“I am a doctoral fellow here at UNT, teaching in the art education program. I’m a 45-year-old man of trans experience. I used to be the director of Denton Transendence, which is a support group for trans people, family, friends, and allies, so it takes a hollistic approach to trans support.”
Could you tell me about your experience?
“Well, my book title is Trans with Privilege, and it’s one of those things I was thinking about the other day, that there’s this sort of narrative that goes around about being trans as if it’s this homogeneous experience without taking into consideration intersectionality and how privilege can happen within the trans community. I have to take into account the great privilege I have now walking through life as a heterosexual white man who’s highly educated, as opposed to friends I have who transitioned in different ways to where it actually deprivileges them. One of the young adults in my family is a trans woman, and so I have to think about even within my own family, both of our positions have shifted, with me being read as male, and my niece going from male to female. With similar family, neither of us are treated well, but even within that, they’ll be more cautious about how they disrespect me, as opposed to how they disrespect her.
Lately I’ve been reminded of this story where in 1993 my motorcycle broke down on the highway off I-35 & Rosedale in Fort Worth in the middle of the night. I had to try and find a payphone to call some friends to help me out. Walking around at that time & place, alone in the dark, as a fairly small person, being read as female, it wasn’t the safest place. When I found a payphone, I realized I had no money. I saw person coming from around the corner of an abandoned building. It was this very tall women in tall heels and a green dress, in the middle of the night, on Rosedale. Sure enough it was a sex worker, but also a trans woman of color. At the time I thought ‘I don’t want this person near me.’ I had a lot of assumptions. They asked me if I needed help, and even though I insisted I didn’t, she knew I was scared, and she even knew I was scared of her. She pulled some money out of her purse, and I was able to call my friends. I told her I was fine and she could leave, but she knew things about the area I didn’t, and wanted to make sure I was safe while I waited. When my friends pull up, I went to talk to them, and when I turn around, she was already gone. I think she was worried, knowing if I’m afraid of her, who knows what my friends are like, and there’s more of us and there’s just her. It’s interesting to think when we look at trans people, I have what’s called 'passing privilege’. Most people have no idea that I’m trans without me telling them. There are so many people who may or may not have passing privilege, which can make things dangerous, especially when sex workers are already targets for violence anyway, and the highest rates of violence are against trans women of color. We often hear about trans people as victims, and here was this woman who stepped up. Didn’t know me and made sure that I was safe.”
What were some changes in privilege you noticed before & after your transition?
“Oh wow, let’s see! I’ve been a professor for several years, and when I started to transition, I did a little experiment. I was getting emails that were really hostile over little things, and they always start with Ms, Mrs, my first name, or just Hey. They would be really demanding emails, saying 'You need to do this…’. Whatever I wrote back, no matter how professionally written, I would be perceived as a bitch. I changed my name on Blackboard, and started replying to emails as Mr. Jenkins. After about a week, even within the same semester and same group of students, about 80% of the emails changed completely in tone, saying 'Mr. Jenkins, if you get a chance…’
On the other hand, around the same time, I took a night class at TWU. I was walking along the sidewalk after class, a million things going through my head, not thinking of my surroundings, except noticing a girl walking a bit in front of me. I was only 8 months into my transition, and after 42 years of thinking I need to bundle up next to somebody at night for safety, I wasn’t thinking about how there was no one around us and I’m walking in pace right behind her. I notice her keep looking around. I thought 'I wonder why she keeps looking over her shoulder like that?’ and it suddenly hit me 'Oh my god, it’s me! I’m like the creepy guy walking too close!’ So I stopped to tie my shoes and let her go on. Those are things I had to stop being aware of. Not that I would do anything, but that’s the perception, that I could be that guy who might do something.”
“I actually made this banner after the shooting at Pulse in Orlando, and there’s one ‘Love Is’ for every person who died in that massacre. I thought it was appropriate for this, it’s served its purpose in multiple protests, because it’s always a good message. The end goal is love.”
“Dermatillomania is an obsessive compulsive disorder where the ‘sufferer’, and I use that term lightly, unconsciously or deliberately scratches at their skin, usually removing scabs, moles, other imperfections, in order to produce a clean flat surface and remove blemishes, even though it creates blemishes.
I first became aware of it in high school, when I would get in trouble for having my hand down the back of my shirt during class, just absent-mindedly scratching at acne or scabs. In college it got much worse. Before I pick I generally feel anxious, and I pick to relieve some tension, because it feels good to have a smooth surface.
After it got worse in college and my 20’s, I went to a doctor and started talking about it and realized there were ways to handle it, to avoid it, to control it. Sitting on my hands is one way. While driving I wear these gloves, because I have a long commute and that’s a period where I’m all by myself and my hands are free to wander. Neck, upper chest, back, face, if I’m wearing a skirt, legs. Cruise control can be my enemy because then I can get to both feet. It can be deliberate, like I know I have these two bumps near my shoulder that I will think about during the day and be ready to go get them. Or it may be completely absent minded, where I’ll get up from a meeting and have blood spots on my legs. I do take medication for obsessive compulsive disorder, because while this isn’t the only manifestation of it, it is the most physically obvious one, resulting in scarring and visible blood. I marked the scars I could see on left side. I try to keep my nailed trimmed short so it’s harder to remove things. I use lotion to keep my skin from getting flaky. Long socks help, because you can always pull your pants up. Long sleeves and pants, to try and keep things covered. But in the summer, it’s harder. It’s not always possible to not search for the bumps.”
“The theme here is that we’re an open book, but I really am an open book. I talk about pieces of my identity all the time, like the necklace I’m wearing is the symbol for adoption. Strangers will ask me about it and I’ll tell them I’m a birth mother, I don’t keep that part of me a secret.”
What does it mean to be a birth mother?
“A birth mother is sort of the left out member of the adoption triad. When we think about adoption, we generally think about a couple who adopts a baby, or a kid from foster care, or from another country. What we don’t generally think about is the woman who gave birth to that child.
At 15 I got pregnant, and I made a decision to place my child for adoption. It was an easy and difficult decision, because we were poor. Not like lower middle class poor, we were poor poor. I was still in high school. I’m the youngest of 12, and I’m the only one who graduated high school, the only one in my family to get a bachelors degree, let alone masters, and now I’m working on my PhD. I looked at my world, and the trailer we were living in where the walls were coming apart and my sister who was a teenage mother as well. I said ‘This is not what I want for either of us.’ And so I started looking into options. I actually went to a teacher who was an adoptive mother to ask her about her experience. I even went through the same organization that she went through to adopt her child to place mine.
Back then, adoption doesn’t look like it does now. There are birth mothers now who will go visit their kids, or are friends with them on Facebook, and gets the updates like everyone else does and they’re a regular part of the kids’ life. So back then I got these scrapbooks of information about these families. I was shopping for a family for my kid, which is the weirdest experience ever. There are a lot of socioeconomic problems with adoption, and I fell into those, because I picked a wealthy family. I don’t regret that I picked them, but I picked the most opposite family from mine, because I thought that’s what was best for my child. I picked them, and met them, and we went to dinner. They were at the hospital when she was born, and got to hold her right after she was born. I signed my rights away 48 hours later, and cried until my eyes swelled shut and didn’t sleep the whole night. I pretty much did the same thing even night for months afterwards.
I never brought myself to regret it. She is very loved. I love her, her parents love her, but it’s weird. There is no script to tell me how I’m supposed to interact with her or the family. One of the reasons I’m writing my dissertation on birth mothers is because I had this life experience where no one is able to tell me how I’m supposed to interact with these people. When writing letters to them I just thought 'I’m 16, what am I going to say to this 41-year-old couple raising a 5-year-old and a newborn? What about my life could be interesting to them?’ There’s so much uncertainty in how to handle these situations. There are TV shows that show us how to deal with a step family interacting. There’s nothing like that for this relationship and what it should look like. We make it up as we go.
I’m a huge proponent of talking about stigma. As a communications scholar of stigmatized identities, I understand the power of language and having the words to talk about things. Even when I was 15, I was an open book about what I was going through, because there are a lot of misconceptions about adoption, that I sold her, that I didn’t want her, that I didn’t did love her, that her birth father didn’t want her. There are all these misconceptions and the only way to head that off is to talk about it.”