I’m going to step into an area that could be dangerous. Dangerous because I sincerely care about people’s feelings and because of my personal directive to forward equality in all dominions of thought and practice; dangerous because the topic is the most personal, yet debated and misunderstood of all socio-political realms.
The topic is Gender Identification. The national debate has swirled as long as I can remember, and even though there have been victories that signal acceptance of people who do not identify with their birth gender, waves of backlash continue to ebb and flow. With a new conservative sweep across America and a louder call for “religious liberty” that often leads to their persecution, I am concerned.
At the core of this discussion will always be the differences between men and women that trigger our identification. Most scientific studies will show that our brains are essentially the same, even though books, essays, lectures, films and many other sources have long contended that they are biologically different. Many sociologists, however, suggest that the differences are taught from birth when boys are assigned to blue and girls to pink, and that we (even unconsciously) program them to be different.
Little boys who may have tried on their sister’s tutu have been scorned (even if passively), and little girls who play in the mud are called “Tomboys.” Even if that seems harmless, it is still a deliberate classification that is embedded in their psyche.
At the same time, the physiological differences cannot be denied as a woman’s womb may create life and a man is hardwired to his own steroid hormone. Could these differences also assume different inclinations? We are different sizes and densities; couldn’t that influence us toward different sensibilities and sensitivities?
I know many gay men and women, people who identify as gender-fluid, and several people who are transgender. Some have had surgery and some grapple with that determination. I’ve known adults who lived straight lives for years then came out as gay, and I’ve known gay people who knew as soon as they could talk. My point being that there are many gradations of sexuality and no single, linear, definition will uncomplicate this discussion.
Not one person I know who identifies differently within a society populated by a majority of heterosexuals, has done so for any reason other than to be true to themselves; to be who they really are. For that reason alone the “difference” debate transforms into one of civil rights and I join those who will fight until all people can live freely within their right to be themselves.
When my eldest son, Chris, was only 3, his mother and I took him to a restaurant in LA that was owned by a friend that I’d known as a man for years. Seth (as I will call him here), became Cynthia (as I’ll call her here). I knew Seth as a handsome, sturdy, dark, curly-haired Italian man, who owned a restaurant that I loved and frequented years earlier. I had lost touch with Seth after moving away, but in 2003 I had returned to the area and was told that Seth is now Cynthia, and still had the restaurant. I couldn’t wait to see her because we shared a lot in our past and I wanted to know that she was happy.
We went to the restaurant and I told our server that I was an old friend and if she was around, we’d love for her to come to the table. Within minutes Cynthia emerged from her office and bee-lined to the table. She wore a long, floral dress, her hair was long and curly, and her movement was decidedly feminine in what may be called a stereotypical, but nevertheless understood, foot ahead of foot, hip-swaying gait. But her face, although now devoid of any hair, was the same person I knew as Seth.
Not a millisecond of hesitation stood between either one of us and we fell into the warmest embrace. Clearly, things were “different” but we knew each other well. She spoke first: “Gary! Oh my God! How are you? Is this your family?”
Her voice lilted in the same way as her new way of walking indicated her change, but it was also with tones that echoed Seth. In other words, Cynthia vacillated, whether intentionally or not, between shades of her present and former self.
I’m a marginally funny guy, committed to bridging such moments, and I responded with: “So…I see you’ve changed the menu, anything else different in your life?”
Her laugh was surprisingly deep and at that moment we both noticed my son, Chris, looking at her with a deeply puzzled look. She knew, we all knew, what was on his mind, but before we could gather another thought, Chris blurted out: “Are you a boy or a girl?”
I wanted to crawl under the table. Chris’ mother immediately began to occupy him so that the subject could change- quickly– but, Cynthia smiled ear to ear. In fact, her eyes lit up. I even felt a maternal warmth extending from her person reaching out to embrace the innocent little boy. She whispered to me: “What do I say?”
A wave of wisdom came over me and I said, “Say whatever you feel is right. Your privacy is your business and you don’t have to say anything. We just don’t lie to Chris. He doesn’t get an answer to every question, but when we do answer him- it is always the truth. The truth is that you are a woman.”
Cynthia looked at Chris and kneeled beside him. She said, “I was born looking like a boy. But, deep down inside I always knew that I was really a girl, and when I got older, I decided I wanted to live the rest of my life as I really am. And now I’m a woman.”
The table, with Cynthia, erupted in the kind of laughter that defines the best moments in life because it affirms the spirit of love and compassion. We left after our lunch, and Cynthia and I made a promise to stay in touch. Sadly, the end of this story will break even the hardest heart, as Cynthia died on Christmas soon after our visit. She died of infection resulting from her surgery.
But her presence remains strong in my life, my son’s, and I’m sure my ex-wife’s and many others. Our encounter was a treasure trove of life; a person wanting to be free, the embrace of friendship, a child’s innocence yearning for understanding, and the purity of kindness when we do not judge. And even though my personal conviction to stand up for the rights of all people was already resolute, Cynthia was the transitional moment in my life that enlightened me toward unconditional acceptance.
This essay began as a discussion of gender identification and the political ramifications of a segment of our society that doesn’t accept such differences, but I knew all along that it was heading to this story. It’s a Christmas Story. It was meant as a celebration of someone who lived, and died, because they believed that being truthful to oneself is the beginning of all understanding.
It sits on this page to remind, or perhaps even to enlighten, those who haven’t understood nature’s contradictions, that our greatest purpose in life is to love and support others on this journey while embracing our differences.