The Transgender Moment
John Nemecek struggled with gender confusion from early childhood. Marrying at age 21 didn't change that confusion. Neither did raising three sonsall of whom are themselves now happily married. Four years ago, Nemecek's Internet search of a medical site matched the symptoms he exhibited: gender identity disorder (GID). "It was an awesome experience to realize something I'd been dealing with all my life had a name," Nemecek says. A therapist, endocrinologist, and a counselor all later confirmed the diagnosis.
In 2004, Nemecek began taking female hormones, a process that will last his lifetime. However, there will be no sex reassignment surgery. Nemecek is staying with his wife, Joanne, and they recently celebrated 35 years of marriage.
Nemecek, 56, may now feel he has more clarity about gender identity, but much ambiguity remains. Nemecek's driver's license says "male," but on credit card applications, Nemecek writes "female." Since John and Joanne wed legally, their marriage isn't illegal, even though it appears they are in a lesbian union.
In 2005, Nemecek's employer, Spring Arbor University, learned of John's plans for a court-approved change of first name to "Julie." Afterwards, the Free Methodist-affiliated school in southern Michigan cut Nemecek's pay and reduced job responsibilities. Eventually, Spring Arbor decided not to rehire the business professor and associate dean when Nemecek started wearing a wig, makeup, fingernail polish, and earrings on campus. Nemecek was a 15-year veteran at the university, located in the small town of Spring Arbor, a conservative, churchgoing community of 2,100 people.
After the university's action, Nemecek filed an employment discrimination complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, triggering newspaper headlines across the nation. (Federal courts have yet to settle completely whether federal protections against sexual discrimination in the workplaceTitle VII of the Civil Rights Actprotect transgendered people. Several cases are working their way through the justice system.)
In March 2007, Spring Arbor decided to settle out of court, resolving the case and permanently ending Nemecek's employment there. At an official mediation hearing, the professor asked aloud, "Should I deny my head, heart, and soul to live according to what others think of my body? I cannot do that and live a life of Christian integrity."
Nemecek, who spent two decades as a Baptist pastor before joining Spring Arbor's faculty, is currently working as an independent consultant on gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender (GLBT) issues.
"This is something that's in you from the womb," says Nemecek.
Nemecek's transgender experience is still statistically rare, but the profile of transgender issues is rising, both in and outside the church, and evangelical churches and mental health professionals are beginning to respond.
Expanding Civil Rights
The drive to expand civil rights to include transgendered people is gaining momentum. Many films, magazine articles, TV programs, and newspaper commentaries trumpet this campaign, sympathizing with people who feel they have been unfairly targeted because of their transgender condition.
Such media portrayals, including several focusing on elementary-age children with supportive parents, typically blend a sense of injustice and pathos to convince viewers how wrong society has been to label transgendered people as deviant, strange, or sinful.
Advocates say transgendered individuals are at great risk of hate crimes and discrimination in housing and employment searches. In many jurisdictions, it's legal for an employer to dismiss or refuse to hire an individual for being transgendered. A website, gender.org, lists the names of transgendered murder victims. To increase public awareness, advocates have chosen November 20 as the annual National Transgender Day of Remembrance for transgendered victims from the past year.