Greater State: Transgender Isn’t a Sexual Orientation

Ann Elder, left, shares a photo of her transgender son with a staffer for Rep. Dennis Paul (R-Houston) as Mitchel Roth and Lisa Mauldin look on during lobby day at the Texas Capitol.
John Wright
Ann Elder, left, shares a photo of her transgender son with a staffer for Rep. Dennis Paul (R-Houston) as Mitchel Roth and Lisa Mauldin look on during lobby day at the Texas Capitol.

I was taking a break recently from my work lobbying for transgender Texans, enjoying a view of the Capitol dome from a spot near the rotunda, when I heard something that took me back to my childhood.

An elementary school teacher leading kids on a tour told them to form two lines. “Boys on the left, girls on the right,” she said. I watched as they followed instructions. I also listened for something else familiar. In a few moments, I heard it: the teacher telling one of them, “That’s not your line. Get in line with the boys.”

I hated gender-segregated lines as a child. As long as we were all together I could feel like I was a part of the group, but when they made us separate, and put me with the boys, I felt singled out. I didn’t belong.

It would be many years before I questioned why I gravitated toward girls during recess. I just knew I liked their games. They were imaginative, cooperative and focused on make-believe. One day we turned the monkey bars into a castle, and everyone was a princess or a lady, except me. The ladies of the castle decreed that I should be a knight and defend the castle from marauding boys. I didn’t want to be a knight, even a make-believe one. I wanted to be in the castle. I wanted to belong.

When I tell people that I’m transgender, they don’t understand that I’m talking about standing in the wrong line in elementary school or being inside the castle. They don’t understand how I grew up feeling betrayed by my own body and unfit for the role I was supposed to play in life.

The idea that everyone has a gender identity distinct from physiology and independent of sexual orientation is not new, but identity so frequently matches physiology that it’s hard for people to think of them separately. When children’s gender identities don’t match their physiology, they are transgender. Many think transgender is homosexual orientation taken to an extreme, but transgender is different. It describes who we are, not whom we are attracted to.

I was 7 or 8 the first time I put on women’s clothes. I locked the bathroom door and took my mom’s slip from the hamper. I took off my boy clothes and wore the slip like a dress. I was shocked when Caitlyn Jenner described her own version of that event from my life so accurately in her recent interview with Diane Sawyer. Like Jenner, I didn’t understand why I had done it. Like her, I had carefully marked the position of the slip in the pile of laundry, and I put it all back in exactly the same place.

I knew I could never—ever—tell anyone, because my parents might not love me if they found out. It was a terrible secret for a child to have to keep.

Then there was puberty. When my little sister had her first menses, my mom sat us down to have “the talk.” It was the first time I heard a woman talk about living in her own body. She was trying to instill pride in us for the roles we would play when we had families of our own, but I felt betrayed. I felt like there had been some momentous gender lottery before I was born and that I lost without even knowing it had happened.

The fact that I mostly dated girls and have been married to the same woman for 23 years really confuses people. Some think it must mean I’m not really transgender. I don’t quite know how to explain to them that the ways in which women see and interact with the world just make more sense to me than the ways men do, and that I’m more comfortable in my relationships with women.

I’ve changed a lot since I was 6 years old. People know me now as Claire. My driver’s license and passport identify me to the world as a woman. My body has changed, and I see a woman when I look in a mirror. The confusion and the hiding that was so much a part of my life is all behind me, but I still remember it. I’m an activist and an advocate for transgender rights because I wonder and worry about the future of that child, and so many like him, standing in the wrong line at the Capitol. I want to tell them it gets better.

Published at 11:57 am CST