Dispatches: Transgender Woman Makes Difference in Arlington and Beyond
Caroline Temmermand worked hard to realize her true identity. Now she's working hard to help others stamp out discrimination against transgender individuals.
This story is one in a continuing series on the changing American dream.
Sitting on a picnic table, amidst the fresh, bright greenery of one of Arlington’s public parks, Caroline Temmermand, division chief of Arlington County Parks and Natural Resources, shared her life story.
Perpetually smiling, she spoke with the kind warmth and confidence that comes from complete certainty. She was stylishly dressed and rarely broke eye contact or seemed to question herself in any way. She seemed a woman prepared to take on the world.
Forty-three years ago, Temmermand was a long way from the senior executive and community leader she is today.
Her name was Stephen Temmermand. She was a scared 13-year-old boy sent to see a psychologist because of faltering grades.
The psychologist asked Stephen to draw a self-portrait.
Stephen drew a girl.
Temmermand was diagnosed with what’s known today as gender identity disorder, a somewhat controversial term. Those who work in the field see it as a medical condition in which an individual’s gender identity and physical sex do not correlate with one another – a birth defect in which a woman is born in a man’s body, or vice versa.
At the time, Temmermand’s psychologist told her if she ever spoke about her desire to dress and behave like a woman, she would be taken away from her parents and treated with electroshock therapy – a then-common practice.
After decades of silence, Temmermand has come to accept herself, undergone treatment and begun to teach the world to accept her as well.
“I feel like every day I’m living the miracle,” said Temmermand, now 56 and living in Laurel, Md.
‘Exposing Who You Really Are’
For most of her adult life, Temmermand lived as a man – as the person she appeared to be on the outside.
She married, had three children and then got divorced. She worked hard to build a successful career and enjoyed working on cars with her son, David.
But Temmermand’s true identity was always present, a seemingly unsolvable and unavoidable question in her life.
“You think you’re insane,” Temmermand said. “You’re a woman, you look in the mirror, and you see a guy. They don’t match up, what you see in the mirror and what you know is fact.”
So two years ago, in the wake of a failed relationship, Temmermand scheduled her first appointment with Martha Harris, an Alexandria-based therapist specializing in gender issues. Not long after, she had a breakthrough about her identity and made the decision to transition from male to female.
Her treatments included hormone therapy, speech therapy at the George Washington University Speech and Hearing Center’s voice training program, and facial feminization surgery performed by Dr. Sherman Leis, a Philadelphia-based plastic surgeon specializing in procedures for transgender clients.
Stephen Temmermand legally became Caroline Temmermand in August 2010.
“You can’t fix the mind. You can only fix the body to match the mind,” Temmermand said. “I don’t want everybody to think that this is only about surgery. It’s medical in nature, but the medical part is that the body and mind don’t align.”
Temmermand had to put in extra effort to maintain the professional relationships she’d built. She remembers talking with human resources staff near the beginning of the transition to help them with co-workers who may have difficulty with her status as transgender. Voice therapy was important to eliminate any inconsistency between the way she appeared and the way she sounded.
Through the many physical and emotional hurdles, Temmermand was fortunate to have the support of an understanding group of friends.
“I just tried to understand what it would be like,” said Charlene Gardner, Temmermand’s co-worker of almost eight years. “For somebody to be harboring something that deep, you just can’t even imagine it.”
Like anyone undergoing serious medical treatment, Temmermand and those close to her faced many challenges.
“You have to learn to love yourself to be able to embrace the treatments that you need to do if you have this condition,” Temmermand said. “There’s a huge grieving process that everybody in your life has to go through when you transition. Transition is not about putting on clothes; it’s about exposing who you really are.”
For her son, David, grief permeated his father’s gender transition.
“The hard part isn’t accepting somebody new,” David Temmermand said. “The hard part is really accepting the loss of the other person.”
David and his father were able to weather the difficult transition period from Stephen to Caroline and still maintain a relationship.
In fact, since transitioning Caroline Temmermand has successfully maintained strong relationships with everyone in her extended family, including a brother who works in the military and a sister who teaches Bible school at a Southern Baptist church – proving family ties can prevail over political ones.
“There’s so many people who have reached out to me and it’s incredible,” Temmermand said. “I underestimated a lot of people.”
Being Transgender Today
It’s easy to understand why Temmermand feared rejection from her family and friends. The current statistics on transgender acceptance nationwide reflect a community denied.
According to the 2009 National Transgender Discrimination Survey, 57 percent of transgender people surveyed experienced significant family rejection.
The numbers are equally illuminating in other arenas of social acceptance. Transgender individuals have double the rate of unemployment of non-transgender people, and 90 percent of those surveyed reported mistreatment or discrimination in the workplace. Nearly 20 percent experienced homelessness.
Transgender people also experience noticeably high rates of abuse by police, abuse in prison and health care discrimination.
Of those surveyed, 41 percent do not have government-issued identification that correlates with their gender identity.
The same percentage has attempted suicide.
Reason for Optimism
Temmermand is working hard to correct the injustices so many transgender individuals experience.
Since embracing her identity, she has become deeply involved in gender-based political activism in Maryland.
In April, Temmermand saw a video circulating online in which a young transgender woman, Chrissy Polis, was brutally beaten at a McDonald’s near Baltimore. Two days later she helped organize a transgender rights rally as a response. It drew hundreds.
“It’s really ingrained in my personality and who I am that we treat everybody equally,” Temmermand said. “I find it kind of amazing that the laws don’t always do that.”
The beating was pursued by the Baltimore County state’s attorney as a hate crime, and has resulted in at least one guilty plea. Pressure is on the Maryland Legislature to expand anti-discrimination laws to include transgender people.
Temmermand is helping apply that pressure. She works with the LGBT organization Equality Maryland to support a bill that would protect lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer individuals from employment, housing and credit discrimination in Maryland.
Temmermand also is a founding member of Gender Rights Maryland, an organization devoted to creating legislation to prevent gender-identity discrimination.
“She gives so much of herself to everybody,” said Justine Lehner, a close friend. “She goes out and helps other people.”
Despite the bleak statistics and seemingly insurmountable political obstacles, Temmermand remains undaunted. She noted that younger generations are more accepting of transgender individuals and that President Barack Obama has appointed at least one transgender person to his administration. More and more, transgender citizens are becoming just another demographic.
“There is no trans-America,” Temmermand said. “There’s America. We’re as normal and as abnormal as any slice of society.”
Soon, Temmermand feels, this will be a sentiment universally recognized.
“Transpeople won’t have to hide that they’re trans in the years to come,” she said.
For Caroline Temmermand, the future is as bright as the summer day for transgender Americans.
She continues to take on the world.