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Transgender, non-binary search for selves, rights

By Lisa Brody

Blake Bonkowski grew up in Royal Oak uncomfortable in his own skin, not knowing who he was, bullied as an outsider throughout school because other kids thought he was a lesbian.

“I got the idea – you're weird, you don't belong,” Bonkowski said, who was born female. “People had been calling me a lesbian my whole life, but I knew that didn't fit. I never questioned gender. It was something I was never aware of. Until I graduated high school, I didn't know that trans people existed – I knew that some trans women existed, but not trans men, and I didn't know that non-binary was real. I knew that calling myself a gay woman didn't fit, so I repressed everything until the end of high school, and then I met a girl I couldn't deny I had a crush on.”

Bonkowski said he never spoke to his parents about his sexuality, gender dysmorphia or even the harassment and bullying he experienced. They just weren't the kind of family that talked about things, he said.

“They may have picked up that I was picked on, but we just weren't the kind of family that talked about things,” he said.

Oakland University was the one college his parents would pay for, allowing him to live at home and commute, and attending there in many ways set him on the course for his future in more ways than either he or they could have imagined. Today, at 28, he is an Oakland University academic advisor as well as having a podcast.

Bonkowski recalled that a freshman communications course led him to the Gay/Straight Alliance within the Gender and Sexuality Center on campus, where he suddenly felt at home. He ended up hanging out there for all four years every single day, including gaining leadership positions on its board.

“For the first time in my life I was surrounded by people who were out to each other. I met trans people there. The more they talked, the more I felt, 'this sounds like me,' though I wasn't ready. I was still in denial,” recalled Bonkowski. “I was educating myself about the community while I was learning about myself. The more I learned, I realized something gender-y was going on. By the end of the (freshman) year, I recognized that I was some kind of trans or non-binary. I spent the next year figuring out, 'am I gender-fluid, non-binary,' which is neither man or woman.

“One day I was in my parents' basement trying on different clothes. I looked in the mirror, I pushed my boobs down, and I looked at myself from the side, and said, 'Oh shit, that looks correct.' I identified my chest as my sense of dysphoria. From that point on I wanted top surgery, and sophomore year I began to bind myself.”

Moving onto campus housing by his junior year, he cut his long ponytail – long a source of angst for himself and a symbol to his mother, who had issues with him transitioning – and chose his name as Blake, and began using the pronouns he/him full time, other than with his parents, who he avoided, living a dual life. As a large built, 5-foot 10-inch person, “I soon began passing as a guy.”

“I felt liberated when I began to be who I am on campus with my friends,” Bonkowski said.

Asking – and discovering – who we are is a normal exercise of growth and discovery. For transgender and non-binary individuals, the process is complicated and exacerbated by literally not feeling like they belong in their own bodies.

The realization that they may have been assigned a gender at birth that does not conform to their internal gender identity can happen at any age, experts say. More and more frequently today, youth are feeling comfortable verbalizing that they are a “girl” or a “boy,” even if they have been born the other sex, while there are incidences of older adults announcing their transition, such as Caitlin Jenner, who was formerly known as Bruce Jenner.

“Transgender can happen at any stage of life,” said Gretchen Marsh, PhD, a Bloomfield Hills licensed psychologist who practices in Franklin. “Caitlin Jenner explored it at various times of her life, but at various times did not want to go forward. Perhaps now we're more supportive (as a society) and the person can feel they can be who they are now. Some realize it as a child or an adolescent. We don't have to be so concrete and put people in boxes. Allow people to explore who they are – it takes time.”

Roland Sintos Coloma, professor, College of Education, Wayne State University, concurred. He noted that being older, like Jenner, is not at all unusual. “Because of cultural, generational pressures to conform and be a certain way, as well as there weren't as many models. Trans folks were seen as freaks, as people on the margins of society. Trans folks, they've been seen, especially in non-Western cultures, they've been revered as spiritual,” such as the “two-spirits” of indigenous cultures, the hijras in India, South American culture and their widespread presence in ancient Greek mythology.

“As people know things exist, there are more opportunities for trans people. We have more policies, cultural understanding and better language for trans people, so that makes it more acceptable,” explained Shanna K. Kattari, assistant professor of social work and assistant professor of women's studies, School of Social Work, University of Michigan. “It's not a fad – it's made space for trans individuals. There have always been trans people – this is that there are not magically more trans people. For young people, knowing there are trans people allows them the space to find their identity. For young people, erasing rigid lines and knowing they can be who they are; for others, letting them play with gender and discovery. For some young boys, they want to wear dresses – but that does not make them trans.”

Kattari explained the term “transvestite” is no longer acceptable, and the term “cross dresser,” for men who choose to dress as women is the appropriate term. However, with gender fluidity, many younger people of both sexes choose today to dress in whatever they feel expresses themselves on that day.

Kattari said it is normal for people from “three to 90 to realize they are trans. For many people, they know when they were really young. Some are coming out later because it feels safe for them now. For some young people, it's societally more available for them – if their family members are supportive for them.”

Brooke Bendix, LMSW, with a therapy practice in West Bloomfield primarily working with children, teens and young adults, said she is seeing more and more younger kids, and has started a Rainbow Group in her practice, called Therapyology.

“We are getting calls from parents of eight and nine-year-olds that are non-binary or gender non-conforming,” Bendix said. “We have a waiting list for a group of more than 30 kids. We see kids who question their gender identity, and we make sure our paperwork process asks them their preferred gender and pronoun.”

She said to not call them by their chosen gender, pronoun or name, “It makes you feel excluded and increases your anxiety. It makes you feel like you're an island by yourself.”

A 2015 U.S. Transgender Survey (USTS) study conducted by the National Center for Transgender Equality (NCTE), with 27,715 respondents, provides a comprehensive look at the lives of transgender people in the United States, including their experiences involving health, family life, employment and interactions with the criminal justice system. A majority of respondents, 60 percent, reported that they began to feel “different” from the sex on their original birth certificate at age 10 or younger, including 32 percent who began to feel different at age five or younger, with 28 percent who began to feel different between the ages of six and 10. Six percent reported that they began to feel different at age 21 or older.

According to the survey, respondents were also asked how old they were when they started to think of themselves as transgender, even if they did not know that word. One in 10 – 10 percent – reported that they began to think of themselves as transgender at age five or younger. Sixteen began to think of themselves as transgender between the ages of six and 10, and 28 percent between the ages of 11 and 15. Eight percent reported beginning to think of themselves as transgender at age 26 or older.

Asked at what age they began to tell others that they were transgender, one in 10 respondents to the survey reported they began to tell others that they were transgender between the ages of 11 and 15, and 37 percent did so between the ages of 16 and 20. Another 30 percent began telling people they were transgender between the ages of 21 and 30, and 14 percent began informing people they were transgender at age 31 or older. An additional five percent reported they had not told anyone else they were transgender.

According to GLAAD (Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation), transgender is a term used to describe people whose gender identity differs from the sex they were assigned at birth. “Gender identity is a person's internal, personal sense of being a man or a woman (or a boy or a girl.) For some people, their gender identity does not fit neatly into those two choices. For transgender people, the sex they were assigned at birth and their own internal gender identity do not match,” GLAAD said. “Trying to change a person's gender identity is no more successful than trying to change a person's sexual orientation – it doesn't work. So most transgender people seek to bring their bodies into alignment with their gender identity. This is called transition.”

Many transgender people take a name that represents their gender identity, with their birth name considered their “birth name” or “dead name.” They also utilize pronouns that match their authentic gender, whether they have transitioned or not. GLAAD noted that some people use the singular “they” to reflect their non-binary gender identity and/or gender expression.

“They see 'he' or 'she' as binary. 'I don't necessarily need to call myself he to say I am a trans man.' 'They' disrupts the gender binary and allows that fluidity,” said Coloma of Wayne State University. “It's challenging the binary of gender and allowing the fluidity to come through.”

“For transgender youth who feel like they were born in the wrong body, the feelings can be overwhelming because of potential fallout,” said Sarah Kiperman, assistant professor of educational psychology, Wayne State University. “Some parents kick their kids out. The kid will say, 'I'd like to not be called John, call me Sophia, and the parent will say, no I'm calling you John.' That's dead naming. It calls out their hurt. It's their birth name but not what they want to be called, nor how they see who they are. They're not putting on a show – they are trying to be who they see who they are.

“The conflict comes in, being transgender does not cause mental illness,” Kiperman said. “It's the pressures and messages in our life or the media and the stresses, the bullying and harassment, the marginalization, that causes the mental issues. Being transgender is not inherently part of depression – it's all of the pressures from outside.”

Marsh echoed that. “Having gender identity or questions in itself is not a mental illness. It can cause psychological distress by the environment around them by harassment, bullying, by not being able to use pronouns and names, discrimination, not being able to use bathrooms – and these things cause cause mental illness like anxiety and depression.”

Some transgender people are gay – but some are straight, some are bisexual, and some fall somewhere along the sexual spectrum, because every trans individual is a unique individual, and their sexual orientation is separate from their gender identity. As GLAAD describes it, “Sexual orientation describes a person's enduring physical, romantic, and/or emotional attraction to another person, while gender identity describes a person's internal, personal sense of being a man or a woman, or someone outside of the gender binary. Simply put: sexual orientation is about who you are attracted to and fall in love with; gender identity is about who you are. Like everyone else, transgender people have a sexual orientation.”

“Sexual orientation is about who you desire, who you want to date,” explained Rogerio Pinto, LCSW, PhD, professor and associate dean for Research and Innovation, University of Michigan School of Social Work, who describes himself as gender non-conforming. “Many people get confused by the difference between gender fluidity and sexual orientation. It's not always about sex.”

What is gender fluidity? Genderfluid people often express a desire to remain flexible about their gender identity rather than commit to a single definition or gender. They may fluctuate between differing gender expressions during their lifetime, or express multiple aspects of various gender markers at the same time. According to Sabra L. Katz-Wise PhD, Harvard Medical School, “As an identity, it typically fits under the transgender or non-binary umbrella… While some people develop a gender identity early in childhood, others may identify with one gender at one time and then another gender later on… Ultimately, anyone who identifies as gender-fluid is a gender-fluid person. Often, the term is used to mean that a person’s gender expression or gender identity – essentially, their internal sense of self — changes frequently.”

Many of us also read about entertainers, such as singer Demi Lovato, who recently came out as non-binary, which is a term that is newer and unfamiliar to many. Katz-Wise said, “Non-binary means a person’s gender identity doesn’t fit into strict cultural categories of female or male.”

Pinto said, “What we're talking about is the 'other' – the more we are creating and perpetuating the 'other.' On Facebook, last time I looked, there are 55 different kinds of gender identities. What I think is happening today is there is a language to use, and when we have a language, and it's on TV, very young kids can say to their parents, this is what I'm feeling. It's wonderful for them. Sometimes the family pretends it's not there, but that's a tool of invisibility. Coming out, one comes out to be visible. If you're not visible, you don't exist. That's true for people for gender identity, as well.”

Kattari of University of Michigan explained that “non-binary is socially constructed. I don't feel a direct fit with either gender. Some trans people identify with one gender or another. I feel like I'm wearing a coat that's three sizes too big – but I don't feel like a man. I'm a Femme. I wear dresses, makeup.

“Identity is who you are. Expression is how you show your identity.”

GLAAD explained that gender non-conforming is a term to describe some people whose gender expression is different from conventional expectations of masculinity and femininity. Not all gender non-conforming people identify as transgender, nor are all transgender people gender non-conforming. For some transgender people, they may be perceived, or perceive themselves, as being gender non-conforming before transitioning, but might not be after transitioning.

Those who identify sexually and by gender with their birth sex are called cisgender.

“Many (transgender individuals) are searching for where they are on the identity spectrum. They don't identify as LGBTQ – they're the plus,” noted Truman Hudson Jr., EdD, professor of teacher education in the College of Education at Wayne State University.

Just as many people have sexual feelings or attractions along the sexuality spectrum even if they identify as straight or gay, “they're fighting for their own space. When they're gender fluid or agender, that's a space,” Hudson said. “While it doesn't not show up on the LGBTQ spectrum, it's there.”

Non-binary can be all these things – or their sexual identity can shift. They can feel differently on different days.

“It's a human right,” Hudson said. “Let people be who they are. Respect who they are and know it's not a phase.”

Aiden Korotkin, who grew up in Bloomfield Hills but now lives in Philadelphia where he works as a cinematographer, knows first-hand it's not a phase. Born female, his earliest recollections are from between the ages of three and five, when he remembers “something being off. I told my parents I wanted to be a boy. I thought if I thought hard enough, I could grow a penis.”

His parents were thoughtful and attentive. “As soon as I began saying this, they sought professional help from all the right sources – my pediatrician, a psychologist, a school counselor.

“They all said I would grow out of it.”

He didn't. Instead, forced to wear girls clothes 'to fit in' for school,“I felt ashamed. I felt attracted to other girls – I had a huge crush on my best friend at five – but I repressed all my feelings during elementary school. The three years of middle school, I couldn't look at myself, I couldn't look at myself in the mirror because I hated myself, my body. I tried to minimize my chest as much as possible.”

Unable to deny his attraction to other females in middle school after going through puberty, he came out as a lesbian to his family after high school. He said his family was supportive.

“I didn't come out to everyone until I was in college,” Korotkin said. “That was a huge weight off my shoulders – but I was still miserable and I didn't know why. It was about myself. I didn't like myself, and so I assumed no one else liked me.

“I remember not knowing being trans was an option or what I identified with,” having no real experience with transgender people, other than watching the Showtime show “The L Word,” which he said had a trans man “and the show did a horrible job scripting it. The show was pro-lesbian but not supportive of trans. That put it into my head that I didn't want surgery. I should just be a lesbian. I was again repressing my feelings. I thought it was something to be ashamed of.”

At 27, he decided he wanted to transition to being male.

“I came to a point where I just hated myself. I knew there was a better future, and I couldn't figure out how,” Korotkin recalled. “A friend asked me how do you see yourself going to the pool, and I said I see myself with a beard, no chest, no shirt and swim trunks. That was my best self. It took me back for a second.”

He found “a wonderful therapist who had himself transitioned 15 years before, and it was just life changing.” First, they figured out which pronouns fit – for Korotkin, it's he/him, and picked out a name that felt right.

“As soon as friends started calling me that it felt so much better. It felt like me. It's like putting on a well-fitting outfit, something custom made just for you,” Korotkin said. “You feel strong, you feel powerful – like you can take on the world. I said I'm trans, this is what was wrong with me all along.

“It's like going from being seasick your whole life to being on solid ground.”

He said he came out to the world – via Facebook – in March 2016, and on May 27, 2016, “my T-date,” he started testosterone, followed by top surgery, (or mastectomy) to remove the female breast tissue, in 2017.

“When I first looked in the mirror, it just felt like I saw myself for the first time – it was an incredible experience. It was extremely freeing. I had never felt that way about my body,” Korotkin said. “It flipped a switch. I was able to feel confident enough in myself to stand up for myself.”

Korotkin declined to discuss if he had “bottom surgery,” or sex realignment surgery or gender reassignment surgery, a surgical procedure by which a transgender person's physical appearance and function of their existing sexual characteristics are altered to resemble those socially associated with their identified gender. Blake Bonkowski of Oakland University also had top surgery, later a complete hysterectomy, but chose not to have a metoidioplasty and phalloplasty, which would have realigned his sexual genitalia.

“I know hundreds of trans men and non-binary people, and they're (sex realignment surgery) extremely uncommon for a reason,” Bonkowski said. “Many, including me, do not feel it's necessary – if I want to have sex with a penis I can buy something. Having a penis is something I don't care about, while getting rid of my breasts was necessary.”

“Being trans is not about genitals – it's so much more than that,” Korotkin emphasized. “It's existence. It's being who you were meant to be. Everyone has different bodies; the focus shouldn't be on the body. It's a way of living – how you view and exist in the world.”

Many transgender individuals never transition – a process where a person begins to live in a gender that is different than the one on their birth certificate. Gender transition can involve a lot of different aspects, including changing one's clothing, appearance, name, identity documents, and asking people to use different pronouns than the ones associated with the gender on one's birth certificate. Transitioning can also include undergoing medical procedures, such as hormone therapy or surgeries.

According to the USTS study, nearly half of respondents – 43 percent – reported they began transitioning bet