Second Nature

In an exclusive preview from our March issue, meet a local family that is raising a little girl born in the wrong body.

March 2008

During the past 15 years, transgender Americans have been gaining unprecedented acceptance and moving slowly from society's fringes into the mainstream. Some of the most visible evidence of the movement, and of the shifting cultural perspective on it, has been in the movies. In 1992, The Crying Game earned an Academy Award; with the dramatic revelation that a pivotal character was transgender, the movie made what was then a subculture part of the nation's water-cooler conversation. A little more than a decade later, in 2005, being transgender wasn't merely a gasp-inducing denouement; rather, it was the story: In the critical and commercial hit Transamerica, Felicity Huffman starred as a middle-aged M2F who's preparing for sexual reassignment surgery while coming to terms with the fact that years earlier she'd fathered a son.

In the national news media, transgender has emerged as a big story: Major television networks and newsmagazines have reported on the subject. Along with the Hollywood and press attention, the transgender civil-rights movement has won traction. Since 1993, at least 89 state, city, and county governments have adopted laws prohibiting discrimination against transgender people. As of last year, the laws covered approximately one-third of the nation, including Denver and Boulder.

Any transgender person will tell you, however, that he or she has much ground to cover to achieve equality. Existing antidiscrimination laws still do not cover two-thirds of the country. The U.S. Congress has yet to codify specific transgender protections. Hate crimes are up: According to a 2006 FBI report, compared to 2005 there's been a more than 18 percent rise in violence against gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people (the FBI doesn't break down crimes against each group). Every day, transgender folks still confront tense circumstances that are banal occurrences for everyone else. Not long ago, Kate Bowman, who heads the Gender Identity Center of Colorado, in Wheat Ridge, went to a restaurant with a friend. "This is a person," Bowman says, "who knew me before I had my sexual reassignment surgery, who is my friend, and she said, 'I'd prefer that if I go to use the ladies' room that you wait until I come out before you go in.'"

But with the growing cultural and political momentum, transgender adults are far less afraid to be themselves and they're seizing positions of influence that would have once been unthinkable. San Francisco's Board of Supervisors recently elected Theresa Sparks, who had transitioned around the age of 50, to president of the city's police commission. Last year, Mike Penner, a longtime sports columnist for the Los Angeles Times, came out as a woman and is now reporting for the paper, and living life, as Christine Daniels. And last fall, in Aurora, Colorado, Pam Bennett staged a nearly successful campaign to become a City Council member as an openly transgender candidate. Although Bennett narrowly lost her bid, she was endorsed by a local firefighters' association and the Denver Area AFL-CIO. The tight race and support, Bennett has said, is evidence that the "Aurora-Denver metro region and our country is moving forward into the 21st century." As far as transgender children and their parents are concerned, though, America is stuck somewhere between the 20th century and the Dark Ages.

There is no definitive headcount for the number of transgender children in the United States. The National Center for Transgender Equality estimates there are about 1 million to 3 million transgender Americans. And while it's fair to infer that there are at least as many transgender kids as there are adults, any figures offered for the number of transgender people are, as Bowman says, "probably low, because even adults are reluctant to publicly reveal they are transgender, and for that same reason it would be even harder to get an accurate assessment of how many kids there are." The very idea that toddlers and preteens, like Lucia, are transitioning, and that moms and dads would assist them, has prompted plenty of passionate theories that have pitted doctors against doctors, polarized communities and families, and generally fostered an environment that quite literally has made it difficult for transgender children to survive.

Between 75 and 90 percent of transgender youths, according to what little research there is on the topic, have reported feeling "unsafe" at school. The 1999 Oscar-winning film Boys Don't Cry, starring Hilary Swank, was based on the real-life 1993 murder of Brandon Teena, a 21-year-old F2M who moved to a Nebraska town hoping for anonymity. Just as Brandon was starting to feel his new life was possible, friends discovered his biological truth—and then raped and murdered him. In 2002, Gwen Araujo, a 17-year-old M2F, went to a party in her Newark, California, neighborhood. In the bathroom another girl found out Gwen's secret and ran out screaming. While partygoers watched, a group of boys beat Gwen to death. And in 2001, in Cortez, Colorado, a 16-year-old M2F, Fred Martinez, Jr., was fatally beaten by another teen who has been convicted of second-degree murder and who reportedly told a friend he had "beaten up a fag." Not surprisingly, for transgender kids the choice between living tormented in hiding, or going public and risking being tormented—or worse—can be overwhelming. While statistically unverified, the consensus within the medical community is that the suicide rate for transgender American youths is at least double the national average.

No one needs to remind Lucia's mom of the bleak statistics. "I think we have done a good job of insulating Lucia from the way the world could be for her, of creating a cocoon," Judy told me not long after we first met. "But I'm also trying to prepare her." That was almost three years ago, in the summer of 2005, when the Martin family agreed to talk with me and began allowing me to visit with Lucia. Their decision is a calculated one: Sharing their story, the Martins hope, might help other families with a transgender child not feel as isolated as they have felt; maybe their story will change how people think about transgender individuals, and that might make life a little easier, safer, for Lucia. The Martins asked that their names and certain details, like Lucia's school and their exact town, not be revealed. "We don't want to go out of our way," Judy says, "to invite trouble into our lives and into our community."