Transgender Stories

Beginning with Soulforce’s very first action addressing spiritual violence anywhere — our visit with Jerry Falwell and his church members in 1999 — we’ve had transgender people sharing our dedication and quest for justice. Then and ever since, transgender folks have been showing courage during Soulforce actions and a heart-warming willingness to share their stories with us in between. Both have captured our hearts. Whenever we have quiet moments, our transgender friends get questions – lots of questions.

The rest of us don’t know enough about transgender stories. This web page is an effort to begin overcoming that lack of knowledge and understanding. The page is not for transgender people – they’re already familiar with the issues, facts, news, and stories we’ll be presenting here. Instead, the page is being written for lesbians, gays, bisexuals, dedicated allies, questioning folks, friends, and people of good will everywhere, introducing all of us to the lives and issues of these brave and fascinating people.

We’ll offer new information and insights at least monthly. Please visit often.

Sincerely,


Mel White

Stories from Transgender People in Soulforce

Now You Be Woman by Judy Osborne

"Transcending Genders"

To inaugurate our new transgender web page we’re presenting this first in a series of one-page articles about the issues and lives of transgender people called, "Transcending Genders.".

Designed to acquaint busy therapists and educators with transgender issues, the series of brief and informal insights has proved fascinating to lay readers as well. The writer is a transgender woman of long experience in the transgender community, and in Soulforce too. Readers are welcome to copy and share any of these articles, especially with psychologists and other therapists who may encounter transgender clients.

Each of these articles is complete in itself. The issues being released here on the Soulforce site start with Issue #7. The first six are running in successive issues of "Transgender Tapestry," the community’s excellent quarterly journal, beginning with its March 2003 issue. The magazine is available at larger newsstands or through the International Foundation for Gender Education subscriptions@ifge.org.

The articles are designed to be opened and read while standing over (or scanning through) the day’s pile of mail. The Ingersoll Gender Center in Seattle financed an initial series of evaluation mailings under a grant from Seattle’s Pride Foundation. Articles in the series of twenty-four were mailed monthly to a sample group of 200 educators and practicing therapists to find out if the articles would be read and appreciated. They were.

Following is an exerpt taken from introductory Issue #1 which may help you understand better the content and style of presentation:

From Transcending Genders Issue #1:
Therapists entrusted with the revelation that a client is transgender may be struck by the client’s immense vulnerability at that moment, and want very much to help, but find themselves frustrated by the dreadful paucity of findings and reports available as guidance. These letters can’t begin to make up for that lack. We will do our best to offer a snapshot of transgender lives and issues and a frame within which to begin organizing a client’s revelations.

Since the first-person seems like a good and honest way to communicate in this process, I’ll speak directly from me to you from now on. I hope you’ll speak back.

Let me reveal right away to you that I’m not a psychologist or any other kind of therapist. The only direct therapeutic advice these letters will contain will be in instances when I’m acting as a conduit between you and a qualified professional.

Over the years, though, I’ve accumulated lots of insights and observations that I’m reasonably certain are true. I’ll share these liberally with you in the hope that at least some will chime a familiar ring and prove helpful when you’re talking with a transgender client. In addition, I’ll try to synthesize and share some of the written and spoken knowledge and wisdom we’ve accumulated as a community of laypeople and professionals.

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MORE LIGHT PRESBYTERIANS, October 26, 2006
http://www.mlp.org/article.php?story=20061026212651890
[Photo at this link]

REPORT FROM THE TRANSFORMING FAITH-TRANSGENDER CONFERENCE

By Michael Adee, MLP National Field Organizer

History has been made in Corvallis, Oregon, as the first national faith conference for and about transgender persons, their families and friends was offered here October 20-22.

Transforming Faith: A Transgender Witness was the title of this national conference inspired by the vision and passionate commitment of Rev. Tara Wilkins, Executive Director, The Community of Welcoming Congregations. Keynote presenters and preachers included Virginia Mollenkott, Justin Tanis, Malcolm Himschoot, Maurice Harris and Erin Swenson, National MLP Liaison on transgender education and former Co-Moderator, More Light Presbyterians.

Erin and I offered two workshops, "Becoming & Being a Trans-Welcoming & Affirming Congregation: First Steps and Next Steps," along with a MLP educational resource table. MLP educational resources of particular interest to our conference participants include: More Light on Transgender, More Light on Intersex, and Pastoral Care in Transgender Experience, written by Erin Swenson. Many pastors seeking help with pastoral care for transgender persons came to our workshops. I kept thinking how helpful this information and these pastoral care skills would be for all Presbyterian ministers and pastors.

Over 250 people participated during the weekend, joining 120-plus conference participants. Virginia Mollenkott’s keynote, "Omnigender and a New Reformation" challenged all of us to consider our connections to and place in the transgender and intersex family and movement. Rabbi Maurice Harris led a Shabbat service from the Jewish tradition. Malcolm Himschoot, UCC minister, responded to the film, "Call Me Malcolm," about his life, faith, gender transition and ministry. Justin Tanis, National Center for Transgender Equality, addressed justice issues for trans people in both church and society.

Erin preached on Sunday morning at the host church, First United Methodist Church, Corvallis, a Reconciling Congregation. Not a dry eye in the sanctuary as Erin shared her own story of faith, call to ministry, family and gender transition as a Presbyterian minister and dreams for a church and society embracing transgender persons and their families.

Joining Erin and me, other Presbyterians participating in the conference were Sara Herwig, Lisa Larges, Dave Dornack and Barbara Campbell. Barbara is pastor of St. Mark’s Presbyterian Church, Portland, a More Light Church, and on the Board of the Community of Welcoming Congregations.

This conference experience was truly transforming and life-changing for me. I found myself in the place of ally — as an ally, friend and advocate with my transgender sisters and brothers. Usually I am working to get heterosexual Presbyterians to recognize the sacred worth of LGBT persons and to step up to the plate as advocates for justice. This time I found myself being asked to step up as an ally and advocate with the transgender community. It was an honor and delight to spend the weekend with so many transgender persons and their families. I am deeply grateful for the insights gained and lessons I am learning in this remarkable life and faith journey with transgender persons and their families.

After the conference, 24 Presbyterians from five churches in Portland and Salem met for a "Celebration of All God’s Children" sponsored by More Light Presbyterians. Hosted by Rose City Park Presbyterian Church, the celebration included a community meal with the sharing of prayers, hope and dreams for LGBT persons in our Church and world. Donald "Perk" and Carol Ann Purkey were special guests honored during this Cascades MLP Chapter gathering. Perk has been part of More Light Presbyterians, a faithful ally and advocate, since its origins in 1974.

After the transgender conference in Corvallis and the MLP chapter celebration in Portland, Erin, Tara and I met to begin evaluation of the conference and consider a future transgender conference. This conference was a life-giving and life-changing experience for all of us fortunate enough to be there and possibly a life-saving one for some. I told Tara that she could count on MLP and me again for another transgender faith conference next year.

Transgender awareness, education and ministry in your congregation, MLP Chapter, campus or seminary community? Check out resources now at www.mlp.org and contact Erin Swenson, MLP National Liaison on Transgender Education, erin@erinswen.com. For more about the Corvallis event, see http://www.welcomingcongregations.org/index.php?sitesig=CWC&page=CWC_200_Transforming_Faith.

Organizations supporting the Transforming Faith-Transgender Conference included: The Community of Welcoming Congregations, The Center for Lesbian & Gay Studies in Religion and Ministry (Pacific School of Religion, Berkeley, CA), The Religion & Faith Program (Human Rights Coalition), The Institute for Welcoming Resources (National Gay & Lesbian Task Force), and More Light Presbyterians.

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MORE LIGHT PRESBYTERIANS, November 8, 2006
http://www.mlp.org/article.php?story=20061108215202472

PINK OR BLUE?

By Michael Adee, MLP National Field Organizer

Gender is not as simply understood or experienced as pink or blue, female or male, biology, genetics or cultural understandings. Gender, gender identity and expression are a mystery much like other ways we are created by God and in the image of God…. such as the nuances and complexities of race, ethnicity and sexual orientation.

Because of the pioneering presence, teaching, ministry and witness of the Rev. Dr. Erin K. Swenson, Minister, Presbytery of Greater Atlanta, many of us have had our culturally-bound beliefs about gender challenged and expanded to include all of God’s children, not just those who seem to fit or express gender norms.

Many of us transgress gender norms, I certainly do. Getting comfortable in one’s own skin — loving one’s own body — is a life-long journey. Ironically, it seems that Christians have a much harder time bringing body and soul — gender, sexuality and spirituality — together. Maybe we need to look again at the life and spirit of Jesus, the Bible and test the Puritan notions sadly infused in our theology and church law.

For a variety of reasons the Church lags behind society in recognition and respect of gender diversity and its mysteries. Where is our faith when it comes to trusting the creative palette of the God who makes all of us? Frankly, I am puzzled by the neurotic religious and political fixations of those who demand that marriage is between a man and a woman, and those obsessed with traditional gender norms. It seems quite off balance, out of proportion and a lack of trust in God’s own creation.

New York City is moving to make gender identity a personal choice — self-determination, not cultural bias or gender norm. What is your church, campus ministry or seminary community, or denomination to do? How might faithful Christians respond to the mysteries of gender and the realities of our sisters and brothers who are not simply pink or blue, female or male? I encourage your church leadership, deacons, Stephen’s ministry, youth group and congregation to consider ways to encourage understanding and care related to transgender persons and their families.

Erin Swenson serves as a National Liaison on Transgender Education for More Light Presbyterians and recently as Co-Moderator of the National MLP Board of Directors. Her educational resources, "More Light on Transgender," "More Light on Intersex" and "Pastoral Care in Transgender Experience" are invaluable in helping Christians understand gender identity and caring Christian responses. Erin would be delighted to help you create a local study and ministry.

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Clipping: New York Times, December 2, 2006
http://www.nytimes.com/2006/12/02/us/02child.html
[Photo at this link]

SUPPORTING BOYS OR GIRLS WHEN THE LINE ISN’T CLEAR

By Patricia Leigh Brown

OAKLAND, CA – Until recently, many children who did not conform to gender norms in their clothing or behavior and identified intensely with the opposite sex were steered to psychoanalysis or behavior modification. But as advocates gain ground for what they call gender-identity rights, evidenced most recently by New York City’s decision to let people alter the sex listed on their birth certificates, a major change is taking place among schools and families.

Children as young as 5 who display predispositions to dress like the opposite sex are being supported by a growing number of young parents, educators and mental health professionals. Doctors, some from the top pediatric hospitals, have begun to advise families to let these children be "who they are" to foster a sense of security and self-esteem. They are motivated in part by a high incidence of depression, suicidal feelings and self-mutilation that has been common in past generations of transgender children.

Legal trends suggest that schools are now required to respect parents’ decisions. "First we became sensitive to two mommies and two daddies," said Reynaldo Almeida, the director of the Aurora School, a progressive private school in Oakland. "Now it’s kids who come to school who aren’t gender typical."

The supportive attitudes are far easier to find in traditionally tolerant areas of the country like San Francisco than in other parts, but even in those places there is fierce debate over how best to handle the children. Cassandra Reese, a first-grade teacher outside Boston, recalled that fellow teachers were unnerved when a young boy showed up in a skirt. "They said, ‘This is not normal,’ and ‘It’s the parents’ fault,’ They didn’t see children as sophisticated enough to verbalize their own feelings," Reese said.

As children head into adolescence, some parents are choosing to block puberty medically to buy time for them to figure out who they are — raising a host of ethical questions. While these children are still relatively rare, doctors say the number of referrals is rising across the nation. Massachusetts, Minnesota, California, New Jersey and the District of Columbia have laws protecting the rights of transgender students, and some schools are engaged in a steep learning curve to dismantle gender stereotypes.

At the Park Day School in Oakland, teachers are taught a gender-neutral vocabulary and are urged to line up students by sneaker color rather than by gender. "We are careful not to create a situation where students are being boxed in," said Tom Little, the school’s director. "We allow them to move back and forth until something feels right."

For families, it can be a long, emotional adjustment. Shortly after her son’s third birthday, Pam B. and her husband, Joel, began a parental journey for which there was no road map. It started when their son, J., began wearing oversized T-shirts and wrapping a towel around his head to emulate long, flowing hair. Then came his mother’s silky undershirts. Half a year into preschool, J. started becoming agitated when asked to wear boys’ clothing.

En route to a mall with her son, Ms. B. had an epiphany: "It just clicked in me. I said, ‘You really want to wear a dress, don’t you?’" Thus began what the B.’s, who asked their full names not be used to protect their son’s privacy, call "the reluctant path," a behind-closed-doors struggle to come to terms with a gender-variant child — a spirited 5-year-old boy who, at least for now, strongly identifies as a girl, requests to be called "she" and asks to wear pigtails and pink jumpers to school.

Ms. B., 41, a lawyer, accepted the way her son defined himself after she and her husband consulted with a psychologist and observed his new-found comfort with his choice. But she feels the precarious nature of the day-to-day reality. "It’s hard to convey the relentlessness of it, she said, "every social encounter, every time you go out to eat, every day feeling like a balance between your kid’s self-esteem and protecting him from the hostile outside world."

The prospect of cross-dressing kindergartners has sparked a deep philosophical divide among professionals over how best to counsel families. Is it healthier for families to follow the child’s lead, or to spare children potential humiliation and isolation by steering them toward accepting their biological gender until they are older?

Both sides in the debate underscore their concern for the profound vulnerability of such youngsters, symbolized by occurrences like the murder in 2002 of Gwen Araujo, a transgender teenager born as Eddie, south of Oakland. "Parents now are looking for advice on how to make life reasonable for their kids — whether to allow cross-dressing in public, and how to protect them from the savagery of other children," said Dr. Herbert Schreier, a psychiatrist with Children’s Hospital and Research Center in Oakland.

Dr. Schreier is one of a growing number of professionals who have begun to think of gender variance as a naturally occurring phenomenon rather than a disorder. "These kids are becoming more aware of how it is to be themselves," he said. In past generations, so-called sissy boys and tomboy girls were made to conform, based on the belief that their behaviors were largely products of dysfunctional homes.

Among the revisionists is Dr. Edgardo Menvielle, a child-adolescent psychiatrist at the Children’s National Medical Center in Washington who started a national outreach group for parents of gender-variant children in 1998 that now has more than 200 participants. "We know that sexually marginalized children have a higher rate of depression and suicide attempts," Dr. Menvielle said. "The goal is for the child to be well adjusted, healthy and have good self-esteem. What’s not important is molding their gender."

The literature on adults who are transgender was hardly consoling to one parent, a 42-year-old software consultant in Massachusetts and the father of a gender-variant third grader. "You’re trudging through this tragic, horrible stuff and realizing not a single person was accepted and understood as a child," he said. "You read it and think, O.K., best to avoid that. But as a parent you’re in this complete terra incognita."

The biological underpinnings of gender identity, much like sexual orientation, remain something of a mystery, though many researchers suspect it is linked with hormone exposure in the developing fetus. Studies suggest that most boys with gender variance early in childhood grow up to be gay, and about a quarter heterosexual, Dr. Menvielle said. Only a small fraction grow up to identify as transgender. Girls with gender-variant behavior, who have been studied less, voice extreme unhappiness about being a girl and talk about wanting to have male anatomy. But research has thus far suggested that most wind up as heterosexual women.

Although many children role-play involving gender, Dr. Menvielle said, "the key question is how intense and persistent the behavior is," especially if they show extreme distress. Dr. Robin Dea, the director of regional mental health for Kaiser Permanente in Northern California, said: "Our gender identity is something we feel in our soul. But it is also a continuum, and it evolves."

Dr. Dea works with four or five children under the age of 15 who are essentially living as the opposite sex. "They are much happier, and their grades are up," she said. "I’m waiting for the study that says supporting these children is negative."

But Dr. Kenneth Zucker, a psychologist and head of the gender-identity service at the Center for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto, disagrees with the "free to be" approach with young children and cross-dressing in public. Over the past 30 years, Dr. Zucker has treated about 500 preadolescent gender-variant children. In his studies, 80 percent grow out of the behavior, but 15 percent to 20 percent continue to be distressed about their gender and may ultimately change their sex.

Dr. Zucker tries to "help these kids be more content in their biological gender" until they are older and can determine their sexual identity — accomplished, he said, by encouraging same-sex friendships and activities like board games that move beyond strict gender roles.

Though she has not encountered such a situation, Jennifer Schwartz, assistant principal of Chatham Elementary School outside Springfield, Ill., said that allowing a child to express gender differences "would be very difficult to pull off" there. Schwartz added: "I’m not sure it’s worth the damage it could cause the child, with all the prejudices and parents possibly protesting. I’m not sure a child that age is ready to make that kind of decision."

The B.’s thought long and hard about what they had observed in their son. They have carefully choreographed his life, monitoring new play mates, selecting a compatible school, finding sympathetic parents in a babysitting co-op. Nevertheless, Ms. B. said, "there is still the stomach-clenching fear for your kid." It is indeed heartbreaking to hear a child say, as J. did recently, "It feels like a nightmare that I’m a boy."

The adjustment has been gradual for Mr. B., a 43-year-old public school administrator who is trying to stop calling J. "our little man." He thinks of his son as a positive, resilient person, and his love and admiration show. "The truth is, is any parent going to choose this for their kid?" he said. "It’s who your kid is."

Families are caught in the undertow of conflicting approaches. One suburban Chicago mother, who did not want to be identified, said in a telephone interview that she was drawing the line on dress and trying to provide "boy opportunities" for her 6-year-old son. "But we can’t make everything a power struggle," she said. "It gets exhausting." She worries about him becoming a social outcast. "Why does your brother like girl things?" friends of her 10-year-old ask. The answer is always, "I don’t know."

Nila Marrone, a retired linguistics professor at the University of Connecticut who consults with parents and schools, recalled an incident last year at a Bronx elementary school in which an 8-year-old boy perceived as effeminate was thrown into a large trash bin by a group of boys. The principal, she said, "suggested to the mother that she was to blame, for not having taught her son how to be tough enough."

But the tide is turning. The Los Angeles Unified School District, for instance, requires that students be addressed with "names and pronouns that correspond to their gender identity." It also asks schools to provide a locker room or changing area that corresponds to a student’s chosen gender.

One of the most controversial issues concerns the use of "blockers," hormones used to delay the onset of puberty in cases where it could be psychologically devastating (for instance, a girl who identifies as a boy might slice her wrists when she gets her period). Some doctors disapprove of blockers, arguing that only at puberty does an individual fully appreciate their gender identity.

Catherine Tuerk, a nurse-psychotherapist at the children’s hospital in Washington and the mother of a gender-variant child in the 1970s, says parents are still left to find their own way. She recalls how therapists urged her to steer her son into psychoanalysis and "hypermasculine activities" like karate. She said she and her husband became "gender cops." "It was always, ‘You’re not kicking the ball hard enough,’" she said.

Tuerk’s son, now 30, is gay and a father, and her own thinking has evolved since she was a young parent. "People are beginning to understand that this seems to be something that just happens," she said. "But there was a whole lifetime of feeling we could never leave him alone."

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— Announcing the *new* TransFaith On-line! —

TransFaith Online is now redesigned, updated, and easier to find (new URL: http://www.transfaithonline.org/). Please spread the word!!

TransFaith Online is dedicated to supporting Transgender folks in our faith journeys, while providing useful resources to help Church folks become better educated trans-allies. The new website includes updated resource links, exclusive content, RSS/XML news feeds, an email update list, and special resource lists (e.g. book list, video list, study guide list).

— Redesigned and Updated —

TransFaith On-line was founded in 1999 by Chris Paige (formerly publisher of The Other Side magazine) in order to provide an index of internet resources that provide insight into the Transgender faith experience. While the old site was recently noted as the #1 Google search result for "transgender Christian," it was also in need of a dramatic makeover.

The new TransFaith website (URL: http://www.transfaithonline.org/) includes a fresh new design, hundreds of new and updated links, exclusive content, and new features. Some highlights include:

The new list of study guides on Transgender experience from a faith perspective offers practical support for allies who want to lead a discussion in their church (includes links to four study resources available on-line for free!): http://www.transfaithonline.org/more_resources/study_guides/
Virginia Mollenkott’s latest thoughts on LGBT politics in Transwomen, Lesbians, and the "Border Police": http://www.transfaithonline.org/articles/other/borderpolice/
Expanded section on "The Basics" highlights the best of general-interest, educational Transgender resources available on the internet: http://www.transfaithonline.org/the_basics/

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In addition to developing new content, TransFaith On-line is bringing back otherwise unavailable content, such as the four articles originally published in The Other Side magazine’s special issue on Transgender concerns (May/June 2001).

Virginia Mollenkott reflects on Scripture, creation, and current experience as she explores the complexities of gender, asking whether simple poles of "male" and "female" serve us well.
Transgender minister Erin Swenson shares her story, and considers the questions it raises for our churches.
Chris Paige reflects on the wisdom that comes when we resist either-or choices in seeking a way to live more authentically.
Robyn Shanor explores how the issues raised by transgendered people are similar to — and different from — those of gay, lesbian, and bisexual people.
You can find these articles on-line at: http://www.transfaithonline.org/articles/other/tos/

— Spread the Word, Stay Connected —

The new TransFaith On-line has only just begun… Please help us spread the word!

Add a link to TransFaith from your website
Tell people about TransFaith On-line on your favorite e-mail mailing list
Mention TransFaith On-line in your blog or church newsletter
Then stay connected! We are interested in your feedback, encouragement, and ideas as we redevelop this new resource…

Sign-up for our email update list
Subscribe to one (or more!) RSS/XML news feeds
Let us know what other resources you think should be included

Contact us to talk about contributing with your own writing, ideas, or financial support
Stay connected at: http://www.transfaithonline.org/about/

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Copyright 2006 The New York Times Company

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