Drescher,
distinguished fellow of the American Psychiatric Association and past
chair of the group's Committee on Gay, Lesbian & Bisexual Issues.

The official diagnoses for transgender individuals can range from
gender dysphoria, an uncomfortable feeling about one's gender
identity, to gender identity disorder, a condition in which a person
is born one gender but identifies as belonging to the other.

One problem is that the psychiatric association "offers no guidelines
on what to do about it," said Drescher, who is also a
psychoanalyst/psychiatrist in New York City.

"People in the deaf community don't think that deafness is an
illness. It's just who they are," he said.

Likewise, there is no consensus as to whether transgenderism is
really a disorder.

Are transgender people ever really able to live fulfilling lives?

"Psychiatrists should never be asked that question," Drescher
said. "You ask the transgender people themselves. They'll tell you if
they can lead happy, healthy lives."

At least 70 transgender people will meet this week at the second
annual Transsistahs-Transbrothas Defying Gravity Conference 2006 at
the Galt House Hotel and Suites to discuss how to live such lives.

The conference, which Roberts and her roommate, Dawn Wilson, helped
organize, will address issues and concerns of the African-American
transgender community.

Wilson, 39, says the weekend is important to her because she'll have
a chance to serve as a role model for younger transgender attendees.
Even though she has been "out" as a woman since 1998, she also
expects to reap the benefits of being around others who understand
her experience.

"You grow up wondering, where are the people who look like me?"
Wilson said.

For some, like Wilson and Roberts, who live in Louisville, you also
grow up aware that you were born one gender, but you feel differently

Roberts said she "always knew there was something different, and I
was out of sync."

"I knew at age 5 something wasn't right," Wilson said.

Roberts and Wilson recall being told they carried their backpacks too
effeminately and raised their hands in class like girls.

Kids can be cruel. Roberts said she lived that reality every day,
averaging a fight a week, usually battling an aggressive group of
three male classmates who picked on Roberts for being different.

Although Wilson said she "grew up in a household where radical
thought was encouraged, not discouraged," she, too, faced hardships
when trying to get a grasp on who she was.

Known then as "Don," Wilson said she was raised by an aunt and uncle
after her parents died young. Still, family members teased her for
having "too much sugar in the gas tank."

When Wilson played dress-up and opted to wear women's clothes, "they
figured I'd grow out of it," she said.

Instead, Wilson grew increasingly comfortable as she adopted a more
female-oriented persona.

So did Roberts, who said that in college "people wanted me to join
Alpha Phi Alpha (fraternity) when what I wanted to do was join Alpha
Kappa Alpha (sorority)."

Roberts and Wilson -- who met in 1999 while lobbying for transgender
rights in Frankfort and became fast friends -- decided to seek
professional help and transition from males to females in the
early '90s.

First, they underwent intensive counseling from certified gender
therapists. Then, they began living like women and undergoing hormone
therapy that brought about physiological changes, including the
growth of breasts.

"I'm a 38B and damn proud of it," said Wilson.

"I'm a 38C and damn proud of it, too," said Roberts, before high-
fiving Wilson.

As proud as they are, neither was willing to go into detail about the
rest of the physical aspects of their transformations.

"That's part of my past," Roberts said. "It wasn't horrible for me.
Did I have some rough times? Yeah."

"Did it cause me to appreciate what I have now?" Wilson asked

"Oh yeah," she said, before adding, "We're not typical."

Only God has the right to determine gender, said Albert Mohler,
president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He said any
attempt to alter that creation is an act of rebellion against God.

Regardless of how others define human sexuality and
gender, "Christians are obligated to find our definitions … in the
Bible. What the activists want to call 'sex-reassignment surgery'
must be seen as a form of bodily mutilation rather than gender
correction. The chromosomes will continue to tell the story," Mohler

"Gender is not under our control after all. When a nation's moral
rebellion comes down to this level of confusion, we are already in
big trouble. A society that can't distinguish between men and women
is not likely to find moral clarity in any other area of life," he

Some transgender people also struggle with how their families are

None of Roberts' or Wilson's relatives wished to speak to The Courier-
Journal. Both women admit some family members are more accepting than

One thing Wilson said she's learned is "family is more than just who
you happen to be related to."

But that's beside the point, said Roberts. "We have a blast just
being out."

Since transitioning into a woman, "I've lived more of a beloved and
healthy life, because I'm not afraid to dream anymore," said Roberts.

That's the key to happiness for transgender people, said clinical
social worker Richard Coomer.

"When they're living to be who they are, yes, they're very healthy
individuals," Coomer said.

The Louisville-based counselor added, "What (transgender individuals)
mainly want to do is be who they are and live life just like all of

That's exactly what Scott Nilsson, 27, an Indiana resident, is doing.

Born female, Scott has undergone what he said is a physical and
spiritual transformation that has allowed him to "look myself in the
mirror and be proud of who I am."

Engaged "to the most beautiful girl in the world," Nilsson shared his
story with several of his coworkers, who were "astounded" their
colleague was once known as "Amy," a heterosexual female.

In turn, Nilsson said he's "still astounded" to be successfully
living as a male.

"I am finally who I knew I always was," he said.

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