Last week I sent the following email to about 30 ex-colleagues and friends at a start-up company I worked at for 6 years and loved. Roughly 75% have responded very positively, and one even reported that his 9 year old son has expressed transgender feelings and asked for my thoughts and suggestions. I've not received any negative feedback. Maybe the other 25% are uncomfortable? Who knows, but that's okay...
Since sending this email out I've forwarded it to another 15 or so people. I think it's a pretty good update for my friends and provides them with information that I hope they will use in conversations with their friends.
20 years ago this month I joined Start-Up thanks to A, B, and C, and it remains as one of the best experiences I’ve had. I miss working with all of you very much. That said, I’ve been carrying a profound secret since I was a child that I have only lately come to terms with and wish to share with you. My goal is simply to facilitate conversation.
What’s the secret? In a word, I am transgender, and I’ll tell you more about it all below. I’ll try to be brief and avoid the dreaded “tl;dr” but as you can imagine it’s a long story. The story is important to me of course but I hope you will read and be interested more in the broader context of all transgender people.
I often start off by telling whomever I'm coming out to that ever since I can remember (age 4 or 5) I wanted to play on the girls' teams. I wanted to learn to curtsy with the girls in nursery school, dance like a ballerina, play with the girls in their kindergarten kitchenettes, and join the Blue Birds in 1st grade. In junior high, like Richard Dreyfus in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, I was inextricably drawn toward sewing girls’ clothes for myself including a camisole and a teddy, in secret and out of rags, while my parents attended AA meetings.
I was acutely aware that my desires, envies and actions were utterly shameful and needed to be kept strictly hidden and under control. All of these feelings stayed with me (maturing, of course) over the next half-century as I struggled to keep the ship afloat while battling depression and emotions that just wouldn't be suppressed.
Close your eyes for a moment and consider how it would feel to be so utterly convinced that you are so shameful, with a longing that just doesn't go away, and it's so bad that you can't tell anyone what is really in your heart. You just have to journey on as best you can. That journey has been tough: always monitoring my relationships for whatever I might do or say that would expose myself, second-guessing: “Am I saying the right thing?” “How am I supposed to be right now?”
Telling you this is an amazing milestone for me. Quite literally for years I would have rather died than have it come out. I went to therapists for depression and didn't tell them about my feminine feelings, as those feelings were just too shameful and, I figured, I could keep the depression and its treatment isolated from talking about my gender dysphoria. In hindsight that was kind of silly but when feeling that kind of pressure we humans do odd things.
In early 2014 my wife told me that I needed to return to therapy. I was unhappy, we were unhappy, and I needed to deal with things. I told my new therapist from the onset that for the very first time I was going to totally open my kimono come hell or high water. Still, it was unbelievably hard. It took some months to gradually get it all out. And then I had to tell my wife, which was also very hard. I spent the following couple of years studying, exploring, and learning what it is to be transgender, where it originates, overcoming my own transphobia, and accepting that I am trans. My wife and I cried about it but we decided that I would never really find and become myself while we were married. We thus went to a mediator a few months ago, worked out our divorce agreement, and filed the papers. The mediator was astonished that we came to the meetings holding hands, smiling/laughing, and yes, crying.
I bought a 23' RV (Winnebago Minnie Winnie; my wife hates the name!) in March and headed north in mid-April, in search of a new place to settle (I can't afford to live in the SF Bay Area!), to find who I am and become that person.
Now, I'm in Seattle and have pretty much decided that I want to buy a small house somewhere in the San Juan Islands this Fall. I have old friends here and have always loved the San Juans.
But on the transgender topic I assume that you and/or others may not know much about it and I figure that, like we saw with the civil rights movement, the emergence of gays and lesbians, and others, we need to encourage "dinner table conversations" among cisgender people (where 'cis' = 'same', meaning that one's inner gender matches their birth sex characteristics). Knowledge is power, and with that in mind I came up with what I hope is a helpful FAQ:
No. Sexuality and gender are completely orthogonal and unrelated, although this is often the first question people ask. For what it's worth I'm only attracted to women.
- What does "transgender" mean? Does it mean you're a transsexual?
Transgender is an umbrella term/label that includes anyone whose gender doesn't align with their birth sex. Some trans present in public as their true selves, some caring that they “pass” and some not. Some only do what they need to do under their clothes or in private. And some trans people transition their bodies via hormones, surgery(s), and so forth, and some do not. Those that do are called transsexuals but the language is evolving and the transgender label is often used for people like Caitlyn Jenner, Jazz Jennings, Laverne Cox, and Janet Mock.
- How can I be sure I'm trans?
Good question, especially since there is no scientific/objective test... none. Everyone sure wishes there was a test. Trust me when I say that I've done my homework: lots of books, therapists, meetings with trans people, introspection. In the end it's undeniable. So much history.
Another good question. Until fairly recently I thought not but lately I'm thinking it may be inevitable. I'm afraid of waking up some day on my death bed wishing for what could have been or what I didn’t do out of fear. I am considering starting a low dose of hormones that can be taken for some months before physical changes occur to see how I feel mentally. I would put $20 down that I will feel terrific but we'll see; I have an open mind to losing that bet.
- Do I present as a woman all the time?
No. When I'm with some friends, or attending a trans meeting/conference, I do. I’m growing my hair out because I hate wigs and at some point will need to have it styled. Maybe then I’ll start presenting as a woman more often.
Us in the trans community call them "clothes." Sorry, I had to. :-) Actually, I try to wear a style like women would wear in a similar situation and about my age. I'm learning as I go. I attached a couple of recent photos.
You tell me! I'm told I look pretty good but one never knows if people are just being nice. When I do go out publicly my goal is to blend in as best I can.
- How many trans people are there?
Very hard to have an accurate answer. A UCLA study recently reported that 0.6% of US adults (1.4M people) are transgender. This compares with 3% who are gay/lesbian. These numbers feel right to me but what do I know. Notably there are the same number of FTM (female to male) as there are MTF (male to female, like me). FTMs have it easier in some ways at least because of society's acceptance of the variety of ways that girls/women dress. Also, note that 41% of trans people attempt suicide at least once. I'm part of that statistic.
Our VP Mike Pence would say so. Consider this: is it "curable" (or needed?) to change your handedness from left to right? Your eye color?
A. it's not a disease that needs to be cured.
B. it's not changeable; we are what we are. Trying to "cure it" has proven to result in many suicides.
I'm careful to wish that Trump be impeached - the devil you know and all that. I wish they'd both be impeached. Sessions too, but I'm getting off topic…
- Isn't it just a sexual proclivity or fetish?
No, not at all - at least for transgender people. Note that for many (me included) these feelings came about long before puberty. The child knows what is in her/his heart.
- Are you implying that God makes mistakes?
Not at all, I'm acknowledging diversity. Being transgender doesn’t imply that God made a mistake although this is said by some, implying that since God doesn't make mistakes then being transgender (or gay) is simply an aberrant lifestyle. I don't feel that being transgender is any more of a mistake than being born blind, deaf, conjoined twins, with a cleft palate, or right-handed.
- Do you feel like you are a woman “inside”?
I don’t know, honestly. How could I? Do I feel like I was born in the wrong body? Not really although I have often wished I was born female. It’s hard to put my finger on it, but that’s kind of it: I have always envied and wished I was one of the girls. Simple and complicated and shameful (for a boy) as that.
- How do I feel these days?
I'm feeling rather good, thank you. It's truly amazing what a weight has been lifted off my shoulders. I've thus far come out to over 30 family, friends, professionals, and acquaintances, and if you include spouses and so forth it might be 50. Now with you I guess that number may double.
I am daunted at times at the prospects of transition. I'm lucky to have found a terrific gender therapist in Seattle as well as other resources. I'm also so lucky to have such a strong relationship with my (ex) wife. We talk at least once a week for an hour or two.
On June 20 I will be crossing the border into Canada, driving the ALCAN highway in my Minnie Winnie to Anchorage where, on July 14th I'm meeting a friend with whom I'll be spending the following two weeks camping and motorcycling. (I also have a Kawasaki KLR 650 strapped onto the back of my Winnebago.) And then it will be back to Seattle to attend a gender conference (August 24-27) and get back into my trans journey.
That's all I have for now. Please ask me anything you’d like. Probably private emails are best since I don’t want to clog up mailboxes. Also, please feel free to forward this email to anyone whether I know them or not.
Oh, and let me know if you're going to be in the Seattle area and would like to meet up.
The soul of brevity,
For more information
As you might imagine I could point you to way more than you may wish for. I think the four videos listed below are excellent. If you'd like to learn more please let me know.
Charlie Rose Brain Series: Gender Identity
In this episode of the Brain Series, a panel of experts in psychology, pediatrics, and gender studies, including co-host Eric Kandel and neurobiologist and transgender man Ben Barres, examines the complex issue of gender identity and the biology of the brain.
Dr. Mark Yarhouse: Transgender
As legislatures debate “bathroom bills” and National Geographic Magazine heralds a “Gender Revolution,” many are asking, what is gender dysphoria? Seven hundred thousand people identify as transgender in the U.S. yet many Christians are uncertain of how to engage. Dr. Mark Yarhouse, clinical psychologist and founder of the Institute for the Study of Sexual Identity, brings his latest research to educate us on gender dysphoria and provides a helpful framework for how to think well about the conversation of identity.
Brynn Tannehill - “I Am Real”
An amazing speech given at the 2014 TransPride Pittsburgh National Conference.
Sean Patrick Maloney & Sarah McBride - Democratic National Convention
Co-Chair of the Congressional LGBT Equality Caucus Congressman Sean Patrick Maloney (New York) and LGBT rights activist Sarah McBride.