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Conni's struggle for dignity and family

Lisa Jo, a retired Army sergeant with a thin blond ponytail, is the organizer and host of Southern Colorado Interregional Transgender Society (SCIRTS), an informal support group of transgender people who gather weekly to share their stories, exchange legal advice, and, above all, feel comfortable in an often unfriendly world.

The rules are simple: Anyone is welcome, no drinking or drugs, no cruising, and everything shared at the meeting remains confidential.

Lisa Jo has been hosting these meetings for the past five years and has seen many people come and go.

"If they all showed up tonight," she said, "it would be standing room only in here. I'd say I've seen at least 50 different people pass through here over the years."

Though there are no hard and fast statistics about the number of transgender people in the world (and it would be difficult to account for all the cross-dressers, intersexed people, transsexuals and gender variant people), Lisa Jo estimates that as many as 3 to 5 percent of the overall population is in some way gender variant.

Acacia -- a perfectly made-up paralegal student and young intersexed (born with both male and female genitalia) diva -- is sitting in the corner watching the TV show Charmed and elaborating on her legal plans to shaft the fast-food chain that's trying to fire her for being "too flamboyant." (The Intersex Society, an advocacy group, estimates that that 1 in every 2,000 people is born with both male and female genitalia, and Acacia was surgically made into a male at birth. "The wrong choice," she says.)

Sarah, a cross-dresser who drove all the way from Denver to make sure she'd be anonymous for this first-time outing, is giddy to be "out of the box." Lana, a slender woman in an elegant pumpkin-colored business suit, sits with her knees tucked in the corner of another couch and regales me with her "Tales of a Transgender Wal-Mart Checker."

Tina, a towering convenience store clerk in a purple satin suit, and Lita, a cross-dresser and a farmer, pop in after the banter has begun. Then Diana, a cross-dresser, and her wife, Mary -- who started coming to the group because she has a female-to-male transgender son -- drop in.

Conni, in jeans and a striped, blousy T-shirt, with a mop of rock 'n' roll blond hair, sits on the couch, wringing her sturdy hands.

Everyone who comes to these meeting has stories of their years in the closet, the trials of coming out to their partners and spouses, problems with custody of their children, and endless accounts of job discrimination. Though Tuesday nights at Lisa Jo's are usually one of the only times Conni can count on feeling at ease among the people who understand her best, she has a lot on her mind tonight. She is definitely in the thick of it.

Now 47, Conni has not yet had sex-change surgery, but has been on female hormones for two years and fully considers herself a woman.

It wasn't always this way.


He was a she

"When I was five years old, I put some lipstick on," said Conni -- who grew up in Chicago as Conrad. "I thought that was the most wonderful thing! Then I went downstairs and I got hollered at for it. Five years old, I know what I like, and I know I'm guilty for it."

So Conrad kept it to himself. He dabbled in cross-dressing whenever he was alone. In high school, he passed well for a boy, but was more naturally drawn to women. "I'd rather cross-stitch or embroider, or collect a wardrobe. I functioned real well as a man. But there was a war between the two genders in me."

When she was a young man, Conrad married and divorced twice, and both of his wives were sympathetic to his cross-dressing.

"I told every one of my wives right up front at the beginning of the relationship," she said. "It was never a big deal. A lot of cross-dressers keep it a secret and then it causes more trouble down the line."

In 1983, after moving to Colorado Springs, Conrad met his third wife while playing guitar at a club in Cañon City. Like his previous spouses, his third wife seemed fine with Conrad's "fetish."

"She used to participate," Conni said. "I would get dressed up and we would go out and have a couple of drinks together."

But, according to Conni, the tolerance only lasted a few years. (Her ex-wife declined to comment for this story, referring calls to her attorney, Greg Quimby.) The Independent has agreed to use only Conni's first name for this story, to protect the privacy of the couple's minor children.)

After the couple's third child was born, they tried to repair what had become a relationship full of friction, but nothing seemed to help. "My wife had no respect for me. So I had to do a lot of soul searching."

Then, in September 1997, while seeing a therapist he'd been working with for about a year, Conrad began to realize that he wasn't just a cross-dresser. He was, and always had felt like he was, a woman. He was a she.


The real life test

The American Psychiatric Association's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders IV (DSM-IV) identifies the symptoms of Gender Identity Disorder (GID) as those who believe they were born the opposite sex and/or having a strong and persistent desire to be the opposite sex. In addition, the association notes that the disorder can include frequently passing in public as the other sex, desiring to live or be treated as the other sex or the conviction that the person has the typical feelings and reactions of the other sex.

Oftentimes, people with GID experience discomfort with their sexual identity, combined with a preoccupation with getting rid of primary and secondary sex characteristics (e.g., request for hormones, surgery or other procedures to physically alter sexual characteristics to simulate the other sex).

"The disturbance," according to the American Psychiatric Association, "causes clinically significant distress or impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning."

There is much debate in the transgender community about the credibility of these definitions, and whether transgender people should be in any way defined as having a psychiatric condition or disorder.

People with GID may initially cross-dress, however it is important to note, experts point out, that being transgendered is not the same as cross-dressing. And, for the medical and psychiatric establishment, the recommended treatment for people who truly believe they are living in the wrong-sexed body is what most people with GID want: hormone therapy and, if the person desires it, a sex-change operation.

"We convert the body to match the gender, not the gender to match the body," noted Dr. Stanley Biber, the famous sex-change doctor in Trinidad, Colo., which is recognized internationally as the sex-change capital of the world. There, Biber has conducted an estimated 4,500 surgeries transforming males to females and 500 more female-to-male operations.

In Conni's case, after her therapist diagnosed her with GID, she began to take full doses of female hormones to start what is known as the "transition" or the "Real Life Test." The test marks the stage of gender identity transformation required by physicians licensed to do sex-change operations and requires the person to live as the sex they wish to become for at least a full year, and undergo psychological or psychiatric evaluations at the end of that period. This final step is required to determine with certainty that that person will be able to live with the irrevocable surgical changes.

When she started on the female hormones, Conni felt a great sense of relief. They calmed her down and made her feel comfortable with herself. But her realization and decision to change her body to match her gender, she found out later, were the easy part.


Shedding the skin

Colorado Springs has an illustrious and recent transgender history. In 1990, for example, the notorious Charles Daugherty, a.k.a. Cheyen Weatherly, made a huge media splash when she, unbeknownst to school staff, enrolled at aged 26 as a girl student at Coronado High School and joined the cheerleading squad. Daugherty, who has since used several more aliases, including Storme Aerison and Storme Ireland Trump, etc., is currently incarcerated at the El Paso County Jail facing several counts of fraud for bilking people out of tens of thousands of dollars.

In 1996, Sean Clark -- then a transgender boy, who later identified as a lesbian -- was convicted of statutory rape and criminal impersonation by several 15-year-old girls who claimed to have had sex with her, believing she was a boy. Clark, whose story was featured in an Independent cover story on Feb. 21, 1996, later appeared with one of her former girlfriends on the Jerry Springer show.

Then there is John Cameron Mitchell, a former Colorado Springs resident, who wrote, directed and starred in this fall's Hedwig and the Angry Inch, a trannie punk rock opera.

In Conni's case, she found herself pinched between two seemingly irreconcilable worlds when she began shedding the skin of her biological gender. And, piece by piece, her work and family life started to fall apart.

At the time, Conni, an electronic technician by training, was working as a custodian at Cheyenne Mountain Elementary School. One Saturday in January 1999, she went to the school on her day off to finish some cleaning she hadn't gotten to the previous week. "Usually no one's in the schools on the weekends, so I was wearing a dress. And a teacher just happened to come in, and 'caught' me. She was uncomfortable with it, so I lost my job." The American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado was willing to represent Conni if she wanted to press discrimination charges, but she didn't want to drag her family through a potentially embarrassing trial.

In fact, she put her life as a woman on hold, trying to maintain the status quo as a man.

Six months later, Conni got job as an electronics technician at MagniSight, Inc., a company that builds equipment for the visually impaired. Three months after she began working there, she decided to restart her transition.

In January 2000, Conni and her wife sat down with their daughters, who are now aged 12, 14 and 15. "I'm in transition, girls," Conni said. "Being a male just wasn't working, so I need to take steps to fix what I consider to be a bad situation. So I'm going to be a female."

The two oldest girls' reactions, Conni says, were essentially, "Oh, OK. Whatever." But Conni's wife also announced to the children, without any warning, that they would be getting a divorce. "So my youngest just burst out crying. She was totally devastated. I felt terrible about that."

Conni's situation wasn't any easier at work. There, she alleges, she was harassed, intimidated, threatened and bullied by both her colleagues and supervisors.

Responding to the Independent's queries, MagniSight issued a written statement denying any discrimination against Conni during her employment, and noted it is both a nondiscriminatory and equal opportunity employer.

However, Mike Brewer of the gay, lesbian and transgender legal defense organization Colorado Legal Initiative Project (CLIP) noted that Conni's claims of family backlash and job discrimination are scenarios that commonly occur when transgender people begin their transition.

In June 2000, Conni's wife moved out with the children, and Conni soon found herself unable to manage the mortgage payment on their home along with the $520 a month in child support. So Conni moved to a trailer park.

The divorce proceedings that began in September and ended in December 2000 were, for Conni, the beginning of a terrible new chapter of transphobia, bitterness, discrimination and seemingly endless obstacles in her attempts to see her children and get a steady job.


Lacking the background

Over the past 10 years, a slow but steady trend in court rulings has increasingly upheld transgender rights under some state and local transgender nondiscrimination laws. However, other than in the city of Boulder, Colorado currently has no laws that specifically protect the civil rights of transgender people as transgender people, said CLIP's Brewer.

Child custody, in particular, is an area where transsexual parents throughout the United States suffer "tremendous discrimination," said Shannon Minter of the National Center for Lesbian Rights (NCLR). "The one notable exception is the case of Christian v. Christian from the Colorado Court of Appeals in 1973," said Minter, "in which a woman transitioned from female to male, changed her name and married a woman. The court found that this did not justify changing custody of their children to the father."

In several other cases, custody was granted to cross-dressing or transgender fathers on the condition that they never cross-dress again, retain their biological gender identity -- and as long as the children exhibited no signs of gender identity disorder.

Though very little research has been conducted on transgender families, in 1998 Richard Green, a British researcher, studied 18 children living in nine different families with one or more transgender parent. Green found that none of the children exhibited any kind of gender identity disorder, and "no significant cross-gender behaviour is reported." During interviews, he also found that some had experienced limited social stigma and teasing, but that it didn't last.

In his conclusion, Green stated: "Available evidence does not support concerns that a parent's transsexualism directly adversely impacts on the children. By contrast, there is extensive clinical experience showing the detriment to children in consequence of terminated contact with a parent after divorce."

"Unfortunately," CLIP's Brewer noted, "what typically happens with transsexual or transgender people in employment and family law is that employers often don't understand, and judges and therapists don't have the background or knowledge."

Conni was largely unaware of this reality when she and her wife began their divorce proceedings in September 2000.

In their case, Sandra Rooks, a licensed professional counselor, was appointed the parent coordinator -- a role that involves helping parents mediate custody issues -- and Conni said she assumed Rooks would have everyone's best interests in mind when she made her custody recommendation.

So, when Rooks recommended that Conni's wife retain custody, and that Conni retain her visits every other weekend (with four weeks visitation during the summer), Conni trusted Rooks' assessment, and agreed, she said.

Rooks did not respond to the Independent's repeated attempts to contact her for comment. However, court documents indicate that the counselor also stipulated that Conni was to dress androgynously until the children's comfort level with their father's transition to a woman increased.


The daunting task

In January 2001, the month after the divorce was finalized, Conni was fired from her job at MagniSight, Inc. According to documents later filed with the Colorado Labor Board, MagniSight cited "poor work performance" and a host of other complaints. Conni's appeal to the Colorado Labor Board was denied, leaving her with $520 a month child-support payments (based on her former salary of approximately $1600 a month). In addition, she was faced with paying rent, personal expenses and the daunting task of finding work in Colorado Springs as a transsexual person.

That same month, Conni's eldest daughter began skipping school. In one particular incident, her daughter showed up at her trailer. Though Conni now concedes she should have called her ex-wife herself, she told her daughter to call her mother immediately to come pick her up. But Conni's daughter only pretended to call her mother and then said that she'd been given permission to go to her friend's house.

Later that night, the police arrived, saying that Conni's daughter had been "kidnapped," until her ex-wife finally found her at her friend's house.

As a result of this incident and several other alleged breaches of the divorce agreement, Conni and her ex-wife had a meeting with Rooks in which Rooks insisted the eldest daughter should be placed on anti-depressants. It was Rooks' opinion that the daughter was "exhibiting symptoms of major depression." Conni's daughter, however, had told her that she did not want to "put any drugs in her body," and Conni said she felt obliged as a parent to stand behind her daughter's decision.

According to Conni, Rooks had also left a number of things out of her report to the court. In particular, Rooks failed to mention the eldest daughters' acceptance of Conni's gender change. When Conni mentioned this discrepancy, she says, Rooks admitted she'd left things out, insisted the children weren't comfortable, and threatened to hold Conni in negligence. Conni felt Rooks was "biased and prejudiced," and asked for a second opinion.

But on April 6 of this year, Conni was served with a restraining order accompanied by an opinion and personal assessment of the situation by her ex-wife's attorney Greg Quimby, an affidavit from Conni's ex-wife, and testimony from Rooks.

In these documents, Quimby, Conni's ex-wife and Rooks all refused to acknowledge Conni's gender identity by continually referring to her as "he" despite the fact that 1.) Conni's Colorado Driver's License recognizes her as a female 2.) she had been openly diagnosed Gender Identity Disorder and had been on female hormones for well over a year, and 3.) many courts, both federal and local, recognize male-to-female transsexuals as women by using the feminine pronoun.

Included in Quimby's and Rooks' allegations are also many accusations that suggest a lack of familiarity with transgender/transsexual medical, psychiatric and legal issues:

Though court documents indicate that Quimby believes that Conni's gender transformation "has caused him to become erratic and harmful to the welfare of his children," the attorney insisted in an interview that none of the actions being taken against Conni have anything to do with her being transsexual. In addition, Quimby said, there is no conclusive evidence directly attributing Conni's behavior to her "gender transformation."

"Conni's not wrong because she's gender confused," Quimby said. Rather, Conni's "narcissism" and "shenanigans" got her into trouble, he said, though he was unable to cite anything beyond the alleged kidnapping.

"I'm not sure what constitutes a male or a female," he added. "As far as I'm concerned, I wish more men were gay -- there'd be more women for us heterosexuals."

Rooks has a master's degree in psychology and is a licensed professional therapist, however, she is apparently unfamiliar with the DSM-IV's important distinctions between Transvestic Fetishism (cross-dressing) and gender identity disorder (transgendered).

In court documents, Rooks complained that "the father is continuing to cross dress in the presence of the children despite its distressing effect on the children." To Conni, who does not consider herself a cross-dresser but dressing gender appropriately, the difference is key to understanding the system's ability to respond.


The personality test

Rooks also attributes Conni's two older daughters' acceptance and comfort with Conni to "coercion," despite their handwritten letters to District Judge Thomas Kennedy that plead with him to respect their wishes to see their father.

Referring to Conni, the middle daughter wrote: "She should be able to look and act and dress however she wants to without getting her children taken from her." The oldest daughter states: "My dad is not an evil person, a wrongdoer, or a bad parent. He's nothing but a best friend, a wonderful father, and a great cook. To make him sit in a room for three hours just to see his children is horrible. Do you ever wonder what you are taking away from him? From me?"

In addition, though it is not uncommon to order psychological evaluations of the parents in divorce cases, Rooks ordered only the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory (MMPI-2) test be administered in Conni and her ex-wife's case. The MMPI is a standardized psychological evaluation that is, in certain sections, scored differently for males and females.

However, many psychologists and counselors reject that test, taken singly, as inadequate when attempting an overall behavioral evaluation. In addition, there is no standard for scoring the MMPI-2 for a transgender/transsexual person, making it difficult to, as Rooks claimed, ensure the test would be scored objectively. For these reasons, Conni refused to take the test under Rooks' supervision.

While the El Paso County 4th Judicial District court system has a diversity training program that helps lawyers and judges deal with personal biases and prejudices -- even those they may not be aware of -- there is nothing dealing specifically with transgender issues. Court Magistrate Regina Walter, who coordinates the program, says, in reality, there is no way to prepare everyone for all the diversity they will face every day in the court.


Rights are revoked

A few minutes into the discussion at Lisa Jo's, several people drift off into the kitchen for coffee, or disappear for a cigarette. Others are interested in helping Conni brainstorm ways to raise money for her legal case.

Conni is beginning to have doubts about whether she'll ever get any kind of regular visitation with her daughters, and whether she'll ever be able to find a good job. She has even been turned down by McDonald's. She no longer has enough money to pay her legal fees.

She receives food stamps, but will have a hard time making her bills and child support next month. She was granted court-supervised visitation with her daughters for three hours a week in May, but her rights have since been revoked because, among other allegations, Conni wore some "nail polish and jewelry" to one supervised visit, and for the fact that she had contacted the Independent about her story. (Sandra Rooks asked the court for a gag order, but none was granted.)

And though she has filed a discrimination and sexual harassment case against MagniSight, Inc. with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, Conni is skeptical about her chances to win.

And now, two years after beginning her transformation, Conni says that, if she had to do it all over again, she would have involved her children less in the details. As for everyone else -- her employers, the general public, her ex-wife -- she wishes she would have stopped denying her true self much earlier.

"You have to be true to thine own self," she said.


Resources

In addition to a local support group and the Colorado Springs branch of Parents and Friends of Lesbians, Gays and Transgender People (PFLAG), the Internet has offers a wealth of sites that provide information and support services for transgendered people. Here are a few resources:

o Lisa Jo Laptad with the Southern Colorado Interregional Transgender Society (SCIRTS) can be reached at 719/591-5860.

o Parents and Friends of Lesbians, Gays and Transgender People (PFLAG) offers support for spouses and families of transgender people. The local chapter can be reached at http://www.pflag.org

o Renaissance Transgender Association, Inc. offers lots of information on transgender on its Web site: http://www.ren.org

o Alternative Family Institute provides information on counseling and other transgender support information: http://www.altfamilyproject.org

o Transgender Law provides up-to-date legal information about transgender issues: http://www.transgenderlaw.org

o Transparency Web site is dedicated to transgender parents and their rights: http://www.geocities.com/transparentcy/

o C.O.L.A.G.E. (Children of Lesbians and Gays Everywhere) offers support and advocacy for children of LBGT families: http://www.colage.org

o C.O.T. (Children of Transsexuals) is a support Web site for children who have transgender parents, a resource for kids who feel they are alone: http://www.geocities.com/reneelind


Testing Your Personality

The Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory (MMPI) is a personality test composed of more than 600 true/false questions. The latest version of the test, the MMPI-2, which the court-appointed counselor Sandra Rooks planned to use to help evaluate Connie, is currently secure and can not be reproduced. However, here are a few true/false questions from an earlier version of the MMPI test widely administered in the 1990s that was made public in a lawsuit, Sibi Sorika v. Target Stores:

I usually go to the movies more than once a week.
Clever, sarcastic people make me very uncomfortable.
Usually I would prefer to work with women.
Someone has control over my mind.
My parents never really understood me.
I have diarrhea one a month or more.
I have no difficulty in starting or holding my bowel movements.
If I get too much change in a store, I always give it back. I like tall women.
I prefer a shower to a bath.
I used to keep a diary.
I think Lincoln was greater than Washington.

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