By Larry Truong
Published: Tuesday, February 16, 2010 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Monday, February 15, 2010 at 5:45 p.m.
Alexia, a University of Florida student, just started the process six months ago. Patty has been doing it full time for nine months and Bree for 10.
A couple of times a month, these three women get together to talk about their lives, relationships and families. All three are transgender.
According to the American Psychological Association, transgender is a term used to describe people whose gender identity, the way they see or express themselves as male or female, differs from that usually associated with their birth sex.
Bree explains it a lot simpler.
“I dress how I feel,” said Bree, a 54-year-old transgender woman.
Bree, who only gave the letter H as her last name, wore a blue blouse, khaki pants, sandals, a jeweled golden necklace and red nail polish to a recent Wednesday night meeting.
She started living as a woman full time around 10 months ago.
The Gainesville Transgender Discussion Group, which began in 2001, meets the first Wednesday of every month at the Wild Iris Bookstore, 802 W. University Ave., to support each other, educate others about transgender people and talk about things like the latest hair removal technology.
The group consists of transgender men and women, drag queens and kings, cross dressers and anyone else who needs a safe place for support.
The meeting took place in the cafe situated at the back of Wild Iris Bookstore, a feminist bookstore in Gainesville.
Erica Merrell, 32, is co-owner of the bookstore and executive director of the non-profit organization Friends of Wild Iris. According to its Web site, Friends of Wild Iris is dedicated to creating a “safe space” for the community and to create social, educational and cultural opportunities to empower a diverse feminist community.
“All of human experience is on a spectrum,” Merrell said. “I think it isn't anybody's business to judge.”
Merrell said she thinks the acceptance of transgender people is important.
“They can't donate blood or plasma,” she said. Merrell said blood donor centers assume something must be wrong with transgender people.
Alexia, 22, started transitioning into a woman six months ago. She is a UF student and said she did not want to give her last name. Alexia, like many other college students, just got out of a relationship. “Being in that in-between state, people don't want to be in a relationship with you,” she said.
She said that many people don't understand transitioning, or the process of becoming a transgender person.
“That's a pretty good friendship filter,” Alexia said.
However, Alexia, who recently got laser hair removal on her face, said she isn't worried about relationships right now. The only relationship she is worried about is the one with her organic chemistry book. “Once you feel comfortable with your body, you can feel comfortable with others,” Alexia said.
Alexia said that support and advice from the discussion group has helped her transition more smoothly into a transgender woman.
“Just make sure your feet are facing the right way when you are using the bathroom,” Bree said.
A common task such as going to the restroom gets complicated when you are transitioning, said Alexia, who feels more comfortable using the women's restroom. “Women might feel threatened by me using their restroom,” Alexia said. “But I don't want to hurt them, I just want to pee.”
Nisha Mohammed, 22, an English major at UF, attended the discussion group as an extra credit opportunity for her gender roles and cross cultural perspectives class.
Mohammed said she is aware of the discourse that is out there toward transgender people.
"Hate is prevalent,” Mohammed said.
Patty Sullivan, 65, is a transgender woman who said she was happily married for over 30 years to her now deceased wife.
Sullivan said she told her wife on their third date she was transgender.
“Who cares?” Sullivan recalls her wife saying.
Even though she has only been living as a full-time woman for less than a year, Sullivan said that during her marriage, the only time she wore men's clothing was to go to work.
“I've been wearing women's underwear since 1977,” she said.
Sullivan said she feels a lot more social after transitioning. The other two women agreed.
The discussion, which lasted for over two hours, addressed many of the problems faced by transgender people. The ending of marriages and relationships, severe depression, suicidal thoughts and acceptance by society were a few of the problems the women said many transgender people face.
That is why they need this safe place, the members said.
“You don't have to like me, just respect me,” Sullivan said.