Transgender Prejudice And Reality

Jade Moon
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Wednesday - October 19, 2011
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Chaz Bono, left, and his partner Lacey Schwimmer perform on the celebrity dance competition series, ‘Dancing with the Stars,’ Sept. 26

When the TV show Dancing With The Stars announced the inclusion of Chaz Bono in its “celebrity” lineup, there was uproar. Not because of Bono’s superstar mother, Cher, but because of what he is: a man. A man who used to be a woman.

The Internet went nuts. Twitter, blogs, message boards and comment sections buzzed with so much ugliness that Chaz’s famous mother eventually felt compelled to defend her son publicly on Twitter. Why all the hate, she asked? I wondered, too.

Perhaps the reaction was because of shock. A lot of people still have memories of an angelic little girl cradled in her mother’s arms on the Sonny and Cher show. That little girl, Chastity, is now Chaz, a transformation made possible by hormone therapy and surgery. So maybe folks are bewildered. Or maybe there’s just a lot of prejudice, fear and ignorance about transgender people, which is what Chaz is.

Local licensed psychologist Dr. Marti Barham is a certified sex therapist and educator. She says the outcry and the bigotry aimed at Bono are not surprising.

“I wish we could say we’re not prejudiced, but we are,” she says. “People may be reluctant to talk about it. Most of all it’s related to not understanding what’s going on.”

Fundamentally, Barham says, transgender people “are not comfortable with the gender they are born into.”

Transgender is not the same as sexual orientation. The American Psychological Association says, “Sexual orientation refers to an individual’s enduring physical, romantic, and/or emotional attraction to another person, whereas gender identity refers to one’s internal sense of being male, female or something else.”

In other words, it’s not what sex you’re attracted to, it’s what you feel like inside. Bono described it as feeling like a boy trapped in a girl’s body, a feeling that only got stronger as he grew up.

Barham further explains it this way: “I can be a transgender person and see myself as heterosexual. Chaz, he has a girlfriend. So he will probably see himself as a heterosexual.”

Barham says there are options for people who literally do not feel comfortable in their skin. “They may have partial surgery, hormonal therapy, full surgery, reconstruction.”

What makes a person transgender? Barham and most experts say it’s a combination of biological and psychological factors genetic influences and prenatal hormone levels, plus early experiences and experiences later in adolescence or adulthood.

It’s a complicated stew, and Barham says her job is not to persuade a person to undergo a sex change. It’s to help the person understand why they make the choices they make.

“Why aren’t you comfortable? What’s keeping you from enjoying life? I try not to delve into right or wrong,” she says. “I believe we all have the right of free choice, but we have to take the consequences. My job to make sure they look at it from all angles.”

The process is lengthy, thorough and prohibitively expensive.

“These people have tremendous physical workups,” says Barham. “Nobody in the medical field takes the change lightly.”

Before actually undergoing any physical alteration, the patient is required to live a full year as the sex they want to be. This is so they fully understand what they’re getting into, that they see all the angles. After all, it’s not like changing your hair color or clothes.

Barham says there is a community of transgendered people in Hawaii who remain quiet because of the discrimination they know they would face. That, she says, is one of the consequences of the choice they made. But the important thing is, how do they feel about themselves? When they look in the mirror, do their reflections match they way they feel inside?

“Each individual is unique,” she says. “We can’t put them all in a box.”

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