TV & Radio
They didn't wait until middle age to question their birth sex. They are the 'Transgeneration.'
- Reyhan Harmanci, SF Chronicle Staff Writer
Thursday, September 15, 2005
USF student Butch Greenblatt says he knew he wanted to be a boy since age 5. Chronicle photo by Deanne Fitzmaurice
Raci, a UCLA student, bought female hormones off the street. Photo courtesy of the Sundance Channel
Butch Greenblatt entered middle school as a tomboy and left as a girly-girl. At age 14, Butch came out as a lesbian. A year later, Butch came out again. As a guy.
"For a long time, people thought the boy thing was a phase and I'd eventually grow out of it and be pretty and attractive and normal. I tried my best in middle school, but I never was very good at it," he says.
"I was pretty sure, though, for a while, that I'd end up as a butch lesbian."
While at camp for Gay-Straight Alliance organizers, Greenblatt expressed something that had been on his mind for years. "During this time where we did a 'check in,' I said I just wanted to share something and said, 'I don't feel like I'm a woman.' It was definitely scary -- I didn't know what would happen next -- but speaking the truth felt pretty awesome."
Greenblatt is part of a new generation of transgender people who come out at a young age. Now 21, he speaks of gender as a spectrum, not a binary.
"At age 14, it's not uncommon for trans people come out as some flavor of queer," says Gayle Roberts, development director of San Francisco's LYRIC, or Lavender Youth Recreation and Information Center, a nonprofit dedicated to gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender youth. "It usually takes a few more years, and people often go through various stages of identification before landing on the one that fits best."
Four trans students are the subject of a new documentary series, "Trangeneration," airing on the Sundance Channel this month.
The four featured students -- two women and two men -- didn't wait until middle age to start questioning their birth sex.
"Definitely, we see more and more trans students than in the past," said Brett Beemyn, coordinator of GLBT student services at Ohio State University and board member at the Transgender Law and Policy Institute in New York City. "It used to be that identifying as transgender was more of a middle-age phenomenon. People would feel a sense of shame and uncertainty and wouldn't really come to grips or find recourses until midlife, but now with the Internet and support groups, students don't have that uncertainty or not as much self-hatred as previous generations."
As young transgender people increase in numbers and visibility, they can be the target of derision and violence. Perhaps the most recent evidence of that was the 2002 murder of Newark teenager Gwen Araujo. This week, two of the three defendants in the case were found guilty of second-degree murder.
But while cases such as the Araujo murder are devastating and bring headlines, they are an extreme experience of young transgender people: "Transgeneration" shows how raising consciousness about what it means to be transgender can bring the support and understanding of parents and peers.
"Transgeneration," in addition to appearing at the Frameline film festival in June, has been screened at the San Francisco Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender Community Center and because Billy Curtis, co-director of the Gender Equity Center, wept when he first saw it, it was shown three times at UC Berkeley.
"I knew immediately I could use it as an educational tool for faculty, staff, administration and students," Curtis says. "It's not an end at all, it doesn't try to represent the entire trans experience, but it both answers some of the most basic questions about what it means to be trans while being this great conversation starter."
Greenblatt, who grew up in Redwood City, knew from the age of 5 -- "I asked for a sex-change operation before I really knew what it was" -- that he wanted to be a boy. "My parents were social workers and have always been really supportive. I realize this is an atypical experience." For the past three years, he has been on hormone therapy. "If my parents weren't helping me with my transition, I probably wouldn't be going to college. It's one of the reasons they help me so much."
While exact numbers of college-age transgender adults is impossible to ascertain, experts say numbers are growing. Curtis has about 30 trans students on his e-mailing list, which he says is a small slice of the larger group. "I only see the ones who need assistance and want to be serving the community. I don't see the vast majority of LGBT students. They're too invisible, which can mean good or bad things."
Even without clear numbers on how many transgender students are attending college, legal and social pressure has resulted in administrative changes at many schools. The main issues are in the places where normative gender is enforced -- restrooms, on-campus housing, sports teams. Gender-neutral restrooms have become the standard at Wesleyan University, Oberlin, University of Massachusetts, the University of Chicago, Sarah Lawrence College, the University of New Hampshire, Beloit College in Wisconsin and several other schools.
Different schools deal with the housing needs of transgender students in different ways. Some offer special houses, some create gender-neutral hallways in dormitories, some designate certain rooms with individual bathrooms. Schools with amended housing policies include Brown University, Ohio State, UC Berkeley, University of Illinois at Chicago, Carleton College and the University of Minnesota.
Some of these policy changes have been mandated by law, as part of gender nondiscriminatory clauses. AB196, a California bill adding "gender identity or expression" to existing housing and employment statutes, was signed into law in 2003.
"I don't think this is just a college issue," says Carolyn Laub, founder and co-director of the Gay-Straight Alliance Network, an organization that coordinates more than 500 GSA clubs in California middle and high schools. "What's happened in the last five or 10 years is that kids are identifying and transitioning as high school or middle school students. San Francisco and Los Angeles unified school districts have led the way in developing clear guidelines for administrators and teachers, as well as working with other districts."
Clearly, though, it's not just the educational institutions that have to change to ensure a comfortable transition for transgender students. "Transgeneration" is a powerful series because it shows how young people question and build their identities in so many ways, gender being only one part of the larger struggle.
The Sundance Channel team got the idea of creating a series around young transgender students after reading an article in the New York Times about college housing options. "It was a subject matter we thought would be very interesting -- we saw the article and thought, 'There's something going on,' " says Adam Pincus, native San Franciscan and senior vice president of original programming. It's a phenomenon that's growing, so let's find characters and stories that show what's happening."
Pincus brought the project to World of Wonder, a primarily gay production company in Los Angeles that made such films as "Inside Deep Throat," the documentary on the '70s porn classic, and "Party Monster," about '80s club promoter Michael Alig.
Producer Thairin Smothers said the main goal of casting was diversity. Director Jeremy Simmons and Smothers searched Internet message boards, campus telephone polls and GLBT e-mail lists to find transgender college students to follow for the 2004-05 school year. In August 2004, they traveled to meet their finalists.
"I heard about it from various Listservs," says T.J., 24, a graduate student in education administration at Michigan State University who was born a girl named Tamar in Beirut and grew up on the island of Cyprus. He was interviewed with the filmmakers and three other stars after the film showed at the Castro Theatre. It was auspicious timing -- not only were the four students getting to meet each other for the first time, but the screening fell over gay pride weekend in San Francisco. "What pushed me to do it was the idea of showing trans people of color, pushing beyond the American image of a gay white man," T.J. says.
While the four students initially had different levels of apprehension about the project, all agreed that the trust they put in the filmmakers paid off. Lukas, who was transitioning to male while attending Smith College, an all-woman's school, said that he was hesitant but thought that "there's nothing that would have been dealt with insensitively."
Lukas says he didn't imagine giving the cameras so much access. The filmmakers didn't just film the kids on campus, stressing about grades and classmates: All four subjects got their families involved to varying degrees.
Gabbie, for instance, the blond computer science major sophomore at the University of Colorado at Boulder, decided to get gender reassignment surgery at the end of the school year. It's the kind of decision that can't be made without the support of a family. Very few health insurance providers cover hormone therapy for trans people looking to medically transition, and none will pay for surgery.
All the students were taking hormones by the end of the school year, although their experiences with it depended greatly on economic and social factors. Raci, 18, a Filipino scholarship student at UCLA, bought hormones from street dealers for a fraction of the price of medical estrogen. Lukas carefully considered injecting testosterone, even as he admitted jealousy of his good friend Kasey's growth as a guy on it.
Greenblatt, although he started medically transitioning even before college, advocates caution. "You need to research what T or E does to you. There's a lot of things that are irreversible. Once vocal cords are stretched, they're stretched. Once hair follicles start growing, they might become thinner, and once you have top surgery, you're not going to grow your mammary tissue back."
The serious nature of medically transitioning makes the idea that this is a "fad" ludicrous. Roberts says about 15 percent of LYRIC's client base is trans or questioning. "The people who fear that young people will start hurting themselves by coming out as trans don't know trans folks or medical protocols. It's actually a very small percentage of people who decide to go through hormone therapy or decide to have some kind of surgery. Surgical options are not for everyone -- some people think of themselves as genderqueer and present differently than given birth gender but aren't interested in pursuing hormones."
"To actually get access to hormones is difficult if you're underage," Roberts said. "Hormonal therapy is not available without parental consent if you're not 18 and over."
The range of gender presentation even among these four people speaks to the difference in how young people think about gender in contrast with previous generations. It's no longer an either/or proposition, although, for some, transitioning is a journey with a definite end point.
Lukas says he's "not really interested in identifying as trans. I see myself as a guy with a specific medical circumstance."
Gabbie, too, viewed her surgery date as "Christmas" and, in conversation in June, was delighted with the result.
"Go with what fits you," she says, beaming. "Surgery was important to me. I don't need to f -- with gender anymore. It's all about finding ways to express yourself."
Raci, the only one of the four to be closeted at school, had a different approach. For her, the school year had been a time to come out to more than her family, and own her identity as a transsexual. "I want to be accepted, be part of the LGBT community, where trans people are still seen as freaks," she says. "We are that last one -- the 'T' in LGBT, and I want to be part of them, share the same human flaws as gay and straight people, not just be seen as the freak part.
"The thing is, though," Raci says with a smile, "as a transsexual, I'm actually a chick with a d -- . How can you top that?"
E-mail Reyhan Harmanci at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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