Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Generativity Within the Transgender Community

Mona Rae Mason
Keynote address
May 1, 2009Transgender 2009-LibertyPhiladelphia, PA

Good afternoon everyone, and welcome to Transgender 2009-Liberty.
My name is Mona Rae Mason. Some of you here know me through my work with The Transgender Project. Others may have heard of my sometimes scandalous NYC party girl reputation. The Transgender Project may be over, but I think I have a few parties left in me.

There are some of you here today who I know that stepped up and participated in the baseline interview process for the TGP, and a few of you here who were randomly selected for the follow up interviews, which involved the sometimes arduous task of having to talk to me, face to face, every six months over 3 years.

For those who may not be aware of TGP, it was a 5 year, longitudinal study of the male to female transgender population of the greater NYC area, funded by the National Institutes of Health. A few of the topics we examined were mental health, verbal and physical abuse, hormone use, HIV/STI prevalence, job discrimination, family relationships, gender identity, sexual identity, and substance use among other topics. We also took a closer look at the concept of autogynephilia. Recently, some of the data collected from the baseline interviews was applied to the re-writing of the training manual for the NYPD Police Academy, and I was very proud to have been asked to participate in that process. We also have written and submitted, for journal publication, several papers relating to the data and have several more to write.

During the course of this study, we interviewed almost 600 male to female transgender women from all walks of life, and it was my great privilege to meet so many sisters that I am very certain I would never have met in a million years otherwise.

I suggest ‘never have met’ because we, as human beings, tend to stay in our social ‘comfort zones’. It’s basic human nature to do so—you socialize with people much like yourself, of your own age and background, in rather tightly circumscribed social settings, and we tend not to leave these social comfort zones—at least not very often. I was most fortunate to have been allowed to cross over many of these social boundaries, meet with various subgroups of transgender women from different economic, cultural, generational and ethnic backgrounds, and I was welcomed in all. I have laughed with some of you, and cried with others. I stand in awe of our great diversity, and I say again, what a truly great privilege the past few years have been for me.

Diversity? I have met and gotten to know some transgender women who have PhD’s, and Masters degrees; and some with very little or almost no formal education at all. I have interviewed transgender women who are plumbers, professors, a NYPD detective, construction workers, accountants, musicians, lawyers, a major university president, a published author, a law professor, a West Point Cadet, and even one who is a monk. I have met sisters who have transitioned successfully at home and in the workplace, and some who have lost everything– family, friends, and income as a result of their transition.
And I have also met with sisters who have never had a job, and engage in survival sex as their only option.

I have discussed and shared experiences with transgender women who have found support and acceptance from family, and others who have been both verbally and physically abused, and in some cases, sexually abused—usually followed by being expelled from the home altogether.

For a very few of us, being transgender has not been too calamitous an issue. But for many of us however, it’s a constant ‘life negotiation’, and sadly for others, being transgender makes life an ever-constant struggle for their very existence.

One of sentiments so many of these women confided to me that really stands out in my mind, was the expressing the desire to ‘give something back’ to the community. Many told me they were taking part in the interviews in the hopes that it would somehow help other transwomen. Early on in the TGP, I interviewed a woman whose life as a transgender person has been a total hell, and yet she told me she wants to give something back. A person who has not had known one minutes pleasure or enjoyment of being a transgender woman, and yet she wants to give something back, something to help those coming in the next generation of transgender women.
Helping others.Giving something back.Helping someone else avoid some of the pain and pitfalls of this life.Sharing your experiences with those younger than yourself.


Generativity as defined by psychologist Erik Erikson is “primarily the interest in establishing and guiding the next generation”.

As the Transgender Project was coming to a close, we thought we’d like to give the participants a chance to ‘sound off a bit’, in their own words. Dr. Nuttbrock, the PI for the Transgender Project and I devised a few simple questions, with a ‘if I had to do it all over again’ theme, and selected participants, quite randomly, and asked them to take a few minutes to respond. The women were told they could write as much or as little as they liked. They could answer the questions ‘on the spot’ and we would record their comments, or they could write out their responses and thoughts. We even suggested that they could take the questions home and mail them back when they were finished. Some very informal, qualitative data, to be sure.

I think that it should be easy to understand, and I believe most professionals agree, that analyzing narrative responses in not exactly a fast and firm science and can be rather subjective. However, we had many very similar responses that really stood out and would be difficult to ignore.

The first question was actually in two parts:
1. “Let us assume, for now, that being transgender is a choice we make. If this is or were the case, and you could live your life over again, would you live your life as a transgendered person? Why or why not?”

My personal favorite response to the first part, which appears to be a predominant theme is: “Who in their right mind would choose to do (or be) something that makes them an outcast from the mainstream of society?”

Other responses were similar, and included the recurring terms such as physical abuse, having to hear the verbal abuse, harassment, living in fear, guilt, shame, separation from family, etc..
The majority of responses however, indicated directly that YES, they would indeed live their over again as a transgendered person, despite the many negative experiences in their lifetime.

What I found very interesting from a generational stand point is that when I divided the respondents into two groups, those 40+ years of age and those 39 and under, 78 % of the older group said yes, while only 59 % of the younger group said they would live their lives again as a transgender person if being transgender was a choice.

Of course the second part was, “Now let us assume that being transgendered is not a choice. If you could live your life over again, what things, if any, might you change or do differently”
The overwhelming responses to the second part—what would you do differently?

Come out earlier—when I was younger
Start transition earlier– when I was younger
Begin hormones earlier– when I was younger

But the one question we asked where I felt the responses were most interesting was:
“The Next Generation—is there anything you might offer as advice to transpeople younger than yourself?”

23% stressed the importance of getting an education and getting a good job
45% specifically stated “be true to yourself”
And a full 70% urged getting support and sound advice.


Generativity – “establishing and guiding the next generation”

Generativity—it’s in you, at least 70% of you anyway. You WANT to help others like yourself. You WANT to share your experiences with the next generation.

Various surveys by numerous agencies in most large cities suggest that 40% and more of all homeless youth identify as Transgender, Gay or Lesbian. One in NYC suggests as many as 60%. And that equates to over 10, 000 LGBT kids out there, just in NYC, who have either been thrown out of their homes by their own parents, or the family situation was so bad they were forced to leave. Drawn to the narcotic glow of the neon lights, they head to a big city to ‘live the dream’ of just being able to be who they really are, and to find others like themselves—social comfort zones. They arrive with little more than the clothes on their back and way too few dollars in their pockets. They seek out peers, people like themselves, but the problem here is that this new social circle is all kids in the same situation.

Imagine you are 15, 16 or 17. No money, no family, big city, its’ cold, and you are hungry and no place to go. Hunger and cold drives people to do things they would normally never do. Prostitution very quickly becomes the means by which these young people survive. I guarantee you that no one wakes up one day and says ‘When I grow up, I want to be a prostitute” And when the epiphany strikes and the realization of having to have sex with some fat ugly bastard in order to eat hits home, any self esteem that may be left goes right out the window and depression—serious depression sets in. And of course, when you are down you want to get high—here come the drugs. It’s a horrible, vicious cycle that is played out again and again.

Living the dream?

Do you think these kids could use someone to talk to—maybe someone to just listen?

Or how about the young transperson in the suburbs or a rural area? Sitting very much alone and trying to figure out who she is? No one to talk to about how she sees herself, no one to listen. Where does she go? Who would understand? What can she do and how can she possibly think well of herself while hiding this secret she keeps deep inside? Confused and lonely, most likely feeling only shame and guilt.

Think she might appreciate a friend? A little advice? Maybe just the tiniest bit of affirmation? Didn’t YOU wish there was someone YOU could have talked to?

So, what can you do? What can you do to give something back? How do you to share your life’s experiences?

Start a blog?


What I think needs to be done requires actually getting up from your desk or table, away from your computer and getting involved! In person, face to face. EXPAND YOUR SOCIAL CIRCLE! It’s not always easy, in fact it’s tough. But we are transgender and we are tough. Look what YOU have gone through already in your lives. Being transgender is not for sissies. We have been there and we have learned and now it is time to help and teach and share with those younger than us, if for no other reason than it is quite simply the right thing to do.

Something as simple as helping a kid write that first resume, or advising her what to wear to that first job interview. Or maybe explaining why getting that GED is so important. We have teachers among us—why not TEACH a GED class? In most states all you need is a bachelors’ degree. Or tutor! Or talk to a kid about her substance abuse problem. Explain the risks, in detail, of unprotected sex. Talk about how you came out. It means SO MUCH more coming from you than a social worker. Be a peer—be a mentor—or just be a friend. Step up. Let that young person know that someone does indeed care.

Today in every major city and many smaller ones, there is something akin to a LGBT Center. Maybe it’s the local library or church. Maybe there are meetings or get-togethers once a week or once a month. ATTEND! If there isn’t one, START ONE!

Unitarian Churches and MCC churches are usually a good place to find free or inexpensive meeting space.This is the next generation of transgender we are talking about. These are OUR kids—yours and mine. They have no one to look to except us.

I think we all realize that in the general population, awareness of transgender has never been greater than it is right now, yet how we are still perceived and what people think they know about us is far removed from the reality.

What are we going to leave as our legacy?

Right now, THIS is our time. Let’s use it wisely.

“to leave the world a bit better……….to know even one life breathed easier because you lived. This is to have succeeded.” Emerson