Discussing the ‘T’ in LGBT with Professor Connor Trebra

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Americans are in the midst of a new Civil Rights era, and while advocacy for the lesbian and gay population has improved greatly, a gap remains for the transgendered.

When discussing LGBT political and social issues, people often focus on subjects such as DOMA or gay couples and adoption. Transgender issues seldom lead the discussion.

“While we include the ‘T’ [in LGBT]…it is at the end,” says Connor Trebra, a Multicultural Gender Studies professor at Chico State University. “Students often use that alphabet soup ‘the LGBT community’ when they write about queer issues, but rarely do they focus on the ‘T.’”

The transgender lifestyle is widely misunderstood and highly underpublicized. Because our society built itself upon patriarchy, many people don’t feel entirely comfortable when it comes to altering gender. For some, the idea of meddling with one’s gender is abstract and unfathomable, which pushes people to ignore their transgender compatriots altogether.

“Trans folks are often asked to support the larger community, but trans folks are also asked to have patience and are told that it isn’t time yet to be included in a national bill that protects gays and lesbians in the workplace.”

Connor is referring to the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA), a bill first introduced in 1994 to provide employment and prohibit job discrimination based on sexual orientation. Gender identity protections were not added until 2007.

However, according to the Huffington Post, “House Democrats removed transgender protections from the legislation, claiming they wouldn’t have enough votes to pass an inclusive ENDA.”

ENDA had been defeated every year until 2013, when the bill was finally approved by the Health, Education, Labor & Pensions Committee on July 10 with a 15-7 vote. It will soon be introduced to the Senate floor for a vote. However, while the bill now includes gender identity protections, there is still resistance to extend this protection to the transgender population.

I had the privilege of taking one of Connor’s classes in my final semester of college. Connor began the course as most teachers would—we had open discussions about our opinions on LGBT issues, gave current event presentations, and read textbooks that covered crucial points in gay history. We all came to enjoy our professor, who engaged us with his experience and a safe environment.

Perhaps his compassion and ability to establish rapport with his students were what made it so surprising when, after a month of school, Connor revealed to our class that he is a female to male transgender (FTM).

Some students seemed surprised, while others claimed they had always suspected. However, I was shocked—not because he was transgender, but because I realized Connor was the first transgender person I had ever met, at least that I knew of. I had always considered myself a somewhat worldly person, and realizing this somehow made me feel ashamed. I felt as if I had ignored an entire sector of the LGBT community I had always presumed myself to be an ally for.

While there have been great strides in recent decades for the lesbian and gay population, advocacy for transgender persons has been sparse. Our textbooks gave us the paper and ink explanation of the medical discrimination transgender people have faced—The World Professional Association for Transgender Health (WPATH) formatted a standard of care guide that many doctors have yet to adopt—while newspaper articles still give us third person descriptions of someone, somewhere, getting kicked out of the women’s bathroom because they were not born female.

Connor recounts some of the basic difficulties during his own transition:

“There was a point in my transition where I imagined myself to be clearly in-between and so I avoided going into a restroom for several months,” says Connor. “Using the facilities is something many take for granted, but it often becomes an obstacle for transgender people. This is very difficult when you’re on a campus or in a work situation for six to ten hours a day.”

Connor’s willingness to open up to his students about his own obstacles and triumphs gave students an opportunity to learn about an important minority as relatable people, rather than subjects in a textbook. Perhaps this is why he waited to reveal his own history. By the time we learned that Connor was transgender, we had already come to know him as a human being—and isn’t this the most essential point?

Connor was raised in Indiana in the 1950s. Though he had always known he did not enjoy girly toys and hobbies, the time period of his childhood restricted his ability to play with guns and trucks like other boys did. Since he was unable to physically portray himself in a masculine manner, Connor would often construct elaborate fantasies, as children often do, imagining himself not as the pretty damsel, but as the heroic young man he felt he was.

After college, Connor identified as lesbian and developed his place in the lesbian community. For over thirty-five years, he lived his life as CJ—an androgynous name constructed from his given initials. Through the Black Civil Rights movement, Connor became highly politicized and eventually moved to San Francisco. As a lesbian woman, Connor led the life of an activist for the gay community.

He rode in one of the first “Dykes on Bikes” at the Gay Pride Parade in 1977. He was there to witness the overwhelming joy people felt when Harvey Milk was elected, as well as the crippling heartbreak when he was assassinated. He was there for the AIDS outbreak in San Francisco, and the construction of the AIDS memorial quilt—a display of over 48,000 names of AIDS victims, last displayed in July 2012 at the XIX International AIDS Conference. 

Nonetheless, even after being so politically involved within the gay and lesbian community, Connor still felt out of place. While he felt associated and involved with other women, they often complained he was too masculine. In the 1970s, androgyny was highly desired. “Butch” and “femme” roles were perceived negatively because they endorsed the patriarchy of American society.

Still, Connor did not want to be androgynous—he wanted to be the man he felt he was. Because of this displacement, Connor dropped out of active politics. Feeling displaced and uncomfortable in his own body, Connor turned to drugs and alcohol to cope with the misery he felt.

In the 1990s, while Connor was in his forties and still living as a lesbian woman, he met three young transmen who were early on in their transition.

“At first knowing them not only fascinated me, but also made me quite uncomfortable—at times, even angry,” said Connor. “Not because of their transition, but because I wanted what they had.”

However, at the time, Connor was battling drug and alcohol addiction and was involved in an unsupportive, lesbian relationship. The woman he was seeing, whom he refers to as “L,” had a close relationship with her parents who, in Connor’s opinion, were prejudiced and invalidating not only of their daughter’s relationship with Connor, but of her lifestyle in general. While out to dinner with L’s parents on one of their visits, Connor experienced a pivotal moment that would lead him to make a change in his life.

“The father looked at me and said, ‘You know, it’s okay that you’re gay, but do you have to dress like a man? Can’t you wear some nice slacks or a skirt once in a while?’…I was livid.”

Irritated with his partner for accepting her father’s comment in order to avoid making a scene, Connor left the restaurant. He described the moment as “the first time [he]ever really stood up for [himself], simply by walking out of the restaurant…”

A few years later, after entering a relationship with a sympathetic, lesbian partner who supported Connor’s desire to experiment with male pronouns, Connor decided to begin his transition. He was 56.

Because he began his transition at such a late age, Connor occasionally felt envious of younger, transitioning males. He never truly experienced youth as a male, and in class he explained that because of this, he sometimes felt like a teenage boy during his transition, discovering his body and coming into his own.

In 2001, Connor moved to a small town in Northern California with his new partner, and resumed his political past within the strong, yet modestly sized LGBT community. After beginning hormone treatment, Connor realized that he would have to reveal to those who knew him what he was going through. While he found most people to be very supportive, he still felt that they did not understand.

During his transition, Connor agreed to participate on a panel to discuss gender and sexuality with another Multicultural Gender Studies class.

“Some of the students in the class were obviously very uncomfortable with me,” said Connor. “Within a few days, I got a phone call from…[a]drunk young man who expressed his disgust that I wanted to be a man, and told me that I would never be one, and that I was a faggot whore.”

Connor was wounded by the insult. Although this experience inhibited his willingness to be open with other people, he concedes that this was the only negative response he received in his small town community.

Still, while people are generally understanding in Connor’s case, there are many other transgender people who lack the advocacy to lead normal, fulfilling lives.

According to Connor, people who make a point to show their acceptance of his male identity often expect a grand sense of gratitude.

“Part of you feels as if you should be grateful that they are making the effort. The other part resents that assumption of gratefulness—why should I give you strokes for seeing me as I want to be seen?”

This kind of expectation is a clear mark of how uncomfortable our culture really is with transgender people. Some behave as if accepting FTMs and MTFs is something that they go out of their way to do, and their effort should be prized. Instead, we should accept a transgender person’s identity not out of burden, but because it’s who they are.

Furthermore, Connor says that many people base their terms of acceptance on one’s ability to “pass” as their chosen gender.

“Acceptance of trans folk is always based on how one looks…Too tall? Too strong jawed?…Not ‘pretty’? Then you’re usually suspect, and once identified as trans, you’re often the target of, at best, verbal taunts, and at worse, physical violence and even death.”

When I asked Connor if he might have transitioned at an earlier age had there been more advocacy for transgender people at the time, he said the question was “difficult to answer.”

“I would imagine that if there had been more positive, visible support for trans people, I would have not only been aware of the possibilities, but also of a community,” says Connor. “The advocacy would have had to have come not just from the trans community, but also from the greater LGB community…I may have had healthier attitudes about my own gender identity and been more comfortable to discuss my feelings about gender more openly had I felt more supported by the women with whom I was involved in my early life. But it’s always difficult to say.”

Connor shares his story in hopes that his experience will enlighten people, and that better understanding might improve solidarity within the LGBTA community.

“I’m pleased that my gay, lesbian, and even bisexual brothers and sisters are slowly achieving some semblance of acceptance,” says Connor.

“While things are better for [lesbian and gay]folks than they’ve often ever been, there are still thirty-seven states that have restrictions on gay marriage and adoption; there are still twenty-nine states that have laws on the books that make it legal to fire an employee on the basis of sexual orientation or gender presentation. So there’s still a long way to go. But the trans community faces all this and more.”

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