Just recently my partner and I watched CNN's gripping documentary, "Her Name Was Steven," the story of former Largo, FL city manager Steven Stanton's gender reassignment from male to female and its collateral damage to his marriage and job. For those of you who missed it, the film's power lay in its ability to delve into Stanton's private world, most notably the struggle between her private and public selves and the painful transition from Steven to Susan. It was a tour de force that will hopefully further open the door to the inequities and discrimination faced by transgender people in this country.
I can imagine that this was many viewers' first introduction to a transgender person. And, if the CNN message boards are any indication, they were uncomfortable. In fact, nearly every message was hostile. One viewer wrote in suggesting that Stanton needed "some heavy duty therapy to find out why he can't accept himself." Another argued the broadcast was really about a "most-narcissistic self-centered man" with "mental illness." As for the post-transition Stanton, she was thrown into a bucket with other "raving lunatics/monsters who crave to be ugly old women and become the brunt of jokes and pity."
Not surprisingly one of the more recent polls on the subject, by the Human Rights Campaign, concluded that "[T]he majority of Americans report being uncomfortable about transgender issues, especially when confronted with the challenges that transgender people face."
I recall the first time I was knowingly introduced to a transgender person. As president of the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, I was taken aside by a young reporter who told me that she was transgender and went on to elaborate about the difficulties she and others like her faced in coming out to straight and gay colleagues. Then, and in future conversations, she asked if I knew that transgender people could be fired at will because of their status? Did I know that there were no legal protections for gender identity or expression? Did I understand the anxiety trans people felt every time they needed to use a public restroom? No, I didn't know much of this at the time.
In the intervening years, there's been some progress with some of the issues this journalist helped elucidate for me. More than 300 U.S. companies and 90 U.S. cities and counties now prohibit discrimination on the basis of gender identity and/or expression. Still, transgender people (like lesbians, gays and bisexuals) have no federal job protections and can be fired without recourse.
As for me, meeting that young trans journalist nearly a decade ago was the impetus for an effort to better understand the personal and public issues facing transgender men and women.
First encounters with lesbians and gay men are often similarly eye-opening. Hollywood-based PR guru Howard Bragman, whose specialty is helping celebrities come out, told me in a phone interview:
The research is shockingly clear and straightforward. If we know somebody who is gay or lesbian, we are less afraid and more accepting. The same holds true in the transgender community. The CNN documentary [this past weekend] helped millions get rid of their fear of transgender people and replace it with understanding.
Like transgender activist Chaz Bono, Cher's son, Stanton is likely to attract public attention to transgender issues. Not only do we see the Largo City Council fire Stanton from a job of 14 years solely because of her transgender status, we also watch Stanton's marriage dissolve and find out about some of the painful physical procedures attending a sex change. (We also see the steadfast devotion and love of Stanton's teen-age son Travis.)
The novelty of this story on television made me think back to my parents' generation, and how in the 1960s and 70s they had such trouble accepting gay and lesbian family members and friends. There was even a CBS news special called--drumbeat please--"The Homosexuals," which labeled homosexuality a disease, in accordance with the American Psychiatric Association's classification of it as a "mental disorder." What struck me most watching as a ten-year-old boy was that the men interviewed were cast in dark shadows so as not to be recognized. Their shame was completely recognizable to me even as a young boy.
No traces of shame in this new CNN documentary, by contrast. Stanton herself, while certainly conflicted at times, cracks the door open wide and invites viewers to genuinely try and fathom what life as a trans woman means. She says she agreed to do the documentary "to put a human face on [something] people still have a profound misunderstanding of."
Attitudes are changing, but CNN's message boards remind us that the process is very slow. As more of us come to know transgender people, the clearer it will become that being trans is not a moral issue, which is to say a choice. Rather, as Susan Stanton reveals in the documentary:
For me... I just knew that what was inside, this presence ... this feeling of being somebody other than what I was on the outside, was real, and it's been something I've struggled with for many years of my life.
Steven Petrow is the former president of the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association and can be found online at StevenPetrow.com
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