Our Stories, Our Lives: A Conversation About Question 3 on the Massachusetts ballot on November 6, 2018

David Watts of the Wakefield Human Rights Commission and panelists Charisse Sebastian, Lisa Bunker, Rosalind Imbaro, and Mason Dunn

The Wakefield Human Rights Commission (WHRC) and the Unitarian Universalist Church of Wakefield co-sponsored an event titled Our Stories, Our Lives at the Savings Bank Theatre located in Wakefield Memorial High School on Wednesday October 17.

The evening featured four speakers, all transitioned transgender adults, who each told personal stories describing his or her experiences as a transgender person, as well as answered questions from the audience and shared ways to help ensure that civil rights for transgender people remain intact in our state. It was a fascinating and informative evening that presented facts and cleared up myths about the Massachusetts Question 3, Gender Identity Anti-Discrimination Veto Referendum (2018) that is on our state’s November 6 ballot.

Lisa Bunker, Mason Dunn, Rosalind Imbaro, all representing SpeakOUT Boston, a Boston based volunteer speakers bureau on sexuality and gender concerns, and additional speaker Charisse Sebastian took part in the panel discussion that was moderated by WHRC member David Watts.

When I first sat down with my 21 steno pad pages of notes, I was planning to write a “reporting” piece as I did a few weeks ago about the “The Hate U Give” discussion that took place at our library on October 11. But my typed-up notes came to 2250 words even without complete sentences and meaningful segues, so I decided I would approach it more like and interview or human interest story rather than as a “nothing but – and all -the facts” reporter.

But, finally, what appeared to be blatant procrastination revealed its intent: Rather than attempt to recount each detail of the evening here, I want to encourage everyone to watch the panel discussion in its entirety. It is worth taking the time to do so and I am so glad WCAT, our local cable access station, videoed this important event. Just search for “Wakefield Human Rights Commission – Our Stories, Our Lives” on You Tube or the WCAT archive page. Never mind learning a lot, you’ll be laughing at the quick wit and crying at the too true stories told by Charisse, Lisa, Rosalind, and Mason. To view now,  click HERE to watch on YouTube

What struck me the most was, amidst the unique struggles transgender people typically face, including within their own families when they are children and teens, there were so many common themes among the stories that we can recognize in our own lives: Wanting to find a way to fit in that feels right, the yearning for a parent’s love and recognition of one’s true self, the struggle to be honest with your children, and, the desire to be seen as just a regular person living a regular live regardless of looks, abilities, or preferences.

Along with the more universal themes, each panel member described, in heart-wrenching detail, experiences they had at different stages of their lives as they struggled to understand, act upon, and then get accepted by their family and the larger world as to who they each knew, deep down from childhood, they each really are.

Rosalind began by pointing out that she was wearing a butterfly necklace, important to her because the butterfly symbolizes the transformation experienced by transgender people. She went on to describe her confusion as a teen due to being sexually attracted to woman while also wanting to be a woman, and thus feeling like a “weirdo cross dresser” because she didn’t fit the medical definition of transgender as understood at that time. She ended up, in her words, “butching it up” and marrying the woman she loved, “bought the house, built the deck, had a son,” before finally coming to terms with who she was and is, and making the social and then medical transition to becoming the woman she knew herself to be.

The transition was not easy. She went back to the butterfly symbol, explaining that the caterpillar does not transform using the same eyes, legs to wings, etc. The caterpillar dissolves and reforms before breaking out in its new form. This is what it felt like to her.

Charisse told of sneaking items of her Mom’s clothing from a basement storage area and wearing them while watching cartoons on weekend mornings as her parent’s slept, always listening for the tell-tale sounds they made when getting up. She first came out to her parents in 1990s as a crossdresser, which caused a crisis that led to her coming out as transsexual, which caused an even bigger fight with her parents. Eventually things got better: She knew things were progressing when her Mom asked her what size she wore. Her Dad resisted until her Mom died in 2002 but now introduces her as his daughter and says he is so proud of her.

She told us that she has now been on hormones long enough so that her RNA has been re-written. She could not go back even if wanted to. For years, she was terrified of kids because kids do call it as they see it: “Look at the man in a skirt!” But, after a year on the hormones, she found herself wanting children and now, children just accept her as a woman.

Lisa Bunker began her story by saying that, as a child, she was not self-aware, although, in retrospect, it was very clear that she was supposed to be female. But, the unspoken message that she absorbed as to being transgender was this: “You will be killed.”

As a man, she got married, had two kids, and got divorced, but not because of transgender issues. It was the time she had alone due to the typical arrangement of “one week with kids and one without” that gave her room to get in touch with her true self. She spent a lot of time writing, and clearly remembers this milestone: “I wrote ‘I want to be a girl.’” She has since remarried, and credits her wife Dawn with inspiring her success as a writer “My dreams came true,” she said. “So, what do you do when your dreams come true? Get more dreams!” To that end, she is currently a candidate for state representative in Exeter, New Hampshire.

Mason Dunn came out as male when he was 19 and transitioned medically in his twenties while in law school, which he does not recommend. Explaining that the transition was like a second puberty, he got a good chuckle describing the challenge of presenting persuasive legal arguments with a voice that kept changing in pitch.

He got married when he was still gender-fluid and his now-wife was fine with it, as were her parents. When Mason finally legally became a man, his Dad-in-law, aware of the issues same sex couples had filing taxes (before marriage equality) commented that doing the taxes was going to be much easier. On a more serious note, Mason told us that his family members still struggle with gender pronouns and go through “grammar theatrics” to avoid referring to him with male pronouns. He also shared that he suffered through six years of conversion therapy, something he also does not recommend.

At the beginning of the Q&A period that followed the stories, Representative Paul Brodeur used this analogy to define and explain the importance of protecting the civil rights of transgender people as to public accommodations: As of 2011, transgender people have had civil rights protection for all but public accommodations. For example, an employer cannot discriminate and not hire someone because he or she is transgender. But, before 2016 and, of current importance, if the public accommodations civil rights are taken away from transgender people, that same employer could, once that person is “off the clock,” refuse to serve that person as a customer.

Audience member Sue Herz pointed out that transitioned transgender people have a unique perspective as to what it is like to be both a man and a woman in our society. All the panel members were in full agreement. It was very clear from what each panel member described that it is way easier to be a man in our society than to be a woman.

The stories in response to this point ranged from funny to frightening.

Lisa noted that men she previously interacted with professionally as a man now often interrupt and talk over her. Although, she did point out a silver lining: She now feels that men are truly seeing her as a woman.

Mason said that male privilege is real based on how he is now treated, saying that “gender is so weird.” He gave an example as to how he is now treated at Home Depot: no more “fawning” and “can I help you find something??” He added that, in contrast to when he shopped there as a women, salespeople at JoAnn’s Fabrics now assume he has no clue.

A female friend of Rosalind’s said to her, upon learning that Rosalind would be transitioning: “Don’t lose your power,” as to how she would interact with men. Rosalind also spoke of her Dad being a misogynist, which made life difficult for her Mom. She added that it took her a long time to move from feeling only good enough to be a woman to being proud to be a woman.

Charisse told us that she was brought up with 6 years of classes that were intended to teach young girls to “be a young lady.” The biggest lesson learned? Don’t take up any space.

Related to gender comparison, panel members noted that, along with misogynist issues, internalized homophobia causes a lot of pain and confusion, noting the high level of depression and suicide among transgender people.

Lizbeth DeSelm, of the Melrose School Committee and a transgender woman, pointed out that the suicide rate of transgender people is 9 times that of the overall population and that 41% of transgender people have considered or committed suicide.

She also gave an example of how she starts the “15-minute talk” in support of voting Yes on Question 3. “Do you support equal rights for all?” She emphasized that this is not a “bathroom bill.” It is about the possibility of once again marginalizing and dehumanizing a segment of our population.

It is important to note that, contrary to ads using scare tactics, there have not been any crimes committed – or children hurt or threatened – since or due to the public accommodations law that went into effect in our state in 2016.

Toward the end of the evening, Rosalind note that being transgender is nothing new, with there being more than two genders recognized in a number of ancient and more recent cultures. In fact, the Talmud has references to six genders.

Each panel member agreed that it would have been much easier and healthier if they could have transitioned socially before puberty. It was pointed out that puberty can be delayed to give a child plenty of time to transition socially and then make the decision to transition medically later in their teen years. Bottom line is this: Kids know who they are. When parents resist, it causes so much pain, as does going through the wrong puberty. It was again noted that suicide is common. The advice is this: Have a dead son or a live daughter, or a dead daughter or a live son.

This article only touches upon the wealth of information and understanding presented by this panel discussion that includes responses to the question “How did your kids take it when you came out?” (Spoiler alert: things went quite well.) Again, you can view it at your leisure online by searching for “Wakefield Human Rights Commission – Our Stories, Our Lives” on YouTube or the WCAT archive page from your own computer or at the library if you don’t have online access. Or click HERE to watch on YouTube.

The final takeaway from the evening was this: Please vote Yes on Question 3 on November 6. A Yes vote simply keeps in place civil rights that have been the law in our state since 2016. If you are still not sure, please do watch the panel discussion. I think you will learn that we all have more in common than not, and that all people deserve full civil rights in our society.

For more information, see Freedom for All Massachusetts.

This article is also posted on Wakefield Patch and has been sent to the Wakefield Daily Item.