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Today is Tuesday, November 27, 2007


Understanding Transgender Way of Life

[LANSING, MI] - The outfits in Nicole Ramp's closet range from feminine skirts and high heels to men's suits and ties. When she was younger, she considered the masculine clothes to be "just what I was wearing." But now her clothes express her identity as a transgender individual - and every day she deals with what that means, the discrimination that can come with it and how it affects her community.

When Nicole Ramp was a child, she liked to climb trees, play football and race with boys.

By the time she was in high school, she began wearing men's pants, shirts and ties.

But it wasn't until her sophomore year at MSU that she came out and publicly identified herself as a transgender person.

"There's so many different sides of me," the interdisciplinary humanities senior said. "Pulling all those parts together is hard sometimes."

But Ramp does the best she can to identify herself as a transgender woman and lives her life somewhere in the middle of the gender spectrum.

"I refuse to believe that I'm trapped inside the female gender role," she said. "As much as I feel that way, there are still times when I'm forced back into it. As a woman I'm constantly reminded I'm a woman. The outside world silences me, and I silence myself."

Ramp said she came out her freshman year as a bisexual, but later redefined herself as pansexual - meaning she is attracted to all genders across the spectrum.

"I'm a human being," she said. "I'm a soul, and I'm attracted to other human beings."

Though sometimes Ramp fully cross dresses, she said she usually "skirts the in-between area" and feels that every outfit she wears is a costume.

"When I dress up for work in a skirt and heels, that feels more like drag to me than my bad-ass clothes," she said. "It feels so unnatural."

She is more comfortable in baggy pants and T-shirts - clothes she feels protect her.

"It's about safety within my body," she said. "It's also a political statement. It's not about feeling like a man or a woman. It's about feeling like a very powerful human being."

Sorting through the definitions

Ramp fits into the broad definition of transgender - a very general term used for anyone who isn't following traditional gender roles. Like Ramp, it is possible for transgender people to identify somewhere along the gender spectrum or identify with no gender at all.

The term is often misunderstood with transsexual - people who feel like they were born in the wrong body. Transsexuals are born one sex biologically but choose to live their life as another - either by consistently cross dressing or surgically altering their sex.

Transvestites are individuals who cross dress at times, but don't necessarily consider themselves a member of the opposite sex.

An intersexual person refers to someone whose medical diagnosis at birth is not clearly male or female.

The term transgender broadly encompasses transsexuals, intersexuals, transvestites and anyone who doesn't identify themselves into any specific category of gender.

"These definitions are just kind of guidelines," said Natalie Furrow, president of MSU's Alliance of Lesbian-Bi-Gay-Transgendered and Straight Ally Students. Furrow does not identify with any specific gender.

"Gender is a social construction and people can identify however they choose," she said.

The idea that there are no clear lines causes misunderstanding among people who are not members of the LBGT community, said Rachel Crandall, executive director of Transgender Michigan, an organization that supports transgender communities throughout the state.

"There's a lot of confusion," she said. "A lot of people don't realize that transgender people are just regular people. They just experience a gender identity difference."

Crandall is an associate professor in the MSU School of Social Work and has been living as a woman for five years, although she was born biologically male.

"On campus I don't experience any problems at all," she said. "Sometimes I think the problems are overblown."

Most of the issues stem from misconceptions of transgender individuals by the general public, Crandall said.

"People just don't understand us," she said. "They think we're trying to flaunt it or something.

"Some people think that it's all a joke. It's not. It's our lives."

Discrimination - both subtle and violent

Despite the segments of society that are becoming more and more accepting, hate crimes against transgender individuals are on the rise, Crandall said.

In August, two transgender teens were killed in a car in Washington, D.C. The two best friends were biologically male, but had been living as females. Each was shot at least 10 times, which led police to believe the crime was a personal attack rather than a random shooting.

"It was a horrible hate crime," Crandall said.

The violence also occurs closer to home.

Keiran O'Malley, a female-to-male transgender student, was beaten up outside the Union in 1996.

O'Malley said the attack was motivated by hate. The five or six men who beat him up thought he was a gay man and didn't realize he was biologically a female until later into the attack.

Four cities in Michigan include gender identity in their civil rights ordinances - Ann Arbor, East Lansing, Huntington Woods and Ypsilanti - although several more include sexual orientation.

But Ypsilanti residents are in a heated debate about whether or not to remove the sexual orientation clause from the city's Human Rights Ordinance. The city council approved the ordinance in 1997, and in 1998 it was debated again when a group of people petitioned to put the ordinance to a citywide vote. This year, the same group is looking to remove the part of the ordinance that protects the LBGT community.

"We're pretty confident that they'll keep the ordinance the way it is," said Sean Kosofsky, director of policy for the Detroit-based Triangle Foundation. "Everyone in our society has been bullied, harassed or discriminated against because of their gender."

People cannot work or study to their potential in an environment where they don't feel welcome, Kosofsky said.

"People cannot be their full selves until they feel safe," he said. "When a community such as MSU passes a gender identity clause like this, they acknowledge that."

MSU has not added a gender identity clause in its anti-discrimination policy, although some students are working for the addition.

The university policy has not been revised since April 1993, but since then, some student organizations on campus have adopted gender identity in their policies, including Residence Halls Association, The State News and ASMSU, MSU's undergraduate student government.

Ramp said the discrimination she experiences is more subtle than violence.

When she went a barber shop for a haircut, she said she was rudely turned away and told the barbers only cut men's hair.

She said instead of making a scene, she just left.

"I could have caused such a problem," she said. "But I'm just so used to people. I wait to react."

Searching for acceptance

People who come out as transgender experience "a tremendous amount of turmoil," said Denver-based licensed psychologist Rachael St. Claire, who has worked extensively with transgender individuals since the 1980s.

"The turmoil can range from very mild to very severe," she said. When individuals transition from living as one gender to another, they often experience guilt, shame and humiliation, St. Claire said.

"They wonder who will love them, who will want to have a relationship with them, if their friends and families will accept them," she said.

Transitioning genders for some can mean merely changing dress styles, others can choose to take hormones and still others can choose to have an operation to change their biological sex.

"They need to create an appearance that reflects the gender that one identifies with and be credible," she said.

Though the logistics of changing appearance can be expensive, the process of coming out to friends and family is psychologically costly, St. Claire said.

"There's so much anxiety," she said. "There is worrying about losing the approval and love from all these people."

Coming out as a person who identifies as transgender can be especially difficult for young people, St. Claire said.

"They often psychologically need the approval of their parents," she said. "There's a lot of fear and worry that by coming out they may be letting down their parents or their parents will abandon them."

Despite the extra hardships, St. Claire said in her 20 years of experience she has noticed transgender individuals coming out at younger ages.

"There are pockets in society that are absolutely more accepting," she said.

The families of transgender individuals often go through a coping process similar to grieving, St. Claire said. Their initial response is shock, leading to denial, anger, acceptance and finally integration.

"They have a lot of fears because of what they see in the media," she said. "They see television shows like "Jerry Springer." Those shows are after ratings so they pick out the most dramatic cases possible. Transgender people are not like this.

"They don't want attention. They're ordinary people that often come from typical families. They're good people just trying to live their lives."

When Ramp dressed in baggy clothes during high school, her stepmother refused to be seen with her.

"My parents still aren't OK with me being attracted to women," she said. "I don't have much of a relationship with them."

Creating a community

This fall, more transgender- identified students are out on campus than ever, said Brent Bilodeau, MSU's assistant for LBGT concerns.

"Gender identity, that expression is on a continuum in the same way that sexual orientation is a continuum," he said. "Within that spectrum of expression we see students who may identify as transsexual or as gender-benders."

Each individual student needs different resources, and the Office of LBGT Concerns works to meet each of those needs, Bilodeau said.

"If a student has a concern we look really hard for resources," he said. "Whether it be some kind of literature or counseling.

"Some students feel great about where they're at and just want to meet and be with other students."

MSU's alliance of LBGT and ally students acts as a resource to members of the LBGT community on campus.

Ramp said MSU's strong LBGT community surprises her.

"For being a Big Ten university, you wouldn't think it would be anything special," she said. "But there are a lot of people here who are activists."

Ramp is an artist, participating in drag shows, spoken-word shows and other performances. She said she likes to "shock people into thinking."

"We split the world up into categories," she said. "It blows people's minds to try to exist in categories that are seen to be mutually exclusive.

"It's an idealist position to think that by some miracle I can sometimes step out of that."

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