Some secrets are so big, there is no safe place to tell them.
The Rev. Cheri Holdridge is hoping to change that by turning her Village Church in Toledo into a safe place.
On Feb. 28, the church and two Ohio organizations will host the first meeting of a Transgender Support Group. They want to provide members of the city's little-known transgender community with a space where they can talk and be understood.
"It's not safe to be transgender in this country, let alone this part of the country," said Sherri Tripepi, executive director of Equality Toledo, which is helping set up the group with Pastor Holdridge and Columbus-based TransOhio. "That's why it's important to have safe environments for these people."
"Transgender" or "transsexual" people identify themselves with a different gender than the one they were born with. Many struggle to repress this identity for years, fearing rejection or humiliation at the hands of those closest to them. Most commonly, transsexuals dress at least some of the time as members of the opposite sex, although a few undergo surgery or hormone treatment to physically alter their gender.
No one is sure how many transgender individuals are in Toledo, but Pastor Holdridge and Ms. Tripepi said requests for a support group have been building for some time. They said transgender people are difficult to count because admitting they're transexual could risk the loss of their job or an apartment, or cause the alienation of family and friends.
Pastor Holdridge said the isolation faced by many transsexuals became clear to her when she opened her church in October.
"Someone transgender came to my church the first day it opened," Pastor Holdridge said. "She was really scared. She'd been rejected by other churches and she was so happy to find a place and a pastor that would accept her."
That person, who attends Pastor Holdridge's church at 3992 Monroe St. every Sunday, can't wait for the support group to start.
Speaking to The Blade on condition of anonymity, the 60-year-old man recently began hormone treatment to become a woman. He said he only realized nine months ago that he was transsexual. He said it had been impossible to find help or support in Toledo.
"When I started through this, there was nobody in the Toledo area. I had nobody to talk to," he said. "That's why we need this support group." He explained he had felt like a female since the age of 4 or 5 years old, but could never admit those feelings.
"All my life I've struggled with something, and never knew what it was," said the individual, who lived until recently as a straight, married man with two children. "It's hard to explain it to somebody and get them to understand … but I'm happy for the first time in my life."
Explanations for transgenderism range from the social to the biological. Experts have pointed to factors that include genetics, prenatal hormone levels, and early social experiences. Incidences of transsexual behavior, such as crossdressing, have been noted throughout history.
There are no definitive figures on the prevalence of transgenderism, although it affects men more often than women. The American Psychological Association puts the number of transsexuals at about 1 in 10,000 biological males and 1 in 30,000 biological females.
Some researchers argue transexualism is more common. A study by Lynn Conway, an activist for transgender people and a professor at the University of Michigan, suggested at least one in 500 people could be transsexual.
Pastor Holdridge expects the support group will start with just a few people. She said the group is open, not just to transsexuals themselves, but also to their family members and friends who are trying to understand and support them.
Not all transsexuals can afford sex-change surgery, which costs thousands of dollars, and the transition from one gender to the other is a drawn-out process involving therapy and contemplation. Pastor Holdridge says the group will be as much a place for practical advice on the options available to transgender people as it is for emotional support.
Pastor Holdridge's lone transgender congregant is confident she'll have plenty of company.
"I would say there are a lot more [transsexuals] than we think there are," she said. "It's going to be interesting to see once the group gets started how many show up."
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