Sunday, April 08, 2007

Center Hosts Fourth Annual Transgender Empowerment Day

Event Focuses on the Positive, Honors Transgender People and Their Supporters


Copyright © 2007 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

Photos: Shane E. Caya and Amanda Nicole Watson

“We all have different roads to travel,” said San Francisco-based Transgender rights attorney Shane E. Caya during his keynote speech at San Diego’s fourth annual Transgender Empowerment Day Friday, April 6 at the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender Community Center. Noting that a lot of people he meets get his Transgender identity wrong — they think he’s a pre-op male-to-female when he’s really a post-op female-to-male — Caya said he was more comfortable making legal arguments for the equal rights of Transgender people than telling his own story. Nonetheless, his moving account of his gender transition was one of the highlights of an inspiring evening that lived up to its title.

“When I was a little girl, about five, I used to put books inside of luggage, take off my shirt and lift them as weights,” Caya recalled. “I thought I was going to grow up to be a boy and all this nightmare girl crap would be over.” Instead, Caya lived with the female body with which nature had stuck him until, at age 39 — in the middle of his second year in law school and in a seven-year relationship with a Lesbian who was six months pregnant with what was supposed to be their child — his life changed when he heard “a gender-ambiguous voice” speak up behind him in a class.

The voice “belonged to a big guy who had the courage to go out and start transitioning,” Caya recalled. “I was really jealous and decided I wanted to transition as well.” As with many other Transgender people, the hardest part about making the change was breaking the news to his significant other. Expecting his girlfriend to support his decision to become a man, he had to deal with her anger and fear. “I had to make a choice,” Caya recalled. “I know many of you have had to make that choice, but I decided to go through with it. I was called selfish for doing that.”

In Caya’s case, the pain was even greater than usual because his partner was carrying a child that was supposed to be theirs — and he’d already lost one child to a breakup over his identity. “I have a 17-year-old kid now and I haven’t seen her since she was eight,” Caya said. Caya agreed to hold off on starting the gender-reassignment process until his lover’s child was born and for six months thereafter. He said that he and his partner “tried to work it out, but I knew it wouldn’t work for her. I knew I was going to lose my family, and I was willing to risk it.”

Using a phrase several other speakers also uttered during the event, Caya urged people there to “live their truth.” He also recalled that his “key turning point” was when a professor in his third year of law school called him “Mr. Caya.” He eventually reached a new relationship with his former partner and their child; “I no longer live with them, but I have an excellent relationship with my ex and my daughter. In fact, I will be a godparent to my ex-wife’s new child” — who was conceived with the same male donor and therefore will be a full sibling to their daughter.

“I’m really grateful I went through the process, and I know I can call you my friends,” Caya said. “:Most of you will be there for me, and I will be there for you. Not many people understand the little pains we face every day.”

Many of the pains come from the fact that in most of the United States, discrimination against Transgender people is not only socially acceptable but perfectly legal as well. The city of Largo, Florida recently fired its city manager after he announced his intention to transition to female. In another Florida case that has made the tabloids as well as Larry King Live, Jonathan Rouch sued his former wife to have his alimony obligation to her stopped after she transitioned to male. The spouse, now known as Julio Silverwolf, was represented by an attorney from the Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund who argued that, as a woman, his client had put aside her own career for 18 years and been a stay-at-home wife, and she deserved financial compensation for that even though she was now a man. Fortunately, the court agreed.

The event’s other keynote speaker, Amanda Nicole Watson, made a welcome return to San Diego from her new home in the Central Valley. Watson had been active in the Transgender community’s two biggest political victories in San Diego, repealing the city’s antiquated law against cross-dressing and adding protection for Transgender people to the city’s Human Dignity Ordinance (HDO), which originally banned discrimination based on sexual orientation and was subsequently amended to cover gender identity as well. Watson raced through a series of milestones in Transgender history and her speech wasn’t always easy to follow; fortunately, a written handout called Transgender History was available.

According to Watson, evidence of the existence of Transgender people goes back at least to ancient Rome. The Roman emperor Elagabalus is supposed to have told his courtiers that he would give a handsome reward to anyone who could get rid of his unwanted male sex organs (though other sources describe Elagabalus not as Transgender, but as a Gay man who would go out in disguise and pick up sailors with particularly large penises). “Recently, there was the discovery in the United Kingdom of a Roman eunuch, and the jewelry and clothing she was dressed in made us think she was one of us,” Watson said. There was at least one other likely Transgender person in Roman history: Sporus, the eunuch consort of the emperor Nero. The two actually went through a wedding ceremony — which led Nero’s enemies to joke that the empire would have been better off if Nero’s father had made that sort of marriage.

Watson also cited “a Zuni priestess who visited Washington, D.C. as a cultural emissary in 1886, met the Speaker of the House and attended a theatrical benefit with President Grover Cleveland,” even though the “priestess” was a genetic male living a Transgender identity recognized ini Zuni culture as such. Nonetheless, the “official” history of the Transgender community in Watson’s presentation began in the early 20th century,when female-born New York employment agency owner and politician Murray Hall, nèe Mary Anderson, lived for years in a male identity and even married twice. (Ironically he died of untreated breast cancer.)

According to Watson, the scientific study of Transgenderism began in 1907, when pioneering sexologists Magnus Hirschfeld of Germany and Harry Benjamin of the U.S. first met. Hirschfeld coined the term “transvestite” in 1910 and set up the Institute of Sexual Science in Berlin in the early 1920’s. However, like all other Queer-friendly individuals and institutions in Germany, Hirschfeld and his center were brutally repressed by the Nazis when they took power in 1933. The Nazis burned both the center’s building and its library — the famous newsreel scenes of Nazi book-burnings that have been shown in virtually every documentary about Hitler and his regime were of Hirschfeld’s collection — but not before seizing Hirschfeld’s client list and subjecting everyone on it to personal persecution.

Though Watson’s outline listed a few attempts at gender-reassignment surgery in Britain and Canada before World War II, the existence of Transgender people didn’t become common knowledge in the U.S. until 1952. That year, a former U.S. soldier underwent gender reassignment in Denmark and returned to this country as Christine Jorgensen — “and was hounded mercilessly,” Watson said. “In 1960, Virginia Prince, manager of Transvestia magazine, was arrested for distributing obscene material. She got five years’ probation and was forbidden to cross-dress, but her attorney won her an exemption that she could cross-dress to ‘educate and inform the public.’”

Transgender people began to fight back against discrimination and public shame in 1966, when the clientele of Gene Compton’s Cafeteria in San Francisco rioted and fought back against the police when the owner called them. Like the more famous riot at the Stonewall Inn in New York City three years later, the participants in the Compton’s Cafeteria resistance were a mix of Transgender people and Gay street hustlers. But, as Watson explained, though Transgender people were present at the creation of the Queer rights movement, they were still subject to discrimination and attack not only from the straight world but from Gay and Lesbian people as well. In 1973, male-to-female Transgender Beth Elliott was elected vice-president of the pioneering Lesbian organization Daughters of Bilitis — only to be forced out of the group by Lesbian separatists — and the same year, at a New York Gay Pride rally, Stonewall rioter Sylvia Rivera’s speech was followed by a denunciation of Transgender people by future Lesbian activist Jean O’Leary.

“It was not until 1975 that the first Transgender rights law was passed, in Minneapolis, Minnesota,” Watson explained. “We now have protections in 95 jurisdictions in the U.S., but only seven states and the District of Columbia protect Transgender people against hate crimes.” Watson attributed the slowness of progress on securing anti-discrimination and anti-hate crime laws for Transgender people largely on the disinclination of many Transgender people to fight for them. “Unlike other minority groups,” she explained. “Transgender people more and more seem content to blend into normal society after we transition. If we continue in this manner, we will continue to make younger people face this struggle. Becoming empowered means connecting with each other, releasing our anger, living and loving fully and living our truth.”

Also on the program was singer Vicki Estrada, who went through a male-to-female transition in middle age and agreed to substitute for an originally scheduled entertainer who had to cancel at the last minute. Estrada performed two songs, an original called “The Wrong Gender Blues,” with a melodic similarity to Muddy Waters’ blues classic “I’m a Man” but replacing the original’s macho swagger with a cheeky but unmistakable assertion of Transgender pride, and a cover of the Police’s “Spirits in the Material World” in which her voice and phrasing transformed Sting’s rather cynical lyric into a celebration.

The rest of the evening consisted of a long and elaborate awards presentation to various community activists, some of them Transgender themselves and some straight or Queer people who have worked to support the Transgender community and its struggle for equal rights. The Community Service Award was presented to the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, the recently organized San Diego branch of a group — started in San Francisco — of mostly Gay men who dress in nun’s habits and collect money for various charities. Andy LeBron received the volunteer of the year award from Project S.T.A.R. (Supporting Transgender Access to Resources), a project of the Family Health Centers of San Diego to offer health assistance, including support in gender transition and STD prevention counseling, to Transgender people.

Other award recipients included Danny Dunn, founder of the Transgender group at the Hillcrest Youth Center (“I went to the Youth Center, asked where the Transgender group was, and when they said there wasn’t one I started it,” Dunn recalled), Alana Harrison, Maricela Escobar, Greta Ashley Davis (a stunning — and utterly convincing — African-American drag performer), Jamie W., Mark Houston, Dana Latham, Deane Delaney, Miss Glenda, Valeria Fiennes, Gisele Herrera, Mather Mendez, Melissa Rees, Miss Peaches, Christina Gomez, Alex Williams, Brent Wallace, A. J. Wing, Rowe and Kelly Meyers. Herrera’s mother and Williams’ parents were present and came up to join them in accepting the awards, to some of the biggest cheers of the night.