On the Outside Looking In or On the Inside Looking Out?

 As I am cisgender, once again this is written from a cisgender perspective, with me sharing my own real experiences with real transgender people.  Cisgender readers may appreciate this because they will be able to relate to the cisgender perspective and this may serve to normalize their thoughts and feelings.  Some transgender people may become angry when they read about some of the thoughts, feelings and behaviors I have chosen to share.  But, in the interest of  increasing awareness of transgender issues and transphobia, and creating more understanding between transgender and cisgender people, I am willing to be completely honest about some past behaviors that I am not proud of.

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Pre-Facebook

Philadelphia Lesbian & Gay Task Force

In the first 50 years of my life, I actually knew several transgender people.  CORRECTION:  I knew several people who I was aware were transgender because I was told that they were.  I did not personally examine their genitals nor did I personally discuss this issue with them.  I was introduced to (but cannot say I “knew”) Kate Bornstein, who has been well-known in the transgender community for decades; this was back in the 1980s when I was doing volunteer work for the Philadelphia Lesbian & Gay Task Force (PLGTF).  I took a picture of her at a protest in Philadelphia, but I seem to have misplaced it.  Click here to view Kate’s blog.

Kate Bornstein (recent picture)

 

I spent an afternoon with another transgender woman at a protest organized by the PLGTF; I vaguely recall her mentioning her gender status to me (I already knew) but I clearly remember my discomfort and not knowing what to say to her.  Much of this can be attributed to my being shy and uncomfortable with people I don’t know, but I am ashamed to admit that I was also very embarrassed at being seen in public with this person who was dressed in women’s clothes but who looked like a man, talked like a man, walked like a man and whose mannerisms were obviously those of someone who had been socialized as a male. Yes, I was curious about whether she was “pre-op” or “post-op” (more on that later), and yes, I looked at her chest, butt and crotch to try and figure it out.  Yes, I was focused on her genitals.  I cannot remember her name but I think I recall her birth name name being David (I saw it on her driver’s license); the identity I remember was not the gender she identified with, but the one she had been assigned at birth.  I didn’t know any better.

My Coworker “T”

I worked with a transgender woman who I will call “T” for a number of years. Someone “warned” me about her before we met. I talked to T. many times in a work capacity but never about “that.” Unlike some of my coworkers, I did not know her pre-transition and was not there for the bathroom debacle before she had surgery. (T.  presumably had surgery. I don’t know this as she never showed me, i.e., I never did an inspection of her genitals.  I rarely do that.  Inspect people’s genitals, that is.)  One of my other female cisgender coworkers refused to use the women’s bathroom (even “post-op”) if T. was in there, which I found utterly ridiculous ( HELLO!  Women’s bathrooms have stalls!)  However, I am embarrassed and ashamed to admit that I engaged in some of the whispering,  joking, laughing, and even use of the word “it” but never in T.’s presence.  T. was a very nice person, and I never would have done anything knowingly to hurt or offend her.

Looking back, I am ashamed of my transphobic behavior and I can only explain it as a manifestation of anxiety about my own discomfort, which I attribute to  the social prohibition (as well as my desire not to offend and my own inhibitions) against asking questions (that would have enabled me to understand)  and the social stigma of  being transgender during that time period.  I’m not trying to excuse my behavior—it was inexcusable—just trying to figure out WTF was going on in my head.  I recently did some Google searches for T. and found her transition, the GRS (gender reassignment surgery) having been completed in the late 1970s or early 1980s, referred to as “legendary.”  I saw a current picture of her and she is gorgeous!  I am in awe of T.’s courage.  I’d say that she really had balls but, uh… she doesn’t have them any more… I think.  More on the bad jokes later, too.

Clinical Experience

As a clinical social worker and psychotherapist I have had brief contact with several patients who self-identified as transgender.  The settings were inpatient and in all cases the patients were MTF (male to female) who had not yet had surgery;  the biggest issues were: 1) Who should do the body search (required on a psychiatric unit and usually done by 2 staff of the same sex & gender as the patient)—male or female staff?  Solution:  The nurse did it with a 2nd staff member standing outside the door, where they could hear but not see, and 2) Should the patient share a room with another male or another female patient?  Solution:  The patient was given their own room.

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Facebook

Robyn

I met Robyn shortly after I started doing LGBT advocacy and activism work on Facebook, starting with the Clint McCance incident and his subsequent resignation.  We ran into each other on one of the anti-LGBT hate pages, Robyn sent me a friends request (back then, I didn’t send friends requests to anyone!), I accepted, and she initiated a conversation with me; this was in November of 2010.  I had looked at her profile and knew that Robyn is transgender; I took a deep breath, bit the bullet, mentioned her “interest” in gender issues and told her about a book my cousin (Amara Das Wilhelm, a Vaishnava monk—the part about him begins in the 6th paragraph) wrote—Tritiya-Prakriti:  People of the Third Sex, (the “third sex” referring to the Hijra of India—born intersex or apparently male, dressed in feminine clothing but seeing themselves as neither men nor women) at which point Robyn told me that she’s a trans woman….

The more Robyn and I talked and worked together with others on shared goals of getting Facebook hate pages (anti-LGBT and otherwise) shut down, the more we learned about each other and the more I liked her, and it turned out that we had a number of experiences in common. Robyn has a wickedly twisted sense of humor (which I try to emulate 🙂 ) and she is a person of reason when, for example, people start getting nasty in a group or on a page.  I am proud to call Robyn my friend and my sister!

Syrra

I met Syrra in Transmission, a Facebook group for transgender people and allies that Robyn introduced me to; I met Syrra and Sera at about the same time.  Syrra is a MTF trans woman who also has a wicked sense of humor… when she’s not putting herself down.  Syrra is intelligent, funny, talented, … yet she mostly refuses to see it.  Syrra is so preoccupied with imaginary “masculine” traits she thinks she has that she doesn’t see the vibrant woman she is—the one the rest of us see—but we’re still working on her.  I’m so proud to call Syrra my friend and my sister!

Sera

I’m not sure who I met first—Syrra or Sera; perhaps I met them at the same time—in the Facebook  Transmission a group.  Sera is short for “Serafina,” and I can absolutely guarantee you that she is no saint and that she is not a nun!   Sera is more like a faery who flits around all over the place (I’ve never seen somebody move between pages as fast as she does!) always leaving smiles, laughter and rainbows in her wake.  Even though the youngest, Sera has had more medical challenges in her life than the rest of us yet complains less than anyone (except for maybe Robyn), so, whenever people’s hate is getting on my nerves,  I’m feeling down or need a laugh all I have to do is find Sera and all is well again.  I am proud to call Sera, also a MTF trans woman, my friend and my sister! ♥ 

Erin

I actually met Erin before I met Syrra and Sera… right around the same time I met Robyn.  I met Erin in a secret Facebook group; we had a mutual friend who invited us both to the group, which purpose is fighting anti-LGBT hate pages on Facebook.  I knew Erin was transgender… I don’t recall how I knew—maybe it was on her profile or she mentioned it in a post or something, but nobody ever made reference to it and nobody else in the group openly identified themselves as transgender.   Erin was scary!  No, not because she is transgender but because she was angry at the hateful bigots and didn’t take any crap from them!  This was back in the days when it was easier to use alternative profiles without having to give Facebook a cell phone number. I had an obnoxious, angry lesbian persona named “Jan” who would bait the haters on the anti- pages to coax them into statements that could then be flagged as hate speech but “Jan” could not hold a candle to Erin.  I had fun with Erin, tag-teaming bigots, overwhelming them and driving them off pages. I got to know Erin a lot better after I finally summoned the courage to invite her to join the Facebook Transmission group.   I am proud to call Erin my friend and my sister!  ♥  (But I still wouldn’t want to be on her bad side! 😉 )

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For almost my entire life, I have felt like an outsider—no matter what group I was in or around, I always felt that I didn’t belong.  I was a skinny, scrawny kid with straggly blonde hair who had various nicknames that included “Scarecrow,” “Bones,” and “Mulberry Bush” (after my name–really original, huh?) , or just plain “Bush” (that was lovely). I was also super-intelligent and usually well beyond most in my class, so that also set me apart.  There were gender-related issues as well:  I have a boy’s name (I hated it when referred to as a boy, particularly since my name is spelled the way boys and men usually spell it, and I also hated being called “Judy”), I was not allowed to grow my hair long until almost my teens (I hated my short hair because I wanted long hair like other girls and wear it long to this day), some of my clothes were masculine-looking (it was humiliating when teachers assumed they belonged to a boy), yet I wasn’t allowed to wear pants to school for years (I never liked wearing dresses and skirts.  Have you ever ridden a bike or climbed a tree in a dress?), I rarely played with dolls, didn’t find babies the least bit interesting and rejected socially prescribed gender roles, yet I knew I was a girl and didn’t want to be a boy—there was never any question as to my gender.  Add shyness and social phobia into the mix and there I was—always on the outside looking in.

On the surface, we may seem like polar opposites—me, a cisgender woman, socialized as a girl and raised to be a woman, and they transgender women, socialized as boys and raised to be men but really women in every way that truly matters.  Right now, our genitals also reflect the genders we were assumed to be at birth, although some have started taking female hormones as part of their transitions.  Our ages range from 23 (Sera is the youngest) to 63 (Robyn is the oldest; I am second oldest at 53)—a range of 40 years!  We live in New York and Pennsylvania and Florida and California… no, wait… Syrra just moved from California to Washington (the state).  Among us are a college student, someone who is waiting for a discrimination lawsuit settlement, multiple disabilities and more than one history of clinical depression that has required treatment.  Two are married (to women, before beginning transition) and the 4 of them identify as lesbian while I prefer the term pomosexual.  (That’s right. It’s nobody’s f’ing business!  lmao)

Besides the obvious common denominator of all being human beings, I discovered that we are all women, despite our individual experiences and what we look like on the outside.   My 4 friends are all in some stage of transition–all at some point of female adolescence… and what do adolescent girls talk about?  Clothes, makeup, relationships and boobs!  I cannot stop myself from laughing sometimes as I simultaneously experience the adolescence of my dear friends and that of my 17-year-old daughter; they know I’m not laughing at them–we all laugh together.  All 4 of my sister-friends have made it clear that I can ask them anything… and we joke about everything (I can make a joke about cutting off a penis or increasing breast size and nobody is offended because it’s me… and it helps relieve anxiety about the fact that they desperately want rid of the damned things but cannot afford the money to do it right now.)   Oddly enough, the questions about surgeries, etc. no longer seem important. If someone refers to a procedure I’m not familiar with, I’ll Google it and maybe read about it so I have some understanding of what the experience is like, but since I’ve gotten to know my trans friends my curiosity about the particulars of gender reassignment surgery, etc. have dissipated.  I wonder why that is.

When I referred to myself as “cister” (a play on the words “sister” and “cisgender”) several of my friends objected, stating that we are all “sisters” and that the “cis” serves to divide us as women; I realized they were right and I stopped.  When someone in a Facebook group questions my motives or even personally attacks me (with the attitude that being cisgender I couldn’t possibly understand and/or have no right commenting on transgender issues) all 4 of these wonderful women are fiercely protective of me and do not allow anyone to say anything negative about me or my intentions even when it is other transgender people saying those things!  And I feel the same way about them.  For one of the few times in my life I truly feel as though I am on the inside looking out. Robyn, Syrra, Sera and Erin are my dear friends and sisters.   And I would not trade them for anything!  ~♥~♥~ ♥ ~

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Posted on June 23, 2012, in transgender, transphobia and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. THIS COMMENT WAS LEFT BY ROBYN, BUT IN THE WRONG PLACE. MY FAULT–I’M NEW TO BLOGGING:

    Robyn Equality Sheppard
    facebook.com/sheppard.robin
    sheppard.robin@gmail.com
    69.207.81.0
    Submitted on 2012/06/23 at 10:27 pm

    I’m the Robyn that Jody mentioned in her post. There’s nothing I can add except to say that I am proud that we’re sisters, and I doubt I could love her more even if she were my own blood relative. I’ve seen a lot of criticism directed at her and can only ask this: if we expect to be accepted as a valid part of society, don’t we have an equal obligation to accept the rest of society as well? In order to be accepted, we need to educate society. Jody does an excellent job of doing this as a cis-gender woman; more important, she does it in a way that non-trans folk can understand.

    So before you jump on her case with the usual “you’re not trans so you can’t understand” crap, think about it: if we jump on everyone who offers support and acceptance, why would anybody ever support us?

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    • See? Nobody could ask for better friends!

      Regarding “You’re not trans so you can’t understand”: No, but I am cisgender and I have engaged in mild transphobic behavior, so I do have some insight and experience in that area. Before eliminating a behavior one must first identify the specific behavior, find out what purpose that behavior serves and then find alternatives to meet that need. By pointing out my own specific transphobic behaviors, identifying where they came from (i.e. anxiety, stigma, etc.) and dispelling the mystery of “transgender” by discussing my friendships with actual transgender people I think I’ve done just that, haven’t I? Isn’t that what it’s all about–decreasing transphobia by increasing understanding?

      I wasn’t sure how people (especially trans people) would react when they read about my earlier behavior and it was embarrassing and humiliating for me to talk about it because I AM NOT THAT KIND OF PERSON–A BIGOT. (In my guilt, I have tracked down “T” and sent an apology to her and a link to this blog; I hope she gets the message that if it were not for meeting her, I might not be sitting here writing this right now.) If other cisgender people see how anxious transgender issues have made ME in the past they are more likely to approach me with questions… thereby potentially decreasing transphobia by increasing understanding.

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  2. Wow … in reading your story(ies), I kinda see myself … being nerdy and outcast, not having many friends, but later feeling called to be a straight ally and “cis bro” (yes, I came up with that independently! ;-D) of the GLBT community.

    I thank my parents and my church for never teaching me to treat people differently just because they’re different, but I can always learn more! Thanks, ladies!!! 😀 ♥

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