Many transgender people have made their story public in recent decades, including Nikki (above) a 12-year-old who graced the cover of People magazine in June.
Decorated war veteran Kristin Beck made headlines in recent weeks after Anderson Cooper interviewed her on CNN. If you missed the story, she's the former Navy SEAL who recently came out as a transgender woman, and she's just published a memoir, Warrior Princess.
The Today Show aired a clip of Cooper's interview with Beck, and hosts Savannah Guthrie and Matt Lauer provided this titillating introduction to the shocking story:
Guthrie: "Now to the secret life of a former Navy Seal. It's just been revealed and it's getting a lot of attention!"
Lauer: "As you might imagine!"
Stop the presses! A former man is now living as a… woman!?
As a parent of a young transgender child, I encounter this type of disbelief on a daily basis. My child is five years old, was born anatomically male, and has identified strongly and unvaryingly as female from the moment she could speak. When I tell people that my son is now my daughter, the responses are remarkably predictable. Faces cloud with confusion. People seem to wonder if they've heard me correctly. Or they suggest that it's probably a phase, or that my son is just gay. They tell me that their little boy used to try on his big sister's dresses, too, but not to worry—it all worked out okay in the end.
They are generally very kind and curious. But I can tell that the idea of my child is entering their consciousness like a visitor from an alien galaxy. They walk away from our conversations with stunned and thoughtful looks on their faces, as if they're thinking, "Did she really just say that?"
The problem I encounter most often is not one of prejudice, but of incredulity. People generally don't reject us; instead, they tend to view my child as an exotic object of fascination, something far too rare to be threatening.
Just as we did with gay people until a few decades ago, we still speak of transgender people—if we speak of them at all—in hushed asides, as if their existence is more shadowy legend than reality, kind of like Sasquatch. Despite a large and growing pile of evidence to support their existence, it seems like most Americans still don't actually believe in transgender people. Not as normal people, anyway. We've seen them as circus-side-show-style freaks on shows like Jerry Springer, or as racy plot twists in movies (remember The Crying Game?). But we don't really see them for what they are: A fairly uncommon but ever-present version of human being, found throughout history in every racial group, culture, nationality, religion, and class. They are our friends, neighbors, colleagues, and yes, our children.
During her CNN interview, Beck explained how she had always felt that she was in the wrong body, how uncomfortable it had been for her, how she had fought for years to resist the urge to live as a woman before finally giving in and living in accordance with her true identity.
It's a sad and inspiring story, and I admire Beck for having the courage to tell it. But when it comes to the transgender population, we seem to suffer from a chronic case of recurrent amnesia. If we didn't, Kristin Beck would not be news at all.
Back in 1976, professional tennis player Renée Richards made international headlines when she sought to enter the US Open as a transgender woman. In 1992, Althea Garrison became the first transgender state legislator when she was elected to the Massachusetts House of Representatives. In 2007, a Barbara Walters special featured a six-year-old child named Jazz who had been born apparently male but was living – happily, and with her parents' full support – as a girl. In 2009, Chastity Bono, only child of Cher and Sony Bono, announced to the world that he was a transgender man named Chaz. In 2010, one of the "Wachowski Brothers" (makers of the Matrix movies) publicly transitioned from Larry to Lana.
Each of these stories has had ample media attention, and all would appear to confirm the existence of transgender people. And yet, our lack of faith is stubborn. We're not really convinced. How many miracles must we witness before we come to believe?
I think I know something about how Kristin Beck feels. Like me, she is probably suffering from shock fatigue. Like me, she probably longs for the day when a person's gender identity is treated like left-handedness. But I don't expect that day to arrive very soon.
"Even now, a discussion of transgendered people frequently resembles nothing so much as a conversation about aliens. Do you think there really are transgendered people? Has the government known about them for years and kept the whole business secret?…Have they been living among us for years?"
She published these words ten years ago. Oprah Winfrey interviewed her on her show at the time, broadcasting Boylan's story to the world. Her story is remarkably similar Kristin Beck's: years of failed attempts to suppress her urge to be female, then finally transitioning in her forties, after marrying and having children. The only difference between Boylan and Beck is their careers: Boylan is a college professor and writer, presumably a more acceptable job for a woman than that of the professional warrior.
Part of the problem is one of numbers. Transgender people just aren't that thick on the ground. While research shows that gays and lesbians probably make up around 3.5 percent of the human family, transgender folks number something like 700,000 people in the United States. With only about .3 percent of Americans identifying as transgender, it's a lot easier to not invite them to the family reunion, or to just pretend we're not related at all.
But as the mother of a transgender child, I can't do that. Nor would I wish to. And believe me, you wouldn't want my child to attend family gatherings as a boy. She'd be miserable and badly behaved, the way she was in that long, sad year when I resisted her constant efforts to convince me that I'd actually got her gender all wrong. But as a girl, she'd be the life of the party. You'd be glad you decided to have kids at your wedding. When the band starting playing, you'd dance with her, and I promise you, you'd be swept off your feet.
This author is anonymous, but read more about her parenting journey at gendermom.com.
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Related Readng: Listen to a transgender ice hockey player talk about growing up playing sports with girls versus boys in our podcast episode "Intersections."