Gus is trying to lose weight. He's getting married in the fall. Still, he can't resist when a coffee-shop barista offers him a bag of chips with his sandwich. Some things — chips, beer — he just can't live without.
Only 5 feet 3, Gus has a slim face with a neatly trimmed goatee. A baggy John Deere sweatshirt and jeans hide his body. Soon, he'll leave for his afternoon shift at a machine shop, where he'll spend the next 10 hours working alongside a bickering crew of men, welding and lifting thousands of pounds of machine parts. The only real difference between Gus and his co-workers: 32 years ago, he was born a woman.
Gus is just one of the men, women and children living under the transgender umbrella in Kansas City. It's a community that, because of its complexity, has yet to be quantified.
"The reality is, there is no way for us to count," says Caroline Gibbs, co-founder of the Transgender Institute. "There are people who haven't come out and those under the radar. There's no way we can know exactly how many trans people are out there."
So far, the transgender community has been defined by outsiders. Cross-dressers, people who wear the clothing of another gender, are often confused with transsexuals, people who identify as a gender other than the one they were born. It's a community that has been lumped in with lesbians, bisexuals and gays, which is an uneasy association because gender orientation is not analogous to sexual orientation.
Still, a nascent push from transgender advocates for equal treatment under the law (in 2008, the Kansas City, Missouri, City Council added gender identity to its anti-discrimination ordinance), and the movement echoes the early struggles of the gay community for awareness and protection.
"This is the Bible Belt," says Gibbs, a licensed gender counselor. "It's not going to be like New York City, Boston or San Francisco. But I do believe that we're really coming along in Kansas City."
Gender has always been defined as binary — either male or female. But in workplaces, and lining church pews and bar stools across the city, trans men and women are challenging the notion that gender is fixed. And the change is happening as early as preschool.
Gibbs holds three weekly support groups, one of which is exclusively for children (the group has seven children under the age of 12), who attend the sessions with their parents and try to understand their gender identity. Gibbs' youngest patient is 4 years old.
Gibbs says this goes much deeper than boys dressing as princesses or girls joining wrestling teams. These are children who persistently express their belief that they're another gender. For some, she recommends that they consult a local pediatric endocrinologist to discuss taking Lupron, a synthetic hormone that blocks the onset of puberty.
"Someone doesn't have to shoot up to be 6-foot-4 if they identify as a girl," Gibbs says. "The family has breathing space, and a child can decide with their family if this is the right move going forward."
Most of Gibbs' adult clients didn't have the luxury of therapy while growing up. She guides them through their transition by coaching them on how to talk, stand, gesture and dress — visual triggers to help them pass as their preferred gender in the world.
"Trans people have to live with being objectified a lot," Gibbs says. "It's an ugly place to be, and nobody wants to live in that place. The fact that people would be willing to live openly in the face of all kinds of denigration tells me how compelling this urge to live out their true gender really is."
Gus' father didn't believe that he could have children. He was content to raise his wife's three girls from a previous marriage. But at the age of 45, Gus' father received startling news: His wife was pregnant. It was a girl. They would name her Tina.
The world saw Tina, but Tina saw Gus. When Gus' mother scolded him for not sitting "ladylike," he wondered what that meant. He used a boy's name to join his cousin's flag football team because girls weren't allowed to play.
"I remember watching Pinocchio and seeing the part about starlight, star bright, first star I see tonight," Gus says. "After that, I started wishing that God would fix me."
But Gus didn't become a real boy overnight. When he went to college, he was labeled a butch lesbian. It was easy to meet girls, but the joy of being able to publicly date — Gus' two high school girlfriends were secret trysts — was overshadowed by the feeling that this wasn't his true identity.
"I still had breasts, and I didn't want them to be acknowledged," Gus says. "They [other women] wanted to touch parts of my body that I hated, and then I wasn't interested anymore because that desire made me confront the fact that they saw me as a woman. I knew they weren't attracted to me."
When Gus came out to his parents as a lesbian, their relationship was rocked. His parents refused to accept his admission. Gus couldn't accept it himself.
Less than a year later, Gus dropped out of college to pursue a new dream: transitioning from female to male. It was 1998. Then 19, Gus moved to Kansas City and found support at the Kansas City Passages LGBT youth center, though not much of it elsewhere. Gus' first doctor refused to provide any advice or resources when he asked about gender-reassignment surgery.
Gus met two older trans men (biological women who transitioned to men) through acquaintances, and they told him that this was a journey that he'd have to figure out for himself.
Gus learned that a therapist had to diagnose him with gender identity disorder — the American Psychiatric Association's formal clinical term for people who identify as the opposite sex — in order for a doctor to approve hormone therapy and the reassignment surgeries.
"My life went on hold," Gus says. "I just wanted to survive day to day until I could transition."
Gus had to figure out by himself how to transition. Fourteen years later, the generation that refused to help Gus is supporting young trans men and women through their identity changes.
Sandra Meade, a member of the Kansas Equality Coalition's board of directors, has resigned herself to the idea that she may never have a long-term romantic relationship (a reality not helped by her policy of disclosing to potential partners that she's a transsexual). But the 50-year-old says this doesn't have to be the case for the students and activists she meets across the state of Kansas through her presentations for the Transgender Education Project.
"People are transitioning younger," Meade says. "They can have a full life and relationships. They don't necessarily have to live with the shame that I did."
Through her work with the Kansas Equality Coalition, Meade lobbies to get gender identity added to anti-discrimination statutes in municipalities throughout Kansas — like Missouri, Kansas is not among the 16 states that have made that decision — although former Gov. Kathleen Sebelius signed an executive order in 2007 protecting state employees from discrimination based on gender identity.
"The concept of a gender binary is simply flawed," Meade says. "It's a throwback. We need to come to the realization that is what is wrong. It's not that somebody like me is disordered. I function quite fine. What's disordered is society's expectations around the gender binary, the lack of acceptance that says it's OK for children to be bullied in schools."
A 2011 study by the National Center for Transgender Equality and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force found that 90 percent of the 6,450 people surveyed nationwide had experienced "harassment, mistreatment or discrimination on the job."
Chapters of the Kansas Equality Coalition in Wichita, Salina, Hutchinson and Pittsburg are pushing their city governments to pass inclusive anti-discrimination policies. The Lawrence City Council voted 4-1 in favor of such a policy last September. Kansas City and Jackson County have enacted legislation to protect transgender people from discrimination in housing and the workplace, but Meade worries that a $500 fine for violating the ordinance is not a real deterrent.
"We don't have a public-relations problem," Meade says. "We have a politics problem."
Change may be slow in state government, but there has been a seismic shift occurring in churches across the nation. The United Church of Christ, a Protestant denomination with 1.2 million members, passed a resolution in 2003 recognizing transgender ministers.
Donna Ross, 58, wasn't thinking about preaching when she joined Country Club Congregational United Church of Christ in Brookside. She was turning back to the faith that she had lost while struggling to live as a man for the first 50 years of her life.
"Once I embraced who I was, I needed to address the spiritual side of me," Ross says. "Maybe now that I feel whole and authentic, I believe I'm worthy of salvation."
A sportscaster for more than three decades, Ross had unintentionally been cultivating a voice for delivering sermons from a pulpit. She believes that the ministry was a calling for her, and the United Church of Christ's openness allows her to use her gift of speech. Yet Ross, a recent graduate of the Missouri School of Religion in Jefferson City, was nervous about how her classmates might view her.
"I know it was an eye-opener for them," Ross says. "But it was for me, too ... to find acceptance from people that grew up in small towns and rural areas from around Missouri."
One day, Ross hopes to lead a congregation of her own. Until then, she fills in at local churches. For Ross, this is a chance to spread the Gospel and rectify what she sees as some Christians' misguided views of the transgender community.
"The Bible does not say God made man, God made woman, and you should not change from one to the other," Ross says.
A cross always hangs from Nikkie's neck, usually beneath a stylish leather jacket and blond hair that curls at the tips. Raised Irish Catholic, she bears the weight of going to work each day as a man.
"This is how I finance my personal journey," Nikkie says. "It's just a steppingstone. Work is the automobile to get me to my destination."
Nikkie is a linchpin in the Kansas City male-to-female transitioning population. She hosts a support group to address issues such as putting on makeup, shopping, and the actions or gestures that most girls learn in adolescence. Her hope is to help these trans women build the confidence to attend Girlz Night Out, a weekly social gathering held at downtown bars for the past three years that has attracted more than 100 trans women from as far away as Oklahoma.
"We're trying to make the 't' not so silent in Kansas City," Nikkie says. "It takes everything in the world to make the walk from your car to the front door. You have to have the courage to get dressed, drive somewhere and go out."
Sandra Meade and Gus have managed to define themselves in a world where definitions are not provided. Reshaping identity, they know, is perilous and often confusing. What they're doing exposes them to the possibility of discrimination and violence — a tension that may never go away.
The National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs, a collection of 39 agencies that includes the Kansas City Anti-Violence Project, found that transgender people were twice as likely to experience assault or discrimination as non-transgender white individuals. The 2010 study showed that 12 of the 27 homicide victims targeted for being gay or trans were transgender women. Five of the victims were involved in prostitution.
"Trans folks are generally targeted because of their identity or expression," says Beth Savitzky, Kansas City Anti-Violence Project executive director. "And we're starting to recognize that transgender people are victimized at a much higher rate than the lesbian, gay and bisexual community."
A dead sex worker generates sensational headlines. It's Dee Dee Pearson's story. The 31-year-old trans woman was killed last Christmas Eve. Kenyan Jones is charged with second-degree murder for, police say, shooting Pearson at 43rd Street and Harrison. Court records say Jones was angry after discovering that Pearson was biologically male, born Darnell Pearson; Jones told detectives that he believed he was paying for sex with a biological woman.
"There's a risk of violence for both transgender women and men," Gus says. "With women like Dee Dee, it's usually because someone feels tricked, or they're freaked out because of an attraction."
KCTV Channel 5 called Pearson's killing a "shooting under salacious circumstances." The trans community was outraged that newspaper accounts and the police report used Pearson's legal name rather than what they say was her true identity.
"How do you define a woman?" Meade asks. "You can define a loaf of bread. But to define what goes into being a woman is very abstract and really hard to enunciate."
Gus has long asked himself how a man is defined.
"I feel like who I am as a man is how people respond to me as a man," Gus says. "I just have to be there for my friends and family. It's that simple."
In 2004, after close to three years of hormone treatments and a half-dozen therapists, Gus was ready for the next step. His parents, who had adjusted to his new gender expression, agreed to help him financially with his transition. Gus traveled to Texas with a girlfriend, his mother and his sister to undergo a mastectomy and a hysterectomy.
"My mother every now and then will talk about her daughter that died," Gus says. "I think it's just easier for her to see us as two separate people."
Nearly a decade after the surgery that matched biology with his identity, Gus is happy with his routine life. He lives in the home that belonged to his father, he holds a steady job and he runs a support group for trans men.
"I don't wear a T-shirt that says 'transsexual' on it, and I don't put myself in a position to be asked questions by strangers," Gus says. "I don't have this strong urge to be open to the public, but I do have this urge to be approachable to other guys like me."
Relationships have always been tricky for Gus. He has struggled to understand the source of a woman's attraction. He also has had trouble explaining his journey. Gus' feelings about the role of fatherhood, however, have never wavered. He adopted an ex-girlfriend's son and has considered asking his fiancée to sign a prenuptial agreement that would grant him sole custody of any children that might result from their marriage.
"I can't have biological children," Gus says, "but I'm aware of the permanence of making a commitment to a child."
His own father's beliefs continue to shape Gus. For him, the value in living as a man comes from the virtues of his father's generation: chivalry, courtesy and stoicism.
"On his deathbed, my dad told me I was a good man," Gus says.