Imagine this scenario: You wake up tomorrow morning and realize your body has changed overnight. If you were male, you are now female. If you were female, you are now male.
What would you do?
"While you might be a little fascinated and a little curious, it would wear off pretty quickly," says Alison Davison. "You'd probably do whatever it took to get back to being yourself."
Davison, the program director for the Southern Arizona Gender Alliance, speaks from experience. Born male, she began a transition to become female 11 years ago. Acknowledgement of her gender discomfort began at age 5.
"I didn't feel at home in my body," recalls Davison. "I'd known who I was since I was pretty young, and I wanted to do something about it, but I didn't know what. ... One of the things true for me and a lot of (others) is you spend a lot of years mulling it over."
Davison eventually began the process of changing gender in the late 1990s, and moved to Tucson in 2001. Now a transsexual woman, Davison helps others through the process and works to promote greater understanding of transgender people. She openly welcomes questions. For example, she explains that transgender is an umbrella term.
"It only tells you a person is not 100 percent comfortable with the gender they were born with, or presenting in that gender. ... Transsexuals are people who feel so discordant with their bodies that they feel a need to make a transition—that is, go through medical procedures—so their bodies are more closely aligned with what they see to be their core identity."
Davison emphasizes that being a transsexual has nothing to do with mental illness.
"We feel driven to get right with ourselves. ... It's not a lifestyle," she says. "It's not something we would choose. Who would choose this? We're compelled to do what we're doing. We know there's something that doesn't match."
While some media coverage may focus on (or even sensationalize) an individual's surgery, hormone treatments or clothing, Davison says there is a lot of depth missed. "We are nice, interesting people who have a unique perspective on life that most people don't have. I think we are well-worth getting to know."
Sadly, some transgender people don't live long enough to tell their life stories. From November 2008 to November 2009, 99 transgender individuals have been reported murdered worldwide, with more likely unreported.
The killings are often brutal. "It's not like someone is shot. There are multiple assaults. It's not unusual to see someone bludgeoned, shot, stabbed or dismembered," says Davison.
She provides some examples of those viciously assaulted. Feb. 22, 1996: Logan Smith died from internal injuries after being kicked by the police. March 4, 2000: Michelle Lynne O'Hara committed suicide after being beaten and raped.
To honor and mourn those who have died and to raise awareness of hate crimes against transgender people, the 11th Annual International Transgender Day of Remembrance takes place Friday, Nov. 20. It comes on the heels of the October signing of the federal Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act. In Tucson, an outdoor vigil and procession down Fourth Avenue begins at 5:30 p.m. at Catalina Park, at First Street and Fourth Avenue.
The event wraps up the fourth annual Tucson Transgender Awareness Week (Nov. 16-20). Visit www.sagatucson.org for more details.
Davison says it's important to recognize that violence continues to happen. "We are victims, but we are much more than that. ... I want people to accept us and want transgender people to be part of the fabric of the larger communities."
She believes Tucson is "somewhat of a progressive oasis in Arizona," with an equal number of transgender individuals transitioning from male to female and vice versa. In either case, they face challenges. "We suffer from a lot of isolation and depression," says Davison. "That's secondary to where we stand socially. We are generally not well-received socially."
Imagine the courage it takes to change gender or present differently in a society where discrimination, intolerance and violence are too common. Transgender people have a difficult road and at the very least deserve respect and understanding. After all, they are just following the old adage: To thine own self be true.