The 'transgendered' seek status under law, in society Lines of sexual identity are blurred beyond conventional 'either-or'

September 08, 1996|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

LOS ANGELES -- In Boston, Nancy Nangeroni is helping to arrange a courthouse vigil for a slain male-to-female transsexual. In Washington, Dana Priesing lobbies for laws that would ban discrimination against "transgendered" people.

And in Southern California, Jacob Hale and the rest of the local Transgender Menace chapter occasionally pull on their black Menace T-shirts and go for a group walkabout, just to look people in the eye with collective pride in who they are.

All see themselves as part of a burgeoning movement whose members are only now, nearly two decades after gay liberation took off, gathering the courage to go public and struggle for the same respect and legal protections.

The name that scholars and organizers prefer for this nascent movement is "transgender," an umbrella term for transsexuals, cross-dressers (the word now preferred over transvestites), intersexed people (also known as hermaphrodites), womanish men, mannish women and anyone whose sexual identity seems to cross the line of what, in 1990s America, is considered normal.

That line has certainly blurred. Dennis Rodman preens in his bridal gown, Ru Paul puckers for MAC cosmetics, and viewers flock to movies like "The Crying Game."

But members of the movement say they still cannot escape the feeling that in a society that has grown more responsive to other minorities, they are among the last pariahs.

When they give up the old dream of "passing" as their desired sex, they face painful battles in everyday life and in the political arena, where they are roundly condemned as deviants by religious conservatives and often spark controversy among more mainstream gay and lesbian groups.

Their very existence, they say, is such a challenge to universal gut-level ideas about a person's sex as an either-or category -- as reflected in everything from binary bathrooms to "he" and "she" pronouns -- that they are often subjected to scorn, job discrimination and violence.

"There's finally a voice saying, 'Enough,' " said Riki Anne Wilchins, a Wall Street computer consultant and organizer in the movement. "We pay taxes. We vote. We work. There's no reason we should be taking this."

Experts say that in the more than 40 years since George Jorgensen emerged from the operating room as Christine, several thousand Americans have undergone sex-change surgery. They are believed to include nearly even numbers of men and women.

As many as 60,000 Americans consider themselves valid candidates for such surgery, based on what psychiatrists call "gender identity dysphoria," according to the Harry Benjamin Gender Dysphoria Association, the leading medical association of specialists -- including sex-change surgeons -- that sets guidelines for treating transsexuals.

But that is only the tip of a far larger iceberg, organizers say, of cross-dressers -- many of whom are heterosexual men -- and people who live as the opposite sex but never undergo surgery.

The movement's growth is easy to discern. Scores of participants rallied as part of a new advocacy group called Gender PAC for the first time in Washington last fall and plan to do the same in May. Transgender conventions now draw hundreds of people and number nearly 20 a year.

Increasingly, a "T" can be found tacked onto the "G, L and B" of gay, lesbian and bisexual events and groups, from community centers to pride parades.

In San Francisco, which a survey has shown is home to about 6,000 of the movement's constituents, the San Francisco Human Rights Commission has formed a Transgender Community Task Force. The protest group Transexual Menace now counts 46 chapters nationwide, some of which are called Transgender Menace.

There is even a new national group, Transgendered Officers Protect and Serve; members act as marshals at events when needed.

The movement's coalescence, which members say began over the past five years and accelerated in recent months, has gained particular momentum from the Internet, with its ability to connect far-flung people and afford them a sense of safety.

Online groups that began by swapping tips on using makeup and obtaining hormones now also spread word of the latest victims of violence and the next political protest.

But "the fundamental building block of the whole movement," said Dr. Barbara Warren of the Gender Identity Project at New York City's Lesbian and Gay Community Services Center, "is the willingness of transgender folk to put themselves out there and be visible."

That takes more than the courage to face funny looks in the checkout line. The most painful of rallying points is the frequency with which they are attacked and even killed.

"I know so many people who've suffered from vilification in their daily lives just because people have heard they're transsexual, not because they look weird or act weird," said James Green, a female-to-male transsexual and head of FtM International, the biggest group for what many members call "transmen."

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