SoCo Keynote: Jenn Burleton


One Community, One Family

by Jenn Burleton, TransActive Education & Advocacy, Portland, OR

Thank you to the organizers of this amazing conference and in particular, Cat Turner, Lola Fleck and Elaine Martin. And I must thank my longtime friend, Mariette Pathy Allen. My life has been truly blessed as a result of knowing her and sharing many adventures with her…some of which are suitable for sharing with the whole family.

When Cat Turner called back in January and invited me to come to Atlanta I was of course, very honored. I was also surprised. After all, we’d never met. I’d never attended a previous Southern Comfort Conference and I am not, in my opinion anyway, one of the gender community heavy hitters.

A few months prior to my conversation with Cat I co-founded a national organization by the name of TransYouth Family Advocates. That work and my role as a filmmaker are what I believe led Cat and the SoCo Board to think they might want to invite me to speak at today’s luncheon.

Of course, I was touched by the invitation and accepted immediately. Following our conversation, it dawned on me that perhaps I’d spoken too soon. I realized that I had some research to do in order to prepare for that day…which is now, today.

I needed to find out what plenary meant.

At first, I thought it had something to do with a faith-based presentation of some kind, which gave me pause. While I consider myself to be a spiritual, moral and decent person, I am by no means a religious person. defines the word plenary in the following way:

“An adjective related to the noun plenum. Full and complete in every respect.”

It goes on to say:

“Plenary inspiration” is a form of revelation. Plenary Inspiration tells us that the authors were infallible; they did not make any errors when they were writing the particular text because the Holy Spirit of God was working through them.”

Now, I’ve been a proud atheist throughout most of my life and I have attributed that atheism not only to a passion for logic, science and reason, but perhaps most directly to the fact that none of my childhood prayers were ever answered.

Perhaps you can then appreciate the pressure this places on me. I like to think my ego is as healthy as any other mature, sexy, trans-lesbian, guitar playing soccer mom type…but infallibility due to the Holy Spirit of God may be something of a stretch, even for me.

Therefore, I’m going to think of this luncheon as a team activity. There is every bit as much pressure on you to acknowledge the infallibility of what I say as there is on me to actually BE infallible. All I can say is, don’t let me down.

As a child of the 60’s, I was inspired by the space program. Words like re-entry, splashdown, Telstar, Mercury, Gemini and Apollo became part of my everyday language. And the astronauts themselves, Shepherd, Glenn, Grissom, Schirra, Carpenter, Slayton and Cooper were early heroes.

I watched on a fuzzy black and white television as Neil Armstrong stepped onto the surface of the Moon.

It was a time when I imagined that almost anything was possible. It was a time when I believed that someday, I too would walk on the surface of the moon, or perhaps another planet. I believed all this…because I had seen it actually happen. I had seen men walk on the moon.

Today, in this room, at this microphone, I’m doing something which, as a child, seemed a far more distant dream than walking on the moon. I feel like Neil Armstrong standing in my very own Sea of Tranquility.

It’s important to have heroes and role models. They show us what is possible. They show us the value of vision and courage. Heroes can inspire us to find a way out of seemingly hopeless situations. And while the Mercury Seven astronauts were certainly heroes of mine, they were not my biggest hero.

I first heard the name Christine Jorgensen when I was 6 years old. I was sitting on the back floor of the car as my mother drove my brother Hugh home from the railroad station in Milwaukee, where I was born and raised. He’d left for New York City the previous year to pursue a career in theatre and was home for a visit.

During the drive he mentioned that he’d been at a party in Manhattan that was filled with celebrities and among them was Christine Jorgensen.

I remember my mother saying that she recognized the name but couldn’t place where from, to which my brother responded; “She is the man who had a sex change operation and became a woman.”

While my affection for the phrase “sex-change” has diminished rather dramatically in the ensuing years, the impact of hearing those words was, at least for one 6-year old trans girl, life altering.

It’s remarkable the things we hold in our memories and the things we forget. I remember the first time I heard Christine Jorgensen’s name like it was yesterday, but I can’t remember the phone number of the house I lived in for 7 years. I remember taking food coloring from the kitchen cupboard when I was 12 and heating up a sewing needle in a desperate attempt to tattoo my lips red so they would have to let me be a girl…but I can’t for the life of me remember my first home run, or my first kiss. I remember praying night after night for God to change my body as I slept so that I could awaken from the nightmare…but I don’t remember even once praying for God to make me feel happy about being a boy. Praying for that just didn’t seem natural. Praying for that was surrender.

The concept being part of an Intergenerational Family hit me square upside the head last fall as I was talking to a trans youth at the Sexual Minority Youth Resource Center in Portland, Oregon, where I make my home. At the time I was an adult volunteer at the drop-in center for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, transsexual, asexual, pansexual, non-sexual, queer, questioning, gender queer,

Non-gendered, allied, androgynous, polyamorous, politically incorrect, vegan, vegetarian, omnivore, carnivore, kosher, treyf, physically challenged, ambulatory and extra-terrestrial youth.

She told me that she’d recently started hormones and how she felt about that and I shared with her how happy I was that she was happy and together we were both just happy to be happy, engulfed as we were in our estrogen-induced stupor. Finally, once we’d stopped smiling long enough to take a breath, she asked;

“So, when did you start taking hormones?”

I responded, “Well, I began taking them when I was 12 years old.”

She gasped. I’m not kidding…she literally gasped and said; “Oh! You’re THE ONE!”

It was my turn to gasp. I realized that a portion of my personal trans journey had become a part of anecdotal trans experience. I had become an urban legend.

I will now relate the true story behind that urban legend.

I call it “The Case Of The Transmogrifying Yellow Pill”.

The year was 1966. A 12-year old child working the day watch in Milwaukee, Wisconsin went into a corner drugstore to buy comic books with $.50 his mother had given him. His favorites were Spider-Man, Daredevil and The X-Men. While looking through the newsstand, he noticed a spinner rack filled with paperback books. There was the usual assortment of Mickey Spillane and Earle Stanley Gardner mysteries. But there was a new title that caught the kid’s attention…The Transsexual Phenomenon.

The boy was in awe. It was the Holy Grail, Christmas morning and the ever elusive all-ice cream diet rolled into one. There was just one problem. The boy had only had $.50 for comic books and the paperback on the spinner rack was $1.95.

With sweaty palms, the child considered his options. On the one hand, the kid REALLY wanted that book. Then again, Peter Parker was definitely going to reveal that he was Spider-Man in the latest issue. What to do, what to do…

I stole the book.

Tucking it down the front of my pants, I grabbed Spidey, Daredevil and The X-Men and headed to the counter. I was more afraid of being caught with the book because of the subject matter than I was of being caught for stealing.

Luckily, the nice man behind the counter was fooled by my innocent, freckle-faced charm and I made a clean getaway.

I read the book cover to cover in little more than a day, and even though I didn’t understand everything in the book, I got the message. I’d always known I was different, but now I knew there was more than just Christine and I. There were enough of us for an American doctor to have written a book. Most of the “others” seemed a lot older, but still, they were probably kids once.

Now, I know what’s going through your minds. You’re thinking “What about the hormones? How did you start hormones at the age of 12 when gas was $.30 a gallon and Reagan was best known for being a bad actor?”

While reading The Transsexual Phenomenon I realized that one of the medications mentioned in the book was the same thing my mother took for, in her words, “My goddamn hot flashes”.

The Transmogrifying Yellow Pill…Premarin!

It’s the only time I remember being happy that my Mom was an alcoholic. Counting the little yellow pills was not her top priority.

And that’s how Dr. Harry Benjamin turned me into a pill popping thief.

The story you’ve just heard is true. The people in this story are guilty as hell and they know it. None of their names were changed because they’re either dead, don’t give a damn or the statute of limitations has expired.

The publication of The Transsexual Phenomenon was literally, a defining event in my life.

Some would argue that as a 12-year old child, my gender non-conforming identity was reinforced, influenced or warped by having read that book. Nothing could be further from the truth. I had always known exactly how I felt about myself and my identity. I knew I was a girl. It just didn’t make “sense” until I read that book.

Those who believe that a child’s gender non-conformity can somehow be improperly confirmed or influenced by mere exposure to a book or discussion about transgender issues would also believe there are WMD in Iraq and all lesbians own a cat.

Umm…by a show of hands, how many cat owners do we have?

Those who believe that children are blank slates waiting for an approved hetero-normative gender stencil to be drawn on them are not simply in denial regarding current scientific, social and medical studies, they are guilty of leading parents, families and in many cases the legal system to misogynistic, cissexist and conservative fundamentalist conclusions that will forever negatively affect these children’s lives.

Alleged gender identity experts like Kenneth Zucker, Alice Dreger, J. Michael Bailey, Warren Throckmorton and others define transgender people, especially children, in ways that only serve their personal, professional, cultural and religious agendas or, in the case of Anne Lawrence, which justify their own self-loathing connection to gender non-conformity.

To them, there is no such thing as a transgender, transsexual or androgynous child. These children, and the adults they become, are nothing more than examples of psychotherapy’s failure to eradicate pre-homosexual behavior. You see, according to their uber-flawed studies, 75% of gender non-conforming children turn gay during their teen years.

To put it bluntly, we are nothing but failed cisgender homosexuals.

I’m simultaneously enraged and amused by such voodoo psychology. I’m also deeply insulted. I happen to consider myself to be an extremely successful lesbian. So successful in fact, that in February of next year my partner Cheryl and I will celebrate our 25th anniversary.

On a side note, when I read this last part to my partner before leaving for the conference she asked me; “What would you be like if you were an unsuccessful lesbian.” To which I answered, “I guess I’d be sexually attracted to men.”

This continuing campaign to marginalize, disregard and obstruct transgender identity in children is what compelled me to begin working with children, youth and their families.

My dedication to raising awareness of this issue has intensified through working with TransActive Education & Advocacy, a non-profit organization I established in Portland, Oregon.

The film, “Out Of The Shadows” is really just the voice of a child from my past; the voice of a little girl that was never heard. Shouted down by teachers, therapists, gate-keepers, social workers, parents, friends and family, it is a voice that is, I’m sorry to say, still ignored, marginalized and silenced by many within our own community.

While we are making progress regarding rights and protections for trans, intersex and gender non-conforming adults, we are too often silent when it comes to transgender children. If we are indeed a community, then how can we as a community survive if we won’t fight for our children?

We seem to be finding comfort and safety under this transgender umbrella, but our children are left out in the rain. Where and when are we going to hear the needs of our gender non-conforming children addressed at the national level by presidential candidates and the organizers of national forums that focus on LGBT community issues?

What are they afraid of? What are we afraid of? Has the far-right fundamentalist campaign of lies about the so-called gay agenda backed us into such a dark corner that we’re too afraid to protect our babies, our children, our teens?

We hear frequently about the flaws in No Child Left Behind, yet few notice that transgender children are not just being left behind; they are being thrown under the bus.

I believe this is due, in part, to the notion that there are no gay, lesbian or bisexual children. There are children that might be “expected” to be gay or lesbian based upon their gender non-conforming personalities, but they haven’t as yet actually bought the toaster oven. As for transgender children, there appears to be more respect for and documentation of the existence of Bigfoot than there is for transgender identity in childhood.

Let’s for a moment hypothesize on what life would be like in the Bizarro universe inhabited by the Axis of Evil; Bailey, Lawrence, Throckmorton and Zucker. We’ll assume there’s been a breach in the time-space continuum and the laws that rule their mystifying but simplistic corner of existence spills over into our messy little dimension.

In their dimension, 75% of you are homosexual, having grown out of or been behavior modified away from your childhood gender non-conforming identities.

But what about the other 25%? What do we do with you?

What if (not a chance in hell) those percentages are right? What if those statistics were applied to other conditions of childhood development?

Would it be alright if we ignored, silenced and marginalized socially impaired children if 25% of them turned out to be autistic?

What if 25% of all children with muscle cramps developed muscular dystrophy?

What if 25% of all children who like candy developed diabetes?

And would it be ok to withhold medical intervention to 25% of all children born with cleft lip or cleft palate until they reached the age of 18, just in case they changed their minds about wanting to fix the hole in the middle of their face.

According to research done by Professor Lynn Conway, non-conforming gender identity is as common or more common that each of those conditions. Her research indicates that 1:250 births are a child that has a non-conforming gender identity.

Perhaps some of you were one of those children. I know I was.

I’ve faced the reality that no matter what I do, or how many years go by, I will never be able to bury the pain of that little girl who had to steal a paperback book so many years ago because no one saw her, no one heard her and no one respected her.

The pain of being invisible to the very people who are supposed to protect them is perhaps the deepest wound from a transgender childhood. Our children are hungry for our love, our support, our recognition and most of all, our respect.

They have a right to positive role models.

Their parents have a right to know there’s a future out there for their children that doesn’t involve being on a very special episode of The Jerry Springer Show.

They have a right to not be threatened in the hallways, beaten in the locker rooms or murdered in a back alley because of someone else’s misogynistic and homophobic insecurities.

They have a right to all those things. They have a right to be themselves, no matter what the neighbors might think.

Our trans children have a right to heroes they can look up to. But in order for them to look up to us, we must first stand up for them.

It may be through volunteering our professional skills to a family in need. It may be through being a mentor to a gender non-conforming child or youth. It may be through contributing to non-profit organizations that work on behalf of transgender children, youth and their families. I happen to know of one…talk to me later. 

And for those who identify as male, please know that the impact you can have on a young gender non-conforming child’s life, regardless of where the child falls on the gender spectrum, is particularly valuable and hard to come by. The impact of that support may be even more profound in male attire than in female attire.

One of the things we don’t see enough of is men supporting feminine boys. While it’s always deeply moving to see the love these children receive from their mothers and other women in their lives, I am even more thrilled to meet supportive fathers, brothers, uncles or male family friends who are proud of the child for who they are.

In order to develop healthy self-esteem these children must know that those they look up to are proud of who they are and who they might become.

A few years ago my partner Cheryl and I were driving to Vancouver, BC to spend a few days with friends. We’d just left the Seattle area when I got a call from a number I didn’t recognize. To my surprise, it was from a woman named Robyn Henslin that I’d known prior to my transition, and whom I hadn’t seen or spoken to in more than 30 years.

Back then I was a very young, pimply faced musical director of a group connected to Up with People, which some of you may be familiar with from their appearances in 4 Super Bowl Halftime shows.

I told Robyn how thrilled I was to hear from her. I was also trying to find a way of addressing whether or not she knew about the changes in my life.

I finally said; “Are you aware of my gender transition?” to which she said, “Oh yes. We all heard about it. It was weird at first but we all liked you and knew you were doing what was right for you.”

I laughed and confirmed that, indeed, it was the best thing I could have done.

We made small talk for a minute or two and then I asked her why, after all these years, she decided to track me down over the internet.

She paused for a moment and I could tell she was crying.

She said; “I’m so happy to talk to you, but I don’t want you to think I’m silly. I’ve thought about you a lot over the years as I was going through different things in my life. I’ve been through some really tough times, but I got through them. And when things started to get better, I thought about you. I’ve got three children now, a boy and two girls, and a great career in nursing. I’ve been married twice, but my current husband and I have been together for almost 20 years and we’re really happy.”

By this time, we were both crying and my partner Cher, riding in the car beside me was wondering who died. I gave her a little smile and a thumbs-up to reassure her that everything was OK.

Robyn went on.

“I needed to tell you something. I needed for you to know how great my life has turned out and how important you were as a role model and someone who encouraged me and inspired me. It was important that you be proud of me someday. Are you?”

I was. And I was humbled by her words, her affection and her need to tell this transgender woman that I’d made a difference in her life at time when I was still trying to figure out my own future, or if I even had a future.

It was for me, a full-circle moment that can only be described by use of the noun, plenum. Full and complete in every respect.

In closing, I want to again thank all of you for your kindness, your support, your courage and your leadership. My greatest wish is that someday, each and every one of you receives a call from a trans child you’ve reached out to. Perhaps a 12 year old trans girl who found The Transsexual Phenomenon on the Internet, and that that call might go something like this:

“I don’t know if you remember me…but my life is great now. I hope you’re proud of me. Are you?”

Thank you.