Her intended, Alex Nelson, has chosen a plain dark suit. He’ll crush a glass in a Jewish tradition meant to recall the literal destruction of the Temple and a figurative reminder of life’s fragility. Then the wedding party will celebrate with poached salmon and mango salsa, lox and turkey canapes and chocolate wedding cake.
The fact that Nelson, a handsome, soft-spoken 31-year-old, has spent two years converting to Judaism is a testament to his drive and willingness to examine who he is and who he wants to be.
But it is not his most remarkable transformation.
Nelson is transgender, a broad term generally applied to people who do not identify with the gender they were assigned at birth.
Nelson knew early in life that he was a boy trapped in a girl’s body. Today, he is taking testosterone shots, quietly undergoing surgery and considering his next move as he shifts out of his role as interim executive director of District 202, a nonprofit community center for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender (GLBT) youths.
Mostly, though, Nelson is soothing Jackson’s middle-of-the-night jitters about wedding details, joining her for motorcycle rides and working out, when time allows, at the Jewish Community Center of Minneapolis. In short, Nelson is living a rather ordinary life.
That speaks volumes about his personal journey, and about how much progress has been made in the “trans” community in the 10 years since librarian Debra Davis walked out of Minneapolis’ Southwest High School on a Friday as a man, and walked back in on Monday as a woman — to a national media frenzy. It was Davis who inspired Nelson, then in college, to pursue a life that he says “is so good right now. It’s coming together.”
But Nelson knows that life promises no Hollywood endings. “I still struggle,” he confides, sitting at the dining room table of the home that he and Jackson share in north Minneapolis, “waiting for the next thing to slap me across the face.”
What does transgender mean again?
Many members of the transgender community say that transgender understanding remains confused at best. While it is now fairly common to see gay and lesbian characters on TV, transgender people are still sometimes portrayed as freakish.
Films such as “Transamerica” and “Boys Don’t Cry” have helped by offering more accurate depictions, as have TV shows such as “Ugly Betty,” featuring Alex-turned-Alexis, and “Dirty Sexy Money,” with transgender actress Candis Cayne playing Carmelita authentically. Internet sites, too, have exploded in the past five years, offering information, support and dating connections for transgender people.
But there’s still work to do. “Everybody has heard the word 'transgender’ now,” said Davis, 61, a 28-year resident of Maple Grove who has two grown daughters from a 28-year marriage and four grandchildren. “It’s a bit fuzzy, though, as to what it means.”
For four decades, the Twin Cities area has been at the forefront of research and activism to fully understand what transgender means. But even those considered experts are learning new things.
One huge revelation, said Walter Bockting, a clinical psychologist in the Program in Human Sexuality at the University of Minnesota, is that the decades-long focus on sex reassignment surgery may be only part of the answer.
“What we’ve learned from a generation of people who had reassignment surgery in the 1970s and 1980s,” said Bockting, who came to the Twin Cities from the Netherlands 20 years ago, “is that, while they have no regrets, the surgery was not the primary reason for their happiness and satisfaction.”
While, for some, surgery is key to alleviating distress and achieving happiness, Bockting has found that the happiest people are those who have accepted that they will never fully pass as a man or a woman. Getting close is good enough.
“You become your own gender, rather than 'I was a man or woman and now I’m a woman or man.’ That’s the big change,” Bockting said. “Before, many were chasing something, such as a complete sex change in every respect, that wasn’t realistic.”
'I thought I was a boy.’
Nelson grew up in a small Minnesota town. His parents divorced when Alex was young, but he remembers his father playing ball with him and his mother, with whom he lived, being grateful that Alex knew how to fix stuff around the house. His mom made him wear dresses for a while, then stopped. “I was seldom forced into gender roles,” said Nelson, who has one older, “and very feminine,” sister.
In fourth grade, a teacher called his mother to complain: “Your daughter is playing with the boys at recess and it isn’t appropriate.” Nelson’s mother told the teacher it was fine for her daughter to play with the boys. But there were endless challenges, Nelson said, such as “Where do I stand when girls and boys lined up for P.E.?”
Nelson didn’t just want to be a boy. He thought he was a boy — until puberty. “It’s hard to be in denial,” he said, “when you’re having your period.”
Not surprisingly, his teen years “sucked.” He skipped class a lot, and moved out of the house before finishing high school. In college at the University of Minnesota at Morris, he experimented with drugs, played softball and dated women, although he didn’t identify as a lesbian. Mostly, he struggled to fit in. Then, in 1996, he met Davis, who was on campus to talk to students as part of her outreach work. While still presenting as a man at school, Davis identified and dressed as a woman outside of work. The connection was pivotal, Nelson said. “It was hearing [transgender] for the first time, and seeing a real person with such a personal story.”
Nelson finished college and earned an associate degree in law enforcement from Minneapolis Community and Technical College, then took a job at the Minneapolis Police Department. He was physically transitioning with testosterone shots, but was required to use the women’s bathroom anyway. He sued and lost on appeal. He stayed with the department for 2½ more years before he moved to District 202, “mostly because I just wanted to pee at work,” he joked.
Broaching the inevitable
Slowly, he began transitioning in big and little ways. He changed his name to Alex, got a “male” driver’s license after many attempts, and used the men’s bathroom when he felt it was safe.
Testosterone has given him facial hair, a lowered voice and a jolting awareness. Finding the correct balance is more art than science, he said. Too much and he started acting disrespectfully toward others. “I was so sensitive to it,” not wanting to be perceived as a jerk, he said.
He had certain rules for dating (straight) women. They needed to call him Alex and “he,” or it didn’t work. He worried a lot about the inevitable conversation he’d need to broach. “Casual sex went out the window.”
He met Jackson at a sign-language interpreting conference in Chicago. She’s a full-time ASL interpreter; he does signing on the side. She lived in Washington, D.C., though, and he was in a relationship. Still, she thought he was “super cute, sweet and sexy. But I didn’t really want to like him because Minnesota is so cold.”
He was deeply attracted to her, too. They met up again four years later when both were unattached. But how to tell her? Finally, he did. Turns out she had known since Chicago, when another interpreter shared the information.
“I didn’t have any concerns [about him being transgender],” said Jackson, who has a bachelor’s degree in community health education from Temple University and a master’s degree in Interpretation from Gallaudet in D.C. “I was more concerned about how transgender people are treated in the world. But it never changed the way I felt about him.”
Her family, though, was “pretty stunned.” Her mom’s big concern: “Children. Can we have children?” Yes, Jackson assured her, through adoption, in-vitro fertilization, Host Home or other options.
Nelson and Jackson had some tough talks — including about religion. Jackson grew up in a religious home and needed to be with someone who respected her religion. Nelson did more than that. For two years, he has studied Judaism with Rabbi Marcia Zimmerman at Temple Israel in Minneapolis, and converted a few months ago. Zimmerman will officiate at their wedding, which they are calling a “commitment ceremony” in honor of those who are not allowed to marry.
Nelson is grateful for so much. To be over “a miserable part of my life.” To have the “privilege of walking down the street” and not being harassed. To have found Jackson.
But he’s constantly watching his back, fighting his tendency toward cynicism. “You find out who your people are quickly. Tamar,” he said, grabbing her hand and leaning toward her lovingly, “is much more optimistic than I am.”
“It’s true,” she said, with a laugh. “But we both have non-Zen moments. When one of us isn’t Zen, we talk it out.”
Gail Rosenblum • 612-673-7350