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The quiet revolution behind the word ‘transgender’

April 23, 2015 at 6:30 PM EDT
Alex Myers grew up as Alice, a girl, in rural Maine. In the mid-'90s, during the summer between junior and senior years at boarding school, Myers came out as transgender, starting the process of embracing his true gender identity. Once the first transgender graduate of Harvard University, today Myers, a writer and professor, takes his story to high school and college campuses. Hari Sreenivasan reports.
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GWEN IFILL: Now we turn to the first in an occasional series on changing attitudes about being transgender in America.

A new survey from the Human Rights Campaign shows more Americans, 22 percent, say they know or personally work with a transgender person. That’s up 17 percent from a year ago.

Hari Sreenivasan has the story of one person’s transition and his efforts to change thinking and perceptions.

HARI SREENIVASAN: The soccer fields at Choate Rosemary Hall in Connecticut turned into an outdoor classroom of sorts this past Sunday. High schoolers from area boarding schools gathered for the fifth annual conference on Sexual Minorities and Straight Supporters, or SMASS.

ALEX MYERS, Author, “Revolutionary”: It’s really nice to see that written into the rule book and to see the words like gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender students at Choate. It’s like, oh, they exist.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Alex Myers was one of the speakers. He’s the first conference presenter to be transgender, and he uses his life story as a way of educating others about transgender issues.

ALEX MYERS: I was pretty much a normal little girl.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Alex grew up as Alice in the small, rural town of Paris, Maine. He went to boarding school at Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire, and in the summer between his junior and senior years came out as transgender, a first for the school.

In 1996, he was also the first openly transgender student to attend Harvard University, and he worked to change the university’s nondiscrimination clause to include gender identity. Twelve

Twelve years ago, Alex married Ilona in a same-sex ceremony in Vermont. When his gender was legally changed to male, they had a second ceremony to ensure their union was by the book.

At Choate, Myers’ story resonated with students.

MILLY BATTLE, Senior, Choate Rosemary Hall: I just really admire him. I think it’s was really cool that he was able to do that in high school and is able to come back. In 1994, to be able to go to a place where he was the first ever person to do that, I just think that’s incredibly brave.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Myers takes his story to high school and college campuses around the country.

And we caught up with him at American University in Washington, D.C., where he teaches at the Kogod Center for Business Communications.

ALEX MYERS: Society told me I was a girl. My parents told me I was a girl. I wasn’t going to think that they were wrong, at the same time as I always felt I was or I wanted to be or I should be a boy.

And transgender as a word is a really powerful sort of force in my life. It wasn’t until I heard that word, it wasn’t until I saw people who lived as transgender that I got, oh, that’s how you do it.

HARI SREENIVASAN: What was that validation like, or what was it to hear about the fact that you weren’t strange, or you weren’t feeling…

ALEX MYERS: Oh, I am strange.

(LAUGHTER)

ALEX MYERS: Let me correct that notion — and happy being so.

Yes, it was exactly that. I think validation is the right word. That other people felt the way that I felt, and suddenly it was like there was a door where I had previously seen a wall.

I haven’t had surgery. I have no plans to have surgery. But I do take testosterone. So, I’m both female, in the sense that I’m genetically female. In many ways, I’m biologically female, but, in some ways, I’m not, and I live as a man. So there’s a disconnect, some people might say, between my biological sex and my gender identity.

And that, to me, is what it means to be transgender.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Why is that important?  I mean, in the sense that right now, if I was to walk by you on the street and you — how you express yourself is like a man, right?  We would probably — if I didn’t know anything about you, I would probably just make that assumption. I would probably treat you like I treat every man.

Why is it important for me to know your history?

ALEX MYERS: I don’t think it’s important for the casual encounter. That’s why I don’t wear a sandwich board to announce it on the — among other reasons — to announce it on the street.

But I do think that if we’re going to be friends, if we’re going to be close, if we’re going to be colleagues who know each other and trust each other, it’s something you need to know about me, in the same way that eventually you would probably share opinions that at first you wouldn’t, you might share, whether they are political opinions, or you might share some of your family history.

I think it’s part of becoming intimate and becoming close with another person. It’s a very crucial piece of my identity. It’s how I see and understand the world, in the same way that somebody’s religious beliefs or somebody’s upbringing might influence them.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Part of Myers’ story is bound up in his first novel, “Revolutionary.” It’s the story of Deborah Sampson, a real-life ancestor of his who disguised herself as a man so she could fight in the Revolutionary War.

ALEX MYERS: In order to be free and independent and self-governing, she had to be a man. So she got men’s clothes, cut her hair short and disguised herself as a man.

I don’t know, if she’d had the word transgender, if she would have applied that to herself. But what I do know is that, in her life, what she was doing was putting on men’s clothing and living as a man, and it was a disguise. And there’s a profound difference between being disguised and being who you are.

And that’s what transgender has let me do, right?  I live as who I am. And, in part, I am able to do that because I have that category, that container to hold my identity, transgender.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Transgender people are gaining visibility, at least in Hollywood. Several award-winning series showcase transgender characters. The Netflix series “Orange Is the New Black” is one.

AMY LANDECKER: I’m so glad you get to be who you are.

HARI SREENIVASAN: And Amazon has its own breakthrough critically-acclaimed series, “Transparent.”

But Myers says, too often, Hollywood sensationalizes transgender stories.

ALEX MYERS: Gays and lesbians and bisexuals are portrayed in the media, and it’s not glamorous. It’s just who they are. So trans-people aren’t there yet in the media depictions of them. We’re not just normal people. We’re always somewhat dramatic, still.

When you can see it in your own town, when you can see, oh, that’s how a lesbian couple raises a child, all of a sudden, it’s very different, whether you share that identity or you don’t. All of a sudden, they are people, and they’re not abstractions. They’re not something that’s sensational on TV or something you read about in the newspaper, but they’re people that you live next to, and they become human beings.

HARI SREENIVASAN: So, what happens?  What’s necessary for that normative moment for transgender people?

ALEX MYERS: I spent a summer working as a forest ranger in Wyoming. And I wasn’t out for that summer. I was just a guy. I was doing the same job as everybody else at the ranger station.

At the end of that summer, I came out to my boss and told him. I felt it was important that he know. And he said, OK. He had a couple of questions about how I managed that and maybe a little bit about my childhood. And he said, great. Now, are you going to come back for next summer?

And it was just like that. He knew me as a good worker and as a human being. And I think that’s how changes are made in this country about identity. Yes, there’s the big sort of legislation and Supreme Court cases about gay marriage, but those can cause just as much controversy and schism. And the real way you bring people together is by living in their communities, by being good citizens and by modeling who you are.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Myers is attempting to do just that.

For the “NewsHour,” I’m Hari Sreenivasan in Washington.

GWEN IFILL: On our home page, you can learn more about transgender issues, particularly questions people may have about the language we use. Plus, you can watch Alex Myers’ full speech to students at Choate.

That’s at PBS.org/NewsHour.

 

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