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Unlike many people, I don’t watch Oprah Winfrey very much, unless I happen to be channel-surfing late at night and notice a blurb about an upcoming episode that I feel would enrich my life somehow.
It’s not that I harbor a personal dislike for the woman in any way, shape, or form – I feel she’s done a lot of good for a huge number of folks out there; she’s positive, generous, philanthropic, open-minded, and seems like a lovely person in general - but … well … I just have had my fill of Dr. Phil and Dr. Oz, if you know what I’m saying!
Her new Oprah Winfrey Network (OWN) has just lifted off the ground, but who knows how well it will do in the long run?
Okay, that being said – I had, just had, to sit down with my partner and watch a recent episode of Lisa Ling’s new show on the new OWN, called "Our America with Lisa Ling."
This episode was subtitled "Transgender Lives," and the promo said: "Lisa Ling explores the very private worlds of five different transgender people across America. Each is on a journey of transformation; from the sex they were born, to the one they feel they really are."
I admire and respect Ms. Ling’s skills as a journalist and as a great (unbiased) listener, and her episode spotlighting the lives of a handful of transgender folks (both MtoF and FtoM) did not disappoint.
Well, at least not too much …
The show opened up to a bucolic scene in the Midwest (an exact location wasn’t given for privacy’s sake) and even though the program was well-done, the language (or, rather, the terminology Ling used) made me cringe just a tad.
When describing the first person profiled, she said, "A man who always thought that he was a she …"
While I understand that for the non-transgender and non-transgender allies of the audience this sentence was easy to understand, to me, as the spouse of a transgender woman, it made me want to scream, "Gah!! She was NEVER a man!!" (Once in a while, as anyone who knows me well will attest, I tend to get carried away with what some might consider the minutiae.)
We first get to meet 42-year-old Dielle, whose birth name was David.
Dielle lives in a small town and has been a firefighter for many, many years, Ling tells us. There’s a great shot of Dielle getting suited up in her firefighting gear, climbing into a shiny red fire truck, getting ready to respond to a call. David was once the stereotypical, married, suburban "dad," with a wife, kids, and a mortgage to pay.
After Dielle decided to further her transformation, she lost virtually everything she'd worked a lifetime to build as David; she lost her relationship with her wife and 16-year-old son, and even lost her house in the divorce.
The audience gets to watch Dielle in front of the bathroom mirror, putting the finishing touches on her makeup. Although a very attractive woman, like many MtoF transgender individuals, Dielle looks in the mirror and sees nothing but her "flaws" (although my partner doesn’t engage in this kind of daily appearance-based self-flagellation, I’ve been engaging in it since I was about 11 years old, so I could really relate to this part!).
Dielle, Ling explains, wants to travel to California to get a nose job, cheek implants, breast implants, and GRS (Gender/Genital Reassignment Surgery). Dielle tells Ling that she feels like she’s "in between," looking like David and looking like Dielle, and that she’s felt dangerously self-destructive and suicidal trying to be "the perfect man," and can’t do it anymore, regardless of the personal cost.
While watching this part of the program, my partner and I nodded our heads in a knowing fashion, because I’ve heard my partner describe her former life in almost the exact same way!
Next, we travel to New England, where we get to meet six-and-a-half-year-old Kaylee, who was born as "Harry." Kaylee comes off as a highly intelligent, independent child, who even changed her name all by herself! Her mother and father appear to be a loving couple and doting parents.
We learned that Kaylee "loves nail polish, dolls, flowers, and wants to paint her new room pink," like so many little girls often do. Kaylee began drawing pictures of herself as a little girl from the time she learned how to pick up a crayon. The audience then gets a glimpse of one of the self-portraits she's made and it's touching.
Her father, who teaches Sunday school, explained that he wasn't initially so accepting and understanding of his daughter’s feelings – at first he was angry - and demanded that the behavior cease and desist.
Kaylee’s mother said she’d burst into tears at a therapist’s office one day at the realization that Kaylee was indeed transgender, but they soon came to accept and believe "God made her exactly this way and that every child deserves love and acceptance from their parents."
This was a very heartwarming moment! Since Kaylee is so young, they said they didn’t know what the future holds. They were asked if they were planning on giving Kaylee estrogen therapy once she reaches adolescence, but Kaylee’s parents told Ling that they were going to wait and see what the future holds for their daughter, before giving serious consideration to hormone therapy.
There was a clip of Kaylee playing dress-up with one of her friends – Kaylee is wearing a red dress with sequins and dancing around like a fairy princess, and it made me feel good to see that there were some other equally supportive and open-minded parents that didn’t think twice about their daughter(s) having a transgender playmate!
Six miles north of Los Angeles lives a 32-year-old transgender man named Ton. Ton’s birth name was Tonya, and even though some family members still call him "Tonya," he’s a very, very masculine and handsome man.
A bodybuilder, Ton has only been on testosterone (or "T") injections for a scant three months, but he looks nothing at all like a "Tonya" to me.
Ling interviews some of Ton’s weightlifting buddies, who swear that Ton can work out and lift weights as strongly and with as much stamina as any regular guy (or more accurately, the most dedicated cis-gendered person - one biologically born with an XY chromosomal structure) that they’ve ever seen.
His physique is amazing and his buddies at the gym don’t treat him any differently than they would treat any other male bodybuilder, according to what they tell Ling. One man at the gym who’d been watching Ton work out, said, "There’s no way I’d be able to tell that wasn’t a man, and I’m a doctor."
I found Ton’s segment a bit cringe-worthy, mostly because Ling sometimes calls him "Tonya" and "she," and other times uses the correct pronoun and first name; which should always be that of the presented gender.
Ton’s mother Kim is also briefly interviewed. She wipes away a few tears at the thought of having to grieve the loss of her daughter, but all in all, comes off as supportive of whatever decision makes Ton happiest. There is footage of Ton shaving and getting ready for a date with his ex-girlfriend, a lady that he is determined to win back.
Next we travel to Los Angeles to meet 18-year-old Landon. Landon is a typical American young man – he likes playing video games and doing all types of "guy" things. Landon’s mother, Emily, is shown flipping through an old family photo album, and all of a sudden, a picture pops up showing a little girl dressed up in frilly Easter finery, and Landon cringes and turns away.
The picture was taken when Landon was three years old, and he said the picture made him want to cry because he remembers how miserable he felt having to wear that particular dress and having to dress in little girls' clothes. Mom expresses faint surprise at Landon’s intense reaction, and explains to Ling that as her son got older, she thought her daughter was "just a really masculine lesbian," a comment that made me chuckle, because of how many times I’ve heard it before!
As Landon reached puberty, he said he felt like his body was "betraying him." He despised his breasts, and began a process known as "binding," where the breasts are compressed using either a very heavy-duty sports bra, elastic bandaging, or a combination of both.
The footage shows Landon explaining how the binding is done, and when he pulls down his T-shirt, he’s virtually flat-chested. Ling and her camera crew accompany Landon and his mother to the doctor’s office, where we get to watch as Landon receives his first intra-muscular shot of testosterone.
Testosterone injections are oil-based, requiring a large-bore needle, and I’m sure everyone watching this show probably cringed in sympathy as we watched the protracted grimace on Landon’s face as the needle was thrust into his buttocks!
He feels faint and has to lie down on the gurney for quite a while after the shot, but explains he doesn’t regret his decision at all, and that he’s anxious to start feeling its future effects on his body.
Moments of Clarity
At this point in the program, Ling makes a point that I’d secretly been waiting for since the beginning of the show: Gender identity and sexual orientation have nothing to do with one another -- and while I personally understand this, for the many viewers who don’t know (or at least think they don’t know) anyone who’s transgender, it was an important point to emphasize.
A person who is MtoF or FtoM may be straight, bi, or gay; sometimes an individual’s sexual orientation will outwardly "stay the same," i.e., they’ve always been a straight man or perhaps a lesbian woman, but now the exterior will match what’s always been "inside."
Sometimes after transition, sexual orientation may appear to "change" or "switch," but Ling made it clear that one has nothing to do with the other, and I applaud her for that.
Two of the most heartwarming segments of this show, in my opinion, revolve around Ling accompanying Dielle to California and holding her hand before she’s wheeled away for her extensive cosmetic facial and GRS surgery, all of which were done in one day.
Ling is also there to greet Dielle when she wakes up from anesthesia, and while I ached inside for any transgender person who has to face such a frightening and life-changing day all by themselves with no family or friends present, I could tell how much it meant to Dielle to have Ling’s support.
Later in the show, we see Dielle again after seven weeks of recovery to find her surgery was a success and she’s happier than she’s ever been before. She returned to her job as a firefighter, and tells Ling that she’s been treated well by her coworkers, which made me smile.
Deb and Michelle
The story that I could relate to the most, on a completely personal level, was the story of Deb and Michelle, who had been known for years and years as "Deb and Mitchell."
Deb and Mitchell had been husband and wife for close to 20 years (with two grown sons) when Mitchell decided -- after spending a lifetime in a body and persona that she could no longer continue in without thinking about ending her life -- to go through a complete transition, and is now Michelle. Deb chose to stay in the relationship with Michelle, offering her love and support.
Deb and Michelle were then shown doing "girl" things together, like getting pedicures, shopping for clothes, putting on makeup, etc., and this really hit home, because while my partner isn’t as into the "femme" things as much as I am, we’ve also bonded in the very same way!
I tend to give (unsolicited) makeup advice, and I pick out all of her clothes and the majority of her accessories (we guffawed over that part), but we were both tearing up when Ling asked them about how they make it work, and they told her, "It’s not about the outside accoutrements, it’s all about the person on the inside."
So outside of the back-and-forth pronoun and name slip-ups, (and I was a wee bit uncomfortable with some of the gender-stereotyping activities, such as the men had to lift weights and that little girls must adore pink!) it’s definitely worth an hour of your time to check out!
For more about this episode and to see some interesting responses to it, go to Oprah's website.
For those of you who are interested, at some point in the future I would like to start a Facebook page for people who would be interested in accompanying transgender men and women (who are alone and without emotional support) to their surgical appointments. I will give more details in an upcoming column!
Melinda Harris is a former columnist for the Riverside Press-Enterprise weeklies, and is currently working on the completion of her first novel, "Miranda's Magick." She operates three online vintage clothing stores on eBay and Etsy, is a part-time student at San Diego City College, an active member of St. Paul's Cathedral, and the proud mom of a grown son. She is also a former rodeo queen and addicted to FarmTown on Facebook! Melinda and her partner live in Hillcrest. She can be reached at email@example.com.