July 17, 2014
Guests: Laura Erickson-Schroth - Jennifer Finney Boylan - Aiden Key
TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. A growing number of people are now identifying as transgender, which is an umbrella term for people whose chosen identity differs from the gender they were assigned at birth. This has raised a lot of interesting and constituted questions about gender identity. The new book "Trans Bodies, Trans Selves" is a collection of essays describing the varied experiences of trans people and the social, political and medical issues they face. The book was written by and for transgender and gender nonconforming people. As you can probably guess from the title, the book was inspired by the groundbreaking sixties feminist health manual, "Our Bodies Ourselves." I have three guests, Laura Erickson-Schroth edited the book. She's currently a Columbia University Medical Center, where she has a fellowship in public psychiatry and LGBT health. She's a founding member of the Gender and Family Network of New York City. Jennifer Finney Boylan wrote the introduction. She transitioned from male to female. She was a professor of English at Colby College for many years and is now a writer-in-residence at Barnard College. Her latest book is the memoir "Stuck In The Middle With You: A Memoir Of Parenting In Three Genders." Aiden Key wrote the chapter about gender nonconforming children. He's transitioned from male to female and is the founder of the family education and support organization, Gender Diversity. And he co-founded Seattle's Transgender Films Festival. Welcome all of you to FRESH AIR. Laura, let me start with you as the editor of "Trans Bodies, Trans Selves." Why did you want to put this book together?
LAURA ERICKSON-SCHROTH: So, I have a long history of run-ins with gender. When I was growing up I was very interested in sports, I was probably what you would call a tomboy, I wanted to wear masculine clothing. So, gender was something that was very apparent to me early in my life and that really hasn't changed. So, when I started college I started to learn about LGBT identities, lesbian, gay, bisexual and then transgender was something that I didn't really start learning about until a little bit later. When I started medical school a couple of things happened at once. One was that I started to meet people who were trans who were already in my life. So, there were people in my communities from college, who were coming out as trans, friends of mine. And I was also meeting a lot of patients who were transgender. And I started to see that there were some patterns, there were people talking about this disconnect between trans communities and providers. The idea was that providers really didn't understand and weren't educated about transgender people and trans-health. And trans people were really looking for ways to learn more and so were providers. I did a number of rotations in trans health and I realized that this was something that we could do something about, that we could create something where people could share information with each other. So, I thought about the book, "Our Bodies Ourselves" it had been something that was very present in my life from an early age, my mom had a copy on the shelf. And I had learned about a lot of things through it. It was a book that was put together in the late 60s by a group of woman - women who got together because they weren't getting the care that they needed from what was mostly a male physicians at the time. And so they put together this really radical book that included topics like abortion and rape and lesbian identity. And this was something that I thought that we could duplicate, something that was written by and for trans people about all aspects of life.
GROSS: And Laura just to clarify, you identify as lesbian right? And not as trans.
ERICKSON-SCHROTH: Right. So, this was something that was - gender issues we're something that came up for me a lot but I don't identify as trans myself. I'm really privileged to have - be able to work on a book like this, even though I'm not trans.
GROSS: So, in order to think clearly about transgender issues, I think it's helpful to have the right language. So, can I ask each of you to mention one or two words that you think would be helpful for everybody to know, so that they can speak clearly and communicate clearly and understand what transgender means? I think language is very helpful.
AIDEN KEY: OK, this is Aidan. The language that I typically use in my work world with both professionals and parents who are connected with transgender children, one of course is the word transgender. And another one is gender nonconforming. Gender nonconforming is just simply a term that says, the expression of that child's gender is different than what society stereotypically expects. So, it's a very broad term, gender nonconforming doesn't mean that a person is transgender. So, there's a distinction there, but it's very encompassing in terms of any child with any gender difference whether that's an identity or in their expression.
GROSS: Jenny, you had a suggestion.
JENNIFER FINNEY BOYLAN: Well, the word trans is a good one to know, just because it's vague. Sometimes you're going to run into somebody who's gender nonconforming or gender variant in some way but not necessarily know how they identify or what their journey is going to be. So, something simple and vague like trans is a nice, kind of, inclusive way of referring to someone before you know more. Another good word to know - and this word is relatively new, to me anyway, is cisgender. That's C-I-S gender, which means not transgender. It's worth noting that it didn't seem that this was a word that people knew we needed for a while. We use to just say not transgender, as if not transgender was the norm and transgender was where the trouble came in. But to think that cisgender and transgender are both two different ways of being human that are equally acceptable and fine, I think is helpful because it also helps us to think that transgender people are human and normal and should be defined according to who they are and not in terms of what they're not.
GROSS: So, I'd like to ask you, Jenny and Aidan some questions about your own experiences as transgender people. Aidan how did you know, like, that you were trans? Like what was the first inkling you had? How old were you? What were you experiencing that made you think something - that there was this, like, disconnect between how you thought of yourself and what your body said?
KEY: It's hard to name a time. The reality is that I was just me. I have an identical twin sister, which I think is relevant to my story. And she and I are alike in many, many ways and we are also unique in several ways. At some point I realized that the way I was perceived, the way that I identified, the way I wanted to express myself was something that those outside of me, society, classmates, etc., viewed as different. And I would say my earliest memories, I can bring up examples of that. So...
GROSS: Yeah, give us an example.
KEY: Well, this is a little bit older. So, let's say 9-years-old. I was raised in a born-again Christian household and this was a day I was attending church. And I was not fond of dresses but because there's certain expectations, this was one of them, it was a special Sunday service and I was required to wear a dress. I'm finished with Sunday school, there's an interim period before the regular church service starts. And because I feel so awkward and frankly exposed in a way that's even challenging to describe to others today, I was doing my best to fade into the woodwork until the church service started and then I could get out as fast as I could afterwards to change my clothes. So, I'm in between this Sunday school service and the church service and I'm looking around at all of the people in the lobby. And there are couples with families and I have my first awareness, real cognizant awareness that I'm supposed to grow up, get married, have a family. And at that moment I understood clearly that I wanted to get married, I wanted to have a family. I did not want to be the mother. I did not want to be the wife. I wanted to be the father and the husband. I also knew at that very same instance that this was not something I would articulate out loud to anyone else, including my closest friend, my twin sister. I already knew at 9-years-old that there was no cultural context for this - that no one would understand. I'd never heard anyone make some reference to feeling this way.
GROSS: Jenny what was your experience with the body of a boy feeling that you were a girl? When did you start experiencing that?
BOYLAN: Yeah, as Aidan said it was something that I was aware of very early. It's one of my earliest memories. I was probably about 5-years-old. My mother was ironing some shirts of my father's and I remember she said something like, one day you'll wear shirts like these. And I remember thinking what? Why? And almost simultaneous with that I remember thinking. Uh oh, I'm supposed to grow up to be like my father, really? And as Aidan said almost simultaneous with that insight was the companion insight, that it was something that I'd better keep private. That there was just no model for expressing the thing that I felt inside. Now it's probably worth noting that when you're a child, you don't have a very specific sense of the differences between boys and girls, I mean not really. It's pretty vague. So, that sense of difference is something that also involved and changed over time. Adolescence was particularly painful. My memory of adolescence was seeing all of the girls that I knew become young women and for me I remember thinking that it was like being on a dock, watching the ship sail away with everyone like me on it and thinking that I'm left behind.
GROSS: And you didn't tell anybody about your feelings?
BOYLAN: No, I didn't tell anyone. The first person that I had a conversation about was a psychologist in New York after college. So, I was into my 20s and of course the first psychologist that I talked to knew less about what it meant to be trans than I did. And so, in fact he not only gave me information that was not helpful , he gave me information that was wrong and that in some ways delayed my being able to solve or to address my troubles by years. I think that's one of the things that "Trans Bodies, Trans Selves" is trying to push back against. For years the information that was out there, was generally information that was known by trans people and not known by the people who were supposed to be in charge of helping them.
GROSS: I have three guests, Laura Erickson-Schroth edited the new book "Trans Bodies, Trans Selves: A Resource For The Transgender Community." Jennifer Finney Boylan who was just speaking, wrote the introduction and Aiden Key wrote the chapter about gender nonconforming children. We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I have three guests. Laura Erickson-Schroth edited the new book, "Trans Bodies, Trans Selves," a resource for the transgender community. Jennifer Finney Boylan wrote the introduction. She transitioned from male to female. Aidan Key wrote the chapter about gender nonconforming children. He transitioned from female to male.
As the book "Trans Bodies, Trans Selves" points out, not everybody who identifies with trans wants to go through gender reconstructive surgery, or even some people who do - just do - part of it, and not all of it.
Can I ask you each whether you felt you wanted to physically change your body, or whether just identifying and dressing, and, you know, having people identify you as the gender you thought you were, was that sufficient?
KEY: It's a difficult question to answer because there can be some hypotheticals. What if we lived in a society that really did fully receive us for who we are, we say we are? If we were able to communicate that to someone else, and they had a frame of reference for that and incorporated that into how they viewed us moving forward, it might mean that some physical changes are less urgent. But for me, there was some desire to have physical changes, just as I was not interested in having some physical change when puberty hit. There was definitely, definitely no interest in having breasts, for example. When they showed up, I thought, well it's all over. The future has been set. And the nice thing about physical transition is that, there are some ways that we can change that and get ourselves more aligned with exactly how we feel.
GROSS: So you decided to have some surgery?
KEY: I did.
GROSS: And I should point out, I've seen pictures of you. You're at a studio in Seattle; I'm in Philadelphia. So we're not face-to-face. I've seen pictures of you. You have a beard.
KEY: (Laughing) It's a fact.
GROSS: And, can I ask...
KEY: I - I
GROSS: ...Yeah. Go ahead.
KEY: (Laughing) Well, it's a funny - funny question. Is it a question? What is your question about that?
GROSS: What is my question? What did you need to do in order to grow a beard?
KEY: Let my body interact with testosterone. And it does its thing. Chest hair comes too. You can't see that so much over a - on a photo. But yeah, my body changed. I would say that within starting my hormone regimen that I gained 15 pounds in a couple months - just muscle growth. Energy level increased. Facial hair. Body hair et cetera, increased. My voice changed - somewhat.
So there are some physical changes that testosterone affects, just as it does anyone who produces it. Women and men have testosterone in varying levels, and we see all the ways that that works on the body.
GROSS: So when you started acquiring more male characteristics physically, did you feel more at home in your body, that you were in the place the were supposed to be?
KEY: Absolutely. But one thing I'd like to say that - even less so than the physical manifestations - was the relief I felt. It was coming home, so to speak. I felt finally, that the way that I was responding, the way I was engaging in life, the way I felt in my self, finally fit. And, I don't know how to articulate it much better than that but, it did feel like finally - finally here I am.
BOYLAN: Can I chime in on that?
GROSS: ...Yes please.
BOYLAN: I just - I felt something very similar, which is that sense of being at rest, being at peace.
So estrogen had a profound effect on my body. And, in some ways nearly the reverse of the things that Aidan was just describing. But none of those changes were the changes that were most important. The biggest change was the ability to wake up in the morning and not to have to think about it. When I was a guy I'd wake up in the morning, and I'd think, oh my gosh, I've got to go through this again? I've got to put on this whole show. And it was demeaning and exhausting most of the time. And now, I wake up in the morning and I - what I have, in some ways, is a thing that most cisgender women have, which is the ability to wake up in the morning and not to have to worry, oh my God what gender am I going to be today?
And I mean, the other big change, for me, was also going from a person who had a secret to a person who didn't have a secret. And, in some ways that was a more profound change than anything else that happened physically.
GROSS: We live in an era where in a lot of places, you can really wear whatever you want. And a lot of women who are, you know, cross-dressing, dress in the same way men do; jeans and a T-shirt and a jacket. And, a lot of men wear variations on jeans, and T-shirts, and jackets. So you could kind of dress the same as either gender. What changes did you make in your clothing when you started assuming the gender that you identified as?
BOYLAN: Well, early on, I went through a phase - and this is somewhat typical of some transsexual women - I went through a phase where I kind of had a second adolescence. I was very youthful for a 40-year-old. And you know, I wore kind of stretchy T-shirts, and skirts, and things. And it was very trying for the people who were around me, I must say. But, once I kind of got that out of my system - because I mean, it really was like something that had been caged up for years, and years, and years, and suddenly I was let loose, you know. There really was this tremendous sense of release. But, once I got past that, I kind of did wear jeans, and T-shirts, and flannel shirts like everybody else in the state of Maine which is important to note because for me, ultimately it was not about clothes.
GROSS: Well, the ironic, and often to me confusing thing, is if somebody is transitioning from male to female, and in their female identity they start wearing like, heels, and skirts, and things like that, I'm thinking in some ways that's very gender-stereotyped behavior. That, you know, girls wear heels...
BOYLAN: Yeah. It is.
GROSS: ...and skirts. And at that point, it starts to get baffling like - what - what is gender? You know, like...
BOYLAN: Right. Exactly.
GROSS: ...what does it mean to be a woman? Does wearing heels mean you're a woman? I mean, does being a woman mean you're supposed to wear heels or skirts?
BOYLAN: Yeah. I should hope not. And, I would say that of the trans women that I know who've gone through transition, those who have - who have had the softest landing, who've succeed in that transition are generally the ones who were feminists before; when they were men. Well actually, I should be careful with that phrase, when they were men - but - before transition.
BOYLAN: If you were male-bodied before transition and you identified as a feminist, the odds, seemed to me, much more likely that you will know the world that you are joining. You understand what it is you are going to be up against because you can't build a life around stilettos and sponge cake. And any person goes through transition thinking that being a woman is a big gender party, is probably in for a disappointment.
GROSS: We'll continue our discussion about issues faced by trans, and gender nonconforming people in the second half of the show, with my three guests. Laura Erickson-Schroth edited the new book "Trans Bodies, Trans Selves." Jennifer Finney Boylan wrote the introduction. Aidan Key wrote the chapter on gender nonconforming children.
I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview about issues facing trans and gender non-conforming people. I have three guests. Laura Erickson-Schroth edited the new book, "Trans Bodies, Trans Selves: A Resource For The Transgender Community." Jennifer Finney Boylan wrote the introduction. She transitioned from male to female. Aidan Key wrote the chapter about gender non-conforming children. He transition from female to male. So Aidan, let me ask you, when you transitioned from female to male, what kind of changes in your outer appearance did you want to make when your physical body conformed more to your identity - your sense of identity?
KEY: Not much. You know, I really wasn't interested in having breasts. Those went away. And I actually loved having long hair. But one of the things that I found as I transitioned to male, and more and more people were perceiving as male, is that that long hair sent a different message. I got a lot of dudes and bros, and are you in a band? And things like that. And I found that people didn't take me seriously and were disrespectful. So I opted to cut hair - cut my hair. That was a compromise that I made - like OK, my authentic self would love to still have my long hair and flip it over my shoulder. But I weigh out the repercussions of that and I'm not going to advocate for all the men in the world who wish to have long hair and try to make that a better experience. I've got enough on my plate in terms of my world-changing activities. So instead, I compromised and cut my hair. That's a choice. As far as clothing, I wear the same clothes. That's...
GROSS: Which is what?
KEY: That's one of the blessings of the latitude that women have in our society is that we can wear the jeans and the t-shirt. So yeah, I just wear clothes that I'm comfortable in. The translation of my presentation, however, is quite different. If you think about kind of a more masculine-expressing woman with jeans and a t-shirt and whatever, I came across as working-class, probably lesbian. The masculinity was there. So that sends a certain message to people. And they engage with me in a certain way based on what they perceive. So now my presentation is, well, I'm white. I'm male. I come across middle-class, educated. And it allows my voice to land in different ways than it used to. It allows me a freedom of movement that I didn't have before. My wife and I even - we moved to a new neighborhood and we felt a little stymied and stunned by the fact that everybody was really open and welcoming when we first moved there, rather than in my previous experience where if we're perceived as a lesbian couple, folks were not necessarily unkind or rude, but definitely more stand-offish. So my wife affectionately refers to it as the wind tunnel of heterosexual privilege.
GROSS: So you mentioned you're married to a woman. Were you together before you transitioned to male?
GROSS: And so can I ask do you think of yourself now as straight or lesbian? I assume you're going to say you think of yourself as a straight man now. But I don't know what you're going to say. (Laughing).
KEY: Yeah, I'm not sure what I'm going to say here because I absolutely don't view myself as lesbian. That implies female. You know, honestly, I love my gender and I feel like it's a bit of both. My presentation is male so I identify as male in the world for the - for most conversations that I have. But when I get to know somebody a little bit more, I talk about the fluidity of gender and that, you know, I never felt female. And I don't fully feel male. And I'm not sure whether that's my innate sense of myself or just because of my experience - my socialized experience in life. But I do feel at peace and at ease with who I am. And when people say - ask me questions about my gender, I say I've got a lot of it.
GROSS: OK, that's good enough. And, Jenny, when you were physically male - and help me out with the language here - when you were physically male, you were married to a woman and you stayed married after you transitioned to female. So...
BOYLAN: Yes, we celebrated our...
GROSS: Yeah, go ahead.
BOYLAN: We celebrated our wedding anniversary two weeks ago. We've been married for 26 years. I think it's been 12 as husband and wife and 14 as wife and wife.
GROSS: So the book, "Trans Bodies, Trans Selves," to which you both contributed chapters, points out that, you know, gender and sexual orientation are different issues and people identify differently with them. So when you changed physically, did you feel like you changed sexual orientation while staying married to the same woman?
BOYLAN: There was a time right after transition, like kind of when womanhood was all new, when I wasn't quite sure where I was. I felt kind of bewildered a little bit. But the woman that I am married to, who is named Grace in the books that I have written including the memoir - she's not there - but whose real name is Deedie. Deedie has always been the center of my universe and I've always been primarily, I mean, I've been attracted to her. And I'm still attracted to her. And so I guess I was a straight guy sort of back in the day. And I guess now we're a lesbian couple. But we're the same people and we still love each other the same way.
GROSS: So do you feel if people look at you differently as a couple now that you to the world look like a lesbian couple whereas before to the world you looked like a straight couple?
BOYLAN: Yeah, you know, I don't - I don't really know, quite frankly. People are generally very nice to us. Maybe it has something to do with living in rural Maine, just a kind of open-hearted place. It might have something to do with the fact that we've lived here so long and kind of everyone knows us. You know what, there's - I know small towns can be a dangerous place to be for people who are different. But they can also be places in which you can feel protected because you have a community. It used to be one of the things they would tell transgender people - transsexual people to do is if you're going to go through transition, move away from your home. Divorce your wife or your husband, you know, and start life over under a new name. In fact, there was a word for it. It was called going stealth. And some people still do go stealth. But in some ways, if I had followed that path myself, I think I would've been denied all of the things that helped me and helped us thrive. So I kept my job at Colby College. I kept my friends - most of them, anyway. And above all, I kept the most important relationship in my life which is to Deedie. And all of those things I think sent a message that in most of the important ways, I was still the same person and that we were still the same people. You can call us lesbian now. You can call us straight before. You can call us - you know, you can kind of come up with names to describe this but we are who we are and what defines us is our love, and that's what has not changed.
GROSS: Was your wife always accepting of your change?
BOYLAN: No. No. She - when I kind of revealed this to her - 'cause I didn't tell her about it when we got married - a lot of this is in "She's Not There," the memoir. But when I revealed this to her, she was devastated. And I think the thing that was most devastating was not even the gender part of it so much as the fact that I had a secret that I had kept from her. And to bear that kind of secret is - it was hard for me but to have it revealed was really hard for her. And I think that, more than the gender issues, was what really shook us to the foundations when we were trying to decide whether to stay together or to continue together. But in time, as transition proceeded - and largely, we went through it together. It was a thing we talked about. We took one step at a time, really, throughout the whole process. As we proceeded on I became more familiar to her again and we became more familiar to each other.
GROSS: I have three guests. Laura Erickson-Schroth edited the new book, "Trans Bodies, Trans Selves: A Resource For The Transgender Community." Jennifer Finney Boylan, who was just speaking, wrote the introduction. And Aidan Key wrote the chapter about gender non-conforming children. We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I have three guests. Laura Erickson-Schroth edited the new book, "Trans Bodies, Trans Selves: A Resource For The Transgender Community. Jennifer Finney Boylan wrote the introduction. She transitioned from male to female. Aidan Key wrote the chapter about gender non-conforming children. He transitioned from female to male. I'd like to touch briefly on the question of sex, and I'd like to do without violating your privacy so if any of this is uncomfortable for you to discuss or off-limits just let me know. I don't know how much surgery either Aidan or Jenny has had. And here's what I would imagine is a real difficult dilemma if you are trans - you're not comfortable with the genitalia that you have. On the other hand, if you physically change it, you risk surgery that might have complications. You risk that it might not heal well. You risk that you might not have full sexual function afterwards. You might have discomfort. It might be more difficult to experience pleasure. Is there a way that you might feel comfortable just talking about making the decision of what - what - what trade-off you were willing to risk and how important the sexual aspect of the change you wanted to make was?
KEY: I could talk about that for a second. This is Aidan. I would say that the real journey is to find ourselves - for me to love who I am and for me to accept who I am despite the many, many messages I got from as young as I could remember that who I was was wrong and bad. That if I can embrace myself and say yeah, you're all right Aidan, then I've got a lot to work with. And if I feel that I am a wonderful person who is a sexy person and desirable, there will be people who are drawn to that. And that is the place to focus. Regardless of whether a person has specifically genital surgery, we have to feel accepting of ourselves to be able to feel desire and to be desirable. And if we get to that place, there's no shortage of partners. It's not that it won't have some complexities to navigate but we really can. But to get to that place of personal acceptance, you know, yes, we roll our sleeves up and do some hard work but the burden of the remainder of the work is everyone else to change societal's notions of what it means to be male or female. Just think of the concept of gender identity. Gender identity, really, simply put - at least how I define it - is a person's innate sense of their own gender. So I say this is my gender and that's the end of the story. If we can - as a society if we can accept that as truth, we will get a long way in this journey.
GROSS: And I guess - and you might not be comfortable answering this - but I guess I'm wondering if you think changing genitals is essential to the identity change that you want yourself to feel and want the world to acknowledge. That might be off-limits in which case it's fine. I thought I'd ask.
KEY: No worries. Hey, it is important to some people, absolutely. And it is not important to other people. So - and you'll have a wide range of experiences in between where someone says hey, it's not important to me. And 10 years later they're like wow, actually, I'm finding I really need to face this. I'm going to leave it a big mystery for you and the rest of society who's listening to wonder about my genitals 'cause I think that'd be kind of fun.
GROSS: That's fine with me. (Laughing).
BOYLAN: Terry, the question of surgery is an interesting one for a couple other reasons. For one thing, it's the thing that traditionally in the media always gets fixated on - the question of tell us about the surgery. What happens in the surgery? Have you had the surgery? And transgender people have, for decades, offered up their most private selves as fodder for these kinds of interviews - often willingly, of course. But we're trying to get to a place now where when we talk about transgender people it's not a conversation about a trip to the doctor's office. And to some degree, what is private for everyone else ought to be private for us as well. It is an interesting question. And it's a question that's really worth considering. But it's the thing that we need the media, in particular, to start being a little more sensitive - and I'm not saying that your question was insensitive. I think it was very well put. But it raises another question for me which is the way in which transgender issues are linked to issues of privilege and class which also, in our culture, connect to issues of race. So if you are someone who wants to have the surgery, increasingly, insurance companies are slowly changing, and more and more surgeries are being covered by insurance. But there are things that some insurance companies won't pay for. So we're talking about a large medical bill -if we're talking about surgery. And if we're talking about a large bill to pay then we're talking about whether or not people have the wherewithal - whether they have the money to pay for all that and all the other stuff that goes along with it. And so now we're talking about some people in this culture who have either the right insurance or a disposable income which will make the services that they need to be themselves available to them. And then we have other people in the culture who don't.
ERICKSON-SCHROTH: And Terry, I would add that along those lines if you're talking about surgery, there's often a focus on genital surgery. And there are a number of different surgeries that people choose to undergo or able to afford to undergo. And often people choose to have surgeries that have more of an impact on how they're going to appear to other people on a day-to-day basis.
GROSS: Like neck surgery?
ERICKSON-SCHROTH: Right. So having an Adam's apple reduction, for example, may change how someone is perceived and may increase their level of safety walking down the street. So there are considerations that people have that aren't often addressed in the larger media.
GROSS: I have three guests. Laura Erickson-Schroth edited the book, "Trans Bodies, Trans Selves: A Resource For The Transgender Community." Jennifer Finney Boylan wrote the introduction. And Aidan Key wrote the chapter about gender non-conforming children. We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I have three guests. Laura Erickson-Schroth edited the new book "Trans bodies, Trans Selves," a resource for the transgender community. Jennifer Finney Boylan wrote the introduction. She transitioned from male to female. Aidan Key wrote the chapter about gender-non-conforming children. He transitioned from female to male. Aidan, professionally, what you do is you work with the parents of children who are beginning to identify as trans. And you work with schools who have trans children in them. You do a lot of workshops. You work with the children, as well. I think it must be so hard for parents whose children seem to be heading in the direction of trans, but you don't know, when somebody's a child, what's a fantasy and what's something that is really kind of deep-seated and permanent. You don't know - if a boy says he really wants to be a girl - whether that's the equivalent of saying I want to be Superman, you know, or want to be any other character I've seen in a movie. How do you recommend - and I know we would talk about this for hours - but how do you recommend a parent tell whether their child really is heading in the direction of trans or not?
KEY: They don't need to make that decision. What they need to do is provide a way for - to support their child in that exploration. There's no question that these parents love their children, but there are hundreds of questions about how to best love them and support them. We're shifting the focus to asking - instead of asking the child to change, we want society to change. That's a big inconvenience to society, but that's what these parents are doing is rolling their sleeves up to actually create that space of exploration for these kids and to provide that support. So when we have these critical elements of both familial and society support in place, these kids' lives are transformed. Their end destination is not so important.
GROSS: What do you, you know - since you...
KEY: You know, when I...
GROSS: ...I just want to say - since you work with children now, what do you wish you had when you were a child and questioning your own gender?
KEY: An opportunity to be heard. I would've loved to have been provided some language and context for this - that who I thought myself to be - that actually might exist - that other people might experience that, and just to have an opportunity to talk about it would've been a great start.
GROSS: Jenny, what do you wish you had when you were a child?
BOYLAN: Well, in some ways, I had what I needed, which was loving parents. When I - my parents were very conservative and my mother was very religious. When I came out to her - and she was about 85 years old - I spilled the beans, and then I began to cry. And then she got up out of her chair, and she put her arms around me and she said, I would never turn my back on my child. I will always love you. She said, I don't know what this is, but I can promise you love will prevail. And in many ways, she was right. And that conservative, religious older woman wound up being one of my biggest supporters and a source of love, and so I hope that parents who have children, spouses who are married to people - anyone who has a friend who is trans, I hope that they can trust that love will prevail.
GROSS: Aidan, you had said that your parents were born again Christians. Did religion work in your favor when you told your parents?
KEY: My mother had allowed for a lot of - lot of stretching room within that faith. So I think that served me really well. And I'm actually really appreciative of my upbringing because it helps me translate my experience of being transgender to others who have no awareness or inkling of what that might be like. And I can - I can speak to the faith-based issue, and I can - I can discuss my own journey through that - to coming out the other side and feeling right with God. So I - I value that. I know it's absolutely not the experience for most people, but I consider myself very fortunate to have a parent who said I love you. I see you, and I will support you.
GROSS: Laura, as a psychiatrist, what direction do you hope your profession will head in and how they work professionally with people who are trans?
ERICKSON-SCHROTH: Well, I'm hoping that mental health professionals will start to let trans people take the lead and allow people to educate us and teach us what we need to know about trans communities and what it is like to be trans. I think taking a stance from the outside and assuming things about people is probably the worst thing you could do.
GROSS: I want to thank all three of you for being here and for being so open with us. Thank you very much.
ERICKSON-SCHROTH: Thank you, Terry.
KEY: It's been wonderful.
BOYLAN: My pleasure.
GROSS: Laura Erickson-Schroth edited the new book "Trans Bodies, Trans Selves." Aidan Key wrote the chapter on gender-non-conforming children. Jennifer Finney-Boylan wrote the introduction. She's also the author of the memoir "Stuck in the Middle With You: A Memoir of Parenting in Three Genders.
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