Born This Way

“Sex is between your legs; gender is between your ears.” — a common phrase in queer culture

Myra Chanel Ical was 51 when she was murdered on 18 January of this year. She was brutally beaten, but Houston police concluded from her defensive wounds that she put up a fight. However, most of Houston’s media didn’t report her death. Instead, it reported the murder of male Ruben Dario Ical, Myra’s given name and birth gender. KHOU-11, the CBS affiliate in Houston, was one of the few media outlets to report the story as a murder within the transgender community.

Myra’s murder is the seventh of unsolved transgender murders in Houston, covering a period of ten years. How many unsolved or unreported crimes against transpersons there are nationwide is undetermined; if a crime against a Ttansgender person is recorded as a hate crime, which is infrequently, it’s usually lumped into the broader category of anti-gay crimes, meaning that most data doesn’t specify what percentage of LGBT hate crimes are directed at transpersons.Still, there’s no denying that trans individuals are subjected to an amazing amount of hatred and violence, not just in the United States, but throughout the world.

For some, the idea of transgenderism is baffling. While we may have body issues of varying kinds, the majority of us accept that the gender of the body we inhabit is the correct one. Change the shape of your nose, have the fat sucked out of your thighs, shoot toxins into your forehead? That’s all in the name of self-improvement. Have your genitals rearranged and your basic DNA restructured? Eeek.

Gender reassignment is not an extreme measure, however, for those who suffer identity issues with the body they’re inhabiting. Throughout the years, we’ve laughed at the hilarious films about an individual forced to reside in a body other than his or her own (Heaven Can Wait, All of Me, for instance). However, imagine if such a scenario wasn’t a comedy; imagine if you really did inhabit a body that was completely contradictory to what your mind said was right for you. How far would you go to make your body reflect who you really are?

Because transgenderism is a foreign concept to some, the distinctions between the various segments of the LGBT community often blurs. Most gay men and lesbian women are content with their birth gender and have no desire to change. Those who enjoy dressing as the opposite gender for sexual or personal pleasure are cross-dressers. Drag queens and kings are impersonators of the opposite sex for entertainment purposes.

Finally, there are transsexuals, persons “who wish to cosmetically, surgically, or hormonally alter their gender presentation”. (Herek cited in Kidd and Witten, “Transgender and Trans sexual Identities: The Next Strange Fruit-Hate Crimes, Violence and Genocide Against the Global Trans-Communities”, Journal of Hate Studies, 2007/2008).

Today, the most well-known transgendered individual is Chaz Bono, who millions of older Americans will remember as the cherub-faced little girl who appeared regularly on her parent’s TV show, The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour. Since then, Chastity Bono became known as an LGBT activist and lesbian; in 2008, she began transitioning to Chaz Bono. Talking to Good Morning, America last November, Chaz declared, “This was a very difficult decision to make, but it was the best decision I’ve ever made.”

Yet Bono isn’t the first celebrity to transition. Alexis Arquette, sister of David, Roseanne, and Patricia, was born Robert Arquette. Before becoming a woman, Alexis had a somewhat successful acting career, appearing in Pulp Fiction, The Wedding Singer, and Xena. Since her transition, she has worked less frequently, though many will know her in the cult film, Killer Drag Queens on Dope, which she also produced.

Others have gained notoriety after changing genders. The most famous of these would be Christine Jorgenson, who became an overnight celebrity in 1952 by being the first person to openly discuss her sex change with the media. Because her birth certificate still listed her as male, Jorgenson was never allowed to marry, although she was engaged twice. Jorgenson eventually launched a night club act and became the subject of several biographies and documentaries.

In the ’70s, Renee Richards became the face of transexualism. Richards, formerly an eye surgeon, had a sex change and joined the women’s tennis circuit. Denied entry into the U.S. Open, Richards won a landmark lawsuit before the U.S. Supreme Court, granting her the right to play. She enjoyed some success, getting as high as number 20 in world rankings and reaching the women’s doubles finals and mixed doubles semis at the U.S.Open. Later, Richards would become Martina Navratilova’s coach.

Less known than either Jorgenson and Richards is Stu Rasmussen, mayor of Silverton, Oregon. Rasmussen was a man when initially elected to office, but transitioned to a woman by the time of her reelection. Mayor Rasmussen gained some media attention upon being reelected, as she became the first transgendered person elected to a mayoral position. She was in the news again in 2009 when parents complained that Rasmussen was inappropriately dressed for an elementary school appearance. She explained her low cut, form-fitting outfit was a response to the day’s high heat. Interestingly, whereas most town websites feature a “welcome from the mayor” page or introduction, Silverton’s website reveals barely a mention of the town’s high profile mayor, focusing on local trade, instead.

Despite such well-known examples of transgendered people and the increase in favorable representations of trannies, such as Transmerica, Ugly Betty and Dirty Sexy Money, transgenders are still subjected to incredible amounts of prejudice and hatred. In the United States, 13 ‘trans’ were killed in 2009, with a total of 143 killed worldwide, according to the International Transgender Day of Remembrance website. That number becomes more significant when one considers the estimate that there are around 20 million transgendered persons worldwide, or .0029 percent of the earth’s population.

Those murdered included 29-year-old Andrea Waddell in Brighton; four transgendered prostitutes, all killed the same weekend in Caracas; Dilan Pirinc of Instanbul, killed by her father; 33-year-old Kamilla, shot by her boyfriend in Moscow; and Joshua Mack, a.k.a. “Na Na Boo”, of Washington, D.C.

Legal protections for transgendered persons are scarce. Although the European Council passed a resolution prohibiting discrimination “arising from the gender reassignment of a person” in 2006 and the United States added gender identity to the list of those protected on the federal level against hate crimes, the majority of hate crimes go unreported or misreported (i.e., reported as something other than a crime against a trans individual). In the US, only 13 states and 109 counties and cities have hate crime legislation protecting transgendered persons.

However, transgendered individuals need legal protection. According to the 2008 article “Trauma in Transgender Populations: Risk, Resilience, and Clinical Care”, published in Journal of Emotional Abuse, approximately half of all trans persons report being the victims of violence, more than double the general population. Most trans hate is directed at male-to-female persons. According to the authors, crimes against transmen are less frequent, but significantly more common than reported. Men, even if they used to be women, don’t report victimization as frequently. (Mizock, Lauren and Lewis, Thomas K.)

Many of these crimes occur in the victim’s own home. Unfortunately, most transgendered persons can’t enjoy sanctuary on the job. In a 2009 study conducted by the National Center for Transgender Equality and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, 97 percent reported enduring some form of discrimination at work, with 26 percent having been fired for being transgendered. Unemployment rates were double the national average, even worse for trans persons who were also another minority, such as black.

Just last December, 17-year-old Zikerria Bellamy made national news when she wasn’t hired at the local McDonald’s. Not being hired was probably not a surprise to her, as it is a tough time to be job seeking, but the hate-filled voice-mail from a store manager surely was. McDonald’s was quick to condemn the manager and reported that he was no longer employed at McDonald’s, but the damage was done. Even in a major corporation with strict policies forbidding discrimination based on gender identity, prejudice affects the lives of transgendered persons.

How transgendered persons are treated varies widely throughout the world. Many far east countries have passed legal protections for transpersons, but traditional cultural norms about gender roles have resulted in acts of discrimination and violence. Surprisingly, Iran, which does not tolerate homosexuality, has the second highest gender reassignment surgery rate in the world, after Thailand. This results from the declaration by the late Ayotallah Khomeini that gender identity confusion was medical in nature and should be treated as such. (Tacita, Lara. “In Iran: Homosexuals Put to Death, But Transsexuals are Okay”, Gay & Lesbians, 7 October 2009)

If, however, most cultures fail to share Iran’s perspective on gender identity, what is the source of the animosity they possess? According to authors Jeremy D. Kidd and Tarynn M. Witten in Journal of Hate Studies, transphobia stems from “a desire to eradicate the transgender-identified individual in order to alleviate the perpetrator’s disgust and to avenge the sense of betrayal that precipitated the attack in the first place.” Beyond violence, transpersons are subjected to a barrage of verbal taunts, jokes, and tirades.

For many, this response is based in religion. In Christianity Today, Dr. Warren Throckmorton, former president of the American Mental Health Counselors Association. was quoted as saying, “Even if science does determine differentiation in the brain at birth, even if there are prenatal influences, we can’t set aside teachings of the Bible because of research findings.” The article goes on to say that Throckmorton feels “Desires must be brought into alignment with biblical teachings.”

However, on his web page, Throckmorton denies the statements, both in context and exact words, concluding “I want to emphasize that persons who experience gender identity conflicts should reach out and seek advice from medical and mental health professionals, as well as their spiritual advisors.” (“Christianity Today on ‘The Gender Moment'”, 14 February 2008)

Although Throckmorton has clarified his position, the viewpoint quoted in Christianity Today is reflective of how many feel. Familial rejection and societal ostracism are two of the major problems that transpersons experience and the cause of many of the suicide attempts made by transpersons. “Trauma in Transgender Populations” notes that the suicide attempt rate is .011 percent for the general population, but was measured as high as 64 percent for transgendered individuals in one study, although most put the percentage closer to one in four.

Many people will never come to grasp the psychology behind gender identity issues. Personally, I don’t understand shooting your face with toxins to smooth out wrinkles or getting calf implants to look more muscular. Yet, that doesn’t give me the right to torment those who choose those procedures (with the possible exception of Heidi Montag). Like every prejudice, people are free to disagree with the transgendered lifestyle if their personal beliefs dictate; they have no right, however, to harm the transgendered people of the human family.

Cheers, Queers Much has been made of the fact that Lee Daniels, director of Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire is only the second African-American nominated for a Directing Oscar, but few have noted that he is the first gay African-American award nominated for a “major” Oscar. (He may, in fact, be the first gay African-American nominated for any Oscar, but seriously, who knows the sexual orientation of all those FX, sound effects and short film people.)