Today I would like to introduce a new series on TSM. This series of interviews will focus on the issue of Transgender rights, the T in LGBTQ. While there is some overlap in the issues of gender identity and sexual orientation, the two are quite different. I am a cisgendered gay man, meaning my brain and emotions match my physical body. One who is transgender is not born with the brain and emotions matching their physical body. I would like to note, that our transgendered and gender non-conforming brothers and sisters endure a significantly disproportionate amount of bullying and abuse. My hope is that this series of interviews will help educate and offer resources.
Jenn Burleton is the Executive Director and one of the founders of TransActive, an organization that offers services and resources to transgender and gender non-conforming youth. I believe TransActive is the ONLY organization in the United States that works specifically with youth. Jenn was gracious enough to sit down with me for this interview. She is an amazing do-gooder with a generous and giving spirit. Jenn is probably too humble and I just hopee she is aware of the immense good she is doing for transgender and gender non-conforming youth. I thank her for sharing her story and her heart. If you have any questions or know of someone struggling with gender expression/identity, please contact TransActive. Here is Jenn’s story.
Jenn is a 57 year old white transgender woman. She identifies as lesbian and has been partnered for over 28 years. Jenn grew up in Wisconsin with her mother and father.
What age were you aware of feeling different?
My first recollection of how I felt was at age five and different than what most people feel at age five. I overheard a conversation between my mother and brother. He was 18 and was pursing an acting career in New York. He came home for a visit to Milwaukie. He mentioned that he was at a party where he met Chrstine Jorgensen, and my brother told my mom that he was the man that had a sex change. I remember thinking oh, there are other people in the world like me. There was a linear connection of how I felt and the reality of who I was. Because they were talking about it I just thought this was not a big deal. I realized it was a big deal for the rest of the world. That was when I started getting signals from my mom that playing in her makeup—it was not so much that she disapproved but more that someone else might find out that I was doing that, so I figured out oh this isn’t ok, which made me feel there is something wrong with me.
What age did you decide to take action?
As my reading comprehension became better, I was ahead of my age group, I began scouring any resources for glimpses and hints for people that were like this Christine Jorgensen. I started to affirm my identity at age eight. At times I would say why won’t you let me be a girl at age 10 and 11. I said it was not fair that I have to be a boy. Seeing the negative responses of my mom and my aunt and uncle I would take the path of least resistence and deny what I had just affirmed, and my mom would threaten to tell people which made me scared. My mom was an alcoholic and I felt guilty that I was making her life harder, so I internalized the pain she felt, which she exploited.
Looking back now, I was very on target for developmental skills for young girls, which I know is not true for all transgendered or cisgendered kids. In 1966 I knew I had to take matters into my own hands. I was 12 years old –I became a huge fan of comic books, the super heros had secret identities. I was getting my comic book and next to the shelf was a paper back spinner and out of the corner of my eye I saw a book that had the word transsexual in it. I would see ads in papers for female impersonators. I wanted to know how I could look at this book without feeling embarrassed. I did manage to grab the book and look at it. Published by Dr. Harry Benjamin, who was one of the first medical people to specialize in transsexual identity–in non exploitative ways. He said these people should be supported—it was like my Holy Grail (The Transsexual Phenomenon). The book was $1.95, but even if I had the money I would have been to embarrassed to buy the book, so I bought the comic books and stuck the book down my pants and left the store. I kept the book under my mattress and read it cover to cover. I learned that people could actually do things to help. So the conclusion I came to as an adolescent was that all doctors must know this. The only hospital I knew was a county hospital, so I skipped school one day and dressed in my mom’s clothes with the copy of the book. I took the bus across town and went into the hospital and I went to the psychiatric department and showed them the book and said I am like the people in this book. They sat me down and a psychiatrist talked to me for five minutes and they called my mom and she did not look happy. The psychiatrist told my mom she was the worst mother in the world and that this was wrong and sick. My mom lived in fear that the welfare department would take me away from her. Later, Dr. Aivars Zeps was the psychiatrist that worked with me—in retrospect I think he was probably very progressive but did not know what to do about this. I was his last appointment of the day and we would go to a coffee shop, where he would buy me a cheeseburger and a coke and we would talk about football and baseball and then he would say okay, “I will see you next week”. I then came to the conclusion that I really did not need therapy and I will just talk about boy stuff if that is what we need to do. I learned from that that people would not react well and thus started to surpress it until I was 14 and 15. I learned from the book that they were doing hormone therapy for transsexuals and I realized the drug they were giving to transsexuals was the same drug my mom was talking for her menopause, I don’t recommend that and there were no other options at that time. I think my depression came to a head when I was 15 My mom finally said I love you do you still feel this way, what can I do, what do you want. I told her, I don’t want to be a boy anymore I can’t do this. She agreed to let me start living as a girl—that was one of the happiest days of my life and lasted for almost 48 hours. I was able to dress the way I wanted to and I felt we were starting a new path, but then she got drunk and I was dressed as typical 16 year old girl. I could hear her voice with some men and I could tell they were all drunk—I was instantly self-concsious—she was a mean drunk and I knew I could not trust her when she was drunk. I was also not accustomed to other people seeing me in my own house as I was. She introduced me to the men as my son who thinks he is a girl—I was mortified and ashamed and barricaded myself in my bedroom. The next morning I told my mom I did not want to be a girl anymore. It stayed that way until I was 18 and I transitioned (At 18, I did a social transition and presented as female –this is what she means as transition here). Once I made it clear that I was no longer her responsibility and that I was no longer a reflection of her she was okay with it. She was pretty supportive for the remainder of her life—however, I do think she was expecting me to come back eventually and say I really don’t want to be a girl anymore.
I made the mistake of assuming that Jenn had undergone surgery, which Jenn very politely pointed out and then talked about gender identity and how we don’t want to feed into the culture of “what’s underneath.”
At some point we have to let go of this notion that trans people who have had surgery have to be forthcoming about that fact or be forthcoming if they have not had surgery, from a social interaction persepective it is irrelavent—anatomy on a day to day basis is irrelevant. There are some transgendered people that do in fact over-emphasize or act as though being post op is a trophy. That can be a dangerous path because it takes away from the more important conversation around gender identity and puts the focus only on genitals. The surgery should not have to be the validation of our identity.
What do we need to do to be more supportive?
The number one thing is to acknowledge it when it first appears, and that is usually in childhood for most people. To recognize that transgendered is a natural variation in the human condition. It ‘s not a wrong turn on the developmental highway, it is just who we all are. We need to stop limiting peoples’ options for gender self –expression. We need to remove exclusions to access to health care that are specifically targeted to transgendered people. We need to stop intertwining sexual orientation and sexual identity, especially for children and youth. I think we need to just grow up and look at the inherent and pervavise impact of misogyny as it polices gender identity and restricting gender conformity. I continued to be dismayed and amazed at our cultural capcity to ignore children’s gender non-conformity needs because of our own self-identify –the use of children’s suffering as a diagnotic tool is nothing less than child neglect and borders on child abuse.
I, we, TransActive are not going to make significant progress in dealing with oppression and discriminatioin againat transgender youth and their families until we help the world understand the problem lies in gender non-conformity and not just the most marginzialized populations which are transgender youth. This is a converstation we all need to be having . All of our kids are at risk for not living up to an arbitrary and misogynistic attitude.
Again, I would like to thank Jenn for her time and her dedication to helping people that are transgender or gender non-conforming. She is a true do-gooder! If you have more questions and/or need resources, please contact TransActive.