published Sunday, December 29th, 2013

Living in Between: Transgenders fight for acceptance, both from society and family

Adam Leach, a female-to-male transgender, pets his dog, Indigo, at his apartment complex's dog park on Dec. 4.
Adam Leach, a female-to-male transgender, pets his dog, Indigo, at his apartment complex's dog park on Dec. 4.
Photo by C. B. Schmelter.

On the Web

To find out more about Rizi Timane’s transgender surgery scholarship, go to rizigospel.org.

For most high school seniors, the prom is a constant swirl from excitement to nerves and back again. For Anna Leach, those feelings were ratcheted up several notches by a dose of public scrutiny.

During her senior year in 2009, officials at Ooltewah High School wouldn't allow her to buy tickets to the prom because she wanted to take her girlfriend. The standoff made the news and, after lengthy negotiations, the school relented; the student body then elected Leach as prom queen.

"I remember thinking that, as a girl, I was supposed to be attracted to males, but I was very 'butch' and it was hard finding guys who liked masculine girls," Leach now says. "I didn't realize at the time that this is what is called an 'identifier.'"

While attending college in Florida, decided she no longer wanted to play what she considered an acting role -- the part of a female. Anna is now Andy, a 22-year-old working part-time at Amazon and transitioning from female to male.

"I started wearing my hair short and wore all guys' clothes," he says. "It seemed so natural to me. I realized that it had been what I wanted since I was 4 or 5. I never thought like a girl. I even played exclusively with boys' toys."

After seeking medical advice, Leach qualified for the first step, taking hormones that deepen his voice and help grow hair on his face. Nothing about Leach now resembles a woman. He sports a beard and says he even thinks like a man. People are shocked, he says, when they learn he was born a female.

Following his start on hormones, he told his divorced parents that he was a transgender. An only child, he gave the news to his mother face-to-face; she supported the decision. He told his father in a letter; his father severed their relationship. He defriended Andy on Facebook and told him not to call any family member on the father's side. They haven't spoken in three years.

"While it hurts that my dad wants nothing to do with me, for the first time in my life, I feel good living my life as a man," says Andy.

There are nearly 700,000 transgender individuals in the U.S., or 0.3 percent of the adult population, according to "The Gay and Lesbian Atlas," a 2011 report compiled by the Williams Institute at the UCLA School of Law. And, of those who identify as transgender, most have taken steps to transition from one gender to another, the report says.

Matt Nevels, 79, a retired minister who lives with his wife in Red Bank, says there may be as many as 200 transgenders living in the Chattanooga area. But that's pretty much a guess.

"It's an elusive number, kind of like counting birds," he says.

Nevels, whose son, Stephen Nevels, was gay and died of AIDS in 1992, has befriended the local LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) community and serves as a leader for PFLAG (Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays) Chattanooga.

"I'm in touch with one group of 40 local transgenders connected with PFLAG," he says.

The word "transgender" can be confusing. It's not the same as transvestite, which is a man or woman who enjoys dressing in the opposite sex's clothing, also known as cross-dressing. Nor does it mean the same thing as "gay." A gay man will see himself as male and a gay woman as female, but they're attracted to the same sex.

A transgender is a man or woman who feels as if they're living in the wrong body. "Gender dysphoria" is the technical term for the psychological condition that accompanies the feelings.

"Transgender is a situation in which one's self-identified gender does not match their birth-assigned gender and, even if one can't have the surgeries or chooses not to have the surgeries, they are still transgender," says Rizi Timane, a Ph.D. in Christian counseling and author of "An Unspoken Compromise," a book documenting his own mental and physical transition from female to male.

Timane, a minister and grief counselor who lives in Los Angeles with his wife, Christine, says he has undergone nine surgeries and has one more to go before the physical transition is complete.

"It's painful and emotionally draining but also exhilarating once done as the only means to an end to correct my gender and make it align externally to my internal male psyche."

Living in the South, with its deeply embedded religious culture, can be tough for transgenders. Some religions consider being transgender in the same category as being gay and reject it outright. Finding understanding or even acceptance can be difficult.

Brenda Lunger, who moved from Cleveland, Tenn., to Houston, Texas, earlier this year, says her religious upbringing caused her a great deal of guilt and anguish when she was growing up. Lunger, who was married and has fathered three children, transitioned after getting a divorce. Between 2007 and 2010, he went through the various surgeries to go from man to woman and has lived as a female since.

"I came from an extremely conservative, fundamentalist version of Christianity. Many members of my family have cut off all communications with me. Others have outright rejected me since my transition."

But the biggest surprise, she says, were the number of people who accepted her transition.

"Although the perception is that the Southeast Tennessee culture is hostile to gender transitions, most people treated me well," she says about friends and co-workers in Bradley County. "There were some who reacted badly, but they were certainly not the majority."

Lunger, who is in her late 40s and transitioned from male to female in her early 40s, says that, as a child, he would often go into his sister's room and play with her toys when nobody else was around.

"Throughout childhood, I borrowed clothing from my sister or mother, but the guilt was horrible," says Lunger, "Throughout my youth, I dressed in the clothing of my self-identified gender when possible. I really struggled with this, though, because of my religious upbringing."

Leach hasn't gone through the surgical steps to become a male. The process involves several surgeries and can run up to $100,000, putting it out of the reach of many transgenders. Most insurance policies do not cover the surgery, although the number that do has increased in recent years.

According to The Associated Press, 207 U.S. companies offered insurance with sex reassignment coverage in 2011.

Leach doesn't believe he'll ever be able to afford all the surgeries. Regardless, he says, he will live his life as a man.

"Sadly, this is a real problem for our population," Timane says. "I established a transgender surgery scholarship fund for this very reason. So far, we have helped two people transition."

Timane, who grew up in South Africa, also ran into trouble with his family.

"My family found my gender nonconformity to be a stubborn choice and an embarrassment in our country," he says.

The fragile relationship with his parents, who he says have "strong Christian beliefs," became more turbulent as they tried to save their son from "hell," Timane says. His parents went so far as to arrange exorcisms.

"The exorcisms began and continued as I still wasn't changing to a heterosexual feminine woman," he says. "These years were painful for both parties and full of anger and resentment on my part, but we eventually got to an unspoken compromise in which they accepted my position that God loves all people."

Last September, after his father was diagnosed with colon cancer, the relationship healed between Timane and his parents.

"My parents apologized to me for all the religion-based abuse and told me they now see that the heart really is all that matters in a person," he says.

Leach says that though he was at first "fearful" of people finding out that he is transitioning, that's no longer the case.

"Sure, there's always going to be people who don't understand, but the Chattanooga community is special," he says. "It's not as horrifying as I first thought it would be."

Still, some transgenders have been the targeted by hate crimes.

Transgender Europe's Trans Murder Monitoring project shows that there have been 238 killings of transgender people in the last 12 months worldwide -- 16 in the United States. And, according to a report from the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs, about half of all victims of anti-LGBT homicides in 2012 were transgender, and all of them were women of color.

reaction

To help others in her situation, Lunger co-founded Transcenders, a transgender support group in Chattanooga. She also was a board member of Tennessee Valley Pride, a LGBT advocacy group. She currently works as the manager of Accenture, a technology consulting group, in Houston.

"Many companies have employee relations groups, or 'ERGs,' " Lunger says. "My employer has a very supportive, active LGBT ERG. I coordinate gender identity/gender expression support in North America for the LGBT ERG. This responsibility is voluntary in addition to my day job."

She also notes that some Fortune 500 companies provide insurance coverage for surgery to deal with severe gender dysphoria.

"My current company does," she says. "As the science becomes better established, insurance companies will continue to move to a position that gender dysphoria is just another treatable illness with a proven treatment. It is heartbreaking that so few people can afford this incredibly effective treatment and that most insurance still does not cover it.

"I had my surgery before I joined my current company. Paying for major surgery out-of-pocket is a strain that very few people can afford," Lunger says. "I am still behind my peers financially because of the financial outlay. Even those of us who do find a way to get this necessary surgery spend retirement funds and other money that we can truly ill afford to spend."

Nevels says emotional support is a must for transgenders.

"Transitioning is very expensive because of medical procedures and treatments. Most have little insurance coverage, and there is a lack of public understanding concerning trans issues across the board, thus education is needed," he says. "It is a lonely road, impossible to travel successfully without a strong support system."

For folks considering transitioning, Timane says the first step is to see a therapist, preferably two. There are World Professional Association for Transgender Health (WPATH) requirements, he says, to identify one as being transgender.

"This is not to be taken lightly," he says. "Once sure that you are trans and need to transition medically, do your research and find a good surgeon that can help you meet your surgical needs. Have some sort of support in place as well because you will need help recovering, and the emotional support of friends or family during those long surgical recoveries are just as important as your physical recovery. Lastly, be both courageous and patient as you finally get to correct your gender."

Realizing there will always be people with prejudices, Timane says he wrote his book to show people that transgenders are still human.

"There are great misunderstandings and misconceptions, but I feel like more than ever, society is trying to learn, to listen and to accept -- they just need to be educated about this," Timane says.

"I want them to know they are not alone in this, and together we can navigate this world and love our love authentically, even spiritually," he says. "I also hope that non-LGBT people will understand our struggles and, if they can't accept us, at least let them see us as fellow humans rather than monsters or degenerates and, in so doing, cultivate a neighborly compassion for their trans neighbors."

Contact Karen Nazor Hill at khill@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6396.

about Karen Nazor Hill...

Feature writer Karen Nazor Hill covers fashion, design, home and gardening, pets, entertainment, human interest features and more. She also is an occasional news reporter and the Town Talk columnist. She previously worked for the Catholic newspaper Tennessee Register and was a reporter at the Chattanooga Free Press from 1985 to 1999, when the newspaper merged with the Chattanooga Times. She won a Society of Professional Journalists Golden Press third-place award in feature writing for ...

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