Born Identities: Putting a Face on Coastal Virginia's Transgender Community

If you were to see Ethan Cusick walk into a public men’s room, you would think nothing of it. The 41-year-old Norfolk resident is of average height, for a man, and average build. Nothing about him—his clothes, his haircut, his voice or his mannerisms—would suggest that he didn’t belong there.

The thing is, it wasn’t until last year that Cusick started using men’s rooms. Before that, he went by “Keri”—the name his parents gave to him when he was born a “girl,” in a town just outside of Boston—and lived as a woman.

Even as a young child, however, Cusick felt that something was amiss.

“I remember when I was quite young, maybe 4, maybe 5, thinking, I was supposed to be a boy,” he says. “I just had this feeling that somebody had screwed something up. But then I thought, well, it’s too late now—you know, you’re a little kid, so how do you express that to your parents?”

Across the country today, many children are wrestling with the same feelings—emotions revolving around an acute sense that they do not belong to the gender that they were assigned at birth. Some of them will eventually make the transition. Others may feel like they’re caught between two worlds. And the harsh fact is that many will die by their own hands. Indeed, the third scenario is horrifyingly common. The attempted-suicide rate among transgender people is 41 percent, according to a study conducted by the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention in association with the Williams Institute. That’s nearly 10 times the rate among the American population as a whole.         

And just how big is the transgender population?

Recent studies suggest that in this country it ranges from about three quarters of a million people to well over a million. It is difficult to know precisely, for two reasons. First, hard data is based on the number of people who have legally changed their names—and some transgender people do not. Moreover, the term “transgender” can apply to a wide variety of people, from those who have had complete sex-reassignment surgery to those who just take hormones, to those who simply dress and live as the opposite gender, without making any changes to their bodies.

Given these facts, we can assume that the number of transgender and gender-neutral people in the United States is on the high end of those studies, if not even higher than any of them suggest. That means, at minimum—with a population of 1.7 million people—Coastal Virginia is home to more than 5,000 people who identify as transgender. And, as noted, the number is very likely higher than that.

And yet, for generations, much of the cis community, as it’s called (cis, meaning people who identify with the gender they were assigned at birth) was largely unaware of this.

The widely publicized story of Caitlyn Jenner thrust the issue into the spotlight—and not long after that, there arose the controversy over who should be allowed to use which public restrooms.

Still, knowledge of the transgender community remains varied—and stereotypes abound. Chief among them is the common assumption that “transgender” refers to men who wear makeup and dresses. There are certainly many who do, whether or not they have had any surgery or hormone therapy. But the fact is, the transgender population is as varied as the population as a whole. It encompasses people of all ages, races, ethnicities—and people in various stages of transition.

As a child, Cusick was considered a tomboy.

“I had really long hair that I desperately wanted to be rid of,” he recalls. “When I was in fourth grade my mom finally let me cut it. That was over the summer. When I went back to school in the fall, nobody knew who I was; they all thought I was some new kid. Once my hair was cut, people started thinking of me as a boy and referring to me as ‘he.’ My mom would correct them, and I would get really mad at her. She didn’t think she was doing anything wrong, and I still didn’t know how to tell her because I didn’t fully understand it myself.”

Toward the end of high school, “Keri” acknowledged an attraction to women and came out as a lesbian. “Her” parents were immediately supportive, though concerned about their child’s safety in a society in which prejudice against homosexuals was still very widespread, and anti-gay violence was more common.

After high school, Cusick got a degree from Texas A&M University, then joined the Navy as a flight officer and moved to Virginia Beach in 2000.

Given the terms of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” there was no possibility of coming out at work. But Cusick suspected that some squadron leaders assumed “she” was lesbian because of “her” masculine appearance. Those suspicions were later confirmed when a friend confided that one of those leaders had told him with a lot of pride that they had set Cusick up on purpose to be sent to a board whose results meant that “she” could no longer fly. The leader had reportedly seemed excited that he had been able to make sure that "dyke" was no longer in their squadron. 

In 2006, Cusick was honorably discharged from the Navy and got a job as a Navy contractor. On that job, “she” found complete acceptance among co-workers. But something about “her” gender identity still felt wrong.

“The word ‘lesbian’ never felt quite right for me,” Cusick says, “but I never understood why.”

Part of the problem, ironically, was that life as “Keri” was pretty good.

“I had the impression that someone who is actually transgender [and hadn’t yet transitioned] would be someone who was abjectly miserable. People who hated themselves, hated the way they looked, hated their body. And I kind of went, ‘But I’m not miserable; I’m doing ok, so maybe that’s not what’s going on.’”

Nevertheless, the feeling wouldn’t go away. Cusick began doing more research and found a lot of videos online addressing the question, “Am I trans or am I gay?”

Finally, consideration of other people’s stories, along with deep reflection on identity, led to what Cusick calls an “aha” moment.

After that, the transition was rapid. “Keri” began going by Ethan—and within weeks of beginning testosterone treatments, Cusick’s voice dropped significantly, and his face became more masculine looking. By autumn, he was ready to come out to his superiors and coworkers on the job.

Once again, they were very supportive. So is Cusick’s fiancé, whom he met well before the transition.

“I’ve been very fortunate,” he says.

Many transgender people, of course, are not so lucky.

In some cases—such as that of Lamia Beard, a 30-year-old transgender black woman who was shot and killed in the Park Place neighborhood of Norfolk last year—their lives are cut down by hate-fueled violence. In other cases, as noted earlier, transgender people take their own lives as a result of bullying or more subtle acts of discrimination, harassment and mockery that fill their lives. And needless to say, the issue has torn many families apart.

De Sube, a 65-year-old transgender woman who lives in Virginia Beach, has seen it all. As founder of the Gender Expression Movement support group and co-founder of the Transgender Assistance Program of Virginia (TAP VA), she is regularly in touch with people who are struggling with this issue in a variety of ways.

“I’ve lost I don’t know how many friends and acquaintances to suicide because they end up feeling hopeless,” she explains.

Homelessness among transgender people is an especially acute problem, she says. It appears that there are two reasons for this. First, discrimination in the workforce can make it difficult to earn a living. Second, the rate of mental illness in the transgender community is higher than it is in the population in general.

“If you’re told at an early age that you’re some kind of monster,” she observes, “that creates trauma.”

And yet, for transgender homeless people, there are few resources available.

“It’s a huge problem,” Sube says. “Shelters are not safe for transgender people. They will group you with your birth gender. If I were there I would be put with the men’s population, and that would be dangerous.”

TAP VA is now in the process of securing funding for a halfway house—money that they hope will be in place by January. It’s a significant step. But it will only begin to address the problem.

Sube—who was born with the name David—is familiar with the problem first-hand, not only through her work with the transgender community but through her own life.

“My earliest memories are feeling different,” she says. “When I was growing up in the late ’50s and ’60s the term transgender hadn’t come into use. I tried to embrace my masculinity, whether in sports or work. But I always knew I was different, and the longer it went on the more depressed and anxious I got. I had to make the decision to either transition or lead a very painful and lonely life. The first person I came out to was my father, and he said well, ‘All I can tell you is that I love you, but you’re going to have a very difficult life.’”

Sube continued to wrestle with her identity for a long time thereafter—and in 1980, still living as a man, got married for a second time. It was not until 1996 that this was no longer tenable.

“When I came out to my wife,” Sube recalls, “she felt totally betrayed. But I simply hadn’t been ready to tell myself. I was in denial.”

Sube’s wife tried as best she could to accept the news and sustain the relationship, but couldn’t fully commit to it.

“She was trying to put conditions on it,” Sube recalls. “She wanted to regulate it. But being out, I realized I was much happier. The weight of the world was off my shoulders. I told her I’m finished lying. So I moved out and started all over again.”

That turned out to be difficult. When she came out to her employer, she was told that they couldn’t have a transgender person on the job because their “clients wouldn’t understand.”

With no legal recourse, she struck out on her own, starting a handy-person business using skills that her father had taught her. In 2007, however, when the economy took a nosedive, she lost all of her clients.

“I was fortunate in that friends took me in, gave me a bed and fed me. But I was technically homeless.”

Today she’s back on her feet, working as operations manager for a chain of hair salons, while also devoting a great deal of time toward helping other people in the transgender community. In some cases, the help comes in the form of referrals to doctors or mental health professionals. In other cases, it’s just a matter of creating a safe space in which transgender people can connect with one another.

One of them is a 36-year-old transgender woman named Daphne, who regularly attends the support group.

“I remember at the age of 4 or 5 having a fixation with my sisters’ clothes,” she recalls. “After puberty, I started feeling more and more that I was biologically female. But I suppressed it, and the feeling came and went. I became pretty good at shutting it off. All through my 20s I identified as a man.”

As with Cusick and Sube, however, the feeling simply would not go away. Finally, at 30, she took on the name Daphne and began to openly identify as female. (Daphne requested that we not use the name she was given at birth because, she says, it is “dead” to her.)

After transitioning, she encountered resistance, both at home and at work.

Simply getting coworkers to use her preferred name was challenging—and not just among the men. “There are older women who think what I’m doing is flat-out wrong,” she says. Others keep getting her name wrong because, they claim, they just “can’t remember.”

In addition to dealing with that frustration, Daphne has been reported for minor infractions on the job that she says go unnoticed or ignored when committed by other employees. But unlike Sube, who grew up at a time when there was no legal recourse, laws have changed, and Daphne continues to stand her ground and prevail.

One of Daphne’s additional challenges is that she often does not present herself as stereotypically female. While she will sometimes wear dresses and makeup, for example, she often opts for jeans and a T-shirt.

“I didn’t want to be perceived as costuming or as putting on a show,” she says. “And if you think about it, how many women wear dresses and makeup all the time?”

Daphne did start having hormone treatments but has temporarily stopped because of some negative side effects. She thinks she’ll begin taking them again at some point but does not see that as essential to the process.

Sube also explained that she has never taken hormone supplements, nor has she had surgery of any kind.

That is not at all uncommon among the transgender community, although it makes the likelihood of getting “clocked”—identified as transgender, rather than “passing” as a man or a woman—more likely.

Sube says she’s just fine with that. “Being transgender is part of who I am,” she says. “At work, I’m just one of the girls, but sometimes I will correct them and point out that I am a transgender woman.”

Nevertheless, prejudice is not limited to the cis community. De says that there are some transgender people who think you’re not really transgender unless you’ve had surgery.

Similarly, Daphne says that some people—both cis and transgender—think she’s not really serious about it, just as some people in the gay community think that bisexuals are just “playing” or are really gay but are afraid to fully come out of the closet.

Yet another point of confusion is a tendency in the cis community to conflate gender identity and sexuality. Many people assume that transgender means gay, but they are two separate issues entirely. The sexual orientations of transgender people are as varied as they are in the population at large.

Confusion about all of this among well-meaning cis people can be frustrating for Daphne and others, and it’s sometimes hard for them to tell whether the confusion is genuine or actually a form of passive-aggressive hostility. In some ways it seems that for transgender people, outright hostility is easier to deal with, frightening though it can be.

Hence their belief in the need for more education—perhaps starting with the bathroom issue. Sube, Cusick and others say they understand the discomfort some cis people might feel over the idea of a transgender person using the “wrong” bathroom. But Sube points out that transgender people have been using the bathrooms of their choice for years, and it’s never been an issue.

“There has never been a reported case of a transgender person using a bathroom to prey upon someone,” she notes.

The transgender restroom issue becomes even more complicated when you think about someone like Cusick. While many people are uncomfortable with the idea of a transgender woman using the ladies’ room, few people outside the transgender community stop to think about the dilemma that people like Cusick face.

Early on in the process of transition, he says, he’d pause before entering one restroom or another and ask himself, “Have I gotten more ‘sirs’ or ‘ma’ams’ today?” A lot of transgender men, he says, ask themselves the same thing.

He has to go somewhere—but where? If he were to use a restroom associated with the gender given to him at birth, he would alarm women because he looks like a man. And yet, many people feel that’s what he should do.

One of those people is nationally-recognized evangelical Christian Pat Robertson. In May, on an episode of The 700 Club, Robertson argued that people are born with “certain organs” and “should go to the bathroom designated for people with that type of equipment. It’s no big deal,” he added. “I mean why are we making a big cause about it?”

Robertson said that he doesn’t have a problem with people who want gender reassignment surgery.

“Let them have an operation, let them take the hormonal pills, let them take whatever they want to take and switch,” he said. “I’m all for it. There’s nothing wrong with that—no sin, nothing.”

The problem, as he sees it, is that laws allowing people to use the bathroom—or school locker room—of their choice, regardless of their “equipment,” would create opportunities for “some voyeur who likes to look at little girls with no clothes on.”

Sube and Cusick, however, both argue that this is a separate issue. A crime is a crime, they point out—and sexual harassment is against the law, regardless of who’s committing it.

There are people, of course, who go even further than Robertson in their objection to transgender rights, arguing that you’re born a man or a woman, and that’s it—there’s nothing you can do to change this. Feminist Germaine Greer is among them. She is on record as saying that just because a man has reassignment surgery [she actually put it in cruder terms], this doesn’t “make him a woman.”

This, however, is no longer the consensus in the scientific community. An article in Scientific American, for example, published earlier this year, reported that imaging studies and other recent research suggest that there is “a biological basis” for transgender identity.

Even if this research were widely known, however, it may not make much of a difference to people like Greer.

The only thing that might make a difference, Sube points out, is having face-to-face conversations with transgender people—conversations that reveal the humanity of the individuals in question and the hopes and dreams that all of us share.

In the end, though, Sube and others realize that they can’t change everyone’s mind. They accept this, so long as they have equal protection under the law.

As Sube puts it, “We just want to be free to live our authentic lives.” 

He Said, She Said

Throughout this article, we have used some gender-related nouns and pronouns in quotation marks. Here’s the reason: To a transgender person, the gender that he or she has embraced feels like his or her authentic identity. Thus, Ethan Cusick, for example, believes that he was born male and was mistakenly identified as female—physiology notwithstanding.

For those who have had little or no contact with transgender people, this may be difficult to comprehend. But if you listen to transgender people speak from the heart as they tell their stories, it will begin to make sense. 

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