Micah Daniel always knew he was different.
“When I was three or four, I remember that people were always asking me what my favorite color was. This was quite a predicament for me because I liked all the colors,” says Daniel, a 27-year-old UW-Milwaukee student. “I decided to pick blue because that was a boy color, and because my brother’s favorite color was green and I didn’t want to be a copycat.”
Born female, today Daniel identifies himself as male and is considered transgender. The term describes a person whose gender identity or gender expression does not match one’s assigned sex. Consistently pigeonholed by antiquated definitions gender, the trans community has almost always combated a wave of public misconception.
“Many believe all transgender individuals are undergoing corrective gender assignment surgery. Not all are undergoing the surgery but are often asked what is between their legs,” says Duane (DeeJay) Johnson, Assistant Director of UW-Milwaukee’s Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Resource Center. “These groups do not get the respect they deserve because of their physical features not aligning to the constraints of societal expectations of assigned sex at birth and gender expression.”
Umbrellaed under the acronym LGBTQ, transgender individuals are independent of sexual orientation; transgender people may identify as heterosexual, homosexual, or bisexual. Some may consider conventional sexual orientation labels inadequate or inapplicable to them. Today, Daniel finds himself having to explain these terms a lot. Being so rare and isolated from one another, many trans individuals are having to become spokespeople for their communities.
“I’ve joked with my friends that I should just carry around pamphlets that let people know what being transgender is,” says Daniel. “Meeting a new person is so stressful; the first thing I have to do when meeting a new person is explain to them that I am transgender and what that is. If I don’t explain, they will refer to me as a girl.”
But Micah Daniel is very much a dude.
Dressed in a pair of baggy blue jeans, a loose-fitting lime-green shirt and black hoodie, Daniel prefers a tough looking, but comfy approach to fashion. A slate grey denim vest, its back emblazoned with a painted-on skeleton ribcage, is his favorite piece to wear. His hair is slicked into a spiky black mohawk. A self-described “geek,” Daniel is often found with his nose fixed squarely between the pages of a book; he loves the “Harry Potter” and “The Lord of the Rings” series. When not studying, he enjoys playing video games, specifically “Dungeons and Dragons” and “The Legend of Zelda.” He is an active member of “One World by Night,” a live-action vampire role-playing game. His vampire character’s name, Malachi, was the original name Daniel chose when he began the transitioning process.
Daniel’s journey of self-discovery was turbulent, and at times completely unbearable. Years of hate, discrimination, and bullying have left deep welts on his memories; all are themes common to many transgender and transsexuals’ stories. The overgeneralization of trans narratives however has become a significant problem for the burgeoning community.
“I think a lot of people hear about one trans person’s experience and generalize that experience to all trans people,” says Warren Scherer, Director of UWM’s Inclusive Excellence Center and member of the campus’s LGBT Advisory Committee. “By only focusing on specifically trans men, you don’t recognize that there are trans women, gender queer, gender fuck, gender bender, and third gender people. These gender nonconformity and gender variant folks also exist. I think this facilitates that trans people do not exist, in many ways, that is why it is everyone’s responsibility to challenge gender norms.”
These heteronormative gender roles were habitual in the quiet religious community in which Daniel grew up in. Still living as a girl, he vividly remembers flicking on and watching a documentary-style television program at a young age. It shadowed a transgender man who had begun the transition from living as a woman to a man. He related immediately and was thrilled to see someone struggling with the same feelings as himself.
Daniel’s older sister however said the man on TV was a sinner.
“My family is an extremely religious one. My mother’s dad was a Baptist preacher from the south, my dad was raised Catholic, and now they are both WELS Lutheran. I remember when I was little, the pastor at church would insert into his sermons that homosexuals are wrong to be together in that way,” says Daniel. “I kind of stopped being a Christian not that long after I found out that I was trans; I couldn’t bring myself to believe in a god that would make me born in a body that I was miserable in, and then consider me a bad person to want to do something about it.”
Elementary school was an “utterly terrible” experience for Daniel, trying to figure out exactly how he fit in among his classmates. His tomboyish style and affinity for video games, books, and make-believe made him a target in the classroom and on the playground.
“I didn’t even really understand what I was doing wrong; everyone said I was weird, but I didn’t know why,” says Daniel. “There were threats of violence, but I was never physically hurt. Once I stood up to a bully, so I had to spend the entire recess period by the playground supervisor.”
UWM student Daniel Holloway shares a similar experience. Being labelled “the other,” initiated constant threats and bullying throughout his school years. Looking back, Holloway sees his eccentricities as the trigger for the unpleasant treatment he experienced.
“As a kid I always acted like a girl. Anytime my brothers and I were to play house, I was the daughter, or the wife, or the crazy cat lady next door,” says Holloway, who has recently begun identifying as gay and transgender. “When we’d go to family-friends’ houses, I’d play Barbies with the girls. I begged my mother for hot pink bed sheets because any other color made me feel too much like a boy.”
Middle school proved to be better for Micah Daniel, having collected an accepting, albeit, small group of friends. They bonded over their mutual love of intellectual pursuits and “geekdom.” As adolescent hormones surged, however, Daniel began contemplating his eventual transition. While everyone else felt excited at the prospect of their bodies changing, Daniel was mortified. It seemed unfathomable for him to change in the girl’s locker room, feeling hugely uncomfortable in his own skin.
“I remember when I went shopping for my first bra, I was miserable, utterly humiliated, I didn’t want people to see me there. I got the plainest, most nondescript white sports bra that you could ever imagine,” says Daniel, chuckling nervously.
With much resistance from his family, Daniel officially declared his transgender identity during high school. His close friends experienced an “initial freak out” upon learning his secret, but eventually acknowledged Daniel’s identity, embracing his request to be addressed using he, him, and his. Soon he began experimenting with different male names, Jesse James, Malakai, and eventually settled upon Micah, rearranging the syllables in his birth name.
Bullying is common theme among LGBT youth, and coming out as transgender does not seem to differ greatly from the experiences of gay, lesbian, or bisexual individuals.
“I think the oppression trans people face when coming out has some similarities to a gay man or lesbian’s experience, there tends to be a fluidity in gender expression,” says Trevor William, a UWM senior who identifies as gay. “All LGBT people are trying to achieve their true identity after coming out. Their outfits or mannerism may change against the traditional gender binary. Although I don’t think the backlash is on the same scale or degree that trans people face.”
“For gay men and lesbians, what’s being disparaged is what they are doing,” says Micah Daniel. “People have an issue with who they are within a relationship and what they do. But for transgender people it’s about who you are, it’s about the very identity that makes you, you. That’s what people have a problem with.”
After graduation, Daniel entered what he calls a “dark period” in his life. Crippling depression made getting up to go to work at a local Culver’s restaurant a daily struggle. He knew that if he did not transition soon, something horrible would happen to him. He felt like a zombie.
“For a time I went to live with my brother in Phoenix, Arizona and he told me that I needed to go to college. Not only to get set on a path to my future, but to give me space to be myself. So I submitted an application to UW-Milwaukee the next day,” says Daniel.
Now, after years of living with his parents, he lives in an apartment in West Allis, Wis., going to school full time. With four people living in a two bedroom apartment, Daniel calls the living room his home. The grey carpeting in his room is scattered chaotically with clothes, notebooks, and a messenger bag covered in buttons. A gourd-shaped lamp perches atop his bedside table, holding a myriad of bills, coupons, hair care products, and pill bottles. His roommate Mike’s splatter-paint art pieces are hung on each wall, creating a dizzying kaleidoscope of color in the cramped space. Micah’s bed, a jumble of cozy dark blue linens is topped by a large stuffed dinosaur.
In the spring Daniel has plans to move closer to the UWM campus. He hopes to become a therapist one day, dealing specifically with gender identity. The UWM LGBT Resource Center has been a safe space for Daniel on campus. Together with a group of transgender students Daniel founded the University Network for Trans and Intersex Empowerment. “Unite” is a trans and gender non-conforming student led group which promotes advocacy and social support among its members.
“The group helps me a lot. Growing up being the only trans kid in your hick town in Wisconsin, I met one trans women before college. It feels so isolating when you’re going through this and no one can relate to you,” says Daniel.
The organization is especially helpful to bridge the gap between the varying groups within the trans community. Milwaukee’s trans community, while diverse and vibrant, still suffers from these intergroup politics.
“The trans community in Milwaukee is divided in a lot of ways, which you find in any community, along gender lines, class lines, and based on race. There are divisions of conflict between trans masculine and trans feminine folks about whose needs are being recognized,” says Warren Scherer. “There is stigma around whether or not one can afford hormones and surgeries. There is also conflict about the stigma and discrimination trans people encounter, even within the gay, lesbian, and bisexual communities. These are national issues but this has an impact on the Milwaukee community, and the campus community.”
Even with close friends and student support groups, living day to day as a transgender individual can be tough for Daniel. He admits to looking at himself constantly in the mirror, making certain that he is passing as a male.
“It’s awful when you have to go to the bathroom. I’m at the stage currently where some people think I look like a guy and some people think I look like a girl. I might look different on any given day depending on the shirt I’m wearing,” says Daniel. “When I’m out in public I never really know which bathroom to choose. Do I look like a guy today, or a girl with a Mohawk?”
Successfully passing demands mastery of such complex and subtle physical or behavioral cues, and some transgender or transsexual individuals will choose not to try and pass at all.
But Micah Daniel is not finished fighting for his identity. It’s a fight that he shares with others in the LGBT community – whether “T” or not.
“We often times spend a lot of time in the fight club,” says the UWM LGBT Resource Center’s Duane Johnson. “We try so hard to get others to accept us for who we are and we get rejected and beat up mentally and physically. Often times we need to give ourselves time to heal and accept the greatness that we are.”
Daniel is in the process of finding a therapist and psychiatrist to accept his insurance and ultimately start his physical transition using hormone therapy. The testosterone will deepen his voice, broaden his shoulders, make it easier to build muscle mass, and develop facial hair… a prospect he delights in.
“I can’t wait, it’s gonna be awesome,” Daniel says, a huge smile flashing across his face.