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Understanding the Complex Lives of Our Transgender Community

Sexual Healing in Santa Barbara


Thursday, February 19, 2009

On a shimmering bright day in Los Olivos, I sat in the conference room of St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, the same church President and Mrs. Reagan attended when they were staying at their Refugio Canyon ranch. I couldn’t help wondering what they might have thought of this eclectic group sitting around the table. Gay, lesbian, straight, bisexual, transgender people-men and women who worked as psychologists, academics, community organizers, and mental health professionals, and other interested citizens-had all been invited here by UCSB and the Pacific Pride Foundation to consider a most serious question: Were those whose sexual identifies fell outside the dominant culture finding adequate help in Santa Barbara?

Jessa readily admits to the challenges of her transition. "Mentally, I have had a hard time making the transition," she said. "I am leaving behind an identity; it wasn't right, but it was still what I had been for 35 years."
Click to enlarge photo

Paul Wellman

Jessa readily admits to the challenges of her transition. “Mentally, I have had a hard time making the transition,” she said. “I am leaving behind an identity; it wasn’t right, but it was still what I had been for 35 years.”

To me, the question seemed simple, and I found myself answering with an authority I now think most peculiar. Santa Barbara, I told the group, was a benign environment, a place that embraced all dreams however diverse. “All we have to do is get involved,” I proclaimed. “Be willing to participate.”

A distinctive, statuesque woman sitting next to me named Jessa seemed restless with my little piece of civic cheer. She turned toward the window, speaking to no one in particular: “I can get so angry thinking about how much fear I have living out there.” Jessa, I soon realized, was a transsexual, who by moving from a life as a man to one as a woman, looked at our paradise here in Santa Barbara from a very different place than I did.

That workshop turned out to be a most unsettling experience for me. Of course I had no fear walking down our streets-a white, middle-aged, nicely dressed man, I am automatically gifted with a kind of privilege that Jessa is not afforded. I understood so little about transsexuality, and was even forced to admit to some uneasy feelings about the whole subject, that, as a psychologist, I knew I needed to explore further.

Factoring in the Big ‘T’

Dr. Tania Israel, the UCSB professor and nationally recognized mental health expert for people with diverse sexual orientations, had been at the Los Olivos meeting. She was willing to give me the primer course I needed to begin my inquiry. “Although we group the LGBT [lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgender] community together, the ‘T’ is significantly different from the ‘LGB.’ What they do have in common is both the issue of oppression and of stepping out of their expected gender roles.”

Dr. Tania Israel

Transgender,” it turns out, is an umbrella term encompassing a varied group: drag queens and drag kings-those who perform publicly as the opposite gender-and “cross-dressers” or transvestites (men or women who get a thrill, often sexual, from dressing up as the opposite sex). And then there are the subjects of my investigation-transsexuals, who deeply believe that they were born in the wrong gender-assigned body and are compelled to do something about it.

According to Dr. Israel, people indentifying themselves as transgender individuals are increasing in our culture: “There definitely is greater awareness, allowing more opportunity for people to express themselves more broadly.” She pointed out that the modern gay rights movement, which began with the 1969 Stonewall Riots, was spearheaded by a faction of the transgender community. “It was the drag queens who fought that battle but didn’t become the primary focus or beneficiaries of the movement. It did lay some of the groundwork for people being more open to transgender issues.”

We’ve come a long way in our culture since then, and a large part of the credit can be given to the media. Ellen Degeneres has injected her bright tomboy personality into America’s afternoons; Middlesex was a best-selling novel about a transsexual; Will & Grace, even in reruns, has made gay guys cool to the under-30 crowd; and the beautiful transsexual actress Candis Cayne, star of Dirty Sexy Money, has brought transgenderism into prime time. But the fact that the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, now wending its way through Congress, includes lesbians and gays but excludes transgender people-because to include them would surely sink the bill-should tell you that the “T” faction of the “LGBT” team is the last to be picked for the game.

A transsexual’s compelling need to become gender congruent takes many forms. One can go full monty: hormonal treatments followed by gender reassignment surgery (that means changing sexual apparatus surgically). Some only go so far as dressing as the opposite sex, while some add hormonal treatments but stop short of surgery. And it is a fact that men who become women are twice as likely to exercise the surgical option than women who transition into men.

But what about the fear Jessa had spoken of in Los Olivos? With some sense of trepidation, I phoned Jessa, asking if she would introduce me into the lives of Santa Barbara transsexuals. She seemed to have graciously overlooked my more obtuse comments at the conference and willingly began introducing me to some of her friends in the trans community. Many transsexuals are eager to talk about their experiences in hopes of educating the public. The less ignorance there is on the subject, the safer they will be.

By Paul Wellman

Samuel was part of Pacific Pride Foundation’s inaugural transgender workshop, which continues today as a support group. “When I chose to transition from female to male,” Samuel said, “I didn’t just ask the question, ‘How do I become a man?’ I also asked, ‘What kind of man do I want to be?’ and ‘What does it really mean to me to be a man?’”

From Girl to Groom

I met Samuel at Muddy Waters Cafe, which seemed like a good place to begin clarifying the murky waters of transgenderism. As he walked up Haley Street toward me, there was no mistaking that Samuel, 43, was a guy, handsome with a rakish goatee and a somewhat devilish smile. He brought with him some photos that showed his journey in striking detail: a cute little girl in a cowgirl outfit, a beautiful teenager in her prom dress, an androgynous-looking woman in her Army uniform, a more masculine-looking man after a few months on testosterone treatments, and a glorious photograph with his new wife on East Beach celebrating their wedding last year. These were mind-bending, mind-blowing images, difficult to absorb.

As I learned from Dr. Israel, it is rarer to find a biological female who has transitioned to a male. The fact that the surgeries for the two transitions are very different may be the explanation. To put it bluntly: To surgically remove a penis and create a vagina is a much more successful operation than a phalloplasty, which creates a penile appendage from forearm skin grafts and clitoral nerve endings. As a result, the majority of female-to-male transsexuals, such as Samuel, never take the final step of sexual reassignment surgery.

Emboldened by his frankness, I asked, “You don’t feel like you need a penis to feel like a man?”

He laughed, leaving me feeling that my question must be naive, although it seemed perfectly reasonable to me. This is a question that he is often asked when lecturing to college classes. “I tell them that no one does a genital check when I come through the door. No one really understands what defines gender anyway. I feel complete the way I am. Besides,” he smiled, “I’ve had a fair number of female partners who are just fine with my body.”

I never really thought of myself as a lesbian; I was a person who slept with women so people gave me that label.”

Samuel lived all his life in Santa Barbara, from elementary school to law school, and, until recently, worked here as an attorney. When he was 15, he came out as a lesbian because he didn’t know what else to call himself. “I never really thought of myself as a lesbian; I was a person who slept with women so people gave me that label.” He enlisted in the Army, and discovered a more accepting and vital gay culture.

But shortly after returning to Santa Barbara in his early thirties, he had a near-death experience: “My first thought was I didn’t want to die as a woman. That was my eye-opener.”

Fortuitously, three days after having this epiphany, Santa Barbara’s Pacific Pride Foundation had its first-ever transgender workshop. “There were four of us who met for four weeks,” reported Samuel. “After it ended, we knew we needed more, so we formed a support group.” It is still in existence, and at times has had as many as 50 members.

Throughout the years, through much soul-searching and the rigorous therapy process that transitioning requires, Samuel has come to realize some very unique benefits. “When I chose to transition from female to male, I didn’t just ask the question, ‘How do I become a man?’ I also asked, ‘What kind of man do I want to be?’ and ‘What does it really mean to me to be a man?’”

Realizing that most men never have to question their gender identity, I wondered what is missing by this lack of curiosity. “It must be interesting to have experienced the world as a woman and then as a man,” I suggested.

He agreed. “I get to know firsthand that there is a definite prerogative afforded men in this society over women. Yet even so, I have benefitted from keeping the best things about the female I was and embrace them as the man I am without feeling ashamed or uncomfortable because the actions may be labeled as feminine. I guess it boils down to the fact that I have really done away with labeling or categorizing anything in terms of gender.”

Bringing the Inside Out

Ellenore, another one of Jessa’s friends, is an elegantly tall and soft-spoken woman of 66, who offered me a different view of the transgender experience, and not just because she represents the male-to-female version of the transsexual. “I don’t want to be depicted like I am some kind of weird person,” she told me almost as soon as we met. “I am here because my purpose is to educate, but I still am concerned about my own safety. There are some people who have strong beliefs that this is wrong, sinful, whatever, and there are people who think it is their duty to go out there and straighten up society. I am concerned from the standpoint that I am now a woman and I have to be careful about where I am at certain times.”

Remembering what Samuel said about the privileges he experienced when he became a man, I asked her why she would give up those advantages that come with male identity.

You wouldn’t understand. I have always felt like a woman,” she said, but, growing up Mormon in Utah, this wasn’t always a given.

I remember when I was about seven, I would get on my knees and pray to God that He would change my body so that it matched how I felt inside. As a small Mormon boy, I believed that God could do anything and God could make that change. Of course it never happened. Most of my life I thought I was crazy. Secretly I would put on my mother’s clothes and then I would feel sinful and repent. The Mormon Church saw this as a sin next to murder, so I never told anyone,” Ellenore said. “I felt very feminine inside, but I think most people just saw me as very sensitive. I did everything I could to prove that I was male; that was what my culture said I was, so I acted the part. I went on a Mormon mission for two years. I got married, thinking that would make this go away. Having kids, maybe that would take it away.”

I still felt inside that I was female. It was a terrible, incongruent, crazy feeling.”

Even though biologically a male, Ellenore didn’t really understand what masculinity was about. “I still felt inside that I was female. It was a terrible, incongruent, crazy feeling.” These fears of being crazy, which she repeatedly talked about with me, were not only the opinion of her church but also of the American Psychological Association, an organization that still considers transsexualism in its official diagnostic manual as a Gender Identity Disorder.

After 25 years of marriage, diligently raising four daughters, and playing a part she had always felt was mis-assigned to her, she knew she had to make a change. The Internet made it all seem possible, something that many transsexuals credit with helping them overcome their sense of isolation and to find ways to becoming gender congruent beings. “Once I discovered that there was a way to change-that it wasn’t through changing my mind, like I had always tried to do; it was about changing my physical body-after I learned that I was not crazy, there was no other option for me than to transition.”

She accepted a job in administration at UCSB as a male-identified person, and soon after, began her transition to becoming a woman. It was then that she revealed the truth to her now adult daughters. Painfully, all four cut off communication with their father who was now becoming a woman.

Unlike Samuel, Ellenore has had the complete surgical makeover, including extensive facial reconstruction, removal of the male sexual organs, and the creation of a vagina. She showed me photos of the dramatic transformation. This process used to be called “sexual reassignment therapy” but now is known as “gender congruency surgery.” “I have always been a woman, but my sexual organs were incongruently male,” Ellenore said. “After my surgery, my body became congruent with my head.”

Facing Their Fears

Jessa and I finally talked together a few weeks later. That same restlessness I sensed at Los Olivos was still present. Her eyes darted about, and she admitted that she was fearful being in a public place. Would someone figure out she was a “trannie” and target her? After all, Santa Barbara was not that far from Oxnard, where junior-higher Lawrence King was murdered last February because he was not gender conforming.

Jessa’s transition has taken its own course, different from Ellenore’s and Samuel’s. “Mentally, I have had a hard time making the transition. I am leaving behind an identity; it wasn’t right, but it was still what I had been for 35 years. There is a defensiveness and a fear that you develop.”

Five years ago, after successful hormone treatments, Jessa was ready to go public. She went to bed one night as John, and woke up the next morning and went to work as Jessa. “I chose a Friday, the ‘casual’ day. I got there at six in the morning, stayed in my office, and then waited until everyone had left. I didn’t even go to lunch. That lasted for a month.” As part of her process, she had to get up in front of her assembled coworkers and bosses and declare her intention to go public as a woman. “It is a pretty conservative company. It was very terrifying.”

Because of financial considerations, Jessa has not had genital reconstruction surgery. She also can’t afford regular electrolysis, which means she has to be careful not to be caught out in public with a five o’clock shadow.

It is ignorance, not hostile : but still, it is dangerous to be sitting in a public waiting room and getting outed as John.”

Two years ago,” Jessa explained with definite emotion, “I was having some extremely sad and lonely times, and I had a breakdown. I was at SBCC, crying so intensely, not responding, banging my head, that 911 was called and the police took me to Cottage. They couldn’t handle it, and I ended up in a hospital in Simi Valley. Even though I was passing in public, you end up in a place like that, with hair growth and breasts, and your world falls apart.” Even now, when Jessa goes to Public Health to get her hormone shots, nurses will still call her “John” and “sir.” “It is ignorance, not hostile : but still, it is dangerous to be sitting in a public waiting room and getting outed as John.”

Sexuality is a strangely incendiary topic in our culture. People tend to get edgy around variations of sexual expression that they don’t understand from their own experience. Ellenore had described to me her own version of jeopardy. During her transition, she and her therapist determined that she was ready to live in the world as a woman. As planned, she went to Fess Parker’s DoubleTree Resort to have lunch after her session. When nature called, she did what any woman would do: She went to the ladies’ room. Upon leaving the restroom, she was accosted by two burly security guards. She presented a letter from her doctor verifying that she was in the midst of a transition. It was ignored, and she was rudely escorted out of the hotel.

Despite these experiences, Samuel, Ellenore, and Jessa all agreed that Santa Barbara is a good place to transition.

Samuel offered an especially positive view of how living in Santa Barbara has supported him. “I walk down State Street and run into someone I went to elementary school with and they look at me and say, ‘Hey, don’t you have a sister?’ It is always a good experience,” he said. “As far as a community and being accepted here, it has been amazing. My parents are very religious. Their congregation has been so accepting. I started transitioning two weeks into law school. I had top surgery [a double mastectomy] at the end of the second year. I was taking testosterone, which was powerful in how it changes your bone structure, hair growth, voice, even your hat size!” He shared this transition with his classmates, and found he was fully supported entering law school as a woman and graduating as a man.

But everyone was careful to be clear that all is not a Disney movie. “People might be a bit more open-minded and educated here,” said Jessa. “However, I also know it could just take one person who doesn’t get it or is full of hate to cause harm to someone who is transgender.”

How many get to know what it is like to live in this world as a man and as a woman? There is no fear left for me to face. Okay, maybe having my photograph published in The Independent.”

Fear is a big topic for all three. “How many get to face all of their fears?” Ellenore asked. “How many get to know what it is like to live in this world as a man and as a woman? There is no fear left for me to face. Okay, maybe having my photograph published in The Independent.” (Ellenore refused to have her picture taken for this article.) She paused and laughed. “Maybe that is the real answer to your question about whether I really feel safe in Santa Barbara!”

Recently, Ellenore has been in email contact with a couple of her daughters. Time can have the power to heal, or at least offer perspective. Two months ago, the angriest and most resistant of her daughters sent her an email that simply and penetratingly said it all: “I would like to get to know you.” Ellenore cried when she read it.

This daughter is doing something to which we should all aspire. She is making an effort to get over her fear.

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