Knowing my interest in gender issues, someone forwarded me an article appearing in the recent issue of The New Republic. This article, which I would strongly recommend, discusses the challenges faced by the transgender community in United States. Transgender people are one of the least protected and most persecuted groups in this country.
Much of the persecution transgender people face stems from ignorance and fear. I will be the first to admit that I didn't always understand or appreciate the transgender community. It was only after meeting community members and reading more about their struggles that I started to gain a better appreciation of the challenges so many transgender people face in this country.
Colleen Fay is a transgender woman and a regular contributor to our local NPR station. She is also one of the first transgender public figures I ever encountered. In fact, I remember when Colleen was Peter. Peter had been for many years the quirky arts critic on Around Town, a staple of DC public television until 2004.
At the time, I remember watching Fay on Around Town and thinking there was something a bit "different" about him. What I realize --although I wasn't cognizant of it at the time--was that Fay was undergoing a gender metamorphosis during those years he appeared on public television.
Fay's style was always a bit androgynous. He wore his hair long, pierced his ears, and sported an eccentric wardrobe of brightly printed shirts. None of these things seemed particularly unusual for a man who came of age during the 60's. However, there was something else about Peter's manner and his presence on television that struck me as slightly unusual. Whatever it was, Peter always seemed comfortable with who he was and how he expressed himself.
What I now appreciate as "different" was in fact the expression of a woman trapped in a man's body. While Fay would spend most of his life looking the part of a man, his internal world was that of a female, a universal experience familiar to so many transgender people. And like many transgender people, Fay longed to be able to express those gendered parts of himself that did not match with his "assigned gender."
Transgender people are often misunderstood in our culture. Perhaps it's because most of us identify and feel comfortable with the gender with which we are born. However, for transgender individuals, their "assigned sex" does not match with how they feel themselves to be inside. For this and other reasons, the experience of interacting with the external world can often be confusing and extremely painful for a transgender person.
One of the greatest fallacies many people have is a tendency to equate gender with sexual orientation. Most people assume that transgender individuals are homosexual. In fact, most transgender individuals identify as heterosexual. Similarly, transgender people are not "cross-dressers," as is often assumed. Unlike cross-dressers, who wear clothes of the opposite sex but do not identify with that sex, transgender individuals do not identify with their "assigned sex."
Given these common misperceptions and the public's general confusion and often hostility towards transgender individuals, it's understandable why many transgender individuals struggle to express themselves in a manner that feels comfortable with who they really are. Transgender individuals face many challenges that most of us will never have to confront. For decades the psychiatric community used labels like "gender identity disorder" to describe such transgender individuals. According to a recently released report by the National Center for Transgender Equality ("Injustice at Every Turn"), transgender individuals are four times more likely to live in extreme poverty, twice as likely to be unemployed compared to the population as a whole, half reported discrimination at work and one in four were fired because of their gender identity or expression. Those who come out as transgender also run the risk of being disowned by friends and families and forced to go underground with their gender identities. It has been shown that rates of depression, alcoholism, and drug abuse are elevated in the transgender community, as is suicide.
Anyone who would like to learn more about this transgender community should start by reading Eliza Gray's recent article appearing in The New Republic. Likewise Larry Van Dyne's piece appearing in Washingtonian magazine (June 2008), is a fascinating profile of Colleen Fay and her gender transformation.
Tyger Latham, Psy.D. is a licensed clinical psychologist practicing in Washington, DC. He counsels individuals and couples and has a particular interest in sexual trauma, gender development, and LGBT concerns. His blog, Therapy Matters, explores the art and science of psychotherapy.