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Archive for February 5th, 2010

Christine Daniels was a transsexual sportswriter.  For many years, she was known to thousands of sports fans as a columnist for the Los Angeles Times, writing under the byline “Mike Penner.”

Christine transitioned into a woman in April 2007 and began using her female name on her column.  In late October 2008, she returned to appearing, and writing, as Mike.  On November 27, 2009, she chose to take her own life.

This is a tragic story.  It’s also an opportunity to talk about gender – an important and often misunderstood topic.

We’ll begin by differentiating, and then examining, three gender-related variables that define all of humanity.  They are:

(1) gender assignment at birth;

(2) sexual orientation; and

(3) personal gender identity.

You can think of these variables as three separate sliding scales – everyone falls somewhere on a continuity within each one. You – like everyone else – had a gender assigned to you at birth, awakened in childhood or adolescence to some sort of sexual orientation and discovered within yourself some type of personal gender identity.

1. Gender assignment at birth: I’ll take this one first because it seems simple.  What could be more obvious that the gender you’re born with?  We’re all born either a boy or a girl, right?

Actually, that’s not the case.  Perhaps as much as 1.7% of the human race is born with a degree of sexual ambiguity, and between 0.1% and 0.2% of people are ambiguous enough to attract specialist medical attention, including, in some cases, surgery to disguise or correct sexual ambiguity.  These people used to be called “hermaphrodites” but the modern term for them is “intersex.”

Intersex people exist and always have.  They are a normal part of the range of human difference.  Unfortunately, they live in a world that mostly ignores their existence or treats them like freaks.  And they can have a tough time of it, dealing not only with the medical issues involved in their difference, but also the accompanying stigma of not looking, or feeling, like everyone else.

2. Sexual orientation: This variable should be familiar enough to most people.  Orientation refers to which gender you choose for a sexual partner – essentially, with which gender you choose to fall in love.

You’re probably used to hearing about lesbian and gay people and their lives, but even sexual orientation can get a bit tricky to parse.  Bisexual people exist, and sexual attraction can be fluid and change over time.  Sometimes people are surprised by an attraction they weren’t expecting to feel.

It should be common knowledge that gay, lesbian and bi people face discrimination and even violence in their lives, as they fight a campaign for greater understanding and acceptance of their difference.

3. Personal gender identity: This is where things get really interesting.  There are countless ways to experience one’s own gender, and perhaps even more ways to express it outwardly.

The transvestite – or “cross-dresser” is a person who enjoys dressing like someone of the opposite sex.  There are male cross-dressers and female cross-dressers.  A “drag queen” or “drag king” is a man or woman who is a performer, and cross-dresses as part of his or her work as an entertainer.

A transsexual is a person who feels that his or her gender assignment at birth incorrectly represents who he or she really is.  For example, a person with the outward appearance of a male at birth, but who is transsexual, will come to understand (usually during his early childhood) that he is actually female.  It is as though a female brain were placed in a male body.  Transsexuals often take hormones supplements or seek gender confirmation surgery to confirm their personal gender identity by matching it with the outward appearance of their bodies.

If this is beginning to sound complicated, that’s because it is.  There are countless terms used to describe people who express their gender in ways that don’t conform to societal norms.  My favorite, for its sheer simplicity, is “trans” – a sort of catch-all word for people who experiment with gender appearance and identity.  But there are many people who would argue with that definition and that usage.  That’s the nature of gender – it’s complicated, everyone is different, and the topic triggers fervent debate.  Mix in the additional complications of gender assignment at birth and sexual orientation and – well, you’ve got nearly endless diversity and plenty of room for misunderstanding.

Christine Daniels was a transsexual woman.  She decided to return to her male identity and live as Mike for the final year of her life, but I have chosen to honor the women whom I suspect she really was by referring to her as a female.

I have had the privilege and honor over the years to know and work with many trans people, including transsexuals and cross-dressers, as patients and as friends, neighbors and co-workers.  I have also known and worked with a number of transsexual psychotherapists, who remain valued and respected colleagues.

If it’s tough negotiating society as an intersex person or a gay man or lesbian, it is even tougher to live each day as a trans person.  I don’t know what it is about gender in particular, among the vast array of human differences, that ignites such misunderstanding and hatred.  Perhaps it is simply sexism.  The widespread oppression of women across the globe is an example of humanity at its very worst.  However you account for it, trans people face horrendous discrimination and persecution.

I have no doubt that Christine Daniel’s life was made more difficult by the misunderstanding of her trans identity.  Her death was a terrible waste.  We lost a talented, valuable, unique person.

You might think you don’t know any trans people.  Perhaps you do not.  It is far more likely that you do, but don’t realize it. Many transsexuals are “stealth” – they do their best to disappear into the background.  Their only desire is to live in a way true to themselves, and they are well aware of the persecution and violence that could greet them if they were found out by the wrong elements.

If you do have the good fortune to welcome a trans person into your life, I implore you to be gentle, and supportive, and sensitive. These are some of the best people you could ever meet and know – and, if you win their trust, they might introduce you to a world of  folks who do things their own way, in their own inimitable style.  They are a group of human beings whose path in life has taught them profound lessons in compassion, understanding and personal strength.

I’ll close with a link to a site that I wish didn’t have to exist.

Remembering our Dead, and the International Transgender Day of Remembrance, were created to honor trans people who have been victimized by violence.  It is a sad statement on the condition of humanity that these innocent people were murdered simply for being true to who they were.

In honor of Christine Daniels, please vow that you will become one more voice on the side of acceptance, and celebration, of trans people and transgender identity.

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