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Coming Out Of The Shadows

Often subjected to ridicule, ostracism and discrimination, transgender people struggle for understanding and acceptance—and for the strong, unified public voice that will give their issues political clout

By Nancy Guerin
Photos By Teri Currie

Bridget and Debbie

On a blistering hot day in July, Bridget Nelson sits on the left-hand side of her living room couch with the remote control in one hand and a Misty light cigarette in the other. Even though she’s sitting, it’s easy to tell that she is a rather tall woman. Dressed casually in blue jeans and a white T-shirt, she has blonde shoulder-length hair and wears round wire-rimmed glasses. As she begins speaking, in her deep scratchy voice, about the changes that have taken place during the last 21 years of her marriage to Debra Nelson, it’s easy to tell that she chooses her words carefully. The living room is surrounded with family photos of the couple and their three boys. But only one picture reveals Bridget as the person she was formally known as prior to her 40th birthday in 1998.“We are about the furthest thing you will find from a conventional couple,” says Debra Nelson, as she throws her head back and chuckles. “Plus, I think we are the only legally wed same-sex couple in the state of New York.”

When the two were married on May 30, 1981, at a Methodist Church in Wichita Falls, Texas, they were not known as Debra and Bridget. In fact, at the time, the name Bridget did not mean anything to either of them. But 18 years into their lives together, Bridget made the decision to take the next step in her life as a transsexual by having sexual reassignment surgery.

“She is still the same person that I married,” says Debra, as she glances over at Bridget while touching her on her leg. “I didn’t marry her for sex. I married her because I love the person that she is no matter what the outside might be.”

Debra adds that unlike many couples whose partners come out about being transgender, this was not a shock to her. “We always had a very open marriage,” says Debra. “Very early on, Bridget would come home from work and put on a dress. At one point she started to take my birth control pills because of the hormones in them.”

Prior to the surgery in 1998, Bridget was known as Bernard Nelson. The oldest of five children growing up in Stillwater, she says that from an early age, she identified more as a woman than a man but suppressed those feelings for fear of retribution from society.

“For most of my life, I played into society’s role as a male,” says Bridget, “because anything else was frowned down upon. But I always felt different than others.”

In high school, Bridget played sports. Looking at the 6-foot-2 Nelson, it comes as no surprise that she was voted most valuable player of the basketball team, and also played baseball. After graduation she went off to college, married her first wife of six years (with whom she had two children), and joined the Air Force.

When she met Debra, she was stationed in Wichita Falls, Texas. They were married within three months. “We were always open with each other about who we were,” says Bridget. “Deb knew that I liked to cross-dress and that I was bisexual.”

Bridget Nelson spent 10 years in the service. During that time, she says, her desire to wear woman’s clothing increased and her ability to suppress who she really was became harder and harder. “At first I would just wear women’s panties under my uniform,” she says. “And then, for a long time I would go out late in the evenings so that my children or neighbors would not see me dressed as a woman.”

But eventually, the dual life of being Bernard by day and Bridget by night was starting to wear on her, and she became increasingly unhappy. “I had three choices,” says Bridget. “I could leave them (her family) and be who I am. I could stay as a man and remain unhappy. Or I could stay and come out and show them that what I was doing wasn’t wrong.”

“I would have been more upset if she continued to live life as a man when I knew she really needed to take this next step for her own happiness,” says Debra.

Working as a computer specialist for the New York state Department of Higher Education, Bridget was concerned for how her transition would go at work. Part of the process of transitioning from one gender to the other, prior to having sexual reassignment surgery, is to live fully for one year as the opposite sex. She says that although there were a few rough spots in the beginning—the biggest issue being which bathroom she was allowed to use—all in all, her transition went rather smoothly.

“I have no regrets about the decision that I made,” says Bridget. “I am not saying that surgery is the answer to everything for everyone, but for me it was the right thing to do. I felt complete in way that I had never felt before.”

If you are like many people, you probably don’t know exactly what it means to be transgender. And it also probably means that you don’t realize how many transgender people live in your community.

Moonhawk River Stone

According to MoonHawk River Stone, an Albany psychotherapist specializing in transgender issues, the word transgender is an umbrella term for a diverse group of people whose gender identity or expression does not conform to the cultural “norm” for the gender in which they were born. Therefore, they do not always identify with their birth gender.

Under this umbrella, there are many different categories of transgender people, and a variety of behavioral strategies as well as medical treatments that people engage in to seek relief. Some people may do very little to alter their situation. They may just know that they have a different gender identity than the one they were given at birth, but they don’t feel a need to do anything about it. They may cross-dress, wearing the clothing of the opposite gender and adopting some or many of the mannerisms of that gender for emotional and psychological satisfaction.

Some people who consider themselves transgender choose to do nothing medically to change themselves; these people are often referred to as no-ho, as in non-hormone.

Non-op, or non-operative, are those who may choose to alter their secondary sex characteristics through the use of hormones, and may cross-dress, but do not intend to change their primary sex characteristics through surgical procedures.

Transsexuals are those who feel a strong need to alter their bodies through hormones and surgery in order to feel congruent in their identity. The terms MTF and transwoman refer to a person who has physically transitioned from a male to female, like Bridget. FTM and transman refer to female-to-male transsexuals, like Stone, who completed his transition four years ago.

“A transsexual person truly feels that their anatomy doesn’t match their gender identity, so therefore they feel a compelling need to do something to change that,” says Stone. “But a transgender person might answer the question, ‘Am I a man or a woman?’ by stating, ‘Well, my anatomy is male, but I don’t identify as a male, but I also wouldn’t say that I am a female either. I like to live full-time as a woman; but I don’t want to change my anatomy even though I live full-time as a female.’ This is very hard for people to understand that kind of mixed identity.”

One of the biggest misunderstandings about transgender people, says Stone, is that this is about sexual orientation, which simply means whom you love or are attracted to. This is what most lesbian, gay, bisexual and straight people grapple with. But transgender has little to do with whom one sleeps or who one falls in love with, but rather one’s gender identity, which is one’s internal sense of being male or female. “A person’s gender identity and gender expression does have an impact on sexual orientation,” says Stone, “as one can observe that an integral part of attraction between potential partners is based upon one’s gender identity and gender expression.”

“People don’t understand that most trans people are heterosexual,” says Michael Smith, who takes hormone replacement therapy. “People don’t understand that this is not because we are gay and want to trick men into thinking we are women so we can get more men. For me, I really do not identify with being a man but I am attracted to women. I truly feel more like a woman, and most people have no idea what it is like to live this way.”

Stone says that most people never question who they are, so they have no clue what it is like to walk in the shoes of a transgender person. “It never occurred to them to think very seriously about the question, ‘Am I a man or a woman, boy or girl?,’ but if you are transgender, these questions start to enter your mind usually from a very early age. Our culture has developed this idea of what is right and what is normal, and everything else is not right, not normal, and weird, all the way up to very judgmental words people use like sick, perverted, freak and other pejoratives.”

Stone adds that people don’t understand the difference between choice and who you are, and that it’s a myth that people choose their gender identity.

“It’s the same mistake made early on in the lesbian-gay-bisexual movement, that people choose to be LGB,” says Hawk. “It’s a preference, it’s a choice, it’s a lifestyle, which are all not true. Those words are not only politically incorrect but they are also not accurate.”

It’s hard to say just how many transgender people are living in the Capital Region. Insiders suggest that the number ranges from 300 to 500. But one thing is clear: The transgender community is starting to find its voice, which is drawing more people out into the open. Strengthening that voice is the objective for many, so that transgender people can start to have an active role in creating legislation and changing the status quo here and across the country.

While more and more people are coming out, there are still many living in the shadows for fear of societal consequences, says Kaylie Lavedure, president of the Transgender Independence Club in Albany. This is why a number of support groups in the area are working to help people deal with the many issues that transgender people face once they become visible members of the community.

“Limited access to jobs, housing, health care; discrimination, being ostracized, being misunderstood, being made fun of, even beaten and raped is still a sad reality that many transgender people face by being visible,” says Lavedure. “You know when you are gay or lesbian and you come out, you can still hide it, at work, when you walk down the street, in a restaurant. But if you are trans and you don’t pass as male or female, people know it and people are not always very nice. It’s like you are a target.”

Lavedure says that although she does not experience much harassment where she lives, in Schenectady, she does remember that when she first started her transition from male to female, she was laughed at by one of her neighbors. This is why she says that groups like TGIC are so important for other transgender people who endure the same harassment each day.

TGIC has been in Albany since 1971. It is the only membership organization in the area for transgender people where enrolment remains confidential. The clubhouse, which is at an undisclosed location, is equipped with lockers for people who need a place to store gender-related apparel.

“Some of our members are secretive about being transgender,” says Lavedure. “Some have families at home, and this is the only place they can come and be who they really are and dress the way they feel most comfortable.”

The club holds weekly social gatherings where transgender people come to either hang out and be with others or partake in a variety of discussions about issues affecting the transgender community.

“Many people are not open about being transgender because they do not want to lose their family or children or don’t want to be ridiculed,” says Susan Poe, who edits the club’s monthly newsletter. “As it stands now, most people who come out do lose everything, including custody of their kids because society still looks down on transgender people. So many live a dual life of playing the part of the man or woman with their family and at work, but when they come to the club they are free to express who they really want to be. For others, they are able to talk about what life is like being transgender. I think this gives them strength. The problem is that unless more people are visible, this will never change.”

Charlene Dodge & Helen Farrell

Similarly, the Albany Gender Project, which Poe cofounded with Helen Farrell just last year, is also working to improve the conditions for transgender people in the area. Farrell said that the purpose of AGP is to promote and advocate educational services for transgender people, and the group deals with such issues as housing, legal aid and safety. The group holds bimonthly meetings where the members show videos, hold forums and bring in speakers to help educate people.

“We try to help connect people to whatever social services that they need and just let them know what is available,” says Farrell.

The group is currently working on opening a low-income emergency housing unit, which will have multiple apartments, an office with a hot line, and space for drop-in activities. Farrell says that when she first started her transition in 1986, there were very few support groups in place, and she suffered greatly as a result. That is why she was determined to start AGP.

“Even when I found out about different groups, I did not take advantage of the services that they provided,” Farrell says. “I walked around with suicidal tendencies, and although I had already had surgery, I was very closeted, would rarely go out and would walk around with my head down. But once I got connected with support, I felt safe, I had guidance, I developed a social circle. This helped me to be proud of who I am, and become a voice for transgender people.”

Rainbow Access Initiative is an organization that specifically works with the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community with health-care-related issues. The organization, which is funded by the New York State Department of Health, educates health-care providers about the unique needs of the LGBT community. Bobbi Williams, a board member for RAI, says that at this time there is very little information or research on the health-care needs of the transgender community. She adds that very few doctors are even aware of what it is to be transgender.

“The danger in this,” says Williams, “is that they (doctors) can miss important diagnoses because they do not know what to look for.”

For example, skin rashes can be caused by makeup, but if the doctor isn’t thinking of the patient as a transgender, he or she may give the wrong diagnosis. While this is a simple example of what can happen, Williams says, problems on a much greater scale can occur. If someone is taking hormones, and the doctor is not aware of it and prescribes other medication, it can have detrimental side effects.

“Many health plans do not cover hormone therapy, so many people are buying drugs off the Internet,” says Williams. “So if the person is not honest with the doctor, because of the way in which they are buying their drugs, and the doctor doesn’t even know to look out for this, the results can be deadly.”

Along with training doctors, Rainbow Access also does outreach to the LGBT community to get people to be more proactive about their own health-care needs.

While these groups’ goals may not be political in nature, they all agree on one thing: Improving the lives of transgender people in the area can only amount to more people feeling safe to come out, which in turn will give the community more visibility and therefore more political clout.

According Pauline Park, co-chair of the New York State Association for Gender Rights Advocacy, the benefit of having a visible community is twofold. “Coming out sends a message to society that an individual wishes to be treated with respect for whoever she or he sees herself or himself to be,” says Park. “But very important as well is the fact that a community derives political power from its visibility. When you have community in which most of its members are invisible to society, it is difficult for that community to assert itself in the political arena, particularly in the legislative arena.”

Park said that the only way that transgender people will come out in large numbers is with the passage of nondiscrimination laws to protect those in the transgender community.

“As it stands now, there is no explicit inclusion for transgender people under the law,” says Park. “Therefore it is legal to discriminate on the basis of gender identity or expression. Someone could say, ‘Well, you are transgender, so we are going to fire you or throw you out of your apartment,’ and there is no legal recourse.”

This is why many advocacy groups across the state have been fighting to see that SONDA, the Sexual Orientation Non Discrimination Act, be rewritten to include protection for transgender people. SONDA, which would add sexual orientation as a protection category to New York state’s human-rights law, has been pending in the state Legislature for 31 years. The passage of SONDA would make it illegal to discriminate against people because they are gay, lesbian, bisexual or straight. But until gender identity or expression are included in the bill’s language, the transgender community would not be protected against discrimination even if it were to pass. At this point, only New York City, Rochester and Suffolk County have transgender-inclusive anti-discrimination provisions in their human-rights statutes, while nationally, Minnesota and Rhode Island are the only states that have enacted such legislation.

“Sexual orientation alone would not protect us,” says Park. “Transgender and gender variance have to do with gender expression and not sexual orientation.”

The state’s human-rights law already prohibits discrimination in employment, housing, public accommodations and education based on a person’s age, race, color, sex and marital status, but it fails to provide protection based on one’s sexual orientation, gender expression or gender identity.

This issue has caused quite a rift between many advocates for transgender rights and the Empire State Pride Agenda, the state’s largest lesbian and gay political organization, which wrote the language for the SONDA bill. ESPA spokesman Joe Tarver says that the group doesn’t want to include gender identity and expression in the bill because it could kill its chance of passing. The bill did pass in the Assembly this past session, but did not make it to the floor of the Senate.

But many argue that if the state’s largest advocacy group for gay rights were to put pressure on state legislators to pass SONDA with gender inclusion, the lawmakers would feel more pressure to come around.

“It is kind of a chicken-or-egg problem,” says Park. “In order to get legislatures to pay attention, you have to demonstrate real numbers, and you can’t do that if 90 percent of the population in the community is closeted and underground. But, unfortunately, they won’t come out in significant numbers until they have explicit legal protection from discrimination.”

Legislation or not, transgender people face a long road of self-discovery and endure great hardship in their struggle to express the gender in which they identify. In Stone’s work as a therapist, he spends a great deal of time helping people work through the consequences of living with such stigmatization.

After years of transgenders blaming themselves for their troubles, a significant shift in attitudes within the community occurred in the mid-’90s, when people began to assert that they were OK and that it was the bigots and discriminators who had the problems. Nevertheless, the years of being misunderstood, discriminated against and ostracized have paid their toll on many in the community.

“If you have walked around for years dealing with society’s prejudice with transgender people, you can’t help but take on some of the after effects of that,” explains Stone. “It could be isolation, could be depression, drug or alcohol problem, could be an unrealized life like working in the factory when really you could a teacher, but never wanted to do that for fear of getting discovered.”

According to the International Foundation For Gender Education’s Web site, transgender people are much more likely than others to commit suicide, turn to drugs or alcohol, end up in abusive relationships and suffer from depression. “The level of trauma suffered by transgender folk is much higher than the norm, and is reflected in more difficult lives and greater incidence of depression and despair,” reads a portion of the Web site.

Stacy Colon

Stacy Colon, who identifies herself as a transgender person of color who is also HIV positive, says that for many years she used drugs and alcohol as a way to cope with her struggle.

“It really boiled down to self-acceptance,” says Colon. “Because I know a lot of trans people who don’t come out during the day for fear of being targeted. But today, after years of living in hiding, I come first and everyone else can take a number.”

Colon says that with the help of Narcotics Anonymous and Colored American Transgender Society, a support group for transgender people of color, she doesn’t live in the shadows anymore.

Colon explains that being a person of color, transgender, a recovering addict and HIV positive is not an easy life. “You know, like all of the regular prejudices of society toward people of color compound with being transgender can be a lot,” says Colon “And even within the trans community I feel some prejudice, but I stay connected, I think that is the key. I have a lot of support in my life. ”

Debra and Bridget Nelson agree that staying connected to others and having a strong support network in place is what has helped them most over the past few years. This is why, Debra says, they are so open about their situation with others.

“Education is the key,” says Debra. “Education at the mass level. People need to know and learn and understand what it means to be transgender. I don’t know that we will ever truly reach a place of true tolerance, but unless we educate people we will never increase the percentage of people that at can at least show some support.”

Although they admit that the decisions that they have made have not been easy on their children, they are adamant about the fact that families do not have to separate because one of the partners is transgender. They just wish that others would focus more on who they are and not what they appear to be.

“We are productive members of society, and that is what should be looked at,” says Bridget. “That and how I treat my family and those around me. I am just living my life, and I think more people need to be educated on what transgender people are all about, because once people get to understand they tend to let down their guard.”

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