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Questions of Gender Quest

By Mary Summerbell

Trans. That’s the name of the movie winning the “Power of Film” award at this year’s Beloit International Film Festival.

Transgenders. That’s the topic of this documentary.

Transgender. What does it mean? Transgenders describe themselves as being born in the body of one sex but believing they are the other. In the film this was most simply, eloquently and poignantly expressed by a seven-year-old child, born male, who insisted on living as a girl since she was two years old. At bedtime prayers she told her mother -“God’s not so great. He made a mistake and put me in the wrong body.”

Simple in a basic way. But an overwhelmingly complex experience in practical, daily adult reality. This is a hot-button topic, an issue with so many thought-provoking and emotion-evoking aspects – personal, sexual, psychological, medical, ethical, legal, moral, spiritual – that it’s almost impossible not to respond to it. Some of us are curious.  Fascinated.

Others are uncomfortable, or beyond discomfort, finding it downright disturbing. Extreme reactions range from violent attacks to outright rejection – refusal to acknowledge or discuss the subject.

Trans takes us into the transgender world, in a steady and respectful way, giving us a factual yet compassionate look into this complicated and deeply provocative community. It informs us through self-told stories of transgender individuals, and some of their families, friends, and health-care professionals who work with them. From first early awareness to beyond middle-age, we see how difficult, painful and often dangerous this life is, whatever choices are made to adapt and cope.

In addition to often deadly cruelty from others, transgenders are prone to self-destruction. A young woman in the film takes her own life, and we learn that transgenders have a suicide rate of 41% – the highest known of any group. After the movie the director tells us this is based on self-identified transgenders in urgent medical situations and is likely deceptively low, not counting unknown transgenders.

The most high profile person in the film is Chris McGinn, who much publicized her gender change. A Navy surgeon before physical transition to female, she now runs a clinic offering support and health care options to transgenders. The film director said that every client at the clinic is asked if they have ever seriously considered or attempted suicide. Seventy-five per cent answer, “Yes.”

The film follows Chris and her female partner as they experience the pregnancy and birth of twins. As a male Chris had sperm frozen, which was used to impregnate her wife. She also used a method that makes it possible for adoptive moms to nurse their babies. So, in the movie, after the births, we see the women in a hospital room – both of them nursing a baby!!!!

Think about this a minute. A person born male surgically changes to female, then marries a female, and they have babies with her(?) sperm. That makes her the biological father and the legal mother of the children. Are you confused? No matter what your attitude toward transgenders, this is the kind of thing that  just plain messes with your head. And heart. We don’t know what to think or feel. It’s the real-life version of that silly song, “I’m My Own Grandpa.”

On the ride home, as my friend and I discuss this, she says it makes no sense to her. “If you’re a male, and sexually attracted to women, why change to female?” It does seem to defy logic – and common sense.

The way I understand it is this – I see two essential aspects of this issue that get scrambled together, mixing everything up. One concept is sexual identity, which is about who we are as a person, expressed in the gender we feel a sense of belonging to, regardless of anatomy. It’s about roles in life and in society and how we feel we fit into them as individuals. The other concept is sexual orientation, which is about sexual attraction – who we personally relate to in a sexually interactive way – also, sometimes, regardless of anatomy. Both of these are more about soul than body, more about spirit than form. They are intangible, making them very hard to understand.

But, as an example, if Chris McGinn identifies herself as a female who is sexually attracted to women, it explains her gay marriage after surgical gender change from male to female.

No matter how you serve it, it’s a lot to chew and swallow. I can’t judge anyone who wants to ignore or avoid this issue – or condemn or criticize anyone who rejects people crossing conventional boundaries. I don’t know how I would respond if my best friend told me she was really a man, or if my dad changed himself into someone named Pam that I never knew existed. This is tough stuff – heartrending and life-changing for everyone affected. It’s understandably upsetting for those close to transgenders, who have no control over the choices or changes of their loved ones, or the fact that these transitions make very personal and private issues undeniably public.

I admire the incredible courage of the people in the film, revealing themselves at great personal risk. A therapist in the film sees her clients as “the bravest people. They’re willing to confront the fact that they could potentially lose everything to be true to themselves.”

And isn’t that the real issue at the core of all this? Don’t we all, some more than others, live every minute with the risk of being rejected for being who we really are? Under the discomfort, behind the confusing feelings, inside the puzzling questions, is lurking the unsettling possibility that we may be, in some way, too honest, too outspoken, or different enough from others to be excluded from their lives, excluded from society. It’s a valid fear, as we see from the plight of transgender people.

Instead of drastic measures now taken to change transgenders, what if we just accept them? Just say, “It happens. It’s O.K. Let’s go with it.” Not only would transgenders – and all people who are “different” – have better chances of happy, healthy lives, not so sadly conflicted – but we could all focus on exploring the possibilities of how particular differences could be applied to best serve humanity and our planet. Instead of looking for what’s “wrong” with us, or others, we can each ask ourselves, “Who am I, really? And what positive purpose can I serve in life?”

I leave you with a question. – What if it isn’t a “mistake?” Maybe transgenders are part of nature’s plan. Perhaps there’s an evolutionary advantage to having ambiguously gendered people among us. We know that male and female brains are different. We also know that the brains of transgender people are more like their perceived gender than their birth gender; male-born transgenders actually have female brains! And female transgenders, male brains. Why not think of this as dual, double, or bi-gendered? As super or special gendered?

Imagine thinking in terms of people’s qualities and characteristics, strengths and weaknesses, rather than faults and flaws. We could find practical applications, indeed, happy advantages of our differences. Then someone can make a movie about not just accepting transgenders, but embracing and celebrating them. The name of that movie might be Trans-tastic

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