Star My’shay Bennett has transformed her life in some extraordinary ways. She has gone from running with a street gang to running a clothing store. From brawling in and around Metro subway stations to being featured in Metro’s campaign against sexual harassment.
And life, in a manner as mysterious as it is dramatic, has transformed her. From feeling trapped in the male body she was born in, to embracing the woman she is now.
I had been interviewing Bennett about the first two changes, which were miraculous enough for me. As for her physical transformation, I had planned to steer clear of that. My only question was what pronoun to use.
“I’m trans,” said Bennett, 27. “But you can use ‘she.’ I used to be a boy but I’m transitioning to a girl.”
Just hearing her say that, with a smile and a hint of relief in her voice, made me happy for her. And I smiled back, even though I didn’t have a clue about what she meant.
For a man raised in the South in the 1960s, transgender was not part of my world. Even though I live in a very progressive region, no one in my circle of friends is transgender.
But lately there has been a whirlwind of news about transgender people, most notably the election of at least five transgender candidates to public office on Nov. 7. The victories have been hailed as a repudiation of the homophobic and the hateful, and a huge step toward the understanding and inclusion of a much-maligned group.
I’m on the side that repudiates the hate but is also on a steep learning curve toward understanding. Figuring out disparate definitions and identities has been a challenge.
“Transgender refers to a diverse group of people who cross or transcend culturally defined categories of gender,” according to a D.C. Department of Health website glossary; “increasingly used to encompass a family of gender-variant identities and expressions, but opinions of the term may vary by individual or geographic region.” The glossary even makes reference to Two Spirit, a term used by some Native American tribes to describe people in their community who represent a third gender.
That can be difficult for some people to wrap their heads around. In the Bible Belt, they can quote you chapter and verse about how God molded man out of clay and fashioned woman from man’s rib. Two sexes — that’s it. No one dare question that.
But the human experience is anything but simple. A summary of transgender research by Katherine J. Wu, a graduate student at Harvard, refutes a lot of misconceptions: “While the list of causes for transgender identity continues to grow, it has become quite clear that it is not a conscious choice,” Wu wrote.
Bennett told me that at age 13, she became a founding member of a notorious gay street gang, called Check It. The group had banded together to ward off attacks by other gangs that targeted gays.
“I used to fight all the time, get locked up all the time,” Bennett said. “It was crazy. I never thought I would still be alive.”
Bennett’s success is all the more remarkable because of just how vulnerable her life is. In the past five years, 88 transgender women in the United States have been victims of homicide — and nearly all of them were black or Hispanic, according to a report released Nov. 17 by the Human Rights Campaign.
Most of them — 55 — had been killed in the South. Nearly three-quarters were under age 35, including four minors, the report found.
Wu said, “At least 63 percent of transgender individuals experience debilitating acts of discrimination on a regular basis, including incarceration, homelessness and physical assault.”
Yet, in the face of such hate, Bennett was feeling good about what was happening to her.
The gang she used to run with, Check It, is now Check It Enterprises, a clothing store and LGBTQ advocacy center in Southeast Washington. Bennett is chief executive, and ex-Check It members serve on the board of directors.
What Bennett was doing had nothing to do with trying to get into the women’s bathroom to leer at girls, as some have claimed. She did not strike me as having any psychological issues, unless you consider anger over so many transgender people being killed to be one.
“The last time somebody tested me, it was three months ago. I was on the subway going to work and this man came up to me, acting all wrong,” Bennett said. “He was saying ‘faggy’ this and ‘faggy’ that. I had my can [of Mace] and wanted to spray him.”
She didn’t spray the man. Bennett said she realized how far she had come, and “I had too much going for me to go back now. So I just ignored him.”
She knows who she is now, and she just wants to live her life.
To read previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/milloy.