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Friday, February 27, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 0.0° F  Fair
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Transsexual Rhiannon Tibbetts struggles to find herself
Her own woman
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Credit:Narayan Mahon

Rhiannon Tibbetts is wearing a pale pink sweater, a small gold cross around her neck and a touch of eye makeup. She's soft-spoken, very tall and slim, with shoulder-length wavy blond hair. Her hands flutter a bit as she speaks about battling the discrimination that's a fact of daily life for people like her: transsexuals.

"We are so often victims of hate crimes," she says sadly. "We are far more likely to be unemployed or underemployed, and 60% make $17,000 a year or less. And we are 15% to 20% more likely to commit suicide." Some estimate that 40% may attempt suicide.

Transsexuals are people who feel so misplaced in the bodies they were born with that they take some steps - from changing the kind of clothes they wear to having surgery - to become a new version of themselves.

Rhiannon's struggle with her gender identity began when she was in her early teens, leading to depression, loneliness and breakdowns. Years of therapy and antidepressants have eased her pain, but what's made the greatest difference is that she's no longer pretending to be someone she's not.

Now 52, Rhiannon lives as a women, thanks to hormones, electrolysis and careful wardrobe selections, and she feels more comfortable in her own skin. Her ultimate goal is to have surgery to complete her transition, something beyond her financial means. Her history of depression qualifies her for Social Security and Medicare, but her income is small, and Medicare excludes coverage for hormone therapy or sex-change surgery.

"Therapy and antidepressants help a lot of us," she says. "But for many of us the only real cure is surgery."

Employed part-time by a company that cleans offices at night, Rhiannon is enrolled at the UW-Madison part time and expects to finish a B.S. in psychology and social welfare and a certificate in LBGT studies in spring of 2012. Then, she will apply to graduate school with the goal of becoming a social worker.

"When I first started college, I thought I'd study optometry or something in the sciences because I was always pretty good in science," she says. "But it didn't really fire my interest later in life. As I got into some support groups and [experienced] my travails and my journey, I realized the psychology and the social arena was of more interest to me. As a social worker, I think I can do more to help other trans people."

Already, Rhiannon has emerged as one of Madison's most prominent advocates for transsexuals. Over the last two years, she has written letters to newspapers, urged state legislators to pass a statewide antidiscrimination law, and enlisted the help of Rep. Tammy Baldwin's office to approach Medicare officials about their policy of noncoverage for hormone therapy and sex-change surgery.

"For me, the ideal thing would be acceptance and understanding for our community," she says. "And the same civil rights and health care as everyone else."

Mistaken identity

Transsexuals may be the most misunderstood and least accepted part of the population society lumps as "LGBT." They are a subset of a group labeled "transgender," which also includes people who cross-dress or adopt other behaviors usually associated with the opposite gender, but don't wish to change their sex.

Transsexuals, on the other hand, think nature made a big mistake and take steps to correct the error.

The presence of transsexuals causes all kinds of dilemmas for society. Take prisons and sports, for example.

A year ago, a federal judge struck down a Wisconsin law that prohibited transgender inmates from receiving taxpayer-funded hormone therapy, which alters their appearance to be more like that of the opposite sex. The International Olympics Committee and Ladies Professional Golf Association have revised their policies to allow transgender women to compete, and the Women's Flat Track Roller Derby Association has a policy under consideration.

Estimating the size of this population accurately is almost impossible.

"There just aren't any very good statistics," says Anne Enke, an associate professor of gender and women's studies at the UW-Madison who teaches a course called "Trans/Gender in Historical Perspective."

"The statistics we do have are based on people who go through the medical system," says Enke, "but many transsexuals won't have surgery, either because they don't have the access or the money or just because they do not want to." Since most of the surgeries that are performed are male-to-female transitions, existing numbers probably underestimate the number of female-to-male transsexuals.

Enke notes that prejudice against transsexuals hasn't just come from the straight population. A few 1970s-era lesbian feminists vehemently opposed accepting people who were not born with women's bodies into their movement. Enke says they were a small but vocal minority in the '70s.

"While there are many examples of feminist spaces that excluded trans people, there are equally many examples of feminist groups that accepted and integrated trans women as women and as feminists and as lesbians," she explains.

Today, she says, the only major lesbian and feminist organization that actively discriminates against transsexuals is the annual Michigan Womyn's Music Festival, which discourages attendance by anyone who has been or now is male.

It's a cultural thing, Enke adds, noting that some societies in history not only accepted people who cross the sex line, but revered them.

For example, Tiresias, who shows up in many old Greek stories, was a respected blind seer whose predictions always came true. During his life, he had been both male and female, and both gods and humans called upon him to foretell the future.

"So," Enke explains, "there may be an advantage to being able to see things from both sides of the gender line."

Raising awareness

Rhiannon (the name she chose for herself, from the Fleetwood Mac song) devotes much of her free time to advocating for civil rights and equality for transgender and transsexual people, in employment, housing, public accommodations and medical care. She also serves as a facilitator for a local transgender support group.

"There needs to be a lot more education," she says, "and I hope to show a legitimate face for trans people, to call awareness to what we face as a community."

In 1982, Wisconsin passed an antidiscrimination law - the first such state law in the nation. This law bans discrimination based on sexual orientation but not gender orientation. Madison and Milwaukee have their own ordinances that make this a protected class, but it's not the norm throughout the state.

"Madison is progressive and accepting, but in other parts of the state there have been instances of harassment, even by the local police," Rhiannon says.

And so she continues her struggle for acceptance, writing her letters and meeting with public officials. Some of them have lent a sympathetic ear, but the legal and societal changes Rhiannon and other trans people seek remain elusive.

"Quite frankly, I support her goals and would be happy to try to help her," says state Sen. Fred Risser, a Madison Democrat and the nation's longest-serving lawmaker. "But I told her she would have to get more than one author on the bill. The political reality is that Republicans have the majority in both houses, and a Democratic bill can't succeed without some Republican support.

"And the truth is that at this time and with this Legislature, the prospects are not very good."

Tammy Baldwin, representative for Wisconsin's 2nd Congressional District, is only a little more optimistic. Baldwin led successful efforts in the House in 2009 to pass hate crimes legislation that includes protection for transgender victims. But her wording in the House version of the health care bill, which would have included collecting better data about the health of LGBT populations and strengthening nondiscrimination provisions to guarantee their access to health care, was not included in the Senate version of the bill, the version adopted and passed by both houses of Congress.

Baldwin's office has approached Medicare officials on Rhiannon's behalf, but without much success.

"It looks like there is a learning curve at Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services," she says. "I don't know how long change will take. I hope [the decision] will be guided by science and medical recommendations."

A very lonely time

Rhiannon's story is one of remarkable resilience and courage. It's also somewhat difficult to relate, given the demands of the language to use gender-specific pronouns. For simplicity's sake, we'll stick with "she" and "her."

When she was born in Michigan in 1958, the oldest of three children, her parents named her David. The family moved to Menomonee Falls while she was grade school. That's when her struggles with gender identity started.

"I remember being on the playground at school and wondering what it would be like to play with the girls instead of the boys," she recalls. "And I was fascinated by girls' clothes." But it was puberty that knocked her for a loop.

"My body was masculinizing, and I didn't like it," she says. "I remember looking in the mirror and lamenting it."

By her mid-teens, she plunged into a deep depression that lasted most of two years. "I wasn't interested in dating girls or palling around with the guys. I was very isolated, and I knew something was not right about me." It was, she says, "a very lonely time."

Despite the depression, she did well in high school in Platteville, graduating with a 3.7 grade point average. She played the baritone horn in band and competed in cross-country. She lived at home in Menomonee Falls, and then in Stoughton, while attending college at UW-Platteville and UW-Madison for a few semesters, but dropped out when the depression deepened.

Rhiannon's aunt, Mary Hickey, who lives near Seattle, remembers seeing Rhiannon, then still David, at a family gathering when she was about 17.

"I observed him on that occasion as being very depressed and not entering into any of the fun activities his cousins were [engaged in]."

The next 20 years were a rocky road. When she was 20, Rhiannon's parents decided to relocate again and moved to Eau Claire, but Rhiannon decided to settle in Madison. She made a living delivering pizzas and driving cab. She participated in a community support network for people suffering from depression and joined a Bible study group, and, for the first time in her life, she made a few friends. But she had several more breakdowns and hospitalizations.

She wore a mustache for a while, "trying to fit in as male."

In the early '90s, worried about her low energy and lack of interest in dating and sex, she decided to go off her medications to see if her drugs were causing her low libido and fatigue.

"My sexuality came back, but I discovered that it was only when I fantasized about being female that I had any feelings. When I went back on my meds, I realized I had discovered something about myself."

She decided to find a new, more appropriate therapist, got her medications changed, and began exploring her gender-identity issues. In 1995, she went to the University of Minnesota, which has a large transgender program, and went through a battery of tests. The results were clear.

"They recommended that I start transitioning and cross-dressing because it was obvious to them what my condition was." But Rhiannon still wasn't sure they were right.

It was her last breakdown, in 1997, that woke her up.

"I began to realize that these breakdowns were a call for help, and that I was self-destructing." She decided to begin her gradual transition from male to female.

"I started growing my hair. I had a little electrolysis. I started wearing women's clothes. I changed my name legally in 2003. I started taking hormones about two years ago, and I think it's only in the last year or two that I have been able to pass.

Finding acceptance

Over the years, Rhiannon's relationship with her family has been strained.

"It's probably because of the way I acted out when I was younger," Rhiannon admits. She speaks on the phone regularly with her parents and brothers, but the relationships are complicated.

"They help me when I need help, and my father uses my new name. They aren't openly supportive, but they aren't negative either. I guess they feel like they lost a son."

It's fairly common for transsexuals to lose family and friends.

"People pull away, condemn us on supposedly moral terms, sometimes on religious grounds," she says. This is something that causes Rhiannon, a devout Christian, a lot of pain.

"I had a conversation with a pastor early on in my transition who told me that what I was doing was against God's will," she recalls. "It was disheartening because I was grieving for a close friend and going to that church in hopes of becoming part of that church again. After talking to that pastor you could have scraped me up off the floor, I was so devastated."

She has since found another church, the First Baptist Church on Madison's near west side, where she feels accepted.

"I'm very spiritual, and it's a very important part of my life. I pray and meditate every day and go to church regularly. I was actually baptized under my new name in 2010. I believe Jesus had a heart for the outcasts and misfits. I feel it's part of my calling to try to make a difference if I can. It helps me, but it helps many of my friends, too."

Rhiannon believes that living both as a man and as a woman has changed her perspective. And at this stage of her life she's looking for normalcy, equal treatment and some justice. After a lonely life, she'd like to start dating and maybe find someone special.

"Nobody chooses this path," she says. "It's something that is thrust upon you. You have to either do something about it or live in misery. I hope to draw from my experience to help others and to help [all] people understand more about the diversity of humanity."

Transsexual danger zone

Transgender advocacy groups suspect incidents of violence and discrimination are underreported. Nonetheless, advocacy groups including the National Center for Transgender Equality and the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs report some disturbing numbers.

  • In 2009, 22 lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender people were murdered. Eleven were transgender women.
  • 26% of transgender people have at some time been fired because of their gender identity.
  • 97% of transgender people have been harassed on the job.
  • Transgender people are murdered on an average of more than one person per month; many more have been assaulted.

Being a transgender person can be lethal. Here are a few examples:

  • Angie Zapata, a transgender teenager in Greeley, Colo., was beaten to death in 2008 by a man she met on the Internet. Zapata's killer, Allen Andrade, was found guilty of murder; the jury also convicted him of a hate crime.
  • Brandon Teena was raped and later killed by two male "friends" in 1993 after they discovered he was biologically female. The film Boys Don't Cry was based on this murder.
  • Hugo Cesar "Bibi" Barajas died in 2002 from multiple gunshot wounds near a Houston club that serves gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people. Barajas, who was anatomically male, was dressed as a woman at the time.
  • Lateisha Green, a 22-year-old transgender woman, was killed in 2008 in Syracuse, N.Y. Jurors found Dwight DeLee guilty of first-degree manslaughter as a hate crime.
  • Female-to-male transsexual Robert Eads of rural Georgia developed cervical cancer but could not find a doctor to treat him. Twenty simply refused. He died in 1999.
  • Gwen Araujo, a teenage preoperative transgender woman, was murdered in California in 2002. She was beaten and strangled by four men, two of whom she had been sexually intimate with, when they discovered she was transgender.

More information

National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs

National Center for Transgender Equality

Human Rights Campaign

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