February 6, 2015

Bruce Jenner and My Friend Ron: Gender Identity and Sexual Orientation

Yesterday’s Washington Post brought the news about Bruce Jenner's transitioning from male to female. I’m just back from the Safeway where I saw People magazine featuring Jenner’s picture on the cover with this headline, ”He is finally happy.” ABC's Diane Sawyer has apparently signed him up for an interview in May. Jenner -- who hasn't commented about these developments -- is said to be planning a reality TV series documenting his transition.

For people like me -- apparently living in a cave and unaware of Jenner's current claim to fame -- here's a brief refresher.

I vaguely remember that Jenner won the decathlon at the 1976 Montreal Olympics. Afterward his world-record-breaking victory, he lived much of his life for the cameras. Fading into obscurity in the late 1980s, Jenner turned it all around by marrying Kris Kardashian in 1991.

The newlyweds launched a lucrative line of exercise equipment. But the big move back to center stage came in 2007. The Kardashian/Jenner clan became a multi-million dollar empire when Kris sold TV host/producer Ryan Seacrest on a reality TV series based on the lives of the publicity-savvy Kardashians.

Much of this was news to me. While the Kardashian name was familiar, I never really knew why they were famous. 

So, here's the 35-year-old flashback triggered by these latest headlines.

Introduction to Transgender Issues: My Pal Ron
After reading this latest news, I thought about my friendship 35 years ago with a transgendered person... a friendship that came at a time of many changes in my own life.

In October 1977, I came out as a gay man, separated from my wife, and began exploring the gay world. In March 1978, I finally acknowledged publicly that I was an alcoholic.

For the next few years, I spent much of my free time either in AA meetings or gay bars, strange as that combination may sound. Thank God for antabuse, designed to make people very sick if they drink alcohol. I recently learned that the spray used to keep deer out of my garden has the same chemical ingredient as antabuse.

I attended regular AA meetings and also gay/lesbian AA meetings. Thanks to the gay/lesbian sessions, I became good friends with Ron, who was smart, funny and anxious to help newbies like me. I always used "he" and "him" when I talked about Ron, but others who knew him a longer time did not.

When Ron first joined AA, he was Judy. He'd been undergoing the female-to-male reassignment for several years. After breast surgery and hormone treatment, he was already a bearded man when I met him. He looked more masculine than many of the men at the meetings.

I was naive and confused when I "came out," and Ron soon added to my confusion. He was dating a woman in AA whom my straight male sponsor was also dating. Ron had had a female partner -- a lesbian -- when he was Judy. So this new girlfriend wasn't a surprise. 

That relationship ended, and Ron developed a crush on a gay man who was part of our AA circle. At that time, Ron was just stepping onto the arduous path to genital reassignment.

His dating history bothered me. I wondered why he wanted a penis when he didn't seem to know whether he wanted to have sex with men or women. It finally dawned on me that there were two separate issues here -- gender identification and sexual orientation. 

Ron was sexually attracted to both men and women. That's bisexuality, not an uncommon orientation. His powerful feeling about being a man -- not a woman -- was a completely separate issue.

Learning this lesson helped me. Entering the gay world when I was nearly 50, I was troubled by the frequent use of feminine pronouns by younger gays when they talked about other gay men. I was finally comfortable with being gay, but that didn't make me a woman. 

Although I didn't use feminine pronouns when I talked about my gay male friends, I soon saw -- even enjoyed -- the good-natured humor underneath this practice. Here's an example: in 1985, I participated in a People-to-People tour of Russia and China with a small group of labor relations professionals. In Moscow one night, I broke away from the group and went to a small park in the theater district, figuring it might be a gathering place for local gays. I was right. Soon, I was talking with two English-speaking men about what it was like to be gay in Soviet Russia. As we talked, an effeminate, drunk young man staggered into the park and nearly fell into the fountain. One of my new friends said, "Get her!" I felt like I was back in Washington's Dupont Circle. 

Ron's transition was handled by the University of Virginia's hospital in Charlottesville. I was surprised to learn that UVA's med school had established a Gender Change Clinic in the 1970s, one of very few U.S. hospitals that handled female-to-male transitions then.

Ron was a class act as he navigated the transition, which took several years. A lawyer, he continued working -- heading a legal unit dealing with the rules and regulations for a major federal regulatory agency. As his new network of gay male friends grew, he maintained his lesbian friendships, including the one with his former partner. 

I remember many good times, including a weekend in New York City, where we saw Lena Horne's farewell appearance in a one-woman show that became a Broadway smash in 1981. At the box office, Ron handed the attendant his credit card. The guy looked at the card and said, "I see your initials are 'J.R.' Mine, too. What do yours stand for?" Ron, looking sharp in his best suit and tie, finessed answering the question. The initials stood for "Judy Ron." 

I drove down to the UVA hospital -- two and a half hours away -- to visit Ron several times while he was undergoing preliminary procedures before the "main event." I was there, too, as he recovered from the genital reassignment. 

During my bedside visit, Ron surprised me by throwing back the bed covers to display his new acquisition. The patient gets to choose the size before the operation, and Ron went for "extra large." When he returned to DC, he had to take his suit pants to a tailor to have the crotches let out.

Through all the years leading up to the surgery, Ron's number one goal was to be able to pee standing up. For him, that ability would symbolize his crossing the finish line to his true identity as a man. 

It never happened. The doctors couldn't get the new plumbing to work.

Ron had suffered from depression for much of his adult life, and through the next several years, it worsened. He isolated himself from friends and family, and took a disability retirement from his job. He ended up taking his own life.

RIP, Ron.

A Male-Female Transition
This post has already run longer than I intended. But I hate leaving the issue of gender transition on such a negative note. So here's a very brief story of someone else in transition, this time from male to female.

Four years ago, my housemate and I flew to San Francisco to begin our three-week tour of the Pacific Northwest. We booked into the Castro Inn for two nights. Both mornings at breakfast there, we were joined by a female guest with an interesting story.

She had been a policeman. Now, she had transitioned to become what she wanted to be -- a happy woman.

While she was still a man, our new friend had been a good golfer and played in several tournaments. After the transition, she continued to play. At first, there was no problem. But after she won several tournaments, protests were filed by players who thought it unfair for a former male golfer to compete on the women's tour.

1 comment:

Bonnie Schupp said...

I've been following your posts. Both of my parents had Parkinson's and my father just passed away in December. You sound like an amazing person.

This post is also interesting to me since I have some transgender friends. If you have not read "The Riddle of Gender" by Deborah Rudacille (a friend of mine), you should. One big thing I took away from it was that gender is not binary but a continuum. I created a photo to illustrate that concept and it was in a juried exhibit by the Kinsey Institute.

Keep blogging as long as you can. I'm sure you have a large audience.