Being transgender, like being gay, tall, short, white, black, male, or female, is a part of the human condition that makes us unique, and something over which we have no control. We are who we are, in the deepest recesses of our minds, in our hearts and in our souls. For transgender people this uniqueness starts at a very young age.
As I look back on my life, my earliest memory of the world around me was at three years. I was a boy for all intents and purposes, and had no idea of gender, or male and female roles. My world was small and apart from the odd foray to the park, my own and my neighbors backyards were my universe. It was a world of play and make believe and then, one day it became real.
I had spent the day at a neighbor’s house in the summer, playing with their children. I was also going to have my first sleep over. Late in the evening I was deposited into a bathtub full of kids to get ready for bed.
Looking down between the legs of my best friend as we were splashing around, I had a horrifying thought. “Where’s her diddly like mine?”
It was an earth shattering realization.
“I’m not a girl!”
That moment remains as clear today as it was all those years ago.
From that point in 1960 until I started taking hormones in 2010, my brain never gave me a rest from the persistent thought……..
“I have been born into the wrong body!”
Gail Heriot sits on the United States Commission on Human Rights. She was recommended by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and is to serve on the Commission until two thousand and nineteen. This is her response to Transgender people.
“If I believe that I am a Russian princess, that doesn’t make me a Russian princess, even if my friends and acquaintances are willing to indulge my fantasy. Neither am I a Great Horned Owl just because — as I have been told — I happen to share the same traits as those feathered creatures.”
The Transgender Day of Remembrance
Every year, around the 20th of November the transgender community and their allies gather to honor transgender persons murdered over the past twelve months in what has come to be known as“The Transgender Day of Remembrance.”
Quiet sobs resonate as the eulogy is read.
“Goddess Diamond, a 20-year-old black trans woman, was found in a torched car in New Orleans, Louisiana. She died of a blunt force trauma before the car was burned.”
The circle is small, just five of us. Our candles flicker, fighting to stay lit against a biting November wind. To my left is Joe, recently abandoned by his family for not being the daughter they had raised and loved. On my right is Claire, the LGBT student leader for Washington College. Cindy my wife, and Jesse, an ally complete the circle. Just five of us gather to tell the world that being transgender can be deadly.
We hold the small ceremony for the two thousand and twelve Transgender Day of Remembrance in a snow covered courtyard, surrounded by the Washington College campus. We have a list of names of those murdered over the past year to read, but none of us are prepared emotionally for the evening. As each name is read the night turns bleak as we mumble apologies for the way society has treated these beautiful people. Their names, like the ceremony will be quickly forgotten.
“Dee Whigham, a 25-year-old black transgender woman who worked as a nurse, was stabbed to death in the face and body in her hotel room in Biloxi, Mississippi, where she was staying with friends to see a rodeo. Police arrested a 20-year-old US Navy trainee as the suspected killer. According to the autopsy results, Dee was stabbed one hundred and nineteen times.”
As hot wax trickles through my fingers, I vow that I will never hold another candle light vigil with so few in attendance. Everyone needs to hear our story.
In November of two thousand and sixteen I help organize the second annual Port Townsend Transgender Day of Remembrance to remind the world that we do matter, although little has changed in the murder rate.
“August10, 2016: Rae’Lynn Thomas, a 28-year-old black woman, was shot twice in front of her mother, and then beaten to death while she begged for her life, by James Byrd in Columbus, Ohio. Byrd called her “the devil” and made transphobic comments. Her family called for the murder to be investigated as a hate crime, but Ohio hate crime laws don’t cover gender identity.”
Societies buzz is harsh and unrelenting. “It’s their own fault. Why do they choose to live like this? Why can’t they just accept who they are? The bible has clear instructions on this! They deserved it!”
“October 8, 2016: Brandi Bledsoe, a 32-year-old black trans woman from Cleveland, was found dead in a driveway. Her body was found by a 5-year-old boy. She was wearing only underwear and had white plastic bags covering her head and both hands.”
On this November night in Port Townsend one hundred and forty people have gathered to read a fraction of the names of mostly transgender women murdered worldwide over the past year. Twenty-eight of these murders occurred in the USA alone, murdered for simply being transgender. As each person in the audience walks to the microphone, that person holds a small card in their hand. It has a picture of the transgender person whose life has been taken, their name, where they’re from, their age and how they died. They pause in front of the mic and then read.
Tragically I updated this for the reading tonight.
“January4th, 2017: Mesha Caldwell, a 41 year old black transgender woman from Clanton Mississippi was found dead lying on the side of a country road with multiple gunshot wounds. The Madison County Coroner misgendered her identification by referring to her as a “he”. She was a well known hairstylist and make up artist.”
As the readers walk away from the microphone shaken and moved by the experience, their life will never be the same. And their voice, like mine, will grow and become strong. The transgender communities’ story will become part of their story, which becomes part of the Port Townsend story, and these stories are then told and retold until they become known to legislatures, senators, priests and rabbis. Present too are the young, who will grow up listening to these stories and will have the strength and conviction to change the ending. And the ending these young people will want to hear is:
“Mesha Caldwell, the 41 year old black trans woman from Clanton Mississippi was NOT murdered on January 4th, 2017. Instead she got to live, because society loved and accepted her for who she is. She married, opened her own beauty salon and adopted a little boy from Syria. She live’s happily in the suburbs of Clanton Mississippi, where she is a respected member of her community. Mesha sings in her church choir.”
Republican Presidential Candidate Ben Carson in July 2016 said,
“For thousands of years, mankind has known what a man is and what a woman is. And now all of a sudden, we don’t know anymore? Now, is that the height of
A Chance Encounter
Every action or word, every pitch of the voice, every movement of a hand, even the crossing of the legs is thought through. Then, its practiced over and over until it becomes second nature. For transgender children it begins at a very young age. Being born into the wrong body and learning to play the role of the opposite gender doesn’t come naturally. “Stop being such a sissy! Don’t sit like that, you look like a girl! Your hair’s too short, someone might think you’re a boy.”
Then later in life, as we begin to assume the identity of our true gender, we have to re-learn all the traits of the opposite gender once again. In the transgender community there are even workshops titled “You missed the dress rehearsal.” So much effort and work to fit in.
I’m turning sixty this year and have lived only six of these years as Susan. I’ve changed my passport, my driver’s license, undergone gender affirming surgery but transitioning never ends, because society has so many unwritten rules.
Its microscopic evaluation of transgender people is relentless. With the increase in rhetoric, my hyper vigilance is now constant. Thanks to North Carolina’s and Washington States bathroom bill, the Christian Right, and the Republicans in Washington DC, the volume of disdain and pure hatred towards transgender people has been amplified. I’m concerned in 2017 not only for myself, but for the path that younger transgender people will have to walk in the years to come.
On a cold morning in late November I sit alone at a table in Lehani’s coffee shop in Port Townsend. Cold air rushes by as the door opens, and a family of four sweeps in. The children want breakfast, the father already-at ten in the morning-is on edge. The mother is working overtime to keep the family on track. They sit down at the table next to me. I glance up and smiles are exchanged between us. Their young son immediately knows that something is not right with me. His focus is on me as the family continues with their morning ritual. I turn and smile. He keeps staring. I smile one more time and then ignore him, hoping that he will look away. This goes on for five minutes, and then ten. His parents finally rise to collect their breakfast from the counter. The boy-as soon as his parents are in motion-stands and approaches me. Our eyes meet. He doesn’t back down.
“Excuse me. Are you transgender?”
“Yes, I am.” I bristle back. “How can I help you?”
“Well! You see. So am I.”
I stand, we hug, and cry. This ten year old has my back and I have his. Almost fifty years separate us but we want the same thing. To be accepted and validated. Twenty minutes later the family finishes their breakfast and the boy walks out of the coffee shop to embrace a changing world.
I would like to close with part of this poem from Alok Vaid-Menon, a transgender writer from India whose preferred pronoun is them, they and their.
Alok’s work has been featured in The Guardian, The New York Times and The New Yorker.
Promise me that I will matter if I don’t shave.
Promise me that I will matter if I don’t wear a dress.
Promise me that I will matter if I don’t wear makeup.
Promise me that I will matter if I am not fabulous.
Promise me that I will matter if I am ugly.
Promise me that I don’t have to have been “born this way” to matter.
Promise me that I don’t have to always have known to matter.
Promise me that you will not assume what it was like for me to grow up.
Promise that I don’t have to modify my body to matter.
Promise me that you won’t call me a man no matter what I look like.
Promise me that you will not repost all of the articles about how we shouldn’t assume gender (and then still do it).
Promise me that you see the femme in my hairy body.
Promise that you see the femme in my brown body.
Promise that you see the femme in my messy, uncouth, dirty, scarred body.
Promise that you understand that my gender is not just a hobby or a politic