Time to give transgenders rights, not ridicule
Michael Mayo | News Columnist
August 5, 2007
Last summer, when my cholesterol count came back high, my wife signed me up with a personal trainer. "You'll like him," she said. "He's got an interesting story."
Off I went to Bodies Under Construction, a fitness studio in Hollywood run by Mark Angelo Cummings and his wife Violet.
Mark was short, balding and had a beard. He had a big smile and a quick wit.
During my first workout, Mark told me he was born with a "birth defect."
"Really," I said. "You look perfectly healthy to me."
He explained that he was, after surgery and years of therapy.
"I was born the wrong sex," he said. "I was born Maritza."
I looked at his hairy arms and chest and did a double-take. He showed me pictures from when he was a little girl and a competitive female body-builder.
Cummings, 43, has taught me a lot about gender dysphoria and transsexuals over the past year. As gender identity has come up in the headlines — a Largo city manager was fired after he announced his transition to Susan, a Los Angeles Times sportswriter I used to drink beers with at the Olympics caused a stir when he became Christine — Mark gave me a first-hand account of the desperation that led them there.
"This is not a choice," he said Friday. "It's something you try to deny and hide, but as time goes on, as you become more miserable in your own skin, you just can't take it anymore."
Cummings said he was 3 when he realized he was born in the wrong body. His parents didn't understand. After they came to South Florida from Cuba, Maritza gravitated to boys' activities, like weightlifting, and she joined the Army. It didn't help. She abused drugs and alcohol, attempted suicide in her 20s.
Then she found out that there was a medical explanation and there was something she could do about it. Maritza became Mark.
First there was hormone therapy and extensive psychological preparation. Then, on Dec. 22, 2003, he had gender-reassignment surgery. He considers the date his real birthday.
"It's like being sick and finally finding a cure," Cummings said. "I'm complete."
Cummings calls himself "a trans man on a mission," trying to educate the general public about a condition mocked and misunderstood.
"People hear transgender and they think, Rocky Horror Picture Show," Cummings said. "They think we're freaks and perverts."
Because of the widespread fear and ignorance, he said it's time gender identity is added to the list of protections in Broward County's anti-discrimination ordinance.
"We're more discriminated against because so many of us can't hide," he said. "I'm lucky because I blend in very well, my transition went well, and I have my own business. But others have to risk losing everything — their jobs, their families, their friends."
But what if a teacher transitions, and students and parents protest? What about a private business that doesn't want to risk losing customers with a worker who shows up a different gender?
"I say grow up and get educated," Cummings said. "It's still the same person underneath, doing the same job. They're still human."
Broward's human rights board has recommended adding gender identity to the anti-discrimination ordinance. But some in the gay community are resisting the change, fearing a backlash that could lead to a countywide referendum and the loss of their protections. It led to a heated meeting last week, when transsexuals confronted Robin Bodiford, a gay rights activist who wants to delay the transgender addition.
"I understand that you're trying to get gay marriage and gay adoption and I applaud you for that, but how dare you!" said Tiffany Arieagus, of Fort Lauderdale, a transsexual. "Gay, transgender, it doesn't matter. We all deserve the same rights."
Michael Mayo's column runs Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday. Read him online every weekday at Sun-Sentinel.com/mayoblog. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or 954-356-4508.