A personal story about gender identity issues

April 27, 2015

It was the early 1990s and I was doing volunteer work for an organization that provided services to people with HIV and AIDs. What we did was something called “emotional support,” which was pretty much just “being there” for the other person, our “client.”  It wasn’t as easy as it sounds. In fact, volunteers went through a pretty heavy-duty two-weekend training that involved not only learning skills to help us be a support but also getting in touch with our own mortality. Not to mention setting limits so that we didn’t burn ourselves out. And lots about sex, sexual orientation, safer sex, sexuality. It was a powerful experience that did more for me than anything I’ve ever done.

Clients who needed emotional support were matched with volunteers and stuck together until death. After my first client died, I was assigned another. I’ll call her Maria, but that wasn’t her birth name or the name she went by.

She was the first transsexual I’d ever met.

the_confusion_by_darckraven-d3by560Like many who have gender dysphoria, gender identity issues, she knew young that her soul didn’t match her body. For a child, it was confusing, especially one brought up in a narrow society.  Maria’s family came from another culture, one that worshipped macho. In addition, the world was very different in the 1980s and those who came of age then had few resources. Parents knew little. Not knowing where to turn for help, transgender people struggled on their own.

When Bruce Jenner told Diane Sawyer that he “never fit in” it echoed what Maria told me. Jenner became uber-macho as compensation for how he felt, but Maria wasn’t inclined to it. She could only be feminine, but in a 6’4″ body that looked male.

No one really understood her. Was she gay? What was she? Her schoolmates didn’t know. SHE didn’t know. The term “gender identity disorder” wasn’t in the popular lexicon.

As I got to know her, I saw just how limited her options were. How could she make a living? Where could a tall, masculine-looking woman work? How couldn’t all eyes be on her?

It was understandable that she became a prostitute.

Does this statement shock you?  Understanding has never required approval.  It’s irrelevant. Situations and people are put into our lives so we can learn. And learn I did.

Part of our volunteer-client relationship included outings. Whether it was a trip to K-Mart or a coffee shop, Maria attracted quite a bit of attention wherever we went.  When people would stare I’d feel very protective.transgender+morphing

She continued to work the streets, even after becoming HIV+.  While we did talk about safer sex, I wasn’t there to judge or moralize or teach her anything. I was there for emotional support. My own opinions and feelings were irrelevant to our relationship.

Back in those days, AIDS was a fact of life, especially in her business.  I came to understand that it almost didn’t matter to her that she was so sick–what did life hold for her? Not much, in her opinion.

It was a felony to solicit sex if you had HIV, so it was inevitable that she’d go to prison.  She died in a big, famous Bay area prison. She was in her early 20s.

Times have changed and are changing still. When I heard Jenner tell Diane Sawyer that he’d come to believe his purpose for being here was to bring transgender issues to the forefront it rang true to me. There is still so much ignorance around the subject but when a high-profile athlete who was once the greatest athlete in the world comes out as a woman? That’s big. When that famous person uses his celebrity to educate? It’s really big.

The time is finally right to help the general public understand this condition and to make sure that children who have gender identity issues get the support they need. Because that’s what it’s really about. Helping kids find their way in a super-confusing situation.

So, what can we do?  We can start by learning as much as we can.  Here’s some information and good advice:527221_362381143839544_1531541291_n


54 comments on “A personal story about gender identity issues
  1. Carol Graham says:

    Bruce did a remarkable job in educating the listeners. I learned a lot as I have a trans gender client and for the first time was able to understand him/her better. I knew you would have a post about this subject and am glad you shared your experience.

  2. Debra Jason says:

    Education helps increase awareness. And when someone who is well-known takes a step forward it allows for a broader reach that can make a difference to others who may have not listened previously.

  3. Robin Rue (@massholemommy) says:

    I think people have come a long way in understanding these sorts of things, but there is still far to go for a lot of people.

  4. penpen says:

    The Jenner interview was touching and insightful. It reminded me of Jeffrey Tambor’s role in Transparent as a cross-dressing dad. We have so much to learn about the human condition.

  5. Scott says:

    Very timely post. Unfortunately I think it is too early to hope that people will accept those that are going through this – society just isn’t ready for it (although they should be).

  6. I wasn’t home this weekend so I can’t wait to see Bruce’s important and remarkable interview. Your diagram is powerful as is your use of “her” when sensitively referring to Bruce. Thank you for educating us even more and being a harbinger of hope to so many.

  7. Hi Carol! I didn’t see the interview but I agree that when we can put a face and a personality behind an issue it ALWAYS has more meaning and impact. Living here in the Palm Springs area there are a number of transgendered people and although I’m not presently close friends with any of them, their presence is not completely unusual. Your story illustrates how important it is for us to discover that many of those who look very different from us are really at their core very similar. And yes, I too hope that Bruce Jenner will be that “face” for many more people around the world. ~Kathy

  8. Pat says:

    Well said, Cassandra. What a valuable service you provided….emotional support without judgment just support. Hopefully Jenner’s high profile and high visibility will help others open the dialogue. I know from working with teens that compassion and understanding is especially important as they deal with navigating as you said a super confusing situation.

  9. I think talking and spreading awareness is the best way of helping Transgender people. I learnt quite a bit from your informative post.

  10. Great post, Carol. Over the years we’ve lost too many friends to HIV. I have a transsexual fb friend who found me in an article I had on MORE mag’s site. I see her struggles and it can be heartbreaking. But, since too many in our world are still fighting acceptance of homosexuals I think the transsexual community is going to have a long struggle. Fortunately, pieces like this can help bring it to the forefront. Thank you for that.

  11. Ines Roe says:

    I think we are learning more and more that gender is a very complicated internal element – which is actually very different from sexual orientation. I think people often confuse the two. I my practice as a psychologist I have worked with some individuals who were transgendered and had undergone the transition. It was a learning experience for me and I was very grateful to them to allow me to support them and help them deal with challenges they faced.
    Thank you for this posts and for continueing the disucssion that Bruce Jenner courageously opened.

  12. I missed the Jenner interview but I was not shocked by the news. I had a bff in school who wanted to become a transgender female but he passed away before that ever happened.

  13. Francis Ramos says:

    When it comes to HIV. I am so protective. I’ve known people that are infected that don’t even appear in they are. It’s always good to be safe than sorry. It only takes one time. Getting tested before having sex with a partner is the key to being negative and safe.

  14. The moment I read this “Situations and people are put into our lives so we can learn. And learn I did”. I thought this is why Carol was brought into my life. I have learned more from you than anyone I have ever met. Just wanted to say that. I saw the pain in his eyes and knew he was for real. The other day I saw a story about a 4-year-old who had been a girl but is now living her life like a little boy (without drugs or surgeries). I wasn’t sure how I would feel about it right before it came on, not that my opinion mattered at all, but when after I watched it I agreed that the parents had done the right thing.

  15. It’s such a sad thing that people could be born with a body that doesn’t match their mind. But I guess so is being born with a disability of any kind.

  16. K. Lee Banks says:

    Even with all the changes our society has gone through, I’m not sure everybody will completely accept people who are going through this type of turmoil in their identity.

  17. I had two transgendered student employees at the same time several years ago. One of them loaned me a documentary on DVD that MTV had about trans young adults. It helped me offer better support for a very difficult time (legal name change, hormone therapy, surgery, working with friends and family through the transition, dating, public bathroom use, etc.). It’s so hard to be a young adult anyway, that it seemed so difficult to have an additional challenge.

  18. I think it a good thing that people like Bruce Jenner come out and share their experience, because many people are afraid of these situations just because they don’t understand them. They need to be educated.

  19. Nirra says:

    I’m sure a lot of people identify with this

  20. Thank you Carol for sharing your experiences with “Maria”…I think it always helps the average person when these painful struggles have a name and a face attached to them. I’ve also had an experience early in my therapy career with a woman who felt desperately confused about her gender. It was also in the nineties and there just wasn’t the support out there. I do think the Bruce Jenner interview will add legitimacy to the transgender issue, thank goodness. But I felt sad watching him in that interview. ..he looks like a guy who’s been struggling for a long time.

  21. Jeanine says:

    Although I didn’t see it it’s all I’ve been hearing about. It makes me sad people have to make such a fuss about it to raise awareness. People are so cruel. I was raised as are my kids to treat everyone equally and with respect! I couldn’t imagine living my life for 50+ yrs not feeling my very best and like I am who I am, it would be so tough. I don’t associate myself with those who treat others badly in life especially when it comes to this type of thing. What one person does with their life, isn’t my business. I support everyone and love everyone! I wish everyone felt the same.

  22. My heart just breaks for folks in such situations. And for the parents, when it’s a child. I simply can’t imagine the pain for EVERYone. The Jenner interview fascinated me… and hurt my heart. I hope he finds happiness now that he’s “out.”

  23. My heart aches when I read stories like this. Maybe it’s just because I do not understand these decisions.

  24. Haralee says:

    Well said Carol. Bruce is using his celebrity in an honest way and saving lives.
    I know a transgender family practice doctor. She was a good doctor when she was a man and she is a good doctor as a woman. She will say had she not made the change she would have committed suicide. Her waiting room has many transgender patients, and because patients see them frequently in the office the staff and everyone are more comfortable.

  25. I had heard about people who believed they had been “born in the wrong body” many times. But the first time I heard somebody say “I suffer from gender dysphoria” it was a Big Brother participant, no less! He had been born a girl but just by looking at his face you would never doubt he was a guy. He was one of the last few participants to leave and as he remained on the show for about four months, he raised awareness of this condition among several million Argentinians who watched BB round the clock, seven days a week. I never heard anyone say they didn’t sympathize with him. It was a fantastic way to learn about people with this condition.

  26. Erin says:

    Wow. What a powerful story. I am so thankful you shared it. Bruce Jenner’s story really touched something in my heart. I hope that people saw it, and that it made a difference, and that people like Maria don’t have to suffer 🙁

  27. Liz Mays says:

    I think education tends to bring more understanding and compassion. I think more people are starting to become educated on these issues which will help reduce discrimination.

  28. I missed the Jenner interview, but have seen pieces here and there. While I have no personal interest in his specific story, I do find it brave and selfless to share it with the world. As a celebrity, his life experiences are scrutinized and I do think all the little details will help educate society. Hopefully, his experience will be a learning block for all of us to step up and worry more about ourselves than others. 🙂

  29. i love that you wrote this. I was part of the Shakti project back in the day so long ago. I was so young, and remember having to call parents in Ohio that their son was dying, and being told that they no longer had a son. I was 15. it was a horrible ignorant time, and i think i cried rivers. thank you for this post and the work you did.

  30. Laurel Regan says:

    Thanks for sharing your experience, Carol, and for providing some great information. Though society has a long way to go in terms of acceptance etc., I’m thankful we live in a day where such things are more out in the open and education is available.

  31. Alana says:

    I DVR’d the Bruce Jenner interview but haven’t watched it yet. When I grew up in the 1950’s I was too young to hear of the story of Christine Jorgensen (who, like me, was from the Bronx) – being born in the wrong body would be something that never, ever would have been discussed on TV or at the family dinner table. I am happy, for the sake of those caught in this situation, that we can discuss this openly in our particular society, but I think it is going to be decades, if ever, before understanding and acceptance of this real condition is achieved worldwide.

  32. Britney says:

    This is pretty interesting! Thanks for sharing!

  33. I missed the interview, however I think this will start the conversation needed.

  34. Lana says:

    Carol, you always astound me with the depth of your knowledge and experiences, and I learn something every time I come here! I’m very proud of Bruce Jenner for coming forward with his situation, and I really hope it opens up discussion and becomes a positive example. I have a close friend who has transitioned from a man to a woman, and it is a very long, difficult process, both physically and emotionally. But she wouldn’t have it any other way, and finally feels at peace with her life. Thanks so much for extending the awareness!

  35. Informative post. Glad that you are bringing this to everyone’s attention and about Bruce Jenner.

  36. Bismah says:

    It seems as though education and awareness is the key to getting people to gain acceptance.

  37. What a sad story. I’m glad you were there to be a supportive friend, I’m sure it was appreciated. Everyone should be as supportive as you, rather than making things even more difficult for people already struggling with who they are.

  38. Thanks for writing about this! I have always been very open about sexuality, and since I started studying psychology even more. Until recently, not many people have been open about being transgender and I’m extremely happy that this seems to be changing. I watched Bruce’s’ interview and he is such a encouraging and inspiring person.

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