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'Falling gracefully' into a true gender

Last modified: 7/26/2010 12:00:00 AM
Lee Basna, 22, drove from Rhode Island to Concord this weekend in search of the courage to tell his co-workers he used to live life as a girl. Janice Josephine Carney, 60, of Massachusetts came to inspire: Her children are no longer angry their father chose to become a woman.

And Lorelei Erisis, 37, the reigning (and first) Miss Trans New England, provided some comic relief. Erisis, 6 feet 4 inches tall and for years a man, was asked how to walk in high heels. "It's like falling," with each step, she said. "Falling gracefully."

This weekend, more than 70 people from as far away as Missouri and Arizona came to Concord for New Hampshire's first TransForm New Hampshire, a conference for anyone interested in or already living a transgender life. For those unsure about the lingo, that includes cross dressing, living between genders, and using hormones or surgery to become more male or female.

The youngest attendee was under 18. Some there had already "come out" with their new male or female identity and were using the corresponding pronouns and clothes. Many were using hormone replacement therapy to develop the breasts and hips of a woman or the facial hair of a man.

Erisis lost the muscle tone in her arms and welcomed the softening of her skin. She wore a low-cut cotton sundress well yesterday. She and others talked often about the pain and discomfort of living with the gender they were "assigned" as children. For them the gender they were born with is the one they are pursuing in both subtle and obvious ways.

One presenter, Allyson Robinson, the associate diversity director for the Human Rights Campaign, says she doesn't always feel compelled to say she's a transgendered woman. The choice of  "coming out" is a personal one that she makes on a case-by-case basis.

She joked about a woman who once told her she looked fantastic after having four children. She opted not to reveal that she had fathered the kids, not carried them.

"I said, 'I go to the gym,' " she said.

But many of the attendees came to Concord for support and information, for themselves or a friend or family member on a transgender journey. The event was sponsored by TransMentors International and the New Hampshire Civil Liberties Union.

"The reality is we are all alike far more than we are different," said Claire Ebel, executive director of the civil liberties union. "We all have issues. We all have problems. And we all have joys. The differences of gender and sexuality are irrelevant."

Basna told his parents two years ago he was becoming male because the agony of living as a woman was ruining his life. He said he had become an angry loner because it seemed everyone but him was comfortable in their own skin.

"When you are a woman walking down the street, everyone looks at you," Basna said. "Men are checking you out, and women are comparing themselves to you."

The news didn't go over well with Basna's parents, and they kicked him out of their New Jersey home. Basna moved to New Hampshire because the state's motto, Live Free or Die, appealed to him.

"That's what I was looking for, to live free," he said.

Life has improved greatly since then. Hormone therapy has given Basna a full beard, and he's thankful he can pass for a man. He never had a problem with harassment in New Hampshire, he said, and would eventually like to raise a family here.

But he's working and living in Rhode Island, and the climate at work there is different. Basna's co-workers joke about transgender people in front of him. He said he wonders how he should tell them he's one himself.

"They need to have their ideas challenged," Basna said. "People have lost their lives for (transgender equality.) They have paved the way, and I shouldn't take advantage of that and be secretive."

But how, he asked Robinson, Erisis and the other presenters.

Start with a supervisor or a human resources administrator you trust, Basna was told. It's their job to set and enforce a tone of respect in the workplace. Then, tell the co-workers most likely to be accepting and move on from there. And do it professionally and positively, said Kim Pearson, executive director of TransYouth Family Allies.

"Don't describe it as, 'We have a problem,' because then you have a 'problem,' " Pearson said. "And there is a difference between blurting it out and coming out. It can be empowering."

Sometimes, but not always.

Carney, whose only giveaway is her deep voice, needed some time to feel empowered when she came out to her wife and children about 12 years ago. Her young kids were embarrassed, and her marriage ended in divorce. Teachers told her children they were "sorry about their father."

Carney was living in the Derry and Salem area at the time and was looking for a second part-time job to supplement her military pension. When the Derry School District told her it would never allow "a transsexual around kids," she sued.

Then things began to turn around.

Carney won a settlement with the school district for the pay she would have received had it hired her. As her kids got older, they grew more accepting. Her daughter started a straight and gay alliance at her high school.

Carney, now living in Massachusetts, is no longer estranged from her wider family or her ex-wife. Carney's hope is to show others, especially teenagers and kids struggling with gender confusion, that they can find support.

"You can find peace and happiness," she said. "There are so many transgendered stories that end in misery and violence. I'm here to tell you that's not always so."

A 20-year-old from Portland, Maine, at the conference yesterday said he hopes that's true when he tells his father he now "identifies as a male." He has told his mother and a sibling but fears his father won't understand or accept the news.

"I don't feel comfortable in a female body," he said, asking to be anonymous since his father does not yet know. "I'm comfortable being feminine but not a female. I guess I would be an effeminate man."

What does that mean? For him, it means his friends use the words "he" and "him" and his male name because they know that makes him comfortable. And they let that be a part of him, not the whole of him. He hopes his father will be open enough to ask the right questions: How long have you felt this way? How do you feel about your body? How can I help?

"I'm nervous to tell my dad but excited, too," he said. "I'm sick of having to have all these secrets from my family. I'm tired of not being able to be myself."

CORRECTION: The original version of this story incorrectly said Allyson Robinson had had surgery to alter her looks. That is not the case.


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