Dr. Jude Harrison wrote a letter to his patients recently that probably elicited some surprise.
The key in that first sentence is the pronoun. You see, in 1984 Harrison began as a family medicine physician as one of just three women doctors in Durango.
Just a couple weeks ago, Dr. Harrison got the paperwork to make the change official, at least as far as the government is concerned. The transition began early this year and continues, but Harrison is now a transgender man.
“People have been great,” Harrison said recently at his Durango home. “My patients have been astounding. They’ve just been so supportive.”
Some of you may need to take a deep breath at this point. Go ahead, reread those first three graphs. Let it all sink in. Maybe you’re still having trouble wrapping your brain around issues such as gay marriage, for example. But whether you’re comfortable with it or not, times, again, are a-changin’.
Same-sex marriage controversy? Move over. You’re ancient history to a growing number of Americans, particularly those younger than 40. Welcome to perhaps the next fight: transgender rights.
Nationally, the transgender issue has gotten some positive exposure recently. A quick recap:
Netflix binge-watchers will be the first to crow about transgender woman Laverne Cox’s recent Emmy nomination for her role in the comedy “Orange is the New Black.” In it she plays a fireman-turned-hair stylist in a women’s prison.
Cox was also the poster woman for a June 9 Time magazine cover story: “The Transgender Tipping Point: America’s next civil rights frontier.”
In 2013, the American Psychiatric Association manual replaced the term “gender identity disorder” with the kinder “gender dysphoria” to define those who “feel themselves to be a different gender than their assigned gender.”
In health care, too, transgender people have made strides. For example, Medicare enrollees can now receive transition-related care that is OK’d by doctors.
As acceptance and understanding slowly grow, more trans people – those who have changed the sex they were “assigned at birth” – are willing to share their stories and their struggles. Now you can count Jude Harrison among them.
Is he a hero? Maybe to some. But perhaps that’s making too big a deal of his life. On more basic terms, he’s a person trying to fit into a world that doesn’t always make sense. That’s something to which everyone ought to relate.
“The discordance between how you view yourself and how society views you builds up to where it’s intolerable,” he explained. “And the only way to survive and the only solution to that is to transition.
“People transition for the same reason that people who have cancer do chemotherapy: to live. Otherwise, your choices are to stop living or live a life that’s become unbearable.”
Harrison grew up in a small town on the Washington-Idaho border, a tomboy to friends and family.
“I was really proud of that identity,” he said. Later, in the role of young woman and mother, it got confusing.
“But what’s a tom-man? I don’t know how to do or be this,” he said.
Harrison earned a degree in biology and a medical degree at the University of Washington, got married, moved to Durango to start practicing medicine and had two children.
“Being a parent has been really the biggest thing in my life,” he said.
Harrison said his son and daughter have both been supportive through the process. His son questioned the transition with humor: “Are you sure? Men can only wear three things, and they’re all boring.”
People can put “a zillion obstacles in our way,” Harrison said, and there’s fear of consequences.
“I certainly know people who lost their jobs, lost their family, lost their partner, basically lost everything ... from transitioning.”
The Williams Institute at the UCLA School of Law in 2011 estimated the U.S. transgender population at 700,000, or 0.3 percent of the adult population. A 2012 survey of Dane County, Wisconsin, high-schoolers found that 1.5 percent of the students identify as transgender.
Bentley O’Quinn was editor of the school paper and graduated from Durango High School in 2010. During freshman year at the University of Texas, O’Quinn did some medical research to understand the transition from female to male.
He began taking hormones his sophomore year in 2011 and had top surgery (breast removal) three months later. For O’Quinn, the transition has been relatively smooth, physically and socially.
“It’s a little different for everyone,” he said in a phone call from Austin, Texas, where he graduated in the spring. “For me, I think I always knew ... without necessarily having the labels to put on it.”
He remembers as a 5-year-old wanting short hair and wanting to shop for boys clothes. His parents wondered if their girl was going through a phase, but, through it all, have been very supportive, O’Quinn said.
“It’s been really easy for me,” said O’Quinn, who plans to attend physical therapy school in the near future. “Most of my friends probably already had an inclination or weren’t surprised when I told them. ... I’ve had full family support all my life.”
For the person transitioning and the family, there is a mental shift. For some, it takes longer to make that shift, whether it is using the right pronouns or the right name. (Bentley kept his original name.)
O’Quinn compared the need for his transition to the need for getting rid of an itch. Once the hormones kicked in, “Something in my brain just kind of leveled out. I finally felt comfortable in my own skin.
“Once you ... get to live in the right skin, it’s life-changing. I’m happier than I’ve ever been, being in the body I was meant to be in. ... There’s something really kind of empowering about that.”
The transition hasn’t been quite so smooth for transgender woman Narcissa Walker, who has become an activist for the LGBT community. She grew up in Durango but spent the last several years in Denver before returning recently to Durango.
Three years ago, the National Transgender Discrimination Survey found that 41 percent of those who are transgender or gender noncomforming have attempted suicide. Walker said she wishes everyone understood that. Another statistic shows 61 percent have been a victim of physical assault.
“The things that happen to trans people shouldn’t happen,” said Walker, who was 35 or 36 when she transitioned a few years ago. Afterward, she lost her home and dealt with health issues.
“The bulk of my transition was accomplished in a women’s shelter in Denver,” she said.
Among the issues that concern the transgender population are equal employment and health-care access and documentation issues – for example, some states require surgery before one can change sexes on a birth certificate.
Incremental steps are occurring, she said – including a decree from President Barack Obama last week that bars federal contractors from discriminating based on sexual orientation or gender identity.
“It is positive to see, but we’re still fighting for that basic acceptance,” said Walker, who took her first name from her great-grandmother. “I do see it as hopeful, but I don’t see the fight as being over yet.”
Societal change isn’t always easy, but Harrison sees change happening, and is hopeful for the future.
“As society understands that this is just something that happens, and it’s not a big deal and takes people at their word for what their identity is, then I think we’re going to have a lot less violence, a lot less suicide.”
[email protected] John Peel writes a weekly human-interest column.