When “Queer” Was a Slur: My Early Brush With Transgender Identity

What, exactly, that meant, was a mystery to me. It did not mean becoming more feminine in the commonly understood sense. In a brief interview with Terry Gross of the program Fresh Air on National Public Radio in 1977, the broadcaster noted that Roberta’s voice had certain male characteristics and asked if she planned to do anything about that. Roberta responded that she might get some “voice training,” but pushed back that she considered any cosmetic changes in his face to be “secondary.”

I asked a psychologist who’s counseled transgender people to help me understand what core aspects of womanhood a transgender man would so desperately desire, if not femininity. “Think of it as being permanently trapped in the wrong place,” the psychologist said. “It doesn’t matter how perfect a woman you become. As long as you’re no longer trapped in a man’s body and forced into being a man, you feel freed and out of your imprisonment.”

At the close of the NPR interview, Roberta Dickinson asked if she could add one last comment. “I would just like to say that I’m sure there will be a few people in your audience who have transsexual children,” she said, “and I hope they will really help them enter transsexuality in a gracious way, because it’s quite tough, especially for young people.”

We’ve Come a Long Way, Baby

What a difference a couple of generations make! Today, some parents resort to pubertal blocker drugs, sanctioned by respected medical institutions such as the Mayo Clinic, to delay the hormonal changes in adolescence that can cause intense distress for gender-nonconforming young people. Pubertal blockers give them additional time to decide for themselves what gender they want to be. Imagine — a queer pill for gender-questioning young teens.

How many milestones had to be logged before the word “queer,” voiced as an off-hand remark by my father to disparage an accomplished athlete as a homosexual, would transform into a proud and defiant umbrella term embracing all sexual and gender identities outside the straight norm?

Going back to my generation, the bonafide Baby Boomer years, the Stonewall Riots might be a good place to start. The police raid at the famous bar in Greenwich Village on June 28, 1969, became known as the impetus for the gay civil rights movement in America.

In 1978, artist Gilbert Baker designed and created the first rainbow flag as a symbol for the LGBTQ+ community. The following year, the first National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights drew an estimated 75,000 to 125,000 people.

It still took almost another whole decade, until 1997, for Ellen DeGeneres to famously come out as gay on her prime-time TV show, “Ellen.” And after that it still took another 15 years, until May 2012, for a U.S. president, Barack Obama, to publicly support the freedom for LGBTQ couples to marry.

Just this summer, Sports Illustrated included the first transgender woman in its 2020 Swimsuit edition. And a raft of popular TV series, from Billions to The Chi to Pose, feature transgender or gender-fluid characters.

My mother used to say, “If you live long enough, you’ll see everything.” If he’d lived long enough, Yogi Berra — who came from the Silent Generation, the one before mine — might have said something like, “You can transform a lot just by changing your mind once in a while.”

Jennifer Finney Boylan, the successful transgender author, and columnist whose story opened this piece is a Generation Jonser. Her revealing recollection of coming out to her mom when she was already in her late-30s, appears right next to similar stories from fellow queers of multiple generations in a New York Times series called “Transgender Today.” One of them comes from Declan Nolan, a Generation Z transgender teen who “transitioned from an anxious girl who didn’t want to be alive to a boy who loves himself and appreciates every part of life.” Instead of suffering in silence through decades of early life, as Boylan and so many others did, Declan made a successful film on his transgender experience, became a public speaker at high schools and colleges and is a mentor for other LGBTQ youth, helping them feel comfortable with who they are.

Not My Generation, But Maybe Yours

Neither half of my Baby Boomer generation was up to that task, nor have the several generations since. In this improbable Summer of Disruption, when we’re questioning why we as a society have remained silent for so long in the face of so much hateful, painful and destructive discrimination, maybe we can finally place hope on the shoulders of today’s and tomorrow’s generations to finally put their foot down. Think of a thundering herd of Millennials, Gen X-ers, and Z-ers and Alphas, audaciously stepping up as Alexandra Ocasio Cortez just did on the floor of the House of Representatives, rhetorically locking Rep. Ted Yoho, R-Fla., in an internationally publicized pillory for demonstrating his sexist disrespect for her in public. “I am here to say, that is not acceptable,’” AOC proclaimed.

A world where you can’t do that anymore seems graspable at this turbulent moment; a world where it’s not acceptable to discriminate, denigrate and brutalize Black people, nor punish people for feeling alien in their biological bodies; nor fall back on revered “norms” that were maintained for numerous generations, no matter how damaging, because people believed they were right, were too ignorant to see they weren’t or knew they were wrong and remained silent.

There’s something happening here, and what it is is pretty clear. If only we know how to make it happen for good.

Martin D. Hirsch
Martin D. Hirsch
Martin Hirsch started building his own communications consulting practice in 2017 after a career spanning almost 35 years with one of the world’s leading international healthcare groups. He’s led internal and external corporate communications, brand and reputation management, and crisis and issue management. Working in both the United States and Europe, he has advised multiple CEOs and collaborated with colleagues all over the world. Martin’s strengths include executive consulting, strategic message development, content marketing, storytelling, communications training, public speaking, mentoring talent, and inspiring organizations to advance beyond their limitations.Lately he’s been helping clients by writing keynote speeches for top executives, developing strategies for pitching new business and explaining complex issues, ranging from how to apply new digital health tools in the pharmaceuticals industry to making sense of the rapid and complex changes challenging employees to maintain their equilibrium at major corporations. Martin also works as a faculty adviser at the New York University School of Professional Studies, helping graduate students with their Capstone Papers. His speaking engagements have included presentations at the IABC World Conference, the European Association of Communications Directors Summit, the Corporate Communications International Leaders Forum, the European Commission Communications Directorate and the Rotterdam School of Business Reputation Forum Netherlands. More recently, he was a panelist at the Healthcare Businesswomen's Association conference on expat issues held at Pfizer headquarters in New York. Martin’s writing, including essays, letters and poems, has appeared in newspapers and magazines in the U.S. and Europe. You can read his blog on MUSE-WORTHY, here on BIZCATALYST 360°. He received the American Association of Journalists and Authors 2018 Writing Award for Best Personal Story Blog.