I don’t remember much about the day – it was over 30 years ago – 1983 or so – but I will never forget the shock of meeting Jackie (not her real name). I just didn’t know. I think lots of other people don’t either and are just afraid of what they don’t understand. This post is an attempt to build understanding and compassion for a group of people who need that very badly.
I began thinking about Jackie this week when I read that the US Army will provide hormone treatment to CHELSEA (nee “Bradley”) Manning, who is serving 35 years in Federal prison for leaking classified documents about the Iraq war to Wikileaks. She had sued the government for treatment and to be allowed to live as a woman and she won her suit, as “medically necessary treatment.” It’s a first for the US Army, and not surprisingly, a lot of uniformed personnel as well as “taxpaying” civilians are objecting. Sigh. We humans are so complicated and nothing is as clear and black and white as we thought when we were little. But the article took me back 35 years, and since today is #1000 voices for compassion day, it seemed like a great place to focus my attention. This is a longer than usual post but I hope some will read it to the end and leave me a comment.
Jackie was escorted onto the unit where I worked one day, without warning. It would probably have been good to have had a staff meeting first and some education (this WAS the early eighties – imagine, we were living without Google), but the transfer was an emergency, for Jackie’s safety. She was about 35 years old as I recall, about 5’7″ tall. She had long dark hair and was as slender as a teenaged girl, which is who she was inside. On the outside she still had male “equipment,” but she was on hormone therapy and at some point, if she could convince the doctors she was sane enough, she would have surgery. Convincing them she was sane enough would be the rub, because she was also schizophrenic and subject to hearing voices and having meltdowns. But would she still be schizophrenic and assaultive if she received proper therapy?? No one knew. Being “trans” is a very difficult and traumatic thing to live with.
“The Unit” was a 36 bed mental hospital ward for lower-functioning, mentally ill, male felons serving a prison sentence for various felonies. The men were transferred to us from prisons for treatment prior to parole. The forward-looking Oregon program has since sadly been defunded. Our building was built in the late 1800’s and had been the actual location of the film “One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest.” We were on the third floor. Everything was painted glossy beige, including the quare-design bars on the windows of the two-man rooms – and all around the nurse’s station.
This was a great day for Jackie, as she would be safer with us than in the general prison population, and she would receive the psychiatric treatment she badly needed – but it was definitely a day of upheaval – and education – for the staff and residents of our little unit. I had never even heard the word “trans-sexual” at the time and I wasn’t sure how to react. I know I was repelled at first, call it cultural conditioning. If we could have used “some preparation,” I think the US Army may also have some major adjusting to do. Not everyone there is therapeutically inclined. But as Jackie talked with me about the pain and disorientation she had always felt inside, the rejections and bullying, the self-loathing, the cutting, the suicide attempts, the way there was nowhere she would fit in, no-one she could really talk to, I began to see that her desire to be a woman was not a psychological problem, as I had been trained to see it, but a much deeper, maybe even cellular one.
A trans-sexual is an individual who deeply feels they have been born into the wrong body, usually from age 2 or 3, causing great mental distress, shame, confusion, isolation and depression. They can be sexually attracted to either sex, that’s an individual thing and not related. I have read that trans-sexualism oftentimes involves having an extra x or y chromosome- 3 chromosomes instead of 2, but this article on transgender.org relates it to hormonal changes in the mother during pregnancy.
Why doesn’t matter. Whatever the cause, it has nothing to do with morality, as they have been told – and so deeply fear. Just knowing that one small fact alone can lift a tremendous burden- and you don’t need a degree to share that kindness.
And just to be clear – because it’s confusing to get gender identity and sexual orientation straight – trans people are not gay. Or, like the rest of us, they may be or may not be. It’s a little complicated if you’re trans though. Someone I know well says she thinks she’s a lesbian – that is, she was born a boy, is sexually attracted to women as men are, but inside has also felt she was more like a girl from early on. She always had “a passion for purple” shoes, shirts, shorts, whatever – genuinely hated the boys in high school and beyond who said demeaning things to or about girls, or just cavalierly used them for sex. She herself had never heard of trans people, just knew she was very, very different from other boys – yet she was attracted to girls sexually just like other boys. She was SO confused, as you can imagine.
#compassion – Identity Confusion – Just think how much of every day you are aware of yourself as the gender you are, however peripherally. Imagine now, every time you look in the mirror, the image you see is NOT you, the you you are inside, but something foreign, alien. There is a dissonance there, a confusion, a wish you were the same outside as inside. With treatment – to become the gender they are inside – many live successful lives.
#compassion – Internalized Shame – just imagine, in addition to the normal shame that we all carry from living in quite a shaming and judgmental culture, carrying around a sense of being irreparably “WRONG at your core.” Imagine how difficult it would be to love yourself, to build your self-esteem, as we all need to do to cope well with life. Now remember, you have done nothing “wrong.” You think you ARE something wrong. And this “wrongness” is reflected in the faces and behavior of everyone who knows or suspects your secret – and many who have no idea, just put off by a “gut sense” of “wrongness” there. Imagine the profound isolation from not ever being able to be yourself, with anyone, anywhere. Shame is a killer.
#compassion – Fear Just imagine the overwhelming fear of discovery a person lives with when having such a huge and highly stigmatized SECRET they have no control over. Imagine the effort in pretending to prove themselves as their outsides would dictate, hiding their real persona, the lies and half-truths, so as not be discovered. And I should mention, gender identity appears along a continuum like most things. So no one is “all boy” or “all girl,” making if very confusing inside. Some may be very afraid they are crazy.
#compassion – Role Models – just think how important it was, in your teens and twenties especially, to have role models to emulate as you pick and choose your habits, your interests and your approach to life. Until very recently – and still so for most – a trans man or woman had no models for how to be happy, empowered, successful, fully integrated, human beings.
# compassion – Dating, Marriage and Family – just think what a huge part of our lives, our emotional energy, are taken up with issues to do with dating and then marriage and family. If you are a trans man or woman you have the same needs as everyone else to build a family unit, to raise children, but who do you date? It’s not that hard to find a sexual partner. But it’s “complicated” to explain to someone you are starting to care for that inside you aren’t who you appear to be outside. Just BTW, many in the gay community are as rejecting of trans people as the straight community, in some cases more so, afraid their newly found acceptance would be threatened by trans people that the community is even more confused about and afraid of.
#compassion – Depression and Suicide – For all the reasons listed above and more, many (some say as many as 50%) trans men and women never make it past their thirtieth birthday, so great is their sense that they “just don’t belong here on the planet,” that they “ought to be ashamed of themselves,” that they can never deserve or have a marriage, a family, a career like everyone else. They are often rejected by friends, family, church, work, have no models for “how to be,” much less “how to be successful,” they are ashamed of themselves for nor reason except societal norms, and then – they tragically take their own lives.
I am not, thanks God, a trans individual. With the level of depression and sense of “wrongness” I suffered even without that burden, I doubt I ever would have made it to recovery. But there are trans individuals all around us, mostly still in hiding, many still in semi-hiding from themselves (which may be where a lot of the trans PHOBIA comes from).
But to come full circle, Jackie was too explosive to stay with us for more than a few weeks, I didn’t get a chance to work with her for very long and I don’t know what eventually happened to her. But she made a lasting impression on me and getting to know her and talk with her for just those few weeks introduced me to a part of life I had known nothing about.
I just didn’t know. And now,y did, they would have more compassion.
Jackie, Chelsea Manning – and every other person struggling with these issues – HAVE DONE NOTHING WRONG or immoral by being trans – they are suffering greatly because of all the issues above and more and deserve our compassion, our understanding and support, our intervention if other people are bullying or being hostile to them.
Today, February 20, 2015, a whole lot of us (over 1200) agreed to write a post that had something to do with compassion – because the world needs more of it. Let us be the VILLAGE our transsexual brothers an sisters can count on as “safe haven” – to befriend them, to support them emotionally, to explain their plight to other people when we get a chance, to show up for them when they need protection and advocacy.
Are you in?