Male or female?

Boy or girl?

Most of us can answer that question without a second thought, but for some people, the answer isn’t so simple.  American Transgender takes us firsthand into the daily lives of three individuals—Clair, Jim, and Eli—who each identify with a different gender from the one in which they were born and raised. We witness their struggles and triumphs, and experience their hopes and fears.  How do they manage at work, build careers, maintain friendships, and nurture lasting, intimate partnerships? Each of the characters in the film tells their story in their own words as we follow them through life’s daily battles and victories, both large and small.

The following is a Q&A with the three characters in the film: Clair Farley, who was born male and transitioned to female, and Jim Howley and Eli Strong, who were both born female and transitioned to male.

Why do you think a project like this is important?

JIM: Not only does it help educate society at large, more importantly I hope it can provide inspiration for fellow transgender people, particularly youth.

CLAIR: This project is important because it goes beyond other stories out there that focus purely on the physical transition.  This film showcases not only our experiences as transgender people but also our challenges and successes that are common to all people, transgender or not.


What do you hope viewers will get out of watching this program?

JIM: I hope it helps people remember that the most important thing we can give each other is love.

CLAIR: I hope viewers will recognize that we are just like them.  We experience challenges finding work, love, and understanding but in the end, we all come from the same source.


What is the single most important issue that trans people today are facing?

JIM: There is not one, definitive answer to this question but in my opinion, I believe it is a lack of respect for our dignity as people and the hatred and violence directed at us that are products of fear on the part of the uninformed.

CLAIR: As with most people in our current economic climate, the most important issue is joblessness. Transgender people are experiencing unemployment at a startling rate above the general public.  As a counselor and job coach for the nation’s first transgender employment program, I am hopeful that we can help remove the barriers to equal and safe work places.  We cannot limit these services to San Francisco alone and are working to replicate throughout the country.

ELI: Hate crimes against transgender people are on the rise, particularly in DC. Transgender people are being assaulted and murdered, just for walking down the street. Not having equal opportunities to get and keep a job, or having medical expenses covered by insurance, or being able to serve in the U.S. military, all show the larger population that we are ‘less than.’ Many people don’t even see us as human, which they think gives them the excuse, right, or authority to beat, stab, shoot, rape or otherwise hurt and kill us.


If you could tell the audience one thing about the trans community, what would it be?

JIM: I cannot speak for the entire community, but I am a survivor, not a victim and I have a lot to teach the world if they would be willing to learn from and about a life path that differs from their own.  In the natural world, variation is often times marvelled at and wondered about; the beauty of a hybrid flower for example. How are my trans sisters, brothers, and I any different?

CLAIR: Throughout history in some cultures, transgender people have been honored and respected as healers, warriors and spiritual teachers.  Today this rich history has been seemingly forgotten; I encourage you to become friends with a transgender person so that you can come to know us as we know ourselves and realize that we are just like you.  Fear of the unknown hinders forward progress of not only the individual, but of nations.


What do you think the biggest misconception about the transgender community is?

ELI: The biggest misconception about the trans community, from many in the heteronormative society, is that we are trying to pervert others, mainly children, and trying to “recruit” them into our community. Our lives are not easy, and I have never wanted another person to have to deal with the hate and discrimination that I face. I did not make a choice to be transgender and therefore I’m certainly not trying to ‘recruit’ others. From many people I’ve known in the lesbian community, there is the misconception that, once I just accept that I am a woman and that I can be any kind of woman I want, that I wouldn’t want to be a man. The only problem with that is that I’m not a woman and I don’t want to be a woman….in any form.

JIM:  Again I cannot speak for the entire community, but personally I feel as if the biggest misconception is that I want “special” rights as a person.  I don’t want special rights; I want and deserve equal rights under the law.

CLAIR: For me the biggest misconception is that there is only one way “be transgender.” Our individual journeys are all different but we share the hope to be perceived as we perceive ourselves.  In the end, it’s about respecting another person’s internal sense of self and gender identity. Another misconception is that transgender people want to discuss their surgeries or physical transition, what their birth name was or what their bodies look like under their clothing. It is disrespectful. These private matters should only be discussed if you are their doctor or if they bring it up.


Do you have any advice for people who are questioning their gender identity, or for family and friends with a loved one who is?

JIM:  My advice for those questioning their gender identity would be to love yourself and remember that life and your transition are about the journey, not the destination.  There may be times that hurt like hell, but it is these times that make the beautiful moments even sweeter.  Everybody has something, even if they won’t admit it, that makes them feel different and it’s in our differences that we are all the same.

For family and friends, please understand that turning your back on this person could be detrimental to them…right now they just need you to love them.  They may be confused and scared and really need your support.  Remember, they are still the same person on the inside…their spirit remains the same.  When faced with the decisions of fear or love, please choose love.  It will make all the difference in the world.

ELI: Find someone to talk to. Build a support system. There are support groups for both trans folks and their families and friends. There are counselors who specialize in trans issues and can help you navigate your feelings and give you a safe space to discuss your thoughts

CLAIR: Keep loving yourself always… Keep loving your child, brother, sister, friend, mother, and father always. We are more than our physical bodies; if it was removed our souls would remain.

 

Don’t miss the premiere of the one-hour special, American Transgender, airing Tuesday, May 1, at 8PM et/pt only on National Geographic Channel. Watch a preview »

For a list of resources on transgender issues, download GLAD’s Transgender Resources.

Comments

  1. Lisa McDonald
    April 28, 2012, 10:32 am

    As a person born Transsexual I’d like to clarify a few mistakes and misrepresentations in this story. The first is ” I didn’t choose to become Transgender.” Wrong yes you did Transgender is a political identity associated with the LGBT. So politics is a choice and I’ll say this not all Transsexuals are Transgender so by promoting this story Nat Geo is discriminating against those of us who just want to be seen as men and women and not used as political pawns by the LGBT. You can say but these people are Transsexual also and I’ll tell you that doesn’t give them the right to force their personal queer polititics onto other or their queer umbrella term onto others. No one has ever conducted survey to see if any subgroup listed under Transgender to include Transsexuals are facing added stygma or added suicide rates by being manhandled into the LGBT. I would like to point that the intersex have been fighting to be removed from Transgender identity and occasionally you’ll find an I for them in the gay alphabet soup. I can guarantee that many Transsexuals have also been asking the LGBT for years especially GLAAAD who puts out their media guide to adjust for the fact that not all Transsexuals are Transgender and not all Transsexuals are associated with the LGBT.I personally complained to them and never received a response back. LGBT discrimination against non LGBT aligned transsexuals should be being covered by the media not continuing to promote their fictitious ” we include everyone because we’re “Inclusive” socio political spin machine.

  2. Tammie Huber
    United States
    April 28, 2012, 12:42 pm

    I have a different out look, I am more open with who I am, I feel first and foremost I am a transsexual, born male and the feeling the need to be female as long as I can remember. I live full time as a transsexual, neither woman or male. I feel I will never be truly female because I know, no matter how many surgeries I my have, this body is still male. Am I completely comfortable with that? No.

    I am open to all questions from others, some I am more sensitive to, but I will answer as best as I can. If we want full acceptance we should be willing to be more open minded ourselves and open to others, within reason.

  3. Some guy
    None of your business
    April 30, 2012, 10:00 am

    Okay, the whole idea that “no matter how many surgeries I may have,, this body is still male” is utter bs. If you feel that way about your self, fine. However, I hear many trans women say that and I think it is total bs. I have been with a few trans women and I thought their bodies felt female to me. Most of them looked and sounded female, so if someone was to say these trans women were “male bodied” I would laugh very hard.

    Keep in mind cis people’s bodies are also diverse. Many things can make up sex, including brain structure. Plus, this whole “no matter what I will have a male (or female if one is a trans man) body” is lacking in logic.

    Once one’s body has the hormones of the sex they identify as they are pretty much now female (or male if one is a trans man) bodied. Especially when the gonads are removed. When one gets labs done you have to adjust for their sex. If one who has had his or her gonads removed and/or is taking hormones, it would be illogical to say they are still male/female bodied. It would as logical as some random guy on the street saying he is female bodied!

    There are people who have xy chromosomes but are assigned female at birth. It would be pretty ridiculous to call her “male bodied”.

    I also somewhat agree with the other poster here. These people are technically transsexuals. I think the whole “use transgender instead of transsexual” is political correctness run amok. I am sorry but there is a difference between transgender and transsexual. To try to say transgender is an “umbrella term” including transsexual is preposterous. While I really don’t care if someone wants to go around calling themselves transgender, transsexual people have a need that many groups targeted towards transgender people do not fill.

    Anyway, I digress. This documentary seems interesting, though I am not a fan of some of the language used. I am also not a fan of showing the whole childhood photos. It almost seems cliched. Many of the ts women I am acquainted with would not dare share their past photos.

    I plan on watching the documentary but it already seems it will be full of cliches as the past documentaries about trans people.

  4. [...] miss the premiere of the one-hour special, American Transgender, airing Tuesday, May 1, at 8PM et/pt only on National Geographic Channel. You can watch the trailer [...]

  5. Jhonas Burke
    April 30, 2012, 2:15 pm

    Some confusion I see regarding terminology is that people think that transgender is a choice, well technically it is but it’s more so a calling to align one’s physical self with the inner self. However this is not always the case, some may identify as the opposite while still feeling comfortable appearing to be the opposite gender of what they identify as.

    Not all transgendered people are transvestites, vice versa. I also think a term other than transsexual should be used when people identify as the opposite gender, but that’s just me and not being too fond on that word in general. It just makes my mind think of hetero/homo/bisexual, etc.

  6. Tamara
    Alabama
    April 30, 2012, 2:44 pm

    I was born intersexed classifed also as transgender. I too just want to be treated equal and as a female.
    This has beene a hard road for me. I am still employed but hate been moved around from job to job after my transisition. The onyl thing that probably keeps me employed is my veteran status.
    I am neither male nor female, yet I am both and for the record feel better as Tamara. I want to be treatedequally, I want to be able to do the job I used to do. I am not a freak, not a pervert, not a sex offender, I just am.
    I am neither straight gay or bisexual, for I was born with both,

  7. Some guy
    April 30, 2012, 3:41 pm

    Jhonas, Transsexualism was the original term for those seeking medical intervention. Up until the 1990’s GID (Gender Identity Disorder) was called “Transsexualism”. “Transgender” is much newer than the term “transsexual”. It was meant for those who live “full time” as their desired gender role but had no plans for medical intervention. Transsexual is a historically accurate term for what the situation is here.

  8. [...] Transgender,” which examines the lives of three transgender people and their families. According to NGTV: American Transgender takes us firsthand into the daily lives of three individuals—Clair, Jim, [...]

  9. [...] American Transgender, National Geographic (1 hr) [...]

  10. Cris Williams
    United States
    May 1, 2012, 9:07 am

    Why, oh why do some feel the need to spread misinformation about transsexualism?

    “Transgender is a political identity associated with the LGBT”

    Wrong.

    ““Transgender” is much newer than the term “transsexual”. It was meant for those who live “full time” as their desired gender role but had no plans for medical intervention”

    WRONG.

    Here’s a short history lesson for the misinformed:

    The term “transsexed” first showed up in 1915 referring to FTM transgenderists. It wasn’t until 1966 that the term “transsexual” entered pop culture. It wasn’t until 1966 that Christine Jorgensen was referred to as a transsexual in newsprint. It wasn’t until the early 1970s that Jorgensen was commonly referred to as a transsexual in newsprint.

    It wasn’t until the 1980s that “transsexual” took on its current meaning within professional circles through the work of Dr. Paul Walker who changed the definition of the term with the publication of the first HBIGDA standards of care in 1979 and its dissemination in the early 1980s. Until then, a “transsexual” could be a Type 4, 5 or 6. A Type 4 transsexual didn’t want surgery or hormones and didn’t live full-time. A Type 5 “True Transsexual” was a transgenderist like Virginia Prince. A Type 6 “True Transsexual” was someone like Christine Jorgensen.

    Just 4 years after “transsexual” entered American usage, “transgender” began showing up to refer to the transsexual experience. By 1974, the term was being used in two – and only two – ways: 1.) to reference the transsexual experience; or, 2.) as an umbrella term to reference the entire trans community (at least both here in America and the UK).

    The term “transgenderist” was coined in 1975. Prince used the term in a presentation in 1978 and is oftentimes wrongly given credit for the term’s authorship.

    To be clear, Virginia didn’t coin any of the following terms: Transgenderist, transgender, trans, transgenderism, transgendered or transpeople. All of these terms were used in print years before Prince used them. And no… transgender DID NOT come from the term transgenderist. Transgender was used all over the place years before transgenderist shows up in print.

    By 1979, Christine Jorgensen began referring to herself in print as being a transgender woman. Throughout the 1980s, “transgender” was used as it was in the early 1970s and by the 1990s, the meaning of the term didn’t change.

    So, to be clear NatGeo, please disregard the rantings of the few people above. They don’t know what they’re talking about. They are transsexuals who don’t know their own history. They claim offence out of ignorance.

    I am a post-op transsexual woman. Just as the umbrella term “human” is correct to use, “transgender” is also correct. “Transgender” entered the pop culture lexicon in 1970 (showing up in the TV Guide in April 1970) and transsexual entered the pop lexicon in 1966 (showing up in Harry Benjamin’s “The Transsexual Phenomenon”). Both were umbrella terms used to refer to people like Christine Jorgensen and Virginia Prince (Type 6 True Transsexual and Type 5 True Transsexual, respectively).

  11. rose white
    May 2, 2012, 1:50 am

    Jhonas the real corect name for the transsexual condition is actually harry benjamin Syndrome or HBS as Harry listed the symptoms that prove the diagnosis, treatmnet and cure correctly so anyone who feels to have been born in the wrong body and wants to change it as much as possible and live like their inner feelings is suffering from HBS unlike the many transgendereds who are more than happy with their original bodies and genders and don’t have any natural femaleness or maleness of body, face, laguage.
    A TeeGee male may wear the prettiest dress and makeup and be enviably slim and shapely but the rigidity of face and body as they hold their poses is totally contrary to the natural femaleness of the HBS person who is constantly seen as female by onlookers.
    Many lesbians claim to be TeeGee due to the unrecognised masculinsation of their minds due to the effects of ingested vaginal estrogen.
    The Risk warning box on here illustrates how estrogen brings on dementia: http://www.estrogel.com/

  12. Jacki
    United States
    May 2, 2012, 3:10 pm

    I don’t know much about what is feels like to be born into a body that doesn’t feel like it is the right fit, other than being unhappy with some of my features or physical limitations. What I do know is that we are all human beings with feelings and that no matter who or what we are, we are all the same deep down on the heart level where it counts most. It saddens me when people are ignorant or cruel to my friends who they do not understand or wish to show compassion to. I am only prejudice against those people who are cruel or ignorant and judge others because they are different, or they do not understand them. I have many friends, some are gay, some are strait, some are transgender, some are persons of color, and some are disabled either physically or mentally, but I love them all for who they are and for the beautiful human beings that they are inside. We all have the right to be treated as God’s children and appreciated for our talents, our contributions, and our spirits. In a perfect world no one would judge others for reasons which they cannot comprehend or do not even try to understand. I applaud those who follow their dreams and stand up for what they believe to be right, I admire their courage and their dedication to live their lives in the way they feel passionate about. I only wish more people felt that way!

  13. kate
    United States
    May 3, 2012, 8:27 am

    rose-where are you getting these “jhonas” and “teegee” words from and what exactly gives you the right to define who is a real transsexual or a teegee? why do you feel the need to further divide transgender people?

    also, just for clarification, are you saying someone who is born with a masculine face but feels they should have been a woman can never be a true transexual but only a teegee? if so, then how do you explain cis-women who identify as women but were also born with masculine faces?

    not trying to start a fight here, just trying to understand what you’re saying.

  14. Wally
    Texas
    June 20, 2012, 7:42 pm

    News Flash: You’re sex is determined by your chromosomes. XX=female, XY=male
    Now, if you were able to change your chromosomes, then you could truthfully say you’ve changed your sex.
    Biology 101

  15. Chris Redden
    Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada
    July 25, 2012, 4:43 am

    Great special, that and congrats to Jim and Clair for finding each other and getting married. You are a cute couple and I hope that the both of you have many good years together.

  16. Sean
    March 24, 2013, 1:57 pm

    Wally:

    News Flash: These people are transgender which means their chromosomes are the OPPOSITE of their gender identity, otherwise they would be cisgendered. duh. Sex chromosomes don’t have anything to do with gender identity (there’s a difference between sex and gender) and don’t matter anyway since you can’t even see them without a microscope. And who knows what their chromosomes look like since there are many different variations like XO, XXY, XYY, XXYY, XXX etc)? Sure, they may matter for reproduction but who needs that when there’s adoption and modern medical science?
    Also, once someone takes the hormones of the gender they identify with, their sex chromosomes (which make up only 1/23 of our chromosomes with Y being an incomplete X) don’t have the “innate mysterious chromosome abilities” to ‘shut it down’ unless the person decides to stop. It’s a proven fact that hormones in utero are what affect the brain’s “gender” which can sometimes have nothing to do with the individual’s sex chromosomes. What if you had a genetic eye condition that made it hard to see and you got lazik eye surgery and now have 20/20 vision.. would it matter if I said “So what if you can see 20/20 your GENES still say you should have bad vision. Why not just be yourself and wear glasses?”. Humans are more than just the sum of their DNA. Sure, DNA is important in our development but we’re more complicated than that.

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    Dhaka,Bangladesh
    April 22, 2013, 8:01 am

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    Karachi Pakistan
    November 15, 8:56 am

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