September 24, 2009 News » Cover Story

Gender Blender 

New law aside, straddling the sexes can be a bitch

Despite three metal studs protruding from his lower lip, Nico Valenzuela casts an unimposing figure. Standing 4-foot-10, the 18-year-old has a wispy frame, gentle brown eyes and rounded features that he admits give him a "baby face."

"I look like a 12-year-old," he says blandly.

Another obstacle to projecting a tough, or even masculine, image is Nico's voice. He speaks softly, almost like whispering, and his voice registers in the tonal range of a middle-school girl.

"I feel like I've always been a boy," he says, "but my body isn't like that."

Born Erika Valenzuela, Nico tried last year, as a senior at Ellicott High School in eastern El Paso County, to set matters right. Buoyed by a new state law barring discrimination in public places based on sexual orientation or transgender status, Nico asked to be called by his chosen name and referred to with masculine pronouns. As a member of the cheerleading squad, he asked that he be allowed to perform in pants rather than the skirt that made him feel like an impostor.

It didn't work. His name and pronoun choice were rejected, and he ended up as manager of the cheerleading squad. In April, accumulated stress and anger led to a minor breakdown — Nico went silent and huddled under a table — and a ticket out of school. He's now living in Colorado Springs and taking online classes to finish high school.

Senate Bill 200, which took effect July 1, 2008, was meant to help transgender people, and Deborah Surat, executive director of Inside/Out Youth Services in Colorado Springs, knows that in some ways, it has. The law now prevents discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. Since the change went into effect, a dozen local schools have invited Surat to conduct transgender and safe-space training courses.

At the same time, there are clear signs of greater understanding that gender identity doesn't always parallel outward biology: Inside/Out is working with local families looking at helping children as young as 5 and 6 make the switch.

But teens like Nico, and even adults, still face harsh treatment and incomprehension from those who prefer the rigid familiarity of society's gender boxes. Some find themselves jobless, homeless and lacking the money for hormone treatments and surgeries that can make a transition complete.

Surat, who has a doctorate in social psychology, says she knows transgender people are often told they should find a way to live with their native gender. She compares that to asking someone to change eye color.

"Why can't nature create a person who has a male brain in a female body?" she asks. She says it's entirely different from same-sex attraction, referring to a saying that's posted in Inside/Out's main meeting room: "Gender is between your ears; sex is between your legs."

Mysterious numbers

Discussing transgender issues is hard, starting with the vocabulary. Surat offers a gentle correction when I add an "-ed" to the word transgender.

"That implies something was done to them," she cautions, suggesting instead I use transgender as an adjective — "transgender youths," for instance.

Another difficulty is knowing how many transgender people are out there, a matter complicated by a common goal for those who transition to a different gender: They want to blend in, through wardrobe choice, hormones and sometimes surgery.

When transgender issues do erupt onto the public stage, it often encourages even more secrecy. In 1993, Brandon Teena was raped and killed in Nebraska after his efforts to pass as a man were discovered, providing the storyline for the 1999 film Boys Don't Cry. Last year, Greeley resident Angie Zapata, 18, was killed after her date learned she was biologically male.

There's no registry of transgender people, and no one has poured research money into finding and tracking them. With those and other caveats in mind, and drawing on medical data from countries with national health systems, Mara Keisling, executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality in Washington, D.C., estimates that transgender people are between .25 and 1 percent of the U.S. population.

With about 600,000 people in Colorado Springs and surrounding communities, that translates to between 1,500 and 6,000 transgender people.

Many report experiences of mistreatment and depression. In one survey of 6,500 transgender people, Keisling says, 97 percent reported experiencing some form of mistreatment or discrimination, and 42 percent said they had attempted suicide.

"As shocking as that is," she points out, "that's the people who survived."

Colorado law has offered increasing protection to transgender people. In 2005, state legislators added sexual orientation and gender identity to the state's hate-crime law, which stiffens penalties for crimes motivated by bias. (Zapata's killer was successfully prosecuted under this law.)

In 2007, the state's law against discrimination in employment was broadened to include sexual orientation and gender identity. Last year, Senate Bill 200 offered the same protection in housing and "public accommodations" such as schools, hospitals and restaurants.

Steven Chavez, director of the Colorado Division of Civil Rights, investigates 800 to 1,000 complaints each year alleging discrimination on the basis of age, disability or other protected status. The complaints are confidential, but Chavez says only seven were filed in the year since July 2008 related to transgender status, including two from El Paso County in the area of public accommodation. The total number of complaints tied to gender identity and sexual orientation in the same year came to 42.

"Probably, people are afraid to come forward," Chavez says.

The Colorado Anti-Violence Program also has its own program monitoring reports of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender bias. Over four years, the trend is generally upward, with 85 reports in 2005 rising to 131 in 2008. (The year of 2006 seems to have been an anomaly, with 166 reports.)

Reports of transgender bias have risen from seven in 2005 to 36 so far this year, seven of them coming from El Paso County.

Nick's story

One local discrimination complaint filed with the state came from Nick Williams, who last fall dropped out of Aspen Valley High School, the third high school he'd attended and the second in Academy School District 20.

Slight, with delicate features and a high voice, Nick describes the frustration of trying to pass as a guy without the help of hormones or surgery. And the 18-year-old sounds a lot like Nico, though the two were interviewed separately and don't know each other.

"Unfortunately, I normally pass for 12."

He continues, "When I look in a mirror, I see a guy. When society looks at me, they see a female."

Williams says he started feeling he was a boy long before he knew what being "transgender" meant. Handed toy dinosaurs, he'd have them devour each other. He gave his feminine doll the boyish name of "Jack." He liked getting muddy and wrestling, and he identified so strongly with his tomboy image that he started going by the name "Tom."

Nick was homeschooled until eighth grade. Then he went to Challenger Middle School, he says, where a guidance counselor told him to set aside that name.

"I went back into the closet until I was 15," he says, using a given name he now refuses to share.

At that point, he was at Pine Creek High School, and efforts to start living as a boy made him the target of bullying and exclusion. He endured similar experiences at Colorado Springs Early Colleges, a charter school, and at Aspen Valley. He says he attempted suicide repeatedly and, adrift from his family, went through periods of homelessness, couch surfing, sleeping under a bridge and staying at Urban Peak, a program that offers a shelter and other youth services.

At CSEC, he hit resistance when he wanted to wear a tuxedo to prom. At Aspen Valley, he asked to be known as "Blake" and to use the boys' restroom. Other students, he says, would taunt him: "You don't have a penis."

Nick met with school and district administrators in fall 2008. Eventually, they let him use the staff restroom and made other concessions, but he still dropped out, and organized a protest off school grounds in December.

He says he considers his complaint with the state dropped. Pat Richardson, the district's director for student legal services, notes it just came back with a finding of "no probable cause" that discrimination occurred.

Nick says that the complaint is beside the point. Even with the law, he couldn't avoid teasing, or an exchange with a teacher who insisted he was, really, a she.

Cara Neri, a victim advocate at the Colorado Springs Pride Center who has worked with both Nick and Nico, listens to Nick's account with a pained expression. Complying with the law, she says, may not be enough.

"It needs to come from the administration that this is a priority," she says.

Dealing with obstacles

The law hasn't necessarily changed attitudes, but Inside/Out's Surat says it has made a difference in officials' desire to get educated.

"Prior to this, I couldn't get my foot in the door," she says. Since the law passed, however, she's supervised LGBT, transgender and safe-space trainings for teachers and administrators in District 20, District 11 and Harrison District 2.

Part of the challenge is that people transitioning between genders have to take the initial plunge without the aid of hormones or surgery. That might be manageable for families with children who are making the leap as first-graders, particularly if a school change allows them to avoid nagging questions about new names. But it's a different story for teenage boys growing Adam's apples or facial stubble, or for girls whose voices don't crack and whose chests fill out. Nick, who is 18 and has yet to take hormones, uses a binder to conceal his breasts, which he disparages as "tumors."

Dara Hoffman, former associate director at the Pride Center, has become a local resource for people working through gender issues in her two years as a counselor. Many of her patients are teens, but she also sees older people, including a 63-year-old transitioning to become a woman.

She follows the Harry Benjamin International Gender Dysphoria Association's standards of care, which suggest a one-year transition period. The transition period is really not about figuring out whether a person really wants to go through with it: "I can usually tell in the first session if they are transgender," Hoffman says.

The big obstacle to a quick change is often financial stability. People transitioning to a different gender need a letter from a counselor like Hoffman to start on hormones, but most insurance policies won't cover them — and they can cost hundreds of dollars a year. Once a patient starts on hormones, it's best not to stop.

Finding a doctor to oversee hormone treatment is also a challenge. Hoffman was using a Colorado Springs clinic, but it stopped taking transgender referrals, so she now refers people to a physician in Denver. And some who want to transition find the hormones inadvisable following tests of liver function, cholesterol levels and other medical factors.

The hangups create what Hoffman describes as a medical Catch-22, forcing male-to-female transgender people, for instance, to live as women while developing increasingly male characteristics.

Other priorities can also complicate matters. Nick wants to start taking hormones and, eventually, to complete his transition surgically. But he also wants to have children, and he doesn't see any problem delaying his transition to let that happen. Sure, he admits, pregnancy is a "feminine" process, but he wants to be a father.

"It's easiest to give birth to them," he says.

Already a parent

For Nico, parenthood is not a future goal: He is raising his 2-year-old daughter with the help of his mother.

He'd also like to start on hormones, but for now, paying for them is the issue.

"I can't progress in my change as much as I'd like to," he says. He talks about "top" and "bottom" surgeries with the same skeptical excitement that some attach to dreams of winning the lottery: $5,000-plus for breast removal, he quotes, and more than $20,000 for the bottom half.

"It's just a question of when," he says.

As a child, Nico used to go to work with his dad, who remodels and manages apartment buildings, or tag along with him to the shooting range. Nico dressed in baggy jeans and flannel shirts, which he says used to make his mom mad. His parents split up in 2001, and Nico stayed with his dad in Westminster, northwest of Denver. In 2005, he moved to be with his mom in Ellicott.

Starting his senior year, Nico got serious about transitioning, announcing his chosen name and pronoun preference. Though some teachers and students accepted his choice, other teachers stopped accepting assignments he turned in unless they had his legal name of Erika on them.

"Other kids can have nicknames," he argues, adding, "You just feel very misunderstood. People always say, 'Technically, you're a girl.' I say, 'No, I'm not.'"

On the cheerleading squad, Nico's attempts to get permission to wear pants were refused, even though students have to pay for the uniforms.

Last April, Nico says, the stress and anger became too much. One day, he simply went silent, huddling under a table and refusing to come out.

"They overreacted, said I was a threat to staff and students," Nico says. "They said they were going to send me to an alternative school. I said, 'OK, I'll just do online schooling.'"

His mother, Kelli Salazar, sounds a note of amazement talking about what's happened to her child. She attributes part of what happened at Ellicott High to Nico's having "struggled with her depression and anxiety." But though Salazar still seems to be coming around to the idea of Nico's transition — she still refers to Nico as "her" and "Erika" — she's clear that she supports her child.

"I love her immensely," Salazar says. And, she says, "I do believe there was probably some kind of discrimination."

That may ultimately be an unanswered question. Nico says he finally submitted paperwork in mid-September claiming discrimination. While a fact sheet on the state's anti-discrimination law says intentional misuse of gender pronouns and names could count as public accommodations discrimination, the law also requires that paperwork be filed within 60 days of the last day of alleged discrimination.

Reached by telephone Sept. 14, Ellicott Superintendent Terry Ebert said he could not talk, but would speak later if e-mailed questions.

The next day, he replied and cited the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act.

"With this in mind I, or any employee of the district, will not discuss any issues related to the student you contacted me about," he wrote, concluding: "This is the most I or any of our employees will be able to do for you regarding this issue."

Adison's androgyny

Before legislators added sexual orientation to the state's anti-discrimination law last year, the debate was more about bathrooms than pronouns. Focus on the Family and other conservative groups tried to churn up fear that "perverts" would take advantage of the law and lurk in the bathrooms of their choice.

But since the legislation took effect that summer, Rep. Joel Judd, the law's House sponsor, says with some surprise that he's heard no concerns about it.

In the end, bathroom choice is a small part of the transgender experience. Adison Petti, a transgender student at Colorado College who grew up in Colorado Springs, bases those decisions on the situation, often using the restroom that's most convenient.

Like Nico and Nick, Adison originally identified as a female. Now taking male hormones, Adison has the deepening voice and squarish physique of a man. The 21-year-old likes the effects of taking testosterone, but has no desire to be identified either as a man or a woman.

"I'm as queer as a $3 bill, right?" Adison asks, before requesting to be referred to with the new-school pronouns "ze" and "zir" instead of the more traditional he and him or she and her.

Despite an aggressive agenda of changing the English language, Adison, who was home-schooled, is realistic about the effects of changing the law: "Even though the law is there, that doesn't translate into an immediate cultural shift."

And ideas are great, but Adison acknowledges that an increasingly masculine appearance motivates some decisions, like when to use a women's restroom.

"Like, if I'm in [a] Texas airport," Adison says, "I'm going to have a conversation with myself about gender."

Majoring in political science and feminist and gender studies, Adison seems to have few regrets about the past, planning to go to law school and then to work on public policy.

Adison seems happy sitting astride the categories of "male" and "female."

Nick and Nico, though equally defined by their experiences, are more intent on presenting as men (though Nick is trying to figure how hormones might impact his pregnancy plans). Nico wants to start taking testosterone before his 19th birthday in February, hoping it will deepen his voice, maybe add an inch or two to his height.

Now finishing his high school course work online, Nico plans to graduate next spring. Like Adison, his future plans are shaped by the past: He wants to study communications and, one day, become a motivational speaker to help kids deal with transgender issues.

"I just want to see them treat future generations better."


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