In the fight for equal rights, transgender issues have been left in the dust
Sometimes it takes a while for people to figure out who they are. For Adrien Lawyer, that’s an understatement.
“I didn’t know there was such a thing as myself until I was 26,” he says, smiling and scruffy at the end of a long day. It wasn’t until he sat down with a copy of 1993’s Stone Butch Blues, a landmark novel, that he was introduced to the word “transgender.”
Born in a woman’s body and growing up in 1970s Mississippi, he believed he’d be stuck inside it for the rest of his life. “I had lived in the world long enough to know that I was going to have to accept my female body,” he says. Friends would tell him, You are a woman, so be one. Lawyer settled for being a lesbian.
It was through Stone Butch Blues that Lawyer discovered options were available, such as hormone replacement therapy. His fuse was lit. The path he planned for himself, however, was a difficult one—expensive and exhilarating and scary and absent of markers to guide him. Without a single friend who’d gone through something similar, he had to guess and stumble his way through his transition.
Lawyer had already met his partner, Elena Letourneau, when he embarked on what he calls one of the most difficult processes of his life. While Lawyer transitioned, their lives were changing in other ways, too. Letourneau finally succeeded in getting pregnant after two and a half years of trying. It was 2004, the same year Lawyer had chest surgery to remove his breasts.
“We’re about 20 years behind the gay, lesbian and bi community, in terms of civil rights.”
The following year, after the birth of their son, Lawyer started hormone replacement therapy. He knew the therapy would change things in his body, but he didn’t expect to go through a second puberty at the age of 35. He had mood swings, acne and a strange draw toward archetypal masculinity. “I didn’t have a friend who could tell me what to expect,” he says. “I was like a 16-year-old boy.”
Lawyer and Letourneau separated for six months that year. They liken the period to breaking a bone—you have to set it before it can heal. After counseling and a lot of communication, the two were able to reconcile. This summer they celebrated their 12th year together.
Lawyer co-founded the Transgender Resource Center of New Mexico, an organization that serves as a support system for other trans people, so he could give others what he lacked. The center has provided Lawyer with a sense of empowerment, and it’s a feeling he tries to transmit through education and advocacy.
“We’re about 20 years behind the gay, lesbian and bi community, in terms of civil rights,” he says. He uses trans characters portrayed on TV as an example. They’re rarely written, he says, and when they are, those characters are usually presented as drug addicts or prostitutes. “The last 10 years for trans people are like the ’70s for gay people.”
Society’s treatment, or non-treatment, of transgender people has led to some horrifying statistics. According to a study that came out earlier this year, the rate for suicide attempts in the general population is about 1.6 percent, but for trans folks it’s a startling 41 percent and growing. The Transgender Resource Center combats numbers like that through outreach—speaking at schools, hospitals and therapists’ offices, sometimes to simply explain what transgender means.
“Just ask, ‘What pronouns would you like me to use?’ ”
“It covers a wealth of identities,” Lawyer says. Those identities range from people who like to cross-dress—who identify with their birth sex but like to wear the clothes of the opposite sex—to those who take their transitions all the way through sexual reassignment surgery. The message Lawyer hopes to impart through his outreach is simple: “People’s identity is what they tell you it is. You don’t get a vote.”
Lawyer offers a simple piece of advice: “Just ask, ‘What pronouns would you like me to use?’,” he says. “It’s not an easy thing to ask people. I know it feels weird. But the whole point is to humanize.”
The center has been able to make marked progress in its three years of existence. For about a year, Lawyer’s been sitting on a task force with Albuquerque Public Schools helping set policy about transgender students and faculty.
The organization has also helped change rules regarding driver’s licenses. It used to be that in order for people to have their sex changed on a license, they had to submit a letter from a surgeon stating they’d had gender correction surgery, a costly option not all transgender people seek. Now people only have to provide a letter from a doctor or psychologist supporting their choice to change their gender marker. Surgery was taken out of the equation.
As a result, more transgender people can get married. Since Lawyer’s driver’s license shows that he’s male, he and Letourneau can legally get hitched in the state. That’s the ID required for a marriage license in New Mexico.
Lawyer recognizes the change as a step forward. Still, he argues, “Why do we even need a gender marker on an ID?”
One of the center’s primary missions is to act as an information hub, whether people are looking for resources on trans-friendly health care providers or simply wanting to know there are more folks who share their experience.
As someone who, as Lawyer puts it, has “been in both bathrooms,” he has a unique perspective, understanding in a more complete way how society treats men and women differently. Now that he’s male, “everyone turns to me for marching orders,” he says. “You see the privilege for the first time. And then you kind of resent it.”
It’s impossible to tell by looking at Lawyer that he is anything but a natural-born man. A lot of trans people in that position become invisible, he says. They don’t tell anyone they’re transgender. But Lawyer is out and proud. “I have a little rebel pride,” he says. “I have pride in being special and different.”