Looking back at the changes of transgender thought since 2000

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January 6, 2011
By: Deja Nicole Greenlaw*/TRT Columnist
The other day I was thinking back to the year 2000 and of all the changes that have occurred in my life and in the lives of other transpeople. I remembered 10 years ago when I was just starting to come out of the closet and was starting to accept and discover myself. Of course, I was very deep in the closet back then and scared as anything, not to mention very confused, but I was also very intrigued of the possibility to “change genders” and amazed at the process to do so. It was all very new to me and as I came into the trans community, I saw how others were dealing with being trans. Back then it was all about going stealth and being secretive whether you cross-dressed or whether you transitioned (living full-time as the opposite gender that you were physically born into). The cross-dressers did not want to be outed nor did the transitioners. It was all hush-hush and no one could ever dare outing someone! There also was a kind of unsaid but duly noted “Be quiet and learn” message that I received when I was first being introduced into the support groups. I wasn’t sure what was going on with me and I didn’t really identify with most of the transgenders who I met. Yes, I liked to wear women’s clothing but I didn’t feel totally comfortable being a cross dresser and I was so far from being a transitioner at that point, I didn’t know who I was. I just kept my mouth shut and I took the unspoken advice. I listened and learned.

After several months of “listening and learning” I finally started to ask questions and tried to figure out where I stood in this new life that I was entering into. I remember looking at the transitioners and hearing all the awful and depressing stories of how they lost their jobs, their wives, their family members and their friends. They would tell me, “Deja, do not transition unless you really have to. Your life will be very different and it’s not easy.” To me, the transitioner support meetings were very dark and depressing and not something that I really wanted to explore. This group was way too unhappy for me so I then looked at the cross dressers.

The cross dressers were generally very happy folks who were in the closet, but they loved to go out in public dressed up in women’s clothes and they had fun, partying and dancing at trans events. They were all working and many had pretty good jobs so money was really no object or concern for them. Because this group was happy and was not even thinking about changing their gender and possibly having a tougher life, I was drawn to them. I loved to be happy and I loved to party and dance, so I figured that I was some kind of cross dresser. I say some kind of cross dresser because I didn’t really identify with this group either. Some of the CDs were so meticulous in their female presentations and I knew that I was not like that. Some of the CDs didn’t like to dance and I loved to dance. Some of the CDs loved to dress up, but also liked to go back to being men and I knew that I was not like that. I knew that I wanted to be female, but I had so many self-doubts that I knew that I could never transition (or so I thought!). I didn’t want to have a sad life like most of the transitioners had and I loved the happy CD life but I really didn’t identify with anyone. Yes, I was different.

Then I attended Fantasia Fair, an annual transgender week in Provincetown in 2003 and I met trans activists like Ethan St. Pierre and Vanessa Edwards Foster. These were transitioned folks who were jobless because of discrimination and they were constantly fighting for trans rights. Something clicked with me and this crowd. At first I didn’t know what it was but I felt at home with this group. I somehow identified with them. Next thing I know I was in our nation’s capital, dressed as female and lobbying on Capitol Hill for trans rights. We even picketed outside of HRC (Human Rights Campaign) because they always indicated that they were supporting our rights, but they always withdrew their support whenever it came to crunch time. Suddenly, I was a radical transactivist, yet I still had this smile and this penchant for fun and dancing and partying. I identified with these other transactivists because they were not stealth, they were out and they were fighting for our rights. There was a sense of “realness of life” and “deeply caring about the trans cause” about them and I was impressed. Now, I was a happy CD who was also a radical transactivist and although I was still in the closet, it was then that I knew that it was only a matter of time before I would transition.

It was also around then when I met Keri Stebbins and the UniTy group, the Springfield, Mass. transgender support group. It was there that I saw this same kind of positive realness, purposefulness and socialness that I had identified with in DC with my radical friends. I had also met transmen in DC and again in the UniTy group. I never even knew that transmen existed! Up until DC and UniTy I thought that transgender was all some kind of male-to-female thing. That’s what I was led to believe by therapists and other transwomen. Now this female-to-male thing was very evident to me. Realizing that there are transmen as well as transwomen in the world, the idea of “it’s only males who want to be females” was thrown right out the window! I finally got the idea of being in the wrong gender. It all started to make sense to me and I was on my way to identifying myself!

From then on, I met and noticed that more and more transpeople began coming out and living openly as transgender and they were unafraid of being called trans. More and more of them were choosing to be visible. I considered this to be a very healthy sign, being comfortable with whom you are instead of hiding from who you are! Up to then most transgenders were deeply stealth and were extremely afraid of being recognized as trans. If you don’t know, let me tell you, it is very hard on trans people to go stealth and it can drive you crazy as you are always constantly afraid that someone will “be on to you” or will somehow “figure you out.” Now the tide was turning. This new breed of transfolk were very open and very proud of who they were. There was no hiding or worrying or driving yourself crazy by constantly worrying about being “found out.” I totally identified with this new breed! I never understood, agreed nor identified with the old school trans thought, but this concept I immediately grasped!