Transgender 101 No easy lesson for some lawmakers

In some ways, Vanessa Edwards Foster is like any constituent with a cause. Foster is bright, articulate and passionate about wanting the federal government’s help.

In the office of Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) last week, a small entourage in tow, Foster was there to lobby one of the senator’s young aides. Foster is savvy and can breeze through a story about getting into a screaming match with Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) across Independence Avenue, or describe how some of Rep. Tom DeLay’s (R-Texas) aides once slammed the door in Foster’s face.


Foster isn’t trying to amuse, but doesn’t mind that friends are bursting into laughter while listening to the nightmarish tales. These are Foster’s war stories, and they understand. There’s a weariness and persistence about Foster, about fighting for a cause for so hard and for so long.

Some lawmakers, like Frank, are starting to come around, but some still don’t feel comfortable giving people like Foster the time of day, as they are often passed off to low-level aides with little power to help.

With curly brown hair that falls softly to the shoulders and a medium-pitch voice, Foster wears a form-fitting sleeveless black dress and matching blazer. By all appearances, Foster’s a typical 40-year-old woman.

Readers may wonder why this article is using the word “Foster” in place of either “he” or “she.” The reason is that Foster is a member of the transgender community — she has breasts but she also has a penis. On her birth certificate, she is called Marvin, but on her current driver’s license, she is Vanessa. This article will refer to those interviewed using the pronoun of their choice.

Foster was on Capitol Hill last week to lobby Congress on hate crimes and other issues affecting transgendered people.

Foster’s sex, however, is an issue of debate, and among the reasons why many lawmakers have never supported transgenders’ causes. While transgenders believe that sex is malleable, others say that it’s locked in your chromosomes from birth and that just because you claim you are a woman, or a man, doesn’t make it so.

Foster developed breasts in early 1996 after she began taking hormones. Last week, she convened 27 members of the National Transgender Advocacy Coalition, an organization she helped create in 1999. Their schedule included appointments with as many as 40 offices. Each year, they hold lobby days to try to educate and persuade lawmakers to include transgender language in hate-crimes legislation, specifically, the words “gender identity.”

This week, Reps. John Conyers (D-Mich.) and Barney Frank (D-Mass.) will introduce hate-crimes legislation in the House that includes language addressing transgender people. The Senate version, to be introduced by Sens. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) and Gordon Smith (R-Ore.), has not yet been introduced and does not include language that would help transgenders — the fear being not getting enough senators to support it. Hate-crime legislation in either chamber faces a bleak road in a Republican majority. But that won’t stop members of the transgender coalition from trying.

Therein lies the their ambitious lobbying agenda. They say that lobbying Capitol Hill has gotten easier over the years, as lawmakers are more receptive to their presence. That doesn’t mean, however, that the lawmakers are sympathetic to the transgenders’ cause.

Foster recalls how hospitable former Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) was when she met with him. Though he never helped them politically, Foster has this to say of the conservative senator: “Very nice reception.”

She also recalls a chance meeting with Rep. Donald Payne (D-N.J.) in 1999. She and another transgender lobbyist were in the Rayburn Building around 7 a.m. one day when they ran into the congressman on the elevator.

They didn’t know Payne but recognized his congressional pin. “We handed him a packet and lobbied him right there,” she says. “He was actually extremely nice and invited us into the office for 30 minutes.”

Their reception was less successful, however, in DeLay’s office in 1998. “DeLay’s aide sat there and pretty much sized everyone up,” she says, recalling that one of the female transgenders was quite attractive and that the aide was told that one person among the group was a genetic female. “I think maybe the aide took a liking to her. He gave the impression that he was attracted to her.”

That, is, until the female guest began telling a story of when she was a little boy. The meeting ended right there, and the transgenders were escorted out of the office. As soon as they walked out, she says, the aide slammed the door.

In 1999, she says, the reception wasn’t much better. After talking with one of DeLay’s aides, they were told that the congressman was not going to support their agenda. “As I walked out, I turned to get one last point in and the door was slammed.”

DeLay’s office declined to comment.

The coalition members insist that transgendered people are more common than anyone thinks. “Everyone knows transgender people, but not everyone knows they know transgender,” says Beth Richard, 43, a long-blond-haired woman who used to be a man. This is her first Washington lobbying experience. So far, so good, she says, compared with experiences in Texas in which she and others have been escorted out of offices by the police. “We don’t fit the stereotype for people who watch Jerry Springer,” she says.

 But to hear her story does strike a certain daytime-TV chord. Richard is legally married to a woman in Texas because they were married when she was still a man. She and her wife have a 3-year-old daughter and 1-year-old son. Unlike some of the other transgenders, Richard went the distance and had her male genitalia turned into female. Richard’s sex change happened three years ago, when she was 40.

For the couple, sex “is a learning experience,” she says. “The important thing to me is pleasing someone I love dearly.”

Foster did not have the full surgical procedure because it is too expensive — as much as $30,000, and, even then, penis function is not guaranteed. She has removed body hair with electrolysis on her face and good old-fashioned plucking. “I had to get rid of the body hair,” she says. “I was developing breasts, but I had a chest of hair. I was something out of National Geographic.”

To be clear, transgender doesn’t always mean transsexual or transvestite, but it can mean either of those things. Transgender, they explain, is the “umbrella term for someone born of one gender who full or part time lives the part of another.”

According to Foster and other members of the coalition, there are common misconceptions. For instance, they say, not all transgenders are gay and not all transgenders are cross-dressers. Although Foster and her cohorts are tired of having to teach “Transgender 101” to most people they meet, they agree to answer a range of highly invasive questions.

From Kerry’s office, the group of five transgenders heads to the Dirksen cafeteria. Along with Foster and Richard is Ethan, whose name used to be Kathryn; his spouse, Karen St. Pierre; and Linda Thomas, a lesbian who used to be a man.

To get to the cafeteria, they take the elevators from the third floor of Russell to the basement level, where they run into none other than Kerry. They look as startled to see Kerry in the flesh as he does to see them.

By accident, Ethan, 43, lets the elevator door shut, forcing Kerry to wait for the next elevator. Rather than take their chances with the well-known senator whose aide has just treated them so kindly, they don’t try to lobby him. Like any ex-presidential hopeful, Kerry shakes their hands and says, oddly, “Thank you all. Take care.”

Later, out of earshot, Foster reasons, “It’s not really a bad thing to meet with the staff. You get a lot more time and you make friends. You develop relationships with the aides and they can give you insights.”

To explain Ethan’s transition from a woman to a man (or, at least, partially a man) is tricky. He’s married to Karen (another transgendered person). The Massachusetts couple met at Jacques, the oldest transgender bar in Boston, during gay pride in Boston in 1999.

Ethan, who has a mustache, a beard and short hair like a man, still has a woman’s body. He did take hormones, however, which has caused facial and body hair to grow and his voice to deepen.

“Oh, I’m wicked hairy,” Ethan says in a thick Bostonian accent.

Karen, in turn, looks womanly. She has long light-brown hair with bangs. But beneath her skirt, which shows off her legs, she is still a man.

When Ethan and Karen met, Karen was already transitioning into a woman. Ethan, too, was a woman, and, like many lesbian couples — they laugh wildly over this — they shacked up within a week. Karen jokes, “Get out the U-Haul!” Ethan, whose name was still Kathryn at the time, adds, “A true lesbian couple.”

The couple seem as close as any husband and wife. During a snack break at the Dirksen cafeteria, Karen gives Ethan a back rub in a booth in the back of the room.

 To hide his chest, Ethan wears a binder that he complains is “hot and uncomfortable and straps your boobs to your belly. I was very flat-chested until I transitioned.”

Ethan became motivated to lobby Congress as well as state-level lawmakers in Massachusetts after his transsexual aunt was murdered in 1985. “The killer beat her until she was unrecognizable, and stabbed her three times in the heart,” he says, suddenly looking crushed with sadness.

With that, he casts a loving glance at his spouse and says, “I’m not about judging her by her genitalia. I’d love Karen no matter who she was or how she lived.”