The cultural challenge of gender identity

The kid was obviously talented.  He was athletic and graceful.  He could sing, dance, memorize lines, and occasionally did a cartwheel across the room for fun.

We were in an amateur show produced by a local community organization.  Most cast members were adults.  The kid held his own, did fine, brimmed with confidence.

This kid is going to be a big success in life, I thought.

A few weeks into rehearsals, his grandmother pulled me aside. He is biologically female, she told me.  It was a lot to absorb, to say the least.

The grandmother was not confiding in me because of any special relationship.  She told me, I thought, because others already knew.  It was not a secret.

This child knew who he was from age three, the grandma explained.  He had a girl’s name and was treated like a girl.  For his third birthday his family bought him a tutu.  He refused to wear it and told them he was a boy, and that was that.

This was the most accepting family a child could have hoped for.  “We told him, ‘We didn’t know, we didn’t understand,’” the grandma told me.  They changed what had to be changed, including his name, and never tried to change his mind.

He was not the first transgender person I’ve met.  I have been acquainted with a few others.  The revelation has always been a shock.  I’ve had to compose myself, avoid asking inappropriate questions, and remind myself that this person has probably experienced a lifetime of obstacles and rejection and doesn’t need any more tactlessness from me.

It’s a great relief that New Mexico has not turned the transgender bathroom issue into a political football as a few other states have.  Good for us, New Mexico.

The schools in Santa Fe and Albuquerque have adopted tolerant policies regarding use of restrooms and locker rooms by transgender students, allowing them to use whichever restroom fits with their chosen gender identity (though Albuquerque had a hubbub before the policy was adopted).  Most importantly, these school districts have taken a stand against bullying and discrimination against transgender students.

The issue can be handled without a formal policy, as the Rio Rancho schools are doing, simply working with students case by case.  This may be a useful model for smaller school districts that may encounter transgender students only rarely.

Gender identity issues don’t care about demographics. Looking at the stories of the Orlando shooting victims, I was reminded that gay people come from every kind of background and every ethnic group.  The same is true for transgender.  Wherever you live, the next gay or transgender child could show up in your neighborhood or your family.

Most kids with gender identity issues are nowhere near as fortunate as the boy I described.  A national study entitled “Injustice at Every Turn” found that most gender-nonconforming individuals have suffered lifelong discrimination and harassment, beginning in school.  Most of them live in poverty because no one will employ them, and an astonishing 41 percent have attempted suicide.

In Albuquerque, a shelter called Casa Q  ( provides living options for teens with gender identity issues, some of whom were homeless because they were kicked out by their parents.

The very idea that a person can be not completely male or female but somewhere in between is troubling to many of us.  It takes getting used to, and some folks will never accept it. Transgender people have probably been among us forever but hid their identity just as gay people did.  Now they are out of the closet.

New Mexico has prided itself on being the land where many cultures live together in peace and harmony.  Let’s hope we can add this other set of cultural variations with a minimum of trauma.

Triple Spaced Again, © New Mexico News Services 2016

This entry was posted in Articles. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to The cultural challenge of gender identity

  1. John Coe says:

    Merilee, I’m the guy you met Saturday at the Quintessence concert this past Saturday. I just read your piece on transgendered people. I have known a few through the years and know two at my church. All have been very fine people but I know some have suffered because of ignorance and intolerance. One very talented individual I knew in another state was afraid to be known by is grandparents who lived next door to me. I felt very badly for him because he felt forced to appear “normal” much of the time and could not be seen as he truly felt himself to be. Thank you for writing this article. I am pleased to know that parts of New Mexico are much more tolerant of people who are “different” than is the case in other states.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *