Debra Rosenberg: Hi everyone. I'm Debra Rosenberg, Assistant Managing Editor at Newsweek, and I wrote this week's cover story on Rethinking Gender. I oversee the magazine's coverage of health, science and social issues. I'm happy to answer your questions on gender and transgender.
Collierville, TN: When one uses the terms "transman" or "transwoman," to what do they refer? An individual who has gone through sexual reassignment surgery, one who is planning to do so, or simply a transgendered individual? Does the "man/woman" designmation refer to their pre- or post-operative sex or to their own specified gender identity?
Debra Rosenberg: When someone uses the term "transman" or "transwoman," they are referring to the new gender that the person has become. Transgender is an umbrella term that encompasses people who have had surgery or taken hormones as well as those who haven't taken any physical steps to change genders but still feel a disconnect between their gender and their biological sex.
Clearwater beach, FL: Does a child send his father, who changed into a woman, a mothers day card on mothers day or a fathers day card on fathers day? or does he send a mothers day card on fathers day? or how does he address his father now that he changed gender,call him mom or dad? like steve stanton turned into susan stanton? the child will eventually want to forget about his dad or disrespect his father because of the ridicule he will he through at school,out in public the next few yrs!
Debra Rosenberg: Gender changes can be very confusing for families and I think they have to work their way through all the changes together. Some families do break up over this, but others find ways to stay together. Some spouses remain married even when their partner changes gender. Everyone has their own way of handling the situation. In our story, Ken Kopriva became Karen and now her daughter calls her "mom."
Kewadin, MI: Do you think that trans-gender's will ever be accepted in society? How can we help the fight for acceptance of trans-genders?—Could you give us a breakdown of the process of becoming trans-gender?—Do you have any advice for trans-genders and becoming accepted?
Debra Rosenberg: It's hard to say when or whether transgender people will be fully accepted in our society. With more anti-discrimination laws being passed, though, it does seem like things are moving in that direction. There are efforts now to pass more legislation in Congress to help transgender people. That could be one way to show your support if you are interested.
There is really no process for becoming transgender since it's an umbrella term that includes people who don't actually take any physical steps toward changing their gender. If a person does want sex-reassignment surgery, there's a long and complicated process (involving counseling and living openly as the new gender) they must go through first.
Anonymous: how come gays and lesbieans dont change gender. If they want to play the role ofa different sex, then become that sex.
Debra Rosenberg: Sexual orientation is really completely separate from the issue of gender identity. You can be gay or lesbian and not feel you are the wrong gender. Likewise, you can feel you are the wrong gender but be straight or gay.
Eaton, OH: I am a very liberal, open-minded person. I would be totally fine if either of my children were gay, but if my child wanted to go through sex re-assignment surgery I would feel that I had failed as a parent. I want my children to love their bodies no matter how they were born. How do I better understand the need to do something as extreme as the physical transformation of genitalia?
Debra Rosenberg: Interesting question. One thing we came across in researching this story was the research on "intersex" babies born with either genitalia of indeterminate or both sexes. No one would suggest that a baby born with that kind of anomaly was the product of bad parenting. That's the same argument many parents of gender variant kids make. They say that their kids were born with bodies that don't happen to match their brains—something no one would deliberately choose.
Dallas, TX: Why are people afraid to call this what it is - a mental illeness? This behavior is not legitimate or healthy and is a sickness.
Debra Rosenberg: There's a lot of debate about whether transgenderism is a mental disorder or a biological anomaly. Right now it is classified in the psychiatric manual, DSM-IV, as a mental disorder called Gender Identity Disorder. But homosexuality used to be classified in that manual too—then gays and lesbians campaigned to have it removed. Some transgender people are campaigning to have GID removed too. Others appreciate that it's classified as an illness, mental or physical. Being in the DSM-IV also opens to door to insurance coverage for counseling—something that's mandatory if you want sex-reassignment surgery.
Los Angeles, CA: I am a 46 year old pre-operative transsexual female. By all outward appearances, I am a robust male. However, for my whole life, people have referred to me as she. Once, my aunt said that I was a good girl. I do not correct people because they are nt mistaken. My question is whether transsexuality is a progressive condition, namely, does it become harder for people to maintain their biological roles as they age? For years, I did nothing to alter my appearance. However, for the past year, I have been shaving my underarms and legs. I get embarrassed when people ask me if I shave my legs. However, why can't everybody explore their feminine side?
Debra Rosenberg: I don't know whether it becomes harder in a biological sense for people to maintain their biological roles as they age. But psychologically we heard many stories of people who grew weary playing roles they didn't think fit them. In the past, most people who had sex-reassignment surgery were at least in their 30s or 40s. (Now younger people are getting it too.)
Fairfield, Iowa: In some societies and indigenous cultures, the community recognizes the existence of more than one gender and some communities even go so far as giving special status to transgender members of their community. Is the problem more our society's idea of gender and less the transgender peoples' idea of themselves?
Debra Rosenberg: We came across examples of transgender people in societies all over the world. And as you say, transgender people are sometimes given an exalted status and revered—in some communities in Mexico and India, for example. It's safe to say that our own society has not been all that accepting of transgender so far.
Bangalore, India: Most of these truly touching stories have a common underlying theme of breaking free and the dilemma associated with it. However I wonder are there amongst us t-folk, people who like being in the middle enjoying both cliche' of sports illustrated and good house keeping at the same time.
Debra Rosenberg: I'm sure there are people who, as you put it, "like being in the middle." In our story, sociologist Michael Kimmel talks about the old boundaries of either/or, male/female breaking down into a much more fluid system. It doesn't seem like the United States is quite there yet on a societal level, but individual people might be. You also mention two pretty standard examples of gender roles—Sports Illustrated and Good Housekeeping. Who says women can't read about sports and men about housekeeping anyway?
East Stroudsburg, PA: I am 21, was born male, but am certainly transgender female. I live right now in a rural area, and have hardly any money for any kind of hair removal, which I would want to do first because I LOATHE shaving facial hair. It's painful.
I know a lot about transgender issues, but I do want to ask a question being that y'all are talking about me.
My question is obvious... Why? Why is this happening to all of us? Why us? We can't be all out of our minds. Most of us are very normal people. So what's wrong with us? Why are we faced with this extremely difficult life? Is there any scientific reason for this?
Debra Rosenberg: So far science doesn't seem to have a good answer to your question. We don't know enough about the differences between male and female brains to see if transgender brains are different. We don't know if there is some kind of genetic effect. And so far attempts to prove that transgender people were affected by hormones or other endocrine disrupting chemicals during pregnancy have not panned out. Perhaps one day researchers will get a better handle on this.
Glendora, CA: Is transgender more common in boys?
Debra Rosenberg: Yes. Doctors say boys are five times as likely as girls to have some kind of gender identity issue. That could be because it's easier in our society for girls to be masculine—act like tomboys—than it is for boys to be feminine—sissies. So maybe boys (or their parents) are more likely to voice complaints about not fitting in with other boys.
Glendora, CA: A lot of little kids like to dress up, so at what age does it cross the line from child's play into crossdressing?
Debra Rosenberg: You're right about that—not every child who says they want to be the opposite sex turns out to be transgender. In fact, doctors we spoke with said that only about 15 percent feel transgender when they grow up. Many others may turn out to be gay or lesbian—not because there is any link to sexual orientation, but because gender-variant play can also be a sign of homosexuality. Doctors seem to watch for kids who insist early (as toddlers) and consistently that they are the wrong gender. Many change their minds at puberty. But if they do not, doctors tend to take their statements about being transgender even more seriously.
Of course, many kids who are not gay or lesbian or transgender enjoy dressing up in clothes from the other gender. Doctors look for kids who are insisting on going farther than that—saying they really are the opposite sex, wanting to change their name or cut their hair. It's not just about what they wear.
San Francisco, CA: I am a transwoman and have been reading a lot about the fact that a M to F such as myself has a biologically male body but a biologically and neurologically female brain. This would certainly take a lot of the "mystery" out of it. If society were educated perhaps then there would be far less hate, violence and homicide committed against the transgender community, don't you think so to?
Debra Rosenberg: Even if scientists could find a biological cause for transgenderism, you never know whether that will change people's attitudes and lower violence and discrimination. People of different races—certainly a biologically determined state—have had to deal with similar problems throughout history.
Monterey, CA: How can you possibly expect people to take this cover story seriously when you (a) fail to mention the most important & eye-opening movie on the subject to date, "Transamerica" (2005) AND (b) don't even mention bisexuality, as if that isn't a factor in the situation. Do you really think stringing together a bunch of case studies and throwing in the ususal timeline constitutes news or research?
Debra Rosenberg: Glad you enjoyed our story! You're right—we didn't mention "Transamerica," but only because it's a two-year-old movie and we could only include so many example. (It was very illuminating on this subject, though, you are right.) We don't mention bisexuality because we do explain that trangenderism is completely separate from sexual orientation. We just didn't feel the need to list every type of sexual orientation.
Fairfax, VA: Our son, who will graduate from college in June, just informed us that he has requested the school to replace his given name with his adopted name. He also described to my wife the pretty new dress he/she purchased for the ceremony. We never saw this coming.
As in your article our son is small in size and weight, but growing up never did he show any signs of preferring to live as a female. From Cub Scout to Eagle he grew up as a boy, acted as a boy, played with other boys. Intelligent, articulate, he would research things that interested him to a fault. And it is here where my wife and I believe, our son, decided that life is better as a female. Not because he feels biologically drawn, but because he enjoys the intimacy a female has with her peers. He calls himself a gay/lesbian.
He says he is not attracted to men, but just enjoys female company. Our world is shattered as we search for clues that were missed. My question is this more of a sexual orientation than transgender? Can a person be drawn into a transgender life because he is intellectually intrigued with it?
Debra Rosenberg: Though transgender isn't the same thing as being gay or lesbian, the two can present some similar signs. I'm sure it's confusing to sort out what's going on with your son. Many young people are experimenting with gender in various ways—again, that fluidity that Michael Kimmel talked about. But I hope you can find some support for you and your family. You might try contacting a group like www.transfamily.org for further information.
Livonia, MI: Exactly how much has the definitions of gender changed since the olden days up until now?
Debra Rosenberg: If you just think about the last century in America, ideas about what men and women can or should do has changed dramatically. Women now work outside the home, wear pants, vote—even fight in the army. And men can be nurturers who stay at home with the kids and have dinner waiting. Our Founding Fathers had long hair and men with earrings weren't unheard of—trends that went away before coming back recently. Those things are all about gender roles, not biological sex, of course. But they do show that our notion of what's acceptable is always on the move.
Soutfield, MI: Are there anti-discrimination laws that will allow transgendered people to transition at the workplace without fear of being ostracized or worse being fired from their position?
Debra Rosenberg: Yes. A number of states have anti-discrimination laws that include gender identity or expression as a category that cannot be discriminated against. There's an effort underway now to add gender identity to the federal Employment Non-Discrimination Act. But that act has had trouble passing in previous years even without gender identity on board.
Seattle, WA: Why is it that no one ever mentions bigenderism when speaking of these issues, or has anyone even heard that term?
Debra Rosenberg: Interesting. I have not heard the term bigenderism myself. There are "intersex" people born with ambiguous genitalia or genitalia of both sexes. But this sounds like an equivalent term for gender as opposed to biology. Maybe it will catch on.
Chandler, AZ: Why do you use the umbrella term, "Transgender" when the more precise and more appropriate term, "Transsexual" is available. "Transgender" covers the whole gamut from casual crossdressers, fetishist transvestites, through to those who have or want reassignment surgery.You wouldn't write an article about French culture, but continually refer to it as European culture, would you? Refering to transsexual people as transgendered people is akin to that.
Debra Rosenberg: We used the umbrella term "transgender" because it was broader and included people who didn't want to have surgery. I know some people, like the tennis player Renee Richards, do prefer to be called "transsexuals," however. We decided to use the most general term to be most inclusive.
Centreville, VA: I am a parent of a boy who is working to transgender m-f. As a youngster there were not apparent feminine inclinations- in discussions this was confirmed to me. We wonder whether being Transgender m-f is a way to be more accepted because he says he ( on hormones for 2 years so working to be a she and presenting as a female) always felt a bit of a loner? Our child feels women are more accepting and is comfortable presenting as a woman and actually feels "she " is more comfortable dating females. Isn't it possible this transgender
posture is a way of fitting in and that it is not necessary to truly embrace another gender.
Debra Rosenberg: That's an interesting question and a tough one to answer. Many people who consider themselves transgender also say they felt lonely growing up—perhaps because they felt they could never share their true selves. Your child will have to decide whether there's some way short of changing gender that feels comfortable.
New York, NY: Why isn't this phenomenon happening in countries where people are more preocupied with life and death or hunger situations?we are spoiled so bad!
Debra Rosenberg: Actually, this does happen all over the world. We looked at photos from Albania, the Philippines and Mexico to name just a few. Perhaps we just don't hear about transgender in other cultures.
Suwanee, GA: Where does a sister of a transgender (MtoF) go for a support group? I'm desperate and so sad and confused. Please—are there any counselors who are NOT transgendered and can help family members understand why their family is suddenly "fractured"—never to be the same...?
Debra Rosenberg: When a family member announces they are transgender, it can be difficult for the whole family. Fortuately, there are lots of resources out there. You might start with www.transfamily.org or www.genderodysseyfamily.com. If you feel uncomfortable working with someone connected to the transgender community, ask your primary care doctor for a referral to a counselor. At the very least, a therapist could help you deal with your feelings about the situation.
Anonymous: Why is it that under 1 percent of people who believe that they were born the wrong gender have all the rights in the world to protect themselves with hate crime laws? It is a small want that will fuel a very large problem.
Debra Rosenberg: Many people of different races and genders will be protected under the new hate crimes law if it passes the Senate and President Bush signs it. Why shouldn't people be protected from hate crimes?
Debra Rosenberg: Well, looks like we are out of time. Thank you all for your thoughtful questions on this subject. I wish I could've answered even more of them.