Detailing a transformation

Jeffords Auditorium was packed. Nearly every seat filled with a student who was texting or chatting away. Then, surprisingly for a Soundings event, all the chatter ceased and the phones went away the moment a speaker stood up – and they stayed away for the entire performance.

Retired psychology professor John Klein stood to introduce the day’s guest speaker, and he began by quoting author Neil Gaiman, “Political correctness is just a synonym for respect.”

It’s a remark that instantly erodes the arguments of anyone who claims that issues of the LGBT community are issues of “political correctness,” or that they are a “lifestyle choice.”

He then moved to claim that studies show the brains of transgender individuals more closely resemble the gender they identify with than the gender they were assigned with at birth.

To much applause he proceeded to introduce Teri Wilhelm, an alumna of Castleton University, when it was then called Castleton State College.

Wilhelm, 58, is a mathematics instructor at SUNY Adirondack and has been married for more than 30 years. She has worked as a correctional officer, a firearms instructor, and has played in numerous bands. When employed as a correctional officer in the 1970s she was a major union activist.

In 2008, Teri, then Terry, completed her classes at Castleton State College. However, she realized that all of the stress she had been feeling over the last year may have not been solely academic.

She decided to see a therapist and during her sessions realized that she was indeed a transsexual woman.

When discussing her realization that she was indeed a woman, Wilhelm said that it was “like an Agatha Christie novel,” meaning there were clues and hints all throughout her life and that, through hindsight, she was able to put the pieces together.

She discussed the abuse she suffered as a child, because all of the other boys could tell that deep down she wasn’t as manly as they were, despite their young age. And during her time as a firearm instructor, she was capable of bench-pressing 300 pounds, which she claimed was an obvious attempt at over masculinizing herself.

Wilhelm discussed five questions, which she, as a transgender woman, would rather not be asked. These questions are so commonly asked of transgender people during interviews or simply by people who knew them before their transition.

What do you look like under your clothes? (What do your genitals look like?)

What do you dress like at home? (Is this just a facade you maintain in public?)

What did you look like before your transition?

What is your real name?

Are you gay?

Speaking on National Coming Out Day, Wilhelm also discussed the topic of coming out, claiming it to be “the gift that keeps on giving.” No matter how many people you inform, there will always be someone else that you have to tell, she said.

She did offer some pointers though, suggesting that people shouldn’t inform people in the way that she did. Upon discovering she was a transgender woman, Wilhelm said she sent an email to every one of her hundreds of contacts.

She does not suggest trying this method.

Instead she suggests informing people face-to-face and in smaller groups.

She had two major messages in her closing remarks. While some people claim that having transgender men and women around their children will confuse them, Wilhelm disagrees.

“Kids don’t care about that kind of thing, it’s adults who have the hang-ups,” she stated.

The second was in reference to an issue that happens to us all every once in a while: saying the wrong thing. Wilhelm claimed that if you use the wrong pronoun when referring to a transgender person, just apologize and try to move on. Everyone makes mistakes and if you’re making an effort, that matters far more than a slip of the tongue or a use of an incorrect pronoun.

Once, when speaking to a group about transgender issues, a member of the audience asked if they would now be forced to identify themselves as CIS-gender. Her response was that she didn’t want to identify as transgender, and that if these labels were something she could turn off like a light switch she absolutely would.

However, she acknowledged that there are still challenges for transgender men and women. One of Wilhelm’s largest concerns is that the closest therapist in the region who is trained to work with patients who have gender dysphonia was, and eight years later continues to be, in Albany. She claimed that while numerous therapists are willing to work with these individuals, they do not necessarily have specific training in this field. The issue only gets worse when it switches from mental to physical health.

Wilhelm claimed that to get gender reassignment surgery one would, at least, have to travel to Pennsylvania. While the state of New York, her home, requires that health insurance companies cover the costs of medical procedures for sexual reassignment surgeries, many companies have found a way to circumvent this requirement by contracting insurance providers outside of the state so they are not required to abide by state regulations.

This work-around can leave many transgender people on the hook for medical costs ranging from electrolysis to facial reconstructions.

The theme of Wilhelm’s presentation was that being transgender is not a choice. It is not a lifestyle. She is who she is, and after years of hiding that fact, she is now proud of it. She, just like everyone else, is a human being and has every right to be who she is as a father, a husband, a teacher, and an artist. 

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