TV & Radio
Transgender movement emerging from shadows
By Bonnie Miller Rubin
Chicago Tribune staff reporter
April 3, 2006
Shawn Coleman bristles when an application poses the question "male or female?"--as if there are only two choices.
When it comes to sexual identity, the 23-year-old Shawn--born Patricia--sees a broad spectrum, a man-to-woman or a woman-to-man continuum with many stops along the way. Think gender without borders. He (the preferred pronoun) looks male but not completely. He is not a lesbian, a cross-dresser or contemplating a sex-change operation any time soon.
"I always knew I was different than other girls," explained Coleman. "I was never a fan of Barbie but liked playing sports with my two older brothers. People were always telling me to act more feminine--that I should sit with my legs crossed--but I found that stuff incredibly difficult. It wasn't the way I felt inside."
A graduate student at Iowa State University, Coleman is a transgender young adult and at the forefront of a movement that some say represents a new edge of grass-roots activism. Frequently lumped together with gays and lesbians, who have not always been welcoming, transgender people are carving a separate profile and flexing new political clout from campuses to corporations.
Transgender is an umbrella term that refers to people whose sexual identity differs from conventional expectations of what it means to be a man or a woman. It includes transsexuals, who have surgically moved from one sex to another. It includes those who have had electrolysis and take hormones. It also encompasses people like Coleman who identify and express themselves differently from the sex indicated on their birth certificates.
Because of the range of definitions and the stigma, reliable statistics are difficult to find. Pop culture has helped "trans" issues gain more visibility. Felicity Huffman's performance in "TransAmerica" grabbed the headlines--and a "best actress" Oscar nomination--but "Rent" and "Breakfast on Pluto" included such characters last year as well. On the Sundance Channel, a documentary series called "Transgeneration" followed four college students who morphed from one sex to the other. VH1's "Surreal Life" also features a "tranny."
The sports world, too, is seeing more fluidity. There's Terri O'Connell, a male-to-female transsexual and the only NASCAR driver to compete as both a man (T.J. Hayes) and as a woman. Canadian cyclist Kristen Worley, who also changed from male to female, currently is vying for a spot in the 2008 Olympics. The International Olympic Committee allows transsexual athletes to compete if two years has elapsed since surgery. The NCAA is studying a similar proposal.
More visibility has fostered more understanding.
"It used to be that when journalists called, the first question was about surgery," said Mara Keisling, 46, executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality, who was born Mark and "transitioned" six years ago. "Now reporters are acknowledging the humanity."
Illinois bars discrimination
Seven states, including Illinois, have transgender-inclusive anti-discrimination laws. Even the business world, while not exactly rolling out the welcome mat, is becoming more receptive. More than 100 major corporations--40 in the last year alone--now include gender identity as part of their non-discrimination policies. That's up from eight firms just five years ago.
Gender Public Advocacy Coalition, a human-rights group, held a benefit in Chicago on Saturday, sponsored by such buttoned-down firms as IBM Corp., JP Morgan Chase and Citigroup.
"It's the next big social movement," said Riki Wilchins, GenderPAC's executive director. Wilchins compares these efforts to those waged by blacks in the 1960s, women in the '70s and gays and lesbians in the '80s.
Nowhere is the activity more evident than on the nation's campuses. In 2003, students organized GenderPAC's first youth chapters to help combat bullying and discrimination. Today, there are 40 campus chapters in 25 states.
"More than 200 schools have reached out to us," Wilchins said. "It just shows the breadth of interest right now."
Veterans of the movement such as Wilchins, 53, who transitioned to female in 1978 but answers to either pronoun, are heartened by the growing acceptance. Attending a gay youth conference in Des Moines two years ago, Wilchins was greeted by more than 1,000 cheering, stomping "genderqueers," an increasingly popular term used to refer to anything off the binary gender map.
"All these kids were just so gender non-conforming and testing the limits," Wilchins said. "I asked them, `How do you do this in Iowa?' But kids always get there about 10 years before everyone else."
One of those kids was Shawn Coleman, who says he had problems with only one roommate during college and that his mom considers this "a phase."
He currently favors close-cropped hair, baggy jeans and polo shirts purchased in men's departments. Sometimes, he binds his chest with an ACE bandage to conceal the silhouette of breasts, but usually comfort wins out. No artifice can quite disguise the high-pitched giggle.
For Coleman, it's as much about power as gender.
"I feel more entitled as a guy. . . . I have the right to be more aggressive, to do and say whatever I want," said Coleman, who is living in Chicago's Edgewater community while working on his master's thesis in sociology.
Is sex-reassignment surgery in the future?
"Not at all," he says, without hesitation. "I am about so much more than anatomy."
Surgery doesn't always work
While plenty of transfolks are eager to go under the knife, far more are content with sexual ambiguity for reasons that have as much to do with practicality as philosophy, experts say.
The surgery can be extremely painful, expensive ($20,000-plus, rarely covered by insurance), and the results often are disappointing, especially when going from female to male, said Michele Angello, a therapist in Wayne, Pa., who has counseled dozens of pre-operative candidates.
While surgeons have made strides with male-to-female genital surgery, the female-to-male construction has not been nearly as successful.
"Most don't even bother spending the money," Angello said.
Instead, many opt to try to "pass" by blurring the lines as much as possible.
"People don't want to jump out of one box, only to be shoved into another. . . . It's become almost politically incorrect to question [are you a man or a woman?] anymore," she said.
Such awareness has moved from campus to workplace. The fact that there are now trans attorney, librarian and veterans groups indicates how the movement has evolved in recent years, experts said.
Still, as this population has stepped up its activism, so have conservative groups. Concerned Women of America recently accused Mattel, maker of Barbie, of being "influenced by the transgender movement" with a survey that offered a choice on its Web site of "boy" "girl" and "I don't know." The options have since been altered.
But nowhere are opponents more focused than on the proposed Employment Non-Discrimination Act, a bill pending in Congress for more than a decade.
"Once these sad, disturbed people are protected by federal law, no business can stop a man from wearing a dress to work or stop a woman from dressing like a man," said a fundraising letter of the Traditional Values Coalition, one group calling for its defeat.
Even from the gay, lesbian and bisexual community, discrimination exists.
The Human Rights Campaign, often regarded as the most mainstream of all gay rights groups, had initially wobbled on including trannies in the legislation, fearing their presence "would give tepid supporters a reason to back off," said Gary Gates, a demographer at the Williams Institute at the UCLA School of Law.
But times are changing.
This "lack of understanding" was acknowledged in the first Human Rights Campaign handbook on the trans Americans. Most important, the group has now pledged to support only legislation that explicitly protects transgender employees' right to express their identity any way they choose. It is one more sign of their growing political influence.
"The `T' in the LGBT [lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender] movement is no longer just an add-on," Gates said. "This really is the new frontier."