Saturday, May 17, 2014

Meet AJ, the “T” in GLBTQ

Recently I met a young man transitioning from being a female to being the male God created him to be…A.J. is a mechanic. He told me the story of a day when a customer noticed the initials embroidered on the pocket of his uniform.

“What does “A.J.” stand for?”

A.J. hesitated. Friendly co-workers listened to hear how the young man would answer.  Then A.J. said, “Amanda Jo.” Co-workers laughed with A.J. The customer gave a discombobulated smile.

The Psalmist talked about A.J. when writing, “You created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother's womb.” (139:13) A.J. is the “T” or transgender in GLBTQ. We met at a Human Rights Campaign town-hall meeting at Highlands Presbyterian Church, where I am the pastor. That evening 65-70 of us gathered to talk about the experiences of lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, transgender, and questioning people in our community. Some spoke of discrimination they suffered on the job, at school, in churches, and among friends and family. Others spoke of acceptance and support they had received in those same venues.

With each passing day the walls of injustice targeting gays and lesbians come toppling down. Corporate America took the lead. Good business people recognize the contribution good employees make to their company’s success. Courts are interpreting the Constitution to prohibit state-sponsored discrimination.

Having had a gay brother and many gay and lesbian friends, I have a greater understanding of those issues and a vocabulary with which to discuss them. But I confess the need to grow in my understanding of what it means to be transgender. A.J. was willing to teach me.

A.J. told me that as a youngster he knew that “she” was really “he.” Amanda Jo always assumed a male role in play. As a teen, A.J. self-identified as a lesbian. But, he said, something was missing. “I realized there was more to me than being a lesbian.” He came to understand that he was living in a female’s body.

The American Psychiatric Association has an official diagnosis for what A.J. experienced: “gender dysphoria.” It describes humans with “a marked incongruence between one’s experienced/expressed gender and (his or her) assigned gender.” The APA acknowledges there’s nothing inherently wrong with being transgender. Transgender identity is not the problem. The problem is societal gender constructions that create difficulties for people seeking to live lives of integrity.

The medical community needs a diagnostic term before providing transition medical treatment. There are medical standards of care for transitioning genders, including long-term psychological therapy to prepare mentally for what lies ahead.
For a female-to-male transgender, there is a lifetime of testosterone therapy, which induces masculinizing physical changes such as voice and body shape while maintaining the presence of masculine secondary sex characteristics. Later there may also be chest and genital reconstruction surgeries.
A.J. has support from most of his family and friends as well as his co-workers and employer. He told me his teenage children jokingly call him “MAD” for “mother and dad.” It’s a different story with his health insurance company. The high costs of medical care come from his pocket. Even though the medical community recognizes the legitimacy of gender dysphoria, some insurance companies don’t.

Many transgender people haven’t enjoyed the same level of support. He’s been courageous, open, and honest, finding that those who care about him want what is best for A.J. But for many, “coming out” is yet unsafe. The challenge for advocates is to create the safety that allows greater numbers to come out to their friends, neighbors, employers, and family members.

Knowing someone changes hearts. Changed hearts bring changed minds.

Many people may never understand transgender. That’s not an excuse for an unwillingness to accept others for who they are. There’s so much about God’s creation that we may never fully understand. But understanding transgender is easier because people like A.J. are willing to dialogue with those wanting to learn.

Ultimately, God doesn’t call on us to “understand” one another but to love one another.

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