Less than 5 percent of the population identifies as transgender, a general description for people whose physical or sexual characteristics may not match their gender identity. But the issues transgender people face, including bullying, affect many and they seem to be gaining attention.
“We have a society that is becoming more accepting of differences in lots of different ways,” said Joel Baum, director of professional development and family services at Gender Spectrum. Baum is the keynote speaker at this weekend’s Transgender Spectrum Conference at the University of Missouri–St. Louis.
“I would say more than anything, though, this is something that young people in many ways are leading the way. We have young people who are basically saying to the adults around them ‘Don’t put me in the boxes that you assume I should be in,’” Baum told “St. Louis on the Air” host Don Marsh on Thursday.
The popularity and outspoken nature of famous transgender people, like actress Laverne Cox who visited UMSL in October, also is helping, Baum said.
‘Life Is Better’
Sayer Johnson and Laura Pearce said that growing up, they both felt something wasn’t right.
“There was always a part of me that wasn’t being acknowledged and wasn’t being empowered,” said Johnson, board president of the Metro Trans Umbrella Group. “It wasn’t necessarily that I felt male — I felt masculine. I just did not feel feminine. I didn’t have any models that were saying ‘This is an option,’ so I settled into tomboy.”
Pearce said she worked very hard to fit in as a man.
“I was running a race, keeping this secret to myself, a race with death. My hope was to someday grow old and die with no one knowing,” she said. “I just couldn’t go on. It was exhausting.
“I was 55 years old. I had three grown children, grandchildren. I was married. I had lived with this all my life,” she said. “For them, it was a total shock — it came from nowhere. I’ve lost several of my grandchildren, who I can no longer see. But slowly, two of my three grown children are returning. I have one grandson who has never known me any other way.”
Pearce, who is a teacher, said she has found acceptance from former students and children.
“My former elementary students who are now friends on Facebook are fully accepting and encouraging,” she said. “I’m finding that the younger children, the 4 and 5 year olds who are now exerting their true gender and how they want to be treated are role models for people like me. Older folks who have lived with this and now we see that even children can show us how to make it a public thing.”
Transition varies for each person, Johnson said.
“It depends on the human being and the journey that they’re going on,” he said. “Some folks transition socially, some medically, some emotionally. It’s a journey.”
Pearce said she talked to counselors during her transition.
“I think the good advice that people are hearing is that you don’t need to be totally male or totally female, presentation-wise,” she said. “There are areas in between that are becoming more and more acceptable. It’s an individual journey, and we have to decide for ourselves where it takes us.”
“Before transition, I felt like I couldn’t take up my space and now I sort of unapologetically take up my space,” Johnson said. “Life is better. I feel lined up.”
Redefining Gender And Challenging Stereotypes
“It’s not just about being transgender, because very few people are, but many, many children don’t fit into the stereotypical complete boy — rough and tumble — or girl — prissy,” said Laurie Copeland, co-founder of TransParent. “I think it’s really important that educators learn to let children have that freedom to express themselves. It doesn’t mean they’re gay. It doesn’t mean they’re trans. It means they’re human.”
Copeland founded TransParent after her 2-year-old daughter announced “God made him wrong,” she said. “There wasn’t a lot of information at the time. We slowly found help with the Internet. We ended up starting our own support group here in St. Louis three years ago.”
Since then, 80 families have connected through TransParent, she said, and her son has started college.
“The whole definition of what it means to be this gender or that gender is changing,” Pearce said. “Children especially are taking this rather well if their parents let them.”
The transgender conference will focus on creating safe spaces in schools.
“This is not about certain kids. This is about every one of our children,” Baum said. “We all have a gender story. Every one of us is impacted by expectations around gender that limit us. In this age, where we’re facing so many challenges as a society, we cannot afford to be letting kids feel that there are things not available to them — opportunities, skills that they can develop, simply because of this thing called gender that we have defined so narrowly.
“Schools are learning they need to be making sure it’s safe for every child, regardless of their gender.”
Transgender Spectrum Conference
- When: Friday and Saturday, Nov. 21-22, 2014
- Where: J.C. Penney Conference Center at the University of Missouri–St. Louis
- More information
“St. Louis on the Air” discusses issues and concerns facing the St. Louis area. The show is produced by Mary Edwards and Alex Heuer and hosted by veteran journalist Don Marsh. Follow us on Twitter: @STLonAir.