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."