Friday, August 19, 2011

So ... what if you woke up in the wrong body?

About three years ago, my friend Karen died, and I ended up coming clean in a blog post about the fact that I had committed a journalistic faux pas – I had become friends with someone about whom I had written articles.

Karen was a school-board member, and during the course of her campaign and her time on the board, we had clicked. We were like-minded and we were night owls, and we found that we enjoyed chatting about things other than the issues of the day. I still maintain that my coverage wasn’t affected by the fact that I liked Karen; I like a lot of people, and I don't like a lot of others, and when any of them have merited articles, I've written about both groups objectively. That’s life in a small town.

Recently, I found myself writing about someone else I really like. We’re not in the same peer group – I’m a generation older than he is -- so you probably won’t see us hanging out. But I’ll certainly end up following the rest of his journey, as he already has impacted my life in much the same way Karen did. That’s one of the great things about being allowed to make at least part of my living as a writer; some stories, like this one, end up making me a better person.

In case you don’t have time to read the story right now, here’s the Cliff’s Notes version: I met Chloe when she was in middle school. She was one of my daughter’s classmates – she played drums in the school’s show choirs -- and to my great embarrassment later on, I assumed she was a boy. Now, as an adult who has been diagnosed with gender identity disorder, she’s taking male hormones, preparing for breast-removal surgery, and living life as a man. (And Chloe, now Charlie, really likes the fact that I spent two years assuming he was male.)

Charlie’s story is on the front page of our community paper today. It’s bound to stir some feelings; one person already felt the need to share his belief that the fact that Charlie is changing genders is an “abomination in the eyes of God.” Most, however, have expressed that they sympathize with Charlie and wish him luck on the road ahead. Whatever your opinion about gender reassignment, the story is worth a read – not because it’s mine, but because the humility with which Charlie chooses to live his life is a thing to behold.

Here are just some of the reasons Charlie Poulson is one of my new heroes.
  • When you’re in your 40s, you look at a body you’ve walked around in your whole life and suddenly you don’t know who it belongs to. (Trust me on this.) Imagine waking up every day of your life realizing that your body is not only changing in some not-fun ways, but it’s simply the wrong body. As Cher told David Letterman when discussing her son Chaz, who used to be her daughter, Chastity: “If I woke up as a man, all I’d think of would be, ‘Oh, my God. Get me out of here.’” Charlie has felt that panic every day of his 20 years, and he’s handled his unrest with maturity far beyond his years.

  • Middle school and high school are brutal enough when you basically look like everyone else. Charlie looked like a boy – as I mentioned, I assumed for two years that he was one – so you can imagine the teasing. I suppose you could say, “Well, he should have dressed like a girl, then.” Again, to use the Cher analogy, if I woke up one day with male parts but still felt the way I do now – like a female – I probably wouldn’t want to put on a tie or a pair of basketball shorts.

  • He is unflinchingly nice. During our interview, he told me about some of the abuse he’s endured, and when I asked him how he had responded, he said, “My mom always told me to kill people with kindness. And I’m kind of a peaceful person, so I never really say much.” Not to overdo the analogies, but to me, that attitude is a whole lot more “Christian” than the epithets that have been hurled at Charlie by some known church-goers. That’s a huge lesson for people like me, who tend to become angry at the first sign of injustice. Charlie truly turns the other cheek, and I think that’s pretty rare.

Gender reassignment is a huge deal, and people are bound to be of varying opinions about it. If Charlie were my child and were undergoing surgery, I’d be worried, and his mom, Suzanne, is. But Suzanne also understands this: Charlie is not “choosing” to become a man. I’m no biologist, but there’s a reason he has always identified as male. And if there’s a way to make his insides match his outsides, it certainly seems like the sensible and humane thing to do.

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