Body Vs. Soul

This branch of the rainbow family includes women rebuilt as men, gals who were born guys (some of them lesbians in male bodies), cross-dressers, drag queens, and some folks who say gender no longer means much

 

Susan Kimberly has smooth, soft skin, a blond pageboy haircut, and curves even a prim blazer and slacks don't disguise. Her chronological age is 59, but she looks at least a decade younger. She looks like a woman. But once she was a man.

Kimberly, as she puts it, was once the "world's most famous transsexual." At least in St. Paul, where, in 1983, she very publicly cast off her male identity--that of Bob Sylvester, a former city council member--and became Susan Kimberly. The attention faded somewhat while Kimberly went through lean, difficult times, without a job, without any money. But her story popped up again in December 1998 when former St. Paul Mayor Norm Coleman appointed her deputy mayor.

Despite the publicity around her transition--the barrage of questions, so prying, so often inappropriate--Kimberly's journey has been a personal one. Nearly two decades ago, when she was in her early 40s, Kimberly began the process of going from male to female. And that, she stresses, was precisely the goal at the time--both hers and the prevailing attitude of the doctors and therapists who treated gender dysphoria. The idea was to end up looking good enough to pass as a woman in society.

Even then she wasn't thrilled with the notion. She boycotted the then-mandatory makeup and modeling class. But she still believed that she would lie down on an operating table (in Trinidad, Colorado, in 1984) and simply switch from man to woman. She'd be done with it, and go on with her life in her new body.

"I never started out to be a transsexual," she says. "That wasn't my goal, it wasn't my fantasy. I thought I'd go through the transition, and no one would figure it out."

But more and more she realized that it wasn't that clear-cut. Finally, the identity of her mind and the anatomy of her body matched. Finally, there was peace. But, even after all that, she was still different.

"I realized I have no pretext anymore about being a woman. I'm a transsexual. There's no longer this magical twist and turn," she says. "We don't go from anything to anything. We come to terms with what we are.

"People are starting to get this sense, that if there's A and B, there's something in between," she suggests. "Although that's deeply unsettling for us--and the rest of the world--it's a powerful attack on the idea that there are men in the world and women in the world, and that's it.

"I don't know how many genders there are," she muses. "But there are more than two."

 

In other cultures and eras, transgendered people usually weren't lumped in with the other sexes. In Myanmar, for instance, they have been respected as people who transcended gender. The same has been true in certain Native American cultures. But in our society, they are often shunned. Or hated, or even killed.

"Transgendered people, no matter how hard they try to fit into one of the genders, they continue to be stigmatized," Bockting says. "Rather than be one of the two and not be accepted, they have established their own space."

As a result of their special experience, transgendered people can help us understand our own cultural beliefs. They have lived in the roles of both men and women, and their unique perspective can illuminate the way women and men interact in society.

"They have a special awareness," Bockting says. "People who are not transgendered, we often take gender for granted. We don't realize the assumptions out there. When you change roles, you become increasingly aware of the difference."

Perhaps even more important, transgendered people have lived outside of society, as something else--something other. They have destroyed the distinction of categories.

Categories have their limits. Some people fit into them, some people don't. If anything, the transgender experience breaks apart the most basic division of male and female.

Today there is more openness to the notion that a person may find comfort in one of those categories or somewhere in between. Though that evolution is significant, it doesn't necessarily mute the painful struggle transgendered people face as they try to discover who they are. It does, however, give them options.

Anne, for instance, is aware that her own journey is far from over. She plans to start hormone therapy, perhaps before summer's end. And she envisions eventually undergoing sex reassignment surgery. The standard rules for treatment mean that she must be on hormones and live full time in the role of a woman for at least a year before she can have the surgery. She's taking it at a comfortable pace, making sure that she's honest with herself about who she is and what she wants.

"I'm still not certain I'm totally there yet," she says. "There are still some days when I still don't know what I'm doing. I'm not trying to act one way or another. I'm just trying to be me."

On a sultry night in late June, Anne hung out with a group of friends at the block party in downtown Minneapolis that kicked off the weekend's Pride celebration, the 30th anniversary of the Twin Cities' annual gay-lesbian-bisexual-transgender festival. She sipped her drink and chatted with her friends, a group of other transgendered people who meet once a month to socialize and support each other.

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