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The Real Me: What It Feels Like to be Transgender

But I like playing in the house with these girls, I thought as my grandmother urged me to go outside and roughhouse with my male cousins. I was a 9-year-old named Greg, and it was the first time I realized I might be a little different than the other boys. It’s not that I felt like a girl—I didn’t yet know what that meant. The girls just seemed safer to me somehow. Boys were intimidating and wild.

As a Christian kid growing up in a small Midwestern town in the 1960s, these were strange feelings. Our family’s faith undergirded everything: morals, discipline, punishment. Striving to be a good boy was the only conceivable course of action. As the years went by, however, conforming became harder and harder.

Sixth grade: I finally noticed girls’ bodies—but not in the way I was supposed to. I fantasized about making myself as pretty as they were. I put myself to sleep every night thinking about what it would be like to be a girl.

High school: I grew bolder still, desperately needing a way to ease the feminine longing I had. My sister’s clothes!, I thought, before realizing I would never fit into them. So I waited for an opportunity to get into my mom’s closet undetected. Whatever guilt I felt about wearing her things was tempered by pure elation.

Dating: How could I not tell my girlfriend that I was a transvestite, a word I had just learned on Phil Donahue’s talk show?

Marriage: Maybe love would be the cure. I got married, fathered children, and did everything typical of a regular guy. Not only did it fail to solve the problem, it was like taking aspirin for a brain tumor.

Ministry: Then perhaps theology would eliminate the longings. Immerse yourself in the Bible and crowd from your mind all thoughts of being female, I told myself. That lasted about a week. Even so, I went on to be ordained in the conservative Missouri Synod branch of the Lutheran Church, serving parishes in Iowa and Michigan for 18 years.

Retirement: No longer able to hide who I was, I confronted parish officials with the news. Since there was no room for a transgender pastor in my church, with its male-only ministry and traditional theology, they suggested I resign if I intended to live openly as a woman. I promised to do my job and remain quiet if I would be allowed to retire gracefully the next year.

Since then, I’ve moved to Indy, where I’m living more fully as myself and have a new mission: telling my story. Maybe if I educate people about my condition, things won’t be as hard on the next generation. But it saddens me that everyone greets me with a blank stare when I approach with a question I’ve devoted my recent life to answering: “What do you know about being transgender?”

Though it may surprise some that gender identity and sexual orientation are unrelated, transgender folks like me often consider themselves heterosexual—in my case, attracted to women, even though I identify as a woman. My wife, Julie, and I met when we both were going through the divorces of our first marriages. Shortly before we wed in 2001, I told her the truth about who I was. She was surprised, but reacted calmly. She knew nothing about being transgender, but recognized it as an inherent part of me and said it wouldn’t alter the way she felt.

I was thankful. According to a survey conducted by The National Center for Transgender Equality and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, an estimated 45 percent of spouses break things off when confronted with that news, but Julie ultimately became my biggest supporter. Being a very practical person, she created a list of the pros and cons of me coming out as a woman. It had only one pro: I would finally be allowed to live as a whole person. There were a dozen cons: the challenges to our marriage, the impact on my kids with my first wife, being ostracized by friends, discrimination, and so on. Ultimately, that one pro was enough.

When I finally told the rest of my immediate family, my four children and four siblings were initially shocked. Knowing how foreign the revelation had been even to me, I resolved to remain patient with everyone. My children reacted to the news as people react to a sudden, tragic death. They each went through a grieving process that included anger and sadness before accepting me. Again, I was thankful. Many trans parents will have one or more children disown them forever.

Acceptance is a little more common these days, but it hasn’t always been so. The mismatch of gender and sex is recorded as far back as antiquity, with words like “transsexual,” “transvestite,” and now “transgender” tracing their roots to the 20th century. Sex-reassignment surgery (SRS) dates back to the 1920s; Lili Elbe, subject of the popular movie The Danish Girl, received her surgery in Germany, in 1930. In the United States, SRS first surfaced in the 1950s, when a soldier named George Jorgensen returned from Denmark as Christine.

After Jorgensen, transgender people occasionally made the news, often for counterculture reasons and tied with lesbian, gay, and bisexual issues, as in the now well-known LGBT rights movement. The next person to receive widespread attention was Dr. Renee Richards, who transitioned to a woman in the mid-1970s. During the Bicentennial summer that the athlete formerly known as Bruce Jenner was wrapped in Old Glory as the Olympics decathlon champion, Richards created a stir when she announced that she wanted to play professional tennis on the women’s circuit. She was denied the right, filed suit, and won in New York Supreme Court, one of the first steps in a long march of civil-rights issues for LGBT people.

Transgender people consider SRS the “ultimate surgery,” but not all of us go so far. On the transitioning menu—where it’s easy to spend $100,000—personal choice reigns. Some trans individuals simply choose to change their names and dress differently. Others pursue hormone-replacement therapy, permanent hair removal, breast surgery, facial-feminization surgery, and voice training. I began hormone-replacement therapy in September 2013, knowing that it works very slowly for someone in her late 50s such as myself. As my testosterone lowered and my estrogen increased, my skin softened, body hair fell out, fat deposits began to migrate to other spots, and breasts formed.

Later this year, I hope to have my face feminized. The idea of having cosmetic surgery sobers me. I’ve consulted a surgeon. I’ve seen what I could be—my brow and jawbones shaved, nose reduced, chin lifted. But I still wonder: Will I be happy to see a feminine version of the face I’ve known for six decades? And after that, when I pursue SRS, the questions become even more profound. Will I finally feel at peace with my body?

I wish I could report that the transitioning process has always gone smoothly, but it has filled my life with endless visits to specialists. Once a week, I see a kind woman named Barb Clayton in Castleton for an hour of electrolysis on my beard. Because the hundreds of hairs she zaps each session have me wincing in pain, our chats help the hour pass. Barb has become a friendly shoulder on which to cry, a perk given that I am only halfway through the three-year process.

When I need professional help for the emotional challenges of all this, I visit my therapist, Kathy Slaughter of Soaring Heart Counseling in Broad Ripple. She has a number of trans clients, not all of them as far into the process as I am. For those considering hormones or surgery, the law requires a therapist’s approval. This protects doctors from malpractice claims should a patient change his or her mind down the road. “The trans clients I see fall pretty neatly into one of two categories,” Slaughter says. “One is people who are already living in the desired gender, know exactly who they are, and just need the approval letter. For the other group, I see myself as a companion as they begin to understand the nature of their dysphoria and contemplate the hero’s journey of transitioning.”

A person considering transitioning faces a mountain of challenges—admitting it to yourself, telling your family, navigating work. But it often starts with altering your appearance. In my case, I came to despise everything about being a male, including the attire. When asked by friends why it was so important to wear women’s clothes, I encouraged them to imagine wearing the clothes of the opposite sex, with which they do not identify. When they recognized their immediate disgust at the thought, some began to grasp my predicament.

And so it goes with every aspect of life. Many find the challenges unbearable. An estimated 41 percent of transgender people will try to end their lives. Compare that with 4.6 percent in the general population. For months, my mantra was, You hate being a man. You can’t be a woman. Just kill yourself. Because the transgender condition is so unfamiliar to most people, awful stereotypes fill in the gaps of understanding (pervert, pedophile, sexual fetishist). Death begins to feel like the lesser of two evils.

The origins of this distressing condition are not well understood. When I came across a study about artificial estrogen—sometimes given in the ’50s to prevent pregnant women from miscarrying—disrupting the endocrine system of the fetus, I suspected it might have been given to my mother. At least, that would be evidence for why my brain might not match my body. For most, being transgender is a complete mystery.

Regardless, many trans people are less concerned with the origins of their feelings than how to deal with them. And where you live turns out to be a very important factor.

 

When I retired from the church in 2014, Julie and I considered moving to Portland, Oregon, which is known as a trans-friendly town. Julie was all for Portland, being genuinely concerned for my welfare. But having gotten to know Indianapolis after our daughter moved here nearly a decade ago, we decided to take a chance on it instead. An estimated 0.3 percent of Americans identify as transgender, amounting to nearly 1 million of us. Doing the math, Indianapolis may have more than 6,000 people in this group in the metro area. And while the city is livelier than we ever could have hoped, Indy is not Portland—hip and progressive. This place tends toward … reliable.

My trans friends in Indy have certainly felt that conservatism. Nebraska native Amy finds both Indy residents and Midwesterners in general to be “fiercely protective of what they’re used to.” Yet she reports that her experiences around town have been mostly positive, except for the occasional stares and giggles. Kit, who is transitioning from male to female, hopes to get back to teaching high school. Her experience also has been fairly positive. “Indianapolis is a city populated by Hoosiers,” she says. “That means no matter what they think privately, most people are unwilling to be directly rude to strangers.” My friend Chris, who identifies as a woman, manages data-storage systems at IUPUI. She is “out” at work, but still dresses androgynously there. So deciding on a bathroom can be a challenge. She feels she appears too feminine for the men’s room, and is self-conscious about using the women’s. She’s pleased that her workplace was one of the first in the city to install unisex bathrooms.

Not everyone’s experience here has been so rosy, however. Michelle, a trans acquaintance of mine who works at Eli Lilly, has seen many of her friends turned away for medical treatment related to transitioning. “So many of us are forced to travel long distances for anything beyond basic services,” she says. “It’s just heartbreaking to think that professionals who take an oath of ‘primum non nocere’ [first, do no harm] would turn away patients simply because they’re different.”

Dr. Melissa Cavaghan is an endocrinologist at IU Health who provides care for trans patients, including me. According to her, “transgender individuals still experience widespread discrimination, some overt, some subtle. This discrimination also comes in the form of exclusion of medical and surgical treatment by many insurance plans.”

Halfway into my own transition, I made my first trip out alone as a woman in January 2015. Although it was only a quick visit to Kroger on East 10th Street, I was filled with trepidation. I dressed in a nondescript way: a simple top and jeans, flats, muted makeup. While I made little eye contact going up and down the aisles, I made good use of my outgoing personality when reaching the cashier. I was sure she would “make” me, but I didn’t know how she would react. So I made the same small talk I would as a guy, trying to put things at ease. Only the stare of a woman in the parking lot, as she watched me put groceries in my car, made me feel I was under a microscope.

Shortly thereafter, Julie and I bought a house on the northeast side. I began to go everywhere as Gina, a name I chose from a baby book. It just seemed to suit me. Everyone in my small circle of friends received the new me with grace and kindness—making the ugly things I saw in the local news last year that much more surprising.

 

The passage of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act in Indiana impacted all four of the classes of LGBT people, singling us out for discrimination by allowing businesses to deny us service. In the 2016 legislative session, Indiana lawmakers have before them an opportunity to right what was wronged. Although things are looking bleak this year, Freedom Indiana continues to lobby for the addition of four words—“sexual orientation, gender identity”—to the list of civil-rights protections in the state.

When I received Freedom Indiana’s email appeal to get involved, I didn’t hesitate. Yes, Indianapolis has its own protections for LGBT people in place, but you might be surprised how easy it is to find loopholes. Some of my friends, after coming out, have received poor job evaluations, affecting raises and promotions. And at the state level, there aren’t even legal protections to get around.

Then there are the physical dangers. Like many of us who wish we more easily passed as our proper gender, my friend Kit always fears for her safety, which explains the mace spray on her key chain. Physical violence against trans people is all too common. In 2014, a local transgender woman named Ashley Sherman (formerly known as Tajshon), was murdered in the street. Because she had been the victim of previous abuse linked to her identity, the unsolved case remains a possible hate crime.

To honor people like Ashley, I attended the first local Transgender Day of Remembrance on Monument Circle this past November. That event was a sort of public coming-out for me. When one of the planned speakers couldn’t make it, I was recruited to fill in, with 10 minutes to prepare. “You were a minister,” one of the organizers said. “You’re used to this sort of thing.” Grateful for the opportunity, I quickly found my voice. Four of us took turns reading dozens of names of trans women and men murdered over the past year around the world. In that moment, I realized all that I had given up in my spot at what some consider the top of the heap—a professional man with a happy family—to join a minority group that is among the most vulnerable segments of society.

When the Indiana Republicans announced a “compromise” bill that same month exempting religious institutions and certain wedding businesses from serving LGBT folks, we knew we had our work cut out for us. What we need from the legislature is full protection, which it doesn’t look like we’re going to get this session. In the meantime, other Freedom Indiana representatives and I have been talking to the media every chance we get.

The public fight has brought me to deep reflection. While I understand the general public’s hesitation to make sweeping social changes, I cannot shake the fact that my friends and I are law-abiding citizens. If it were illegal to be transgender, our fight would be different. But everything we desire, in every sphere of private and public life, is no more than what every American desires. I don’t want to be a bother to anyone. As a conservative, both in my religion and my politics, I want everyone to be able to live according to his conscience.

I often say that when it comes to educating society, we trans folks are where gay-rights advocates were 20 years ago. Before the early 2000s, I couldn’t have imagined living as a transgender woman in public. That has gotten a little easier, but huge challenges remain. When we’re able to live in peace here with the same rights as everyone else, maybe then the term “Hoosier hospitality” will mean something. Maybe then we’ll feel that the American dream also belongs to us.

Comiskey joined the magazine in 2006, shortly after completing an MA in journalism at Indiana University. During graduate school, he served as arts & culture editor of the Indiana Alumni Magazine and wrote for newspapers throughout the state. Comiskey’s long-form features have won a number of Society of Professional Journalists Awards, and have taken him inside sperm banks, across the country in a semi, and to the home of the world’s smallest books. He lives in Zionsville with his wife and three children.

Email him at [email protected]
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