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Gender may not fit a child’s born sex

Joseph Nolan Ryan was born in 1973 in a small town in New Hampshire. Raised by traditional blue-collar parents, Joelle Ruby Ryan, as she is known today, knew from a young age growing up that even though she was physically male, she didn’t feel right and that even as a child, always had what can be classified as feminine characteristics.

When she started school, Joelle had a hard time making friends and was stigmatized because of not being boyish.

“I was called a sissy and a mama’s boy and that kind of thing,” she said.

Her family, at the time, was unsupportive and mistified.

“By the time I got to junior high the abuse became much worse. The words became faggot and queer and that kind of stuff,” she said. “I grew into this knowledge of myself that the role that was carved out for me as a male was not how I felt internally. It wasn’t how I perceived myself to be.”

In high school, Joelle was fortunate to be able to attend counseling and with her therapist, worked on issues and came to identify herself as a transsexual.

A native New Englander, Joelle did her undergraduate studies at the University of New Hampshire in women’s studies and has two master’s degrees: one in women’s studies from the University of Northern Iowa and a second in English literature from the University of New Hampshire.

It was at college when she began researching gender identity issues and found that there have always been people who felt like they didn’t fit their assigned gender role in some way and in varying levels of intensity. What she found was that she didn’t feel like a transsexual, but felt like a transgender.

Ryan defines the term transgender as a range of behaviors, expressions and identifications that challenge the pervasive bipolar (male and female) gender system in any given culture. Today, at age 30, she is part of a growing group of mostly young transgender people who identify as non-op, or living as the gender of choice without hormone treatments or sex reassignment surgery (SRS).

“Initially, when I felt like a transsexual, I wanted to immediately get the surgery to transform myself physically from male to female,” she said. “Upon greater self- examination and research, I found that that wasn’t necessarily me, at least for the time being, and I wanted to try to blend and merge different gender categories.”

Currently, Joelle is a graduate student in American Culture Studies at the University. It is her first year in the program and her first semester at Bowling Green. Now, she says that she defines herself as a transgender.

“I don’t really feel like a man or a woman,” she said. “I would say that the category woman is much closer and approximates how I feel, but is not really an exact match. That’s probably one of the most shocking things for people to hear, cause they want you to fit in one category or another.”

STARTING ‘OUT’

In junior high school, Joelle began her transition physically by letting her hair grow out and even then remembers people questioning her whether she was a boy or a girl.

“I can remember one day, it was the end of eighth grade, this girl put makeup on me in school, and I just loved it,” she said. “Of course, when I came home I had to immediately scrub it all off cause I didn’t want mom and dad to see it.”

Joelle really began dressing as a woman as an undergrad in college. She began wearing women’s clothing, experimenting with makeup, discovering jewelry and even got her ears pierced. While Joelle may dress as a woman, she has done nothing to alter herself permanently, which means she is not on female hormones and has not had any surgery.

“My personal belief is that it’s about your spirit–how you feel internally–that should determine what is your gender, not necessarily only what is connected with the outside,” she said. “Nowadays, we’re living in a culture where no matter who you are, everything is about image, about looks and hence, a lot of people, not just transgendered people, have these body image issues.”

FITTING IN

While her parents were not accepting at first, they are still not particularly accepting, but are tolerant to a certain degree. They are aware that not only is she transgendered, but is also an activist and educator and is very visible about who she is.

“I think they’d prefer that I was normal, but they have no choice in the matter. I think they feel it reflects badly on them as parents that they have a child like this,” she said. “That’s one of the hardest things I’ve had to deal with.”

While Joelle has even attempted to be “normal,” she has found that she can’t compete with who she is.

“When I lived in Iowa, I went out and tried to be as masculine as I could for one night, for an experiment I was doing, and it didn’t work because even then people certainly thought I was male, but they read me entirely as a gay male, because they associate femininity in males with homosexuality,” she said. “I went out with a lipstick lesbian friend of mine, which is a lesbian who is very feminine, and we tried to pose as this heterosexual couple, but it didn’t work.”

Joelle says that this story is important because there are still people out there who say, ‘well if you tried hard enough, you could fit in if you wanted to.’ The reality is that’s not the case.

” Identities aren’t taken on and off like a pair of slippers,” she said.

IN HER SHOES

Standing at a towering 6’6,” it is hard not to notice Joelle, transgender or not. Complete with large hands and large feet, she is lacking a lot of traditionally feminine features which she says makes it difficult for her to “pass” — to walk through the world undetected.

“People can tell a lot of the time, and I don’t try to hide it, but that makes it very hard to walk through the world. Because, like everybody else, I’m just trying to do my thing — and yet there’s always this sort of wall that I have to contend with of stares, snickers, comments. And why do people feel the need to do that,?” she said.

Citing, “That’s a guy” as her most overheard whisper, Joelle tries to believe that people comment in the hopes of making them feel better about themselves.

Sometimes I ignore it, sometimes I try to confront it,” she says letting out a sigh with a combination of frustration and sadness. “I think I internalize a lot — it has a huge affect on me emotionally.”

One thing she must remind herself often is that, while it’s important to inform others about transgenders, it’s not her job to educate the entire world.

A TIME FOR CHANGE

As an activist, Joelle has created what she calls a “laundry list” of changes that need to be made. For example, she would like to see gender identity added to the university non-discrimination policy. In addition, she believes there needs to be greater education in general in the classrooms about trans issues. She says that one of the problems is that if somebody looks at somebody who they define as a feminine male, the assumption is automatically that that person is gay. So, there’s this collapsing of gender expression and sexual orientation.

“You can’t look at somebody and make assumptions and think you know what they are, because the reality is how they identify is what they are,” she said. “That’s what should be looked at and taken as what’s important — self-identification.”

Another change Joelle is in favor of is gender-neutral bathrooms. This issue, which she jokingly calls “bathroom bugaboo” and “urinary segregation,” would consist of at least one gender-neutral bathroom in every building on campus.

Finally, identification requirements need to be improved. Joelle contests that since it is now possible to change one’s eye color, hair color, height and weight with considerable ease, it should no longer be necessary to have individuals include their sex. In other words, gender is no longer stable.

MAKING HER VOICE HEARD

Joelle actively works to educate and promote transgender awareness. She has produced two films about her life. The first, “A Transgender Path,” was released in 1995 and has been shown in universities. The second, “TransAmazon: A Gender Queer Journey,” which came out this year, is shot in a first-person autobiographical format and tells her story and raises issues transgenders face. Joelle reveals that the film is extremely personal and is a sort-of “emotional topsy-turvy” that follows her through two years, showing both anger and humor.

In addition, Joelle writes and performs poetry, many times dealing with transgender issues. She hopes to one day put together a self-published collection of her poems.

“Even if somebody does not accept this transgender thing, for instance, if you can get them on a more emotional level to connect across different identities and to see others as people and human beings first, that’s very, very important,” she said.

SHOWING HER SPIRIT

“In terms of spirituality, I feel like I was put here, in this body, with this identity for a reason — and that is to help other people see the diversity of humanity and hopefully try to come to an acceptance of that,” she says.

“When I look at it in those terms it’s like, YEAH! I feel empowered, I’m here for a reason … transAmazon … I’m a warrior…that’s the good days,” she said.

Other tines, she admits it is very taxing and frustrating and that she must just take it one day at a time, one step at a time. Luckily, she is happy to be here.

According to statistics, 50 percent of transgenders have attempted suicide. In addition, several die from hate crimes and substance abuse.

“It’s a group where there is a tremendous amount of self-hatred,” she said. ” It’s not something you decide overnight. It’s something that you realize at a young age and you just have to learn to deal with it.”

Unfortunately, there are several instances when people will transition and lose everything from their jobs to spouses to their children and even their homes.

“I’ve spent most of my life in academia, so I guess in that sense, I’m privileged,” she said. “On the other hand, there’s not a whole lot of us in academia either. It’s very isolating.”

Joelle recounts a time when she felt influencing. While in a shoe store in Iowa, employees would not help her because they were unsure whether she was male or female. A woman working in the back room saw what was going on and recognized her from a panel discussion she had attended. The woman was so enraged by what had happened that she quit her job. Joelle explains that, it just so happened that the woman was a closet lesbian and had been considering coming out, but when she saw the reactions of her co-workers to Joelle, decided that it was a bad environment. In the future, Joelle would like to continue to teach and do non-profit work dealing with the transgender community. She would also like to either start a shelter or begin a support group.

“I believe in being a squeaky wheel,” she said.

For more information about Joelle, visit www.transpride.org

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