Salt Lake City a home for growing transgender population
Sipping coffee at Caffe D'Bolla, Alex Miller looks like a typical hipster guy. His wispy boyish beard and baby face belie his 30 years. His brown hair is short on the sides with slight curls peeking out of a cap.
But underneath his shirt, one can imagine two large pink scars, like half-moons, from his double mastectomy. Every week or so, Miller gives himself a shot of prescribed testosterone, or "T," as it's known in FTM (female-to-male transsexual) circles. Below the belt, Miller had a hysterectomy and has been considering reconstructive surgery, but there's no rush either for him or anyone he dates.
Transgender people those who act like, dress as or feel themselves to be the sex opposite of what they were born say they are often ostracized, but are working to change misconceptions.
Some 200 transgender community members will meet on Saturday for an all-day conference at Salt Lake Community College's Larry H. Miller Campus in Sandy, where participants will delve into such topics as healthy self-image development, legal aid and transgender history, among others. This is the fourth year of the conference hosted by the Utah Pride Center, which sponsors events throughout November for Transgender Education and Awareness Month.
Miller doesn't really see himself as a guy, but as a "transman," someone who started out female and then shifted to the masculine side of the gender spectrum. Miller also identifies as a "queer guy," attracted to both men and women.
The Utah native is an exemplar for a new generation less concerned with gender boundaries. For many, the biological parts of a person do not make the gender of a person. In short, people are simply attracted to other people, no need for gender boxes.
"I never thought twice about coming out as a lesbian or transman," said Miller. "But it's hard as a queer transman."
In the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) community, the "T" or transgender portion, has been the latest to make societal strides, especially in Utah, where many cities have anti-discrimination laws.
"There's always been excellent trans-activists in Salt Lake," said Mara Keisling, the founding executive director of the Washington D.C.-based National Center for Transgender Equality, who will be the conference keynote speaker. "I'll be talking about civil rights and equality and activism. This is about educating employers and health-care providers about the myths of gender ... and disabuse people of the myth that our (transgender) lives are about 'The Surgery.'"
For Miller, the idea of being a transman occurred while teaching English in Korea, where living in a different culture and with a lot of solitary time allowed for reflection. Before that, he had been perceived as a lesbian.
"There are three aspects of the transition: social, legal and medical," Miller said. "In Korea, I started the social part ... and continued when I came back to Salt Lake City. It's about creating a safe space. A place of empowerment. My family is super religious but loving."
He decided to start the medical transition a little more than a year ago, while working in customer service at American Express. His job has been a key to his transition, not only because of the company insurance, but because of the supportive environment. His office now has gender-neutral bathrooms.
"The key to my entire transition is American Express," Miller said. "I'm such a minority in every other aspect of my life except my health care at American Express."
He had mastectomy surgery, which is considered cosmetic, on Oct. 27, 2011 at the University of Utah, and a hysterectomy at LDS Hospital on Sept. 13, 2012.
"Not only am I lucky because of the health insurance, but because I live where I can get these surgeries, otherwise I'd have to go to San Francisco or Ft. Lauderdale," Miller said.
He emphasized the surgery dates are important. They should be celebrated by friends and family as rites of passage, he said.
Since the transition, Miller said he's been able to observe many cultural differences.
"I have a phone job and noticed I would dread calls where I had to deliver a difficult message," he said. "I started noticing a trend, if the customer thought I was a girl and didn't like my answer, more often than not, they'd ask to speak to my supervisor. But when they perceive me as male, my authority is respected. Being aware of this, how could I be disrespectful toward women?"
LeAnn Jones, a licensed clinical social worker in Salt Lake City, has been seeing transgender clients for a dozen years. She said for many of her clients surgery is not involved. Male-to-female surgery can cost about $25,000.
"A lot of these folks don't have insurance," Jones said. "They're looking for support and that can be from anyone, not just family members."
For many in the community, the Utah Pride Center provides a safe place to meet along with support groups, Jones said. It's also a place for those experimenting with gender roles.
Elizabeth Owens of Utah Pride said people often identify as transgender because they don't fall into "societal norms of gender roles."
"They could be gender queer, male and female, or neither ... and there are other terms: androgynous or gender variant," Owens said. "Some are involved in legal transitions who change in medical and surgery ... some have hormones ... some don't have surgery."
Miller agreed it's best to ask the person.
"I identify as a transman, not as a man," Miller said. "The difference, for me, is embracing a female past. The first 28 years of my life, I was socialized female. I was conditioned to be sensitive, kind and considerate. I think I'm a better guy for it."
Twitter: @rayutah The Transgender Spectrum
Transgender people are perhaps the most misunderstood of the larger lesbian, gay and bisexual minorities, some advocates say. Transgender deals with gender and sex, which are not necessarily the same.
Transgender •An umbrella term used to encompass all manifestations of crossing gender barriers. It includes all who cross dress or otherwise transcend gender norms, and all others who wish to belong.
Transsexual •An individual whose physical gender determined at birth is not congruent or in alignment with the gender they psychologically and emotionally identify as. These individuals may seek to modify their bodies by hormone therapy and/or Gender Reassignment Surgery
Intersex • A condition where a child was born exhibiting some form of "indeterminate" genitalia, a combination of both male and female genitalia, reproductive organs or ambiguous chromosomes.
Transman • A term commonly used by female-to-male individuals to self describe that focuses on the gender they are rather than what was determined at birth.
Transwoman • A term commonly used by male-to-female individuals to self describe that focuses on the gender they are rather than what was determined at birth.
Cross dresser •The preferred term for one who enjoys dressing as their opposite sex; a part-time activity which can involve a degree of exploration into gender identity.
Drag Queen/King •A man or woman dressed as the opposite gender, many times overdone or outrageous and may present a "stereotyped image". Performers are often lesbian or gay.
Genderqueer, bi-gender & non-gender • Individuals that may or may not identify as one or the other in a binary gender system and many times will assume a mixture of male and female dress and characteristics, combining elements of both.
Source: Utah Pride Center International Transgender Day of Remembrance Vigil
• A candlelight vigil will be held on Tuesday at the First United Methodist Church, 203 South 200 East, in Salt Lake City. Doors will open at 6:30 p.m., program will begin at 7 p.m., with a reception to follow.
The vigil, presented by the Transgender Education Advocates (TEA) of Utah, in conjunction with Equality Utah and the BW Bastian Foundation, features a candlelight vigil, where the names of transgender individuals who have lost their lives to violence will be read. The names are gathered from public records and news reports from Nov. 20 of last year to Nov. 20 of this year.