Diana Anderson, a transwoman, is a biomedical engineer. She still plays the guitar. Still rides motorcycles. And she's still married to her wife of 15 years, just not as a husband anymore. Despite male genitalia, she was never male, not in her soul, though it wasn't until late in her adolescence that she understood what she was feeling. She was then and is now—following hormone treatments—female. She's an active member of SAGE, the Southern Association for Gender Education.
Raja, a transman, is a banker. He was raised a girl in a Muslim household in Pakistan, played golf on the Rutgers University women's team. His earliest memories are of living in the wrong body. "I knew I was a boy, male, masculine, from the first words I could speak," he remembers. "And my first understanding was, OK, I'm a boy. I just don't get to live my life like one."
Now bearded and muscular, the result of testosterone treatments, Raja is what he yearned to be, a male who is married to a loving woman. He's also active in SAGE, but because his banking colleagues have no idea about his trans history, he asked that his last name not be used in this article. Ruefully, he describes his life as "still very much in stealth," adding, "You go from one closet to another."
Trans. Transgender. They're umbrella terms, says the Rev. Erin Swenson, for a wide range of people who "dissent from gender categories" and who may or may not be transsexual. (For some definitions, see "Transgender salad.")
Male? Female? What do those words really mean? Swenson asks. She herself was born with a "Y" chromosome and male genitals and for years lived an outwardly successful, inwardly despairing life as a married man and Presbyterian minister—one who planned to commit suicide immediately if ever discovered in women's clothes. Until finally, in her 40s, she embraced the truth she'd known since she was 10, or perhaps it was earlier. Genetically male, she was in every other way, every important way, meant to be female. "I cannot tell you how wrong that felt. It felt like something inside of me was broken," she says.
"And now, thanks to hormones, and a very talented surgeon, I am female," Swenson adds, laughing happily. "But I still am chromosomally male, so not 'fully female'—which makes me what?"
One thing it makes her is the only minister of a mainstream Protestant denomination who, after being ordained, changed gender identity and stayed ordained. It was a close vote, but the Presbyterian Synod of Greater Atlanta accepted her transition from the Rev. Eric to the Rev. Erin Swenson a decade ago. She remains in Atlanta today as pastor and counselor at Morningside Presbyterian Church, where SAGE is housed, and she travels extensively talking about issues of gender and faith.
She, Raja, Diana and eight other SAGE members from Atlanta were in Chapel Hill recently visiting The Church of Reconciliation, where they were joined by some 40 local church people and guests over the course of a weekend workshop. Late in the day, Swenson asked how many of the locals identified as transgender. Seven stood up, which let Swenson underscore how "normal" they looked. No way you'd have picked them out.
Karli Rabe, for example, had been sitting next to me earlier. I had no idea this male-looking person, with whom I'd chatted briefly, would get up to say that she's taken female hormones and changed her name from Karl.
"It's like a Bell curve," Rabe says later, sweeping her two hands down and apart to indicate the idea that in any large group, there's a lot of average people in the middle, but a lot who aren't average as well—including some who are pretty far from average. "I'm not average, not in the middle," Rabe says. "But that doesn't mean I'm not normal."
Normal. It's a jarring concept for a society that is used to categorizing people as one thing or the other, male or female, but is now confronted with the reality that between 1 and 3 million Americans, according to the National Center of Transgender Equality, do not accept the label they were given at birth.
Indeed, says Ann Thompson Cook, former president of the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, in the publication Made in God's Image (published by Dumbarton United Methodist Church in Washington, D.C.), as many as 40,000 children in the United States are born each year with bodies that differ in some way "from what is considered standard for males and females."
"Corrective" surgeries usually follow, but even when the genitals and the chromosomes are lined up one way, the talk in Chapel Hill was about how the body and mind, combining to assert what's known as gender identity, may still decide to go in another—for reasons that are only dimly understood even in theory, but are nonetheless undeniable in effect.
Gender identity has something to do with hormones, as a Newsweek cover story reported last month, including estrogen, oxytocin ("the mother hormone") and the various androgens like testosterone. It may also have something to do with how the brain is wired.
It is a separate matter from sexual orientation, which is about who attracts you—same sex, other sex, both sexes?
Gender identity is about who you are, regardless of who turns you on.
Trans people can be straight, gay or bisexual, and that status may or may not change with a transition. It almost doesn't matter, because in most cases the people who were attracted to someone "before" are still attracted to them "after"—and their status hasn't changed. Or usually it doesn't. There was one SAGE member in Chapel Hill, a transwoman, whose female partner stayed with her and said afterward it was because she—the partner—was a lesbian all along. The couple were "straight" before. Now, both say they're gay.
There is a political connection, however, between the gay and trans communities, and it's found in LGBT organizations like the Human Rights Campaign and Equality North Carolina, which advocate for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people to have the same rights to a "normal" life that others do.
At bottom, trans people say, gender—and perhaps sexual orientation, too—is at least in part a social and political "construct," meaning a tight-fitting set of behaviors that, like our clothes, we put on ourselves or else let others put on us.
Or if we resist, one said, "they get beaten into you."
What gender isn't, however, is a fixed, "biologically determined" dividing line, they insist. Of that they're certain, because they've lived their lives on both sides of it.
Imagine, if you can, waking up one day and finding yourself, if you're male, in a female body. Could you still be male? Could you still be you, whatever that means? In my interviews, I kept asking variations of the same question: Why insist on hormones and medical procedures, knowing how hard that process will be? Why not simply live across gender lines while accepting the biology?
Some trans folks do, the Rev. Swenson says. But for others, it's not enough, and why should it be? The treatments are much better now than 10, 20 years ago. Our understanding is much better. Why shouldn't people use them—be encouraged to use them—if that's what they want?
As the workshop in Chapel Hill was ending, a local transwoman who's well along with hormones and looking forward to surgery spoke up. Her marriage fell apart over her transition, she said, but she had no doubt that she needed to do it. "People told me going into this," she said, "you should expect to lose everything you have, and then cherish whatever you get to keep."
To which a SAGE transwoman named Sharon, who's 62, answered that the world is getting better every day for the transgendered. "Have faith," she said. "You may lose nothing and gain a lot."
Then Kimball Sargent spoke for the first time. She's a nurse and gender counselor in Raleigh. She saw her first transgender client 10 years ago, only because she couldn't find anyone else to take the referral. She's seen several hundred since. "I'm like a midwife helping people give birth to the life they were meant to live," she said. "Transpeople have so many coping skills. They are some of the strongest people you will ever meet."
William Peck agreed. A UNC philosophy professor, he's a member of the Church of Reconciliation. "I really do feel great strength in this group," he said. "And I'm in awe of the amazing witness you are giving to what every person in their life is called to do, which is to find our own way in the face of many problems. I am just moved to tears being in your presence."