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Wednesday, August 21,2013

'I thought I was the only one'

Panic, pride, passion and a picnic with Michigan’s transgender community

by Lawrence Cosentino
More than 40 years ago, when Renee Lynette Fink was a boy named Rodney, she played with another boy, David Meyers, who lived a few doors away on Regent Street on Lansing’s east side. “I remember at 4 or 5, him socking me right in the face,” Fink said.

On a sunny afternoon two weeks ago, a shiny red truck drifted past Fink’s porch. The rainbow flag on the yellow house rustled in the breeze. The woman in the truck waved. 

“That’s David’s wife,” Fink said. 

Meyers and Fink still live in the same houses on the same quiet street. Rodney has blossomed into Renee and face-punching David has blossomed into nice neighbor David.

“He didn’t skip a beat when he saw me with my long hair, my earrings and breasts,” Fink said. “He’s an amazing person, and there are others.”

Lansing’s gay-friendly east side isn’t a bad place to settle if you’re transgender. Even the nastiness is nice. A lesbian neighbor took one look at Fink’s chest and said, “You bitch. I am so jealous.”

That made Fink laugh. “Five thousand bucks, you can have them too,” she said. “What are you so concerned about?”

She is a flirt, a philosopher and a budding Buddhist.

“I have been blessed. I’ve been able to live two separate lives.”

She left a husband and two teenage kids behind in Colorado to return to Lansing as Renee. One daughter has never forgiven her for transitioning to a woman. The other daughter still calls her “dad.”

“That’s fine with me. I am her dad.”

She brushed the hair from her eyes.

“A lot of people’s experience isn’t so damn ideal,” she said. One of Fink’s transgender friends, Mia, was disowned by both her parents. Another, Naomi, disappeared without a trace.

Transgender people, from casual cross-dressers to fully transitioned men and women like Fink, endure everything from suicidal thoughts to ostracism to violence to strange looks. They wade the banks of life’s widest river, gender identity, and some of them dare to cross. They all come back with stories.

The sea captain’s scars

Klik, klik. “There’s two more.”

About 160 transgender people and gay and straight allies came to the Transgender Michigan picnic in Ferndale’s Geary Park Aug. 10, the biggest transgender gathering in the state. With every arrival, a gregarious woman in a bright red dress clicked a hand counter.

“My name is Tom Hayden — really,” she said. 

(Note to readers: This story will shift pronouns along the bearer’s preferences, for a particular day or for a lifetime. That day, Hayden was a “she.”)

Hayden blows attic insulation about 60 hours a week and has little time for recreation. “I don’t do this a lot,” she said. When she does go out these days, it’s often as Patty Wackerley, a riff on the child’s rhyme “knick knack, patty whack.”

“I enjoy dressing,” she smiled. “I like the ladies’ clothes.” Even her favorite beer, she joked, is St. Pauli Girl.

Hayden was interested in dolls and women’s clothes as a child, but she “pretty much ignored” her female side. The allure of women’s attire didn’t go away, though, and she started cross-dressing. She laughingly admitted she “doesn’t have the balls” for surgery and doesn’t want to take the transition further, but sometimes cross-dressing is enough to wreck a marriage.

“I’m not good at lying,” she said. “I told my wife and that was the end of that. She couldn’t deal with it.”

Last November, she resolved a long inner debate and shaved off her moustache after 30 years.

“It looks silly to dress and have a mustache, but I couldn’t bring myself to cut it.”

She clicked three more new arrivals at the picnic.

A Hemingway-esque figure strolled onto the grounds in a white cotton shirt, open at the neck, showing his sun-baked skin to advantage. A grizzled white beard and restless expression gave 72-year-old Don Sidelinker of Rochester Hills the air of a dry-docked sea captain. A fearsome wrist-to-elbow scar on his right arm could have come from a shark encounter.

In fact, the scar was the remnant of a radial forearm phalloplasty, the surgery that gave Sidelinker a penis. Unlike Hayden, Sidelinker took his transition all the way.

He twisted his forearm to show the underside. “It takes off all the subcutaneous fat, the surface blood vessels, and artery and two major nerves from each side,” he explained. “They turn that into a penis, connect it up with the urinary tract.”

It takes a lot of surgery and hormones to turn a woman physically into a man, but the results can be stunning. It’s usually much harder to spot a transgender man than a transgender woman.

“Biology is not kind to trans women,” Sidelinker said. “Testosterone is so powerful it makes changes that can’t be undone. Height, bone structure doesn’t go away, and that makes it easier to identify them.”

As a therapist, Sidelinker specializes in transgender clients. He went through many of the same things they did, except that he didn’t have a Don Sidelinker to counsel him when he was young.

Touching on a theme heard over and over from transgender people, Sidelinker knew there was discord between his body and mind “before kindergarten.”

“That’s because we’re born with our gender identity,” he said. “It doesn’t develop later. We just don’t have the vocabulary to identify it to ourselves.”

But when he was growing up, there was no public talk of gender identity.

“I thought I was the only one, that somehow I thought I’d done something wrong, that God was punishing me by making me be in this body.”

He told his mother about his feelings when he was 8. “She told me, ‘You’re not a boy, so shut up about it,’” he recalled. “So I did.”

People told him he’d feel like a woman if he got married and had kids. It did not help.

“I followed the rules, raised my daughter, stayed married for 10 years, and it did not work out.”

Suicidal thoughts, financial worries and relationship fears are the biggest concerns he hears from clients.

Phalloplasty costs $80,000 to $100,000 in the U.S., but Sidelinker advises his clients not to leave the country for surgery, as many do. 

“Every single one of the guys talk positive when they first get back, but there’s always complications, especially for those that have the urinary tract connection,” he said.

High-end Blue Cross plans pay for phalloplasty, and even less expensive plans pay for 80 percent. As a GM worker in the 1980s, Sidelinker was 100 percent covered.

As American culture gets more accustomed to fluid gender identity, Sidelinker sees younger and younger clients, but his own life didn’t begin to turn around until he turned 40 and saw a panel of transgender men on a TV talk show. He made an appointment with a counselor in Dearborn and decided to transition.

“It may seem like jumping off a cliff to a lot of people, bur for me, it was like an angel coming up and saying, ‘You can have your fondest wish.’’

Renee Fisk also went through a full surgical transition, but the mental turnaround for her came sooner.

“Breast implants were the real seal for me,” she said. “Even though I was walking around with a penis between my legs for about a year, it really feminized me.”

She followed up with an orchiectomy (testicle removal), penectomy and, finally, vaginoplasty, which she described as “the creation of a vaginal place, a hood and labia, all crafted by the surgeon with what’s left over of your genitals and your scrotum.” Costs for male-to-female surgeries run $40,000 and well above, but Fisk had a high-end Blue Cross plan that paid for all of it.

To her relief, the new infrastructure worked very well.

“They take off the very tip of your penis and they place it in such a way in which almost right after surgery, you can start having those same feelings you had when you got aroused before, as a man.”

Fink is on good terms with her ex-wife and one of her two grown-up daughters. She moved back to Lansing in the 2000s to look after aging parents and inherited the house when they died.

“People right here in Lansing have been very accepting along the way, mostly the male gay community — not as one of them, but as a human being.”

Post-op, pre-op, non-op

There are at least two things you shouldn’t ask a transgender person about, unless the information is offered first. One is genitalia. Whether someone is “post-op” or “pre-op” is often “none-o-yo-business-op,” according to a brochure from Transgender Michigan. Many are “non-op” because they fear the complications of surgery, lack insurance or are simply content with cross-dressing or hormone therapy.

The other thing you shouldn’t ask  transgender people is the name they had before their transition. The question often calls up a painful past that is best forgotten. Out of ignorance, I asked soft-spoken Anna Monteza, a chemical engineer from Coldwater. Her sunny expression instantly clouded.

“I don’t like that particular question,” she said. “It wasn’t Anna.”

Monteza dived into her studies in junior high and high school to avoid social entanglements as she struggled with gender identity. Thoughts of suicide went through her mind on many days.

“You sit around the house, staring at the floor, wondering why you’re even alive,” she said.

In her 30s, she started going to a therapist and a support group. “Calling a therapist is one of the hardest things I ever did, but it was night and day,” she said. “I went from being miserable to happy.” She eased into a social life for the first time. Most people she knows in Coldwater have met her as Anna. Her employer, a plastics manufacturer, accommodated the name change and the time off she needed for medical leave.

“Most people just generally accept that I’m a woman, and I don’t hear much about it. If nobody asks about it, I don’t volunteer anything.”

The liberation many transgender people feel at coming out is familiar to Maxine Thome, director of the Michigan chapter of the National Association of Social Workers.

“When people make the decision to finally transition, it’s such a relief,” Thome said. “Their self-esteem often escalates. People who are transitioning are finally becoming who they truly are.”

In Thome’s private practice, she estimates that 80 percent of her clients are making a gender transition.

At MSU, more students are comfortable with fluid gender identity than ever, according to Deanna Hurlbert, assistant director of MSU’s LGBT Resource Center.

“More young people identify with the word ‘queer’ in terms of their sexuality, which generally means ‘not 100 percent heterosexual,’” Hurlbert said. “I don’t believe there are more queer kids than ever, but more people are more self-aware at an earlier age.”

This year, Hurlbert has been contacted by four students and their families who are in gender transition who are coming to Michigan State.

“It’s the first time we had that many students who really involved their families,” she said. 

Erich Pitcher, a 30-year-old graduate student at MSU, is a member of the Lansing chapter of Transgender Michigan and works at the LGBT Resource Center at MSU.

Pitcher is a pre-op female-to-male transgender. He transitioned in his early 20s as a senior in college.

“I came to know myself as not entirely a woman five or six years before that, but it took me a long time to figure out — what would that look like?”

He decided that he wanted secondary sexual characteristics — facial hair, a deeper voice and a “male shape.”

“It was about wanting to feel whole, and complete, and wanting to live an authentic life,” he said. “I wasn’t feeling suicidal. I felt like I was doing OK, but if I did this, I could really soar.”

Pitcher has a male partner, Bailey, and a strong network of friends and support in the academic community.

“My family took a long time to come around, but once they did, they were really supportive,” he said.

Pitcher said the transgender community is small — maybe 1 percent of the population — but in a metro area of 500,000, that’s still 5,000 people. Other estimates run at about half a percent, but nobody really knows.

“Some people don’t choose to be visible, or might not be readily identifiable,” Pitcher said.

Pitcher and Hurlbert are among those working to make MSU more accommodating to transgender people. Hurlbert said plans are in place for MSU to create private spaces in locker rooms for anyone, including transgender people, who don’t want to undress in front of others. This year, MSU students can use “preferred names” that reflect a new gender identity on I.D. or other university records without going through a legal name change.

Gender identity and politics

There was more burger flipping than barn-burning activism at the Ferndale picnic, but one woman seamlessly fused gender identity with politics. As a man, charismatic, 33-year-old Allison VanKuiken ran Brandon Dillon’s, D-Grand Rapids,  successful 2010 campaign for state representative. She was at the Ferndale picnic, as a woman, to fire up the crowd for a new fight.

VanKuiken is the first transgender woman political organizer in Michigan and believes she is the first to be a campaign manager in the U.S. (She’s also a direct descendant of composer Richard Wagner.)

VanKuiken came out as female to friends and colleagues only a few years ago. It felt great, but suddenly she couldn’t get a job in the 2012 fall cycle. She went “partially back in the closet,” moved to Detroit and worked her last campaign in “boy mode,” advocating collective bargaining rights in Wayne County.

She started dating a supportive cisgender companion, Megan. (“Cisgender” refers to a person whose body and gender identity matches from birth. If it helps, think of the Roman Empire’s “Cisalpine Gaul,” that part of France on “this” side of the Alps.)

By January, VanKuiken was used to the “makeup and wardrobe routine” and started to re-engage in politics, this time as Allison, at the Democratic Convention in Cobo Hall.

Now she’s in the thick of a bellwether battle for LGBT rights in Michigan. The Royal Oak city commission passed a human rights ordinance in 2001, but it was overturned by a 2-1 margin in a contentious referendum. Last fall, the commissioners passed another ordinance, but opponents forced another vote in November.

This time, Allison wants the ordinance to pass by a 70 percent margin, not only to get the ordinance passed, but to send a message to Lansing that it’s time to include sexual orientation and gender identity in the state’s Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act.

“A huge win would be a strong argument for the last few holdout legislators in Lansing to take a courageous step in support of the LGBT community,” VanKuiken said.

About two dozen cities in Lansing have human rights ordinances protecting LGBT from discrimination at work and in public accommodations. Earlier this month, Kalamazoo Township and Meridian Township passed such ordinances.

It’s been a tough battle in this suburban Detroit enclave. Just Royal Oak, the organization opposing the human rights ordinance, predicts on its website that “peeping and perving” men will invade women’s bathrooms under cover of legal protection if the ordinance is passed. 

These are the kind of people who stab you and complain when you bleed. Perversely, Just Royal Oak cites studies finding that gay and transgender people are more prone to anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder and substance abuse, and more frequent victims of domestic violence, as reasons to oppose the ordinance.  

“Given the scientifically documented hazards of homosexual behavior, should a truly enlightened, compassionate society encourage and enable such behavior?” reads a message on the site.

VanKuiken said a new level of LGBT activism is needed for the haters to get used to the idea that by now they’re throwing their money away on fights like this.

She also hopes the Royal Oak fight will help build capacity for the endgame: a statewide marriage equality amendment that would vaporize the anti-gay-marriage amendment passed in 2004.

“We got our butts kicked in 2004 because we weren’t organized,” she said.

Lovey-dovey

After VanKuiken made her pitch for the Royal Oak ordinance, the picnic was a sunny blur of schmoozing and munching until about 4 p.m., when there was one more reason for everyone to gather.

Rachel Crandall, co-founder and president of Transgender Michigan, was about to renew her vows with her wife, Susan Crocker, also a transgender woman.

Crandall had to clear her own road to get to this comfortable place.

“I knew I was a girl all my life,” Crandall said. “People were calling me a little boy and I couldn’t figure out why.”

Horrified, her mother and father told her never to divulge such thoughts to anyone else. She thought many times of suicide.

“I thought if I got married, it would make me a normal guy and not a freak, and I was wrong. I loved my wife, and my wife loved me, but when I got into my 30s, I started to explode.”

She saw a social worker for five years and gradually learned that she had no choice but to come out. She never had to tell her wife. She spotted Crandall wearing makeup around the house and “figured it out.”

After a divorce, Crandall was fired from her job as a therapist at Owosso Memorial Hospital. With no job, no marriage and no house, she felt like she was “falling and falling and falling.”

She rented a cheap apartment in Lansing and slept on the couch. “I got used to the taste of Ramen noodles,” she said. “Eight packs for $1 at Meijer.”

Things started to brighten when she met Crocker, also a transgender, at a support group for cross dressers in 1994. They helped each other get from “despondent” to “pissed off,” using the energy to form the first statewide transgender support group, Transgender Michigan.

“It gave me back a little bit of the control I lost,” Crandall said.

Eight and a half years ago, Crandall and Crocker started living together as “wife and wife” but never had a ceremony. “This is a reaffirmation of our love,” Crandall said.

Since 1997, Transgender Michigan has grown from 300 to over 1,000 members. Chapters are forming all over the state, including Sault Ste. Marie, Traverse City, Detroit and Lansing.

Crandall said Transgender Michigan has the only toll-free help line for transgender people in the country. It has drawn calls from as far as Dubai.

The calls come from people of all ages. A parent might call in a panic because her little boy insists he’s a girl. Teens and college students often come out for the first time on the help line. Many are afraid their parents will kick them out of the house. 

Middle-aged people agonize over their marriages. One person came out on the help line at 72 and had a sex change operation from male to female at 73. 

“Everyone thinks they are all alone,” Crandall said. “We wanted to bring together the whole transgender state of Michigan.”

It was time for the ceremony to start. Half-eaten burgers rested on paper plates and faces looked up as Crandall and Crocker stood and smiled through a series of invocations and poems. Stephen Rassi, a minister from a very small Ann Arbor church called the Church of Spiritual Enhancement, hit home with a powerful passage.

“The state of Michigan has declared that it will not recognize our marriages and commitments to one another,” Rassi said, “but that doesn’t make our commitments any less real or any less valuable. Let us declare today that love makes a family.”

“Yes it does!” came a cry from the crowd on the lawn.

Crandall and Crocker read their own handwritten vows to each other. “I love you more than popping bubble wrap,” Crandall said to Crocker.

There was more lovey-dovey stuff, but dry-docked sea captain Don Sidelinker, having escaped a woman’s body 30 years ago, knows when he’d had enough of a thing. He quietly got on with his life, wandering over to a neighboring baseball field to watch the game.

Transgender Lansing meets the first Sunday of each month at 6 p.m. at Edgewood United Church of Christ, 469 N. Hagadorn Road, East Lansing. 


Transgender Michigan Help Line

855-345-TGMI

TransgenderMichigan.org

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