COVER STORY

Transgender community confronts toxic, right-wing rhetoric in Michigan

‘Christian lens’ fueling GOP bigotry against transgender people

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Kammie Mead stood on the lawn of the state Capitol on March 31, 2019, in the early spring cold. Under her arm, she held a framed photo. She was shy, quiet, hanging on the edge of a crowd gathered for the International Day of Transgender Visibility. She was there to keep a promise. 

The promise was to her son, Ken — who was smiling back at her in the picture. 

“I didn’t show it around,” she said. “It wasn’t anybody’s business. But Ken was there with me.” 

Mead, 52, was not hiding her son. At 17, eight months earlier, he killed himself after years of physical, verbal and sexual abuse by his peers. She could not place a specific interaction as the trigger that caused him to hang himself, but he had “lost his mental health battles,” she said. She struggled with her emotions as she remembered his life. 

“Ken wanted to be himself,” she said. “Ken wanted to be accepted for himself.” 

Kammie Mead cradled his picture in her arms, placing the picture close to her heart as she listened to the stories. And she was welcomed to the family of transgender, nonbinary and gender nonconforming people and their supporters. Much of that communion and the familial structure of cross support for the trans community and allies remain, despite an avalanche of legislative and political attacks leveled at the transgender community from across the nation. 

Transgender people and their allies have been subjected to criminal child abuse investigations in Texas and silenced in Florida schools. Right-wing politicians in Michigan have also accused those who support transgender people of “grooming,” pedophilia and being forced into gender reassignment surgeries. Such allegations were key talking points at the Michigan GOP nominating convention over the weekend too. 

Welcome to the Trans Wars of 2022. 

It’s a clash that had simmered across the country for years, with school districts, public bodies and businesses landing in courts — both for supporting transgender students and for not supporting them — and transgender people were subjected to more domestic and community violence, including murder, and high levels of suicides among transfolks because they did not have the social or medical support to become the person they saw in their own mind’s eye. 

This political drumbeat and vitriolic rhetoric targeting transfolks have left Mid-Michigan parents and transyouth afraid for the future. 

“I absolutely worry that it’s going to fan those flames,” said Jim Hines, a local fiction writer whose daughter Jamie is transgender, referencing the current wave of political rhetoric. 

Seventeen-year-old Jamie Hines said while she has not experienced violence as a result of their gender identity, she’s discussed such fears with her sister: “It’s like I really hope these people don’t jump out and start beating me, because that’s a thing we both have to worry about.” 

That fear is real, according to national advocates for the LGBTQ community. The Human Rights Campaign reported 2021 as the deadliest year on record for the murders of trans and nonbinary Americans. The organization, which touts itself as the largest LGBTQ rights advocacy organization in the country, identified 50 nonbinary and transgender people who were murdered. The organization also noted that the number is likely significantly lower than the actual numbers of trans and nonbinary people being murdered every year, citing data that nearly half of the 50 cases in their report — 24 of them — had initially misgendered the victims. 

Jamie Hines (who uses she/their pronouns) recalled a childhood where she was blissfully unaware of the construction of male and female. But as she hit puberty, their view of the world shifted and she realized she was truly a woman. She said she texted her father with the realization. 

For Jim Hines, it was not a surprise. Jamie Hines had changed their pronoun references on social media. Despite knowing “more about her” than he did before she came out, Jim Hines said he still has episodes where he struggles with the correct gender pronouns. 

He recalled that he regularly used the phrase “you silly boy” as a joking way to chastise the children. He’s had to remove that from his language, but he said extended family still struggles. 

“She’s a lot better about that than me,” Jim Hines said. “She reminds me they are good people.” 

The idea of gender in western culture has been defined, most often, through the lens of religious majorities. Under this presumptive construct, there are two genders: male and female. Religious opponents of transgender people’s rights argue that gender transitions are an affront to God. 

As with all things genetically linked, the causative genetic interactions related to the way people perceive their gender is shrouded with questions. But studies have found that in many ways the brain of a transgender person operates similarly to the gender that person identifies with — not the one assigned at birth. Scientific American has a deep, complicated blog on the interactions of the brain, genes, hormones and more. The takeaway? There are not just two genders. There is a spectrum of gender identities and expressions influenced, at least in part, by genetics and brain structures. 

The other side 

Lansing area attorney David Kallman has sued school districts and a fitness center gym over transgender-inclusive policies. For him, there is a fundamental conflict between his religious beliefs and the pluralistic society of America. He also represented parents in a lawsuit against Williamston Community Schools who were trying to overturn a transgender inclusion policy. 

Kallman said he doesn’t deny that he faces the issue of transgender inclusion with a “Christian lens,” and that’s “where a lot of people are coming from.” 

That lens is a fixed binary of gender: male and female. It leaves no room for transgender people or intersex persons. But gender identity and expression arise on a continuum, flaunting and transgressing that traditional perception of gender by calling on people to acknowledge the full humanity, including gender identities, of the gender spectrum. 

His approach, he said, rests with the question: “What is the best way to help this person?” 

Kallman added: “I don’t look at it as if they’re the enemy or somebody that I have to try to defeat. But now you’re going to have this clashing of positions, and that’s what’s leading to the uproar.” 

Kallman said it is unfortunate that the legal debate “bleeds over” to people “hating each other on both sides.” Quotin his late father, who was an Ingham County circuit judge, Kallman said: “We can agreeably disagree.” 

Despite this veneer of compassion, Kallman admitted he would personally struggle with a person in his life coming out as transgender. Asked if he could respect the new gender identity and expression, he said he wouldn’t call that person by their newly assumed name or pronouns. 

“I have to speak the truth, as I know it,” he said. “That would not be the truth because you’re either a man or a woman and it doesn’t change. I would try to find a way to be compassionate without violating my beliefs.” 

For over a decade, Dr. Erik Wert has been a primary doctor for many local LGBTQ people. He has watched the anti-transgender rhetoric take a physical and mental health toll on his patients. He said the “agreeably disagree” construct was potentially harmful to transgender people. 

“That stress adds to the mental health and health issues for transgender people,” he said.  

Many transgender people are diagnosed with not only gender dysphoria — a designation in the mental health diagnostic manual many are trying to get removed — but depression and anxiety. 

One of the biggest myths occurring in the political realm is that transgender and nonbinary people are using such designations to troll restrooms assigned for specific genders: A men’s restroom and women’s restroom. By allowing transgender people into the bathroom which matches their gender identity, opponents like Kallman argue, puts women and children at risk. 

“I don’t think anyone is OK with a biological male — a biological intact male — in the locker room with high school girls and women,” Kallman said. 

The bathroom arguments have been foisted on American culture since the Victorian era, when it was considered indecent to provide public bathroom facilities for women. People of color battled similar implications and allegations of sexual assaults during the fight to desegregate the country. The LGBTQ community has also faced the same daunting gauntlet of degradation. 

Resolutions to install more gender-neutral bathrooms in public spaces could cost taxpayers more money, but Kallman said that’s OK because it protects everyone. Yet when Muskegon Public Schools announced a new three-story middle school building with nothing but single-use unisex bathrooms, critics assailed the board for that choice. Few solutions please everyone. 

Coming-out stories 

When Claude Johnson-Perry came out at 21, he “always knew” he was a boy. 

“I just didn’t have the words to describe it,” Johnson-Perry, 28, explained, noting that he likely suppressed his identity for years before his moment of self-discovery — a common experience. 

And while he discovered his identity through therapy, he was distancing himself from identifying as transgender, thinking to himself: “I am not transgender. I just didn’t like being a woman.” 

Johnson-Perry spent more than six months in counseling before his medical team would even consider hormone treatment. His transition began behind the anonymity of the internet. He also began the social transition, wearing traditionally male-assigned clothing. 

“I think my husband was the first person I told,” he said. “He said if that is who you are, that’s OK, but take it slowly.” 

Others in his social and family circles were less receptive. 

In DeWitt, 19-year-old Dar Pung found himself struggling with his identity through his youth — that insecurity created by looking at a body that was not the body his mind associated with himself. He thinks that also added to his underlying social anxiety. 

“I realized I was trans when I met someone in band,” Pung explained. “They had talked to me about what it was and what it meant. It helped me feel like I wasn’t alone.” 

As a younger man, he would tell friends he was a boy.  

“Not to deceive them, but to try it out,” he said. 

Dar Pung’s father, Joshua Pung, 42, is a single father. With three daughters within a year in age of each other, he and his wife would often dress the girls in the same dresses. He said when Dar came out at 14, he was “actually shocked.” It helped launch him into a learning process. 

“When we don’t know something, we don’t really understand it, or the struggles that are going on,” he said. “At first, he just didn’t like wearing dresses. Then it progressed that he was wearing more and more boys-like clothing. Finally, when he was in the fourth grade, Dar said, ‘Dad, I don’t want to wear dresses anymore.” 

Joshua Pung said throughout Dar Pung’s youth, he would work with other men in the family to pick up a shorthand of masculine communications that outsiders found confusing. But not Dar. He recalled a specific conversation where Dar Pung had asked if he had wished he had a son. 

“In hindsight, I wish we had been more open when he was younger,” Pung said. “It would have been easier for him to come to terms with who he is. I think that time fed into his anxiety and other issues. It would have been better for him.” 

Dar Pung is happily taking his hormones and is considering what is referred to as “top surgery” in the transgender community — having his breasts removed. He is not at this point considering “bottom surgery,” an intervention to reconstruct his genitals to reflect his gender identity. 

Wert, the doctor, said transitioning is a long, complicated process. Unlike the implications in political rhetoric that children are being forced into gender change medications and surgeries, it takes at least a full year of therapy and medical appointments to initiate gender-confiming hormones. Puberty blockers are not recommended by the Endocrine Society, the professional organization representing endocrinologists, until hormones kick in with the initiation of puberty. 

That’s usually in the tween years to early teen years. 

Surgical reconstruction surgery of the genitals, Wert explained, is rare. Transgender men do tend to move toward breast removal in order to stop wearing binders to flatten the chest. 

At the end of the day, Dar Pung recalled his grandmother confronting him about his gender identity and affirming him. 

“I realized, my gender is mine,” Dar Pung said.  

Joshua and Dar Pung: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2rztiAsrWp8&feature=youtu.be

Jamie and Jim Hines: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6rP2XKOsU5U&feature=youtu.be

 
 

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