The Minnesota State High School League's decision to postpone — again — guidelines for transgender student athletes shows how complex and emotional the issue is for many.
In tabling the discussion until Dec. 4, league executive director Dave Stead said the board wants to "walk forward to get it right."
Having reviewed the current one-page draft, crafted with care and concern for inclusiveness despite a fear-based campaign to derail the process, I commend them and wish them a speedy resolution.
Now it's our turn to get it right.
We in the bleachers will benefit by using the next few months to learn what it means, and does not mean, to be a transgender person, particularly a young person walking the halls of a hostile high school. The rates of harassment, assault, depression and suicide attempts among transgender youths are alarmingly high, a fact confirmed by a report by the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force and the National Center for Transgender Equality in 2011. The first-of-its-kind study looked at 6,450 people in all 50 states.
If anyone needs protection, it's a teen trying to feel whole, or to just dunk a basket, without fear of being ostracized, beaten up or worse.
"People get hung up on, 'Will that [male-to-female] student athlete have an advantage?' " said Katie Spencer, coordinator for transgender health services at the University of Minnesota's Center for Sexual Health.
Still, getting people to understand how hormones work, which typically lessen a transgender female's strength significantly, is less challenging than getting people to shift their attitudes, Spencer said. That requires letting go of false assumptions that are easily made when your only frame of reference for transgender people is "The Jerry Springer Show."
Only 8 percent of Americans say they personally know someone who is transgender, according to a recent Pew study. Compare this with 90 percent of us who know someone who is lesbian, gay or bisexual.
Many resources are available to guide us out of drag-queen land into reality land, where people who are transgender go to work, pay the mortgage and shop at Target.
"It takes overcoming fear, a lot of hard work and an incredible amount of persistence," said Ellie Krug, a transgender woman, lawyer and author of the autobiography "Getting to Ellen."
Most transgender people, Krug said, understand that we might ask awkward, naive or unintentionally intrusive questions. We'll screw up pronouns.
Over the years, I've made every mistake but haven't lost a single gracious source, Krug included. Bumbling toward understanding is far more welcome to a transgender person than watching us walk away. They see far too much of that.
"I lost my wife; I lost my sister for a while, an across-the-street neighbor and a best friend who has a gay daughter," said Krug, 57, who transitioned in 2009. "But I'm very lucky. I'm resilient. I had the money to start over."
Krug knew at age 11 that she was "a female born into a male body, although it took years of therapy to fully understand the ramifications of the voice inside my head."
(While the terms lesbian, gay and bisexual refer to sexual orientation, transgender refers to issues of gender identity — in other words, a person's deeply felt internal sense of being male or female.)
Krug became an expert at compartmentalizing. She married, was a successful trial lawyer and raised two daughters as a man before beginning her journey, supported by a lifelong friend and her brother.
Krug opted for hormone therapy and surgery. Many others choose instead to alter their appearance through grooming and clothing, or by changing their name and sex designation on identity documents.
(Here's a question not to ask: "Do you still have your — ?" Do ask, "What pronoun would you like me to use for you?")
Krug is heartened by measurable progress in the transgender landscape in recent years. "Now you can't go 24 hours without something related to trans issues," she said.
Performers such as Laverne Cox in "Orange Is the New Black" and Jeffrey Tambor in the new Amazon series "Transparent" offer multilayered transgender characters who are generally as ordinary as the rest of us.
Sources of support
Minneapolis author Rachel Gold, a longtime ally of the transgender community, which included a four-year relationship with a transgender woman, "saw the struggle from the inside." This inspired her to write "Being Emily" and "Just Girls," two young adult novels about love, friendship and the universal desire to be who we are.
"There's always this fear that someone they love will say something incredibly hurtful, like, 'It's just a stage, a kink,' which is really invalidating," Gold said.
Organizations such as outfront.org and transformingfamiliesmn.org are happy to answer our questions, "questions which are complicated, no doubt about it," said Phil Duran, director of OutFront Minnesota, which advised the state high school sports league.
"But it's hard to get there if driven by fear," he added, referring to a sensationalized ad campaign by the Mankato-based Child Protection League Action warning of transgender predators in high school showers.
A far kinder and more realistic take on the issues can be found at the blog transparenthood.net. In it, Minneapolis mother Leslie Lagerstrom shares her initial confusion, then unconditional love and support for her transgender son, Sam.
"While everything about him screamed, 'I AM MALE,' we made him dwell in an in-between hell, insisting on waiting, just to make sure," she writes, "… scared to admit out-loud what we already knew in our hearts to be true."
Sam joins many young people who benefited from the support of their parents at an early age.
Spencer at the U said the waitlist to enroll in her program is three to four months long. "We are just flooded," she said, adding that social networking is connecting teens and giving them more courage to come out as transgender.
The U is one of a growing number of programs offering hormone blocking therapy to halt puberty temporarily and prevent the development of sex characteristics. A Dutch study found that, by delaying the onset of puberty, children who went on to gender reassignment surgery "have the lifelong advantage of a body that matches their gender identities." Lead author Annelou de Vries also found that, by young adulthood, emotional distress and body image concerns were no more prevalent among the transgender group than among the general public.
These young people, supported by loved ones, got it right.