Transgendered and speaking out Vivian Maguires (not her real name) sits at a wooden table in the Aristocrat restaurant with the afternoon sun shining through the blue and green stained-glass windows behind her. She is eating a salad - a napkin spread gingerly over her lap - and sipping iced tea with a wedge of lemon. She has on a pink, short-sleeve shirt, a pair of turquoise stone earrings with a matching turquoise necklace and a brightly-colored flowered skirt. A blue handkerchief wrapped around her chin-length auburn hair gives her a carefree appearance, making her look far younger than her age. When she speaks, her voice is soft and intelligent.
"I knew from an early age that I was different," she explains. "Probably from the age of 3 or 4." She lowers her voice, conscious of the people seated nearby who glance in her direction. "I always wanted to play with the girls and wear my sister"s dress-up clothes and costume jewelry." She pauses. "Of course, my mother wouldn"t let me. My mother believed that the rules were the rules no matter what!" She glances down at her hands. Born and raised as a boy named Bob, Vivian knows firsthand the pain and isolation of living in one gender while self-identifying as another. Pain begins early Growing up in a rural, Indiana town, Vivian"s family consisted of one older sister, two younger brothers, a father who worked as a deliveryman and a mother who stayed home while the children were young. When explaining her family life, Vivian says, "You know, it was the "50s." Her parents, teachers and classmates did not accept her difference. "Early on, it was clear to me that my gender identity was female." Vivian recalls playing house with a group of girls who always wanted her to be the dad, but she wanted to be the mom. They refused to let her be the mom and so she quit playing. She would try on her sister"s clothes in the bathroom or dress up when no one was home. Wearing her sister"s clothing felt peaceful while at the same time terrifying and stressful because she might get caught. "There were all these messages that someone who would do that must be crazy or, worse, gay!" At age 6, walking to her first day of school, Vivian and her sister saw a group of older boys getting off at a bus stop. The boys were clothed in dresses as part of an initiation ritual for incoming high school freshmen. Vivian was ecstatic. She thought her mother must have been mistaken and boys really could wear dresses after all. But her sister soon explained the error. During school, Vivian played with the girls on the playground. "I remember one day the teachers told me I couldn"t do that anymore and I was devastated. The teachers told me that the girls didn"t want boys around them, but I saw myself as a girl!" Because she was different, Vivian also faced violence. "All through grade school I was harassed," she says. A group of boys began following Vivian home from school, taunting her and throwing rocks at her. "My mom would say, "It"s because you"re smart." Only the harassment comments didn"t have anything to do with being smart." Vivian sighs. "I came home crying, and my mother told me, "Don"t be a sissy." She threatened that if I came home crying again, she"d give me a whipping." Vivian"s mother brought in macho uncles to try to toughen Vivian up. "She was trying the sports cure," Vivian says. "They taught me baseball, like how to throw a ball, and I would think to myself, am I doing this right? Is this passing for a guy so I can fit in?" Eventually, Vivian did get good at sports, learning to enjoy them. She played basketball, football and baseball until junior high but didn"t continue when the sports became rough and competitive. "I liked the technique and strategy of the games, but I didn"t like how rough it got. I taught my younger brothers sports, but I also would tell them, "Don"t hurt each other," or "Don"t be so rough." My younger brothers were "all boy" and much more competitive and rough. They enjoyed football. At some point, I stopped trying to do the girl stuff because it outed me too much." High school presented new opportunities along with new challenges. "I found friends in the nerd group," she says. "I read philosophy and played chess. I read military history. I found I could sublimate gender identity issues by using intellectual diversions. I could use that as an identity." Yet in private, Vivian continued to cross-dress. "Once, in high school, my mom found my stash of girl"s clothes that I"d hidden in the back corner of my closet. My mom was short and I thought she"d never look up there. But she got a stepladder and found it, supposedly while cleaning my room. When I got home, she went berserk - yelling and screaming and calling me every name in the book. She told my dad to take me out to the garage and give me a beating. My dad took me out there. He was standing there with a board in his hand, and he asked what was wrong with me. Why was I doing this? He seemed like he wanted to know and for once he asked the right question, he asked, "Do you want to be a woman?" But he was standing there with that board and so I answered, "No," even though that was the first time he"d asked the right question." Vivian"s father sent her back into the house without punishment. Nevertheless, he distanced himself from her - though he had no trouble interacting with her sister and brothers. Hiding to survive By the time Vivian attended college in the early "70s, she was terrified to admit that she identified as a woman. "I would have been taking my life in my own hands!" she says emphatically. She kept a small stash of women"s clothing. She remembers once, in the privacy of her dorm room, dressing as a woman and some guys came knocking on the door. Vivian ignored the knocks, hoping they"d go away. They must have thought something was wrong because a little while later she heard knocking again, only this time she heard the resident director"s voice and the jingle of keys. Vivian quickly grabbed a blanket off the bed, threw it around herself to cover the women"s clothing, and when they barged in, she was sitting on the floor. She told them to get out, that she was trying to meditate. "I was so depressed that first year I almost dropped out because college wasn"t how I expected and it wasn"t as challenging as I expected. I just spent hours and hours in the library." Vivian looked for information on transsexuals, but there wasn"t much out there and the psychiatric writings she did find didn"t have anything to do with her life. "At that time, the main theory was that the father was a bad role model and there was a dominant mother figure that the child identified with. The old blaming the mother theories." Vivian never identified with her mother because her mother was so busy trying to change her. "The experiences of transgendered people are too varied to fit into one box," she says. "There are those who have no bad family experiences. There are male to females who had strong father models. There are also females who identify as male." The other common myth about transgendered persons is that they go to extremes to avoid appearing gay. But as Vivian says, "I have been thinking of myself as a girl for as long as I can remember, long before I ever heard the word gay. And this gender identity wasn"t in any way related to any sexual preference at age 5. It was just how I always identified myself. It wasn"t something that suddenly appeared as an adult. "Sexual orientation and gender identity are two separate things," she explains. Some people self-identify as women and are attracted to women. Others self-identify as women and are attracted to men (and vice versa). Vivian is attracted to women, but notes, "Not everyone fits into a box at either of the two extremes. There are many people in the middle. At some point," she says, "you start to figure out that the labels just don"t fit." During college, Vivian married a girlfriend from high school. "I was afraid to be alone," she admits regretfully. "The more I was alone, the more I cross-dressed and felt guilty and ashamed." Despite much unhappiness, Vivian stayed married for 15 years and has one daughter. "As a man," she says, "I often wore a heavy beard or a mustache. It was sort of a way to say, "I can"t be transsexual, look at me!"" By that time, she had done a lot of reading on the topic. "The research talked about electrical shock treatments and administering drugs and things like that. I thought my wife and my mother might try to get me committed; and I worried about losing my job, which was a sure thing at that time. I was afraid to come out." Eventually, Vivian and her wife divorced. A catalyst for change Not long after the divorce, Vivian got married a second time. Her voice relaxes as she discusses this relationship. "I met a woman and we were friends and felt comfortable with each other. I made the same mistake with her that I made with my first wife: I didn"t tell her about the gender issues. Whatever causes you to be transsexual, it"s a pull inside. It"s hard to explain. I didn"t tell her because I didn"t have the courage and we seemed right together. I felt guilty later. Even though we were happy, I felt the pull. It"s somewhat ironic but my second wife was a huge influence in helping me come out. She helped me see how angry and afraid and defensive I had become. I had repressed my own feelings while helping others get in touch with theirs. With my second wife, we had a wonderful time. It was the best time in my life and I can"t think of any other time as wonderful. It"s sad; she taught me how to be myself, but there was this one piece I couldn"t tell her." Then, Vivian"s sister-in-law died unexpectedly, sparking the catalyst for change. "She was only in her late 30s, and I knew I needed to make some decisions instead of hiding my whole life. I thought, life"s too short." Vivian wrote a letter to her second wife. "I told her I had always identified as a woman and cross-dressed. I had repressed it but couldn"t anymore. I also said I had it under control and that it wouldn"t destroy our relationship. She and I took long walks in the park and had discussions about self and the meaning of life and all those things. Naturally enough, she questioned whether I really had it under control. Also, once it was out of the bag - after trying to repress it for so long - it was like I went hog wild and I think it freaked her out. She tried to understand and we went to marriage counseling. One day in counseling, she just asked me, "Are you transsexual?" I tried to finagle out of it, but I finally said yes. I thought, it"s still me. I"ll just look different outside. But she felt like everything she thought was me wasn"t the truth. She wanted me to be free to be who I needed to be. She understood better than I did that sometimes you have to let someone go so that they can grow. She was wiser than I was in that respect." Seeking a way out of pain Vivian sought the assistance of a psychologist, which is the first step for someone transitioning who may want surgery. She also attended a support group, IXE, and listened to talks about how to survive and what to do if outed. "I had always hid from the world by doing what was expected. You learn to do that at an early age. You build a shell so no one notices. I would watch what other guys do, so no one would suspect. I got depressed. I thought about suicide a lot. From grade school on I was cycling through depressions and a constant low-level depression. I can remember being in my bunk bed with my younger brother in the other bed asleep and I would be thinking I just wanted to die." A culture of exclusion "Depression is often an outcome of being oppressed," explains Harlan Higgins, Ph.D., a licensed Indiana psychologist. "Oppression is when you are denied the right to be who you fully are." He says, "People whose gender role doesn"t match their gender identity are shamed in societies that are oppressive. As a culture, we then become responsible for that shame." In other cultures, transgendered persons are treated as holy persons and those with a "he" and "she" spirit are considered shamans. The Europeans referred to such people in Native American tribes as berdache. "When you look at how different cultures dealt with the same phenomenon," Higgins continues, "you understand that their system was one of inclusion. Ours is one of exclusion." Kelley J. Hall, assistant professor of sociology at DePauw University, adds, "Society has powerful expectations about what a man should be or what a woman should be. Life is easier if you go along. But there are people who can"t go along. They don"t feel that"s who they are." She pauses. "Risk happens when people step outside those expectations. There are threats of violence, loss of job, denial of medical treatment, lack of services by the police, the Fire Department or other public services. Ideally, people should be able to be who they are and love who they love. I educate people not to hold such narrow definitions of what a man is or what a woman is or who you should or should not be attracted to." As Higgins emphasizes, "The real question becomes: Who is in charge of gender identity when it"s such a subjective experience?" Speaking out After much deep soul searching, Vivian decided in the late "90s, at age 49, to come out to friends and family. "I was very scared," she says. "I had learned not to trust people." When she told her mother, her mother became furious. Between bouts of angry crying, her mother said, "You never cared about us. You just want to do your own thing!" Vivian"s mother has no contact with Vivian today. Vivian believes her mother shuns her in the hope that it will force Vivian to act "normal." As Sarah Patterson from PFLAG (a family support group; see sidebar) likes to say, "Sometimes when children come out of the closet, the parents run in." Patterson notes that a large number of parents feel guilty or ashamed because society tells them it"s wrong to be gay or lesbian or bisexual or transgendered and so the parents think they must have done something wrong. Until the parents accept the child"s gender self-identity or sexual orientation, like accepting brown hair or being left-handed, then they"re somewhat defensive. "But there"s a tremendous sense of freedom when parents do come out," she observes. "Keeping secrets is hard. It"s a terrible thing for anyone to have to keep a secret." Vivian"s sister is the only family member who maintains contact with her. "When I came out to my sister, she said, "The only thing that surprises me is that I"m not surprised."" Unlike her family, most of Vivian"s friends have been supportive. "My best friend at work for 25 years, when I told him, he said, "I thought you liked women too much - not just like a guy likes women but like a woman."" Vivian smiles. "I did outreach with women and always spent a lot of time with women." Not all of Vivian"s friends, however, were as understanding. "I had been a volunteer for 15 years at a nonprofit organization," she says. "People there, who I thought were my friends, decided they wanted me off the board after I transitioned because they were worried about the embarrassment. Fortunately, a few people stepped forward and were more accepting than those who were trying to get me kicked off." Vivian hesitates when asked about her daughter, clearly a painful topic. "I told my daughter about being transgendered because I wanted her to understand why my second wife and I were splitting up. My daughter had a lot of respect for my second wife and she was angry, but she was in denial. A lot of the "whatever" type of attitude. She didn"t want to talk about it and never asked any substantive questions. She pretended it didn"t exist and was more upset that I was separating from my second wife. When my daughter was in college and engaged to be married, she asked that I not transition until after her wedding." Vivian"s voice lowers. "I waited and then after the wedding, when I transitioned, my daughter said she never wanted to talk to me again. She has never seen me as Vivian." She pauses. "I think my family and her mother and her husband"s family told her I was shaming the family and that I didn"t care about them. I could have lost everybody if I kept her, but it went the other way. I lost few friends." It"s not easy for some people to understand why Vivian risked so much. But as she says, "I couldn"t continue as I was. Once I started, I knew this was the way to go. I had feelings inside that I had repressed for so long; it was like either do this or die. I was scared. I knew I might lose family and jobs and friends. I had read enough by then to know that I was risking total loss of everything. But I had to be ready to risk everything - to let go and let God. I got tired of fighting it, tired of the depression and suicide planning. I was also afraid I might not chicken out sometime. I decided to let the Universe take its course." Transgendered in the workplace With a combination master"s degree in special education/counseling, Vivian works as a counselor. She notes that the prevailing advice for transgendered persons in the workplace is to work it out with their current employer, not to sabotage future job opportunities - to get a good job reference, leave and go start a new life in a different city. "They thought no one would accept you if you stayed. It was sort of the witness protection mentality." Even though transgendered people work in a variety of occupations, including the high tech computer industry, job security is still nonexistent in most cases. As Vivian says, "People can be fired simply for their gender-identity and gender self-expression, no matter how well they perform their job - and they routinely are fired." Transitioning on the job Vivian"s employer, at her request and the request of her union, agreed to have Dr. Higgins come in to do a presentation. Several steps were involved in this process. First, Vivian prepared a written handout on "Understanding Transsexualism," containing educational information. Second, she wrote a letter to her colleagues explaining why she felt the need to transition. As she states in her letter, "[F]or me, life has been a struggle to come to accept my uniqueness and to trust those I care about with that insight ... or as Thoreau stated, "[I didn"t want], when I came to die, to discover that I had not lived."" Third was the presentation itself by Higgins to lay the groundwork for Vivian"s transition on the job. "Gender identity, gender role and biological sex have nothing to do with performing in the workplace," he explains. "The real heroes in this story, in addition to Vivian, are her employer, union and co-workers. Now there is a model for handling transition in the workplace in a healthy way." Returning to work as Vivian After a week off, Vivian returned to work - her internal and external gender identity at long last in harmony. "The first day of work as a woman was terrifying," she admits. "I remember parking the car and breathing deep. Then, as I walked to work, everyone I passed I thought read me. I tried to calm down and then I smiled when I wasn"t read by someone. I said to myself, "You can do this!"" Co-workers were supportive that first day back. "A lot of people began telling me stories of friends or relatives who had gay or transgendered loved ones, not all the stories good. One colleague recounted a story about a teen whose parents threw him out and he committed suicide. Another had taken in a youth thrown out by his parents. Some had stories of a supportive family or friends." Vivian"s co-workers made her a cake and some came by her office to say hello. "One woman came in, stayed for a while and then said, "You look really good. I just want you to know that!"" Vivian smiles, her face beaming. "The staff was very receptive." She acknowledges that some people took longer to adjust, saying, "They needed different amounts of time to feel comfortable. The transition presentation really helped." Transphobia in the workplace Vivian"s transition process also had its painful moments. A month and a half after she transitioned, a co-worker, who did not participate in the educational presentation because she worked for another agency, complained when - after the transition - Vivian used the "wrong" bathroom. The co-worker was apparently telling people to watch out because a "transvestite" or "queer" was using the restrooms. Then, a prominent, local law firm sent a threatening letter to Vivian"s manager regarding the bathroom issue, stating that the police would be called and Vivian could be charged with trespassing or voyeurism for using the ladies restroom. After negotiating with Vivian"s union, the other agency eventually hired a person to train their employees about gender issues. Building support To help those facing similar obstacles, Vivian co-founded INTRAA (Indiana Transgender Rights Advocacy Alliance), an educational and political action group. (see sidebar) Vivian says, "The goal of INTRAA is to get organized and to educate others. Many people suffer lifelong oppression and remain hidden because they fear the gender police - those who try to tell others what gender they should be." INTRAA works to ensure freedom of gender self-identity and freedom of gender expression. "People have said how brave I am to speak out, but the real brave people were those who came out in the "50s, "60s and "70s. They risked their lives." Although attitudes are changing, transgendered persons continue to risk harassment, discrimination, violence and even death because of fear and hatred. "Those are the people INTRAA would like to help," Vivian says with determination. A spiritual journey Vivian felt spiritually connected when transitioning. "Many transgendered people are spiritual because there"s a motivation to look inward and examine what life as a human being means - especially when you don"t have anyone in society you can talk to about things. You end up doing a lot of self-analysis. But it"s also an experience that can generate a lot of anger and it can be debilitating." She recalls, as a child, seeing a picture at church of Jesus surrounded by little children - all sorts of children. In the next room, she could hear the adults having a conversation. They were making racist comments. Vivian looked back at the picture, seeing the brown children, and realized the inconsistency. "From then on," she remarks, "all bets were off." She found spiritual teachings important to know about but had no use for religion. Vivian now views being transgendered as a blessing. "I pull from all sorts of traditions. My beliefs are eclectic, mostly Taoist. I was an atheist for a while, partly to thumb my nose at society and also because I thought if God doesn"t intervene, why bother?" As she explains, "When I was younger, and ruminating over why am I the way I am and why does everybody hate me, I railed against God. But as I got older, I saw the transition as a good thing and important for my spiritual growth because you see people and the world in a new way when you"re different. I was scared to death to transition, but I saw it as a journey I was supposed to make. It helped me have more empathy for people. It"s hard to see others as weird or not worth your time when you know that"s how others see you. It reminds you all the time to be above the plane of judgment." Vivian"s face lights up when discussing her spirituality. "Unusual, beautiful memories from childhood came flooding back when I transitioned. I remembered a childhood friend - a boy with leukemia who told me his job was to help his grandparents and mother accept his death. He talked about his spirit guides and the help they gave him. I had totally forgotten about that friendship and experience, walking with him and talking about life and spirituality. I had no close friends in school until maybe third or fourth grade when I met the boy who had leukemia. We walked home together. His grandparents had a farm on the edge of town near the church we attended. He was dying of leukemia. When he didn"t come to school one day, no one even bothered to tell me that he had died." Vivian wipes her eyes. When she is able, she continues. "After my transition, I remembered dreams and the child friend. My spiritual conception of the universe shifted. I felt more comfortable with who I was and that it was going to be OK. I had always thought that friends were important and that helping people was important. Those friendships are what ended up helping my transition process." Life today as Vivian A cat with bright green eyes named Isis greets visitors to Vivian"s apartment. Numerous bookshelves are crammed with books - titles ranging from cultural history to fiction by Tom Clancy and Ernest Hemingway, to a book on Jesus and Lao Tzu. A Baroque Brass Festival album leans against the stereo - one of many albums. Above the couch hangs a landscape painting by Leah Schwartz: "Spring Thicket with Lavender." A framed photograph of her daughter"s senior picture sits prominently on top of the TV and a "Save the Dolphins" sticker is affixed to a metal filing cabinet drawer. There"s a coat rack holding a black straw hat brimmed with lavender ribbon and, near the couch, a Calvin & Hobbs book: The Days Are Just Packed. "Music is a huge part of my life," she says, glancing toward the collection of albums and discussing her interests. "I have eclectic tastes: old-time gospel, like music in the movie O Brother, Where Art Thou? Folk. I like Greg Brown. He was on Prairie Home Companion, a poet and songwriter. I read a lot of philosophy, spiritual traditions and field-related social science. I read, listen to music and see movies." Vivian walks out to the parking lot, explaining how hard it was the first few times she appeared at her car as a woman. The first two times, she saw people she knew standing outside, near her car, and she was too afraid to go out. In time, though, she gained the courage to venture outside as Vivian. "I knew the women in my apartment complex accepted me," Vivian says as she heads for her car, "when one day they asked me if I wanted to help them while tending the flowerbed. A friend of one of the women was walking by and, without missing a beat, my neighbor turned and introduced me, saying, "This is Vivian." I knew then that they accepted me. They have been very kind." Vivian gets in her car and drives. "My sister is the only one from the family who still talks to me." She stares at the road ahead. Vivian is putting together an album for her other family members, hoping for a reconciliation - hoping they"ll understand and accept her. As she drives, she puts in a cassette tape that she laughing admits dates her. She drives with The Byrds singing, "To everything, turn, turn, turn ..." Resources Books ï Trans Forming Families: Real Stories About Transgendered Loved Ones, Mary Boenke, editor ï True Selves: Understanding Transexualism ... for Families, Friends, Coworkers and Helping Professionals, Mildred L. Brown and Chloe Ann Rounsley ï Confessions of a Gender Defender, by Randi Ettener, Ph.D. ï Social Services with Transgendered Youth, Gerald P. Mallon, DSW, editor Movie videos ï My Life in Pink (foreign with subtitles) ï Different for Girls Area churches/synagogues ï Jesus Metropolitan Community Church (MCC), www.jesusmcc.org ï Unitarian Universalist Church of Indianapolis (UUI) ï Broadway United Methodist Church ï Quaker, Circle of Friends ï St. Thomas Aquinas Church, www.gayindy.org/dignity ï Unity on North Delaware ï The Church Within ï Church of Religious Science ï All Saints Episcopal ï N.E. United Church of Christ ï Indianapolis Hebrew Congregation ï North United Methodist Church ï Central Christian Church ï All Souls Unitarian Church ï Circle Unitarian-Universalist Fellowship