1 September 2018
I realized that I might be transgender back in the fall of 2015. It was a surprising revelation to me. I really began to examine my life as a whole – the daily stress that was affecting my health, my mental state, the expectations I felt were put upon me to act like a man. I knew I had to do something to change things for the better. Within 6-8 months I had moved from questioning to knowing. I had been in therapy a few months and in stages I began to reveal myself starting with those closest to me. First it was my mom, then my immediate family, close friends and employers, coworkers, and finally the world.
I had begun to accept that I was drawn to feminine things many years earlier, but it wasn’t until I met my wife and she accepted me, and helped me accept this “thing” that weighed heavily on me daily, did I feel like it was OK. Like I was OK. This was years before the thought of being transgender ever came into my head. My life and emotions were still a jumble, like the early stages of a galaxy with its amorphous turbulent whirlpool. Once I developed the vocabulary for my situation, that whirlpool started to take shape and make sense, and in spring of 2016 it allowed me to begin to try explaining it to everyone else.
I’ve had a long time to accept that I was born a transgender female. Anyone else who has known me for any length of time, whether its 48 months or 48 years, has had to try to come to some sort of understanding in a relatively short amount of time. That’s natural. People grow at different rates, and so too do people’s ability to accept.
It’s very important for everyone to know that being born transgender is no more a choice than being born with green eyes. We’re not choosing a “life style” by being trans, and it’s a costly endeavor to correct this biological wrong, both monetarily and emotionally. We fight an uphill battle with insurance companies to cover these life saving procedures – and yes, the are lifesaving. I’ve stated before that the suicide rate among the transgender community is somewhere around 40%. Insurance companies are willing to cover psychological therapy and hormone therapy, but when it comes to corrective surgical procedures, they are still reluctant to approve them. I’m currently in a battle to straighten out the red tape to have my gender confirmation surgeries covered. My first request was denied. It’s emotionally draining to a person who has already had to overcome the battle within one’s own psyche, and then perhaps has had to fight with their family, friends, employers, or community for acceptance, to then be rejected by the very institution that exists to assist in caring for this biological anomaly.
In addition to the fight to become whole, transgender people are routinely discriminated against because of their gender identity within the workplace. As of the time I’m writing this, only 20 states have protections for gender, and mine (Wisconsin) isn’t one of them. I could be fired from my job for trying to live as I should have been born. This is yet another emotional toll that pushes so many transgender people to take their own lives. If I would just conform and live as I was assigned at birth, I would be accepted, but because I want to be healthy and whole, I and others are stigmatized. Again, being transgender is not a choice. Who would choose this?
The Name Game
Let’s talk about names and how I feel that they relate to acceptance and rejection with regards to a transgender person like me. Do you like the name that you were given at birth? Do you think it describes you? If you don’t or didn’t like your name have you wanted to or in fact changed it? Have you changed it because of marriage, taken your spouse’s last name?
Most of us have heard the song or at least heard the title of the song A Boy Named Sue, sung by Johnny Cash. The whole premise of it is that boys aren’t generally named Sue. But what about naming a girl Thomas? Now throw in the complexity of gender identity. Natal females can be transgender males, and thus, as in my case, natal males can be transgender females. To live more “in-line” with one’s gender identity, we change our names to better suit our identity. Poor old Sue didn’t seem to have that option. Instead he went and found his Dad and confronted him with the intent of killing him. His father explained:
“Son, this world is rough
And if a man’s gonna make it, he’s gotta be tough
And I know I wouldn’t be there to help ya along
So I give ya that name and I said goodbye
I knew you’d have to get tough or die
And it’s the name that helped to make you strong”
The topic of toxic gender stereotypes aside, that’s pretty heavy to lay on someone. But Sue responds in the last two lines of the song:
“And if I ever have a son, I think I’m gonna name him
Bill or George! Anything but Sue! I still hate that name!”
It’s kind of like that for transgender folks. To be called a name that doesn’t align with one’s gender can be an emotionally arresting thing, especially if it is being done against the wishes of the transgender person. Particularly after one has gone through the costly, laborious and emotional process of changing it.
Dale Carnegie, the American writer and self improvement lecturer said,
“Remember that a person’s name is to that person the sweetest and most important sound in any language”
“Using a person’s name is crucial, especially when meeting those we don’t see very often. Respect and acceptance stem from simple acts such as remembering a person’s name and using it whenever appropriate.”
There’s that word again, acceptance. To say to a transgender individual, “I can’t or won’t call you by your new name” is a way to say “I reject you.”
In a study by researchers Naomi Eisenberger, PhD, at the University of California in Los Angeles, California, and Kipling Williams, PhD, at Purdue University in Indiana, it was discovered that rejection activates many of the same brain regions involved in physical pain. My wife uses this information in her training and public speaking engagements that involve human interaction. As she puts it “When you reject someone, the brain reacts physically the same as if you had punched them.” This is explained in greater depth in the article The Pain of Social Rejection (http://www.apa.org/monitor/2012/04/rejection.aspx).
It took a long time for my mother to finally call me Tiffany, but now she does. She falters once in a while and then corrects herself, but it’s a process. I know it’s difficult for some people, especially a parent. She has known me my whole life and after 46 years I am asking her to call me something new. A name that is replacing the one she gave me. I’ve accepted the fact that for some people this process of calling me by my new, chosen name may take a while. It is a pleasant surprise when someone who has known me for a while automatically accepts this and is able to switch to calling me Tiffany instantaneously. In the early days of my transition the sweetest sound to my ears was when I would doze off at the end of the day while sitting on the sofa, and my wife would wake me by saying in a soft voice, “Tiffany, time to go up to bed.” To be called Tiffany was heavenly, especially by the person I hold dearest in my life.
Most of us have gown up with some form of name calling. I feel that by calling a transgender person by their birth name is kind of like that juvenile name calling. But it feels doubly vindictive when an adult decides that they won’t call a person by their chosen name. Because they should know better. Kids actually have an easier time understanding this. Maybe as adults they don’t understand that choosing a new name is part of the life-saving process we transgender individuals are going through to make some sense and meaning of our lives. And by resorting to referring to someone by their birth name it’s like taking a life-preserver away from someone drowning. There may or may not be malicious intent, but the mere act can have devastating consequences. We have all seen what bullying can do at the high school level.
For International Transgender Day of Visibility I wrote about the African greeting that literally means “I see you.” I think that by looking at someone and saying their name, especially their chosen name, you are letting them know that they are seen. And hopefully accepted. Because we all just want to belong. I know I do.