Discussion to explore language of gender, identity

CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — Alex Kander was just a kid when he knew something was definitely not right.

That was when he realized his body and identity did not fit with who looked back when he gazed into a mirror.

“I actually remember this moment in the summer of 1973, when I was 8 years old,” Kander said. “So I’ve known this for a long time.”

What Kander knew from that moment, as a boy growing up in Germany was that he was a she.

And so a telephone interview with Kander in 2017 is not an interview with Alex, but with Alexandra Sophie Kander, now 52.

But the gender transformation, including body-transforming surgery, and the identity change from Alex to Alexandra, would not come along until decades after that revelation during a long-ago German summer.

“I was completely alone with the knowledge,” Kander said. “There was nobody I trusted to tell or could take any steps to help me. It was sort of an ongoing discomfort with myself.”

Kander will talk about her life’s journey as part of a discussion, “LGBTQI… The Pathway to Dialogue,” starting at 6 p.m. Monday at Temple Israel, 2312 Kanawha Blvd. East in Charleston.

The event also includes Leslie Bakker, a member of the Charleston-Huntington chapter of PFLAG, a group for parents, families and friends of people who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender.

The dialogue considers the interwoven questions about identity and gender and the language people use to talk about them. It is a subject that has embroiled national politics with such controversies as the “bathroom bill,” in North Carolina, and barriers transgender folks face in seeking health care.

Kander spoke on the latter in an appearance in Charleston at the 2016 conference of Fairness West Virginia, an advocacy organization for the equal treatment of LGBT West Virginians. Her tale of how she came to live in Morgantown and her own transformation is a transcontinental one.

Kander earned a doctorate in neuroscience from Otto von Guericke University, in Magdeburg, Germany, arriving in America in 2000. She worked as a research assistant at the University of California, San Diego, then at West Virginia University from 2014 to 2016.

These days, she works as a freelance medical writer and medical journalist and is an activist on transgender issues.

But up until 2013, Alexandra was still Alex, married with two young sons.

Kander had struggled to develop ways to quell the impact of what she described as her “gender dysphoria,” the feeling that one’s body does not reflect his or her true gender, resulting in anxiety and depression.

“I had a system I used to distract myself with: music, martial arts, work,” she said.

Yet Kander said she would eye women she encountered in daily life, dreaming of being who they were by virtue of birth.

“A lot of it is looking at women around and thinking, `Huh. I wish.”‘

Beset by depression, distractions stopped working.

“I was in my mid-40s when — how do I say it — when the dysphoria got the better of me,” Kander said. “The gender identity conflict just asserted itself very forcefully. When you look into a mirror and understand the person you see is quite simply not you, then it gets really bad.”

Alex, then living in Albany, New York, announced to his wife and sons that he wished to transition.

The marriage ended. Alex prepared for the transition to Alexandra.

“It was hard, especially for my oldest son, seeing his father become his second mother,” she said.

At the same time, Kander said, “I was lucky in that I was in upstate New York, where there were a lot of resources for trans people. I did have the money to pay for my surgery, which is usually a big hangup for people seeking the surgery.”

There was some necessary psychological preparation in advance of surgery in September 2013.

“You understand that you are taking steps that are irreversible,” she said. “I understand that that’s a problem for some trans people, but for me it wasn’t. That was very clearly what I wanted.”

The surgery took Kander out of circulation for six months.

“It’s not an easy thing to do,” she said.

She undertook a voice training program at the College of St. Rose, in Albany. Then, in search of what she described as stability and “breathing space,” she took a job in Morgantown as a post-graduate researcher in neuroscience at WVU in 2014.

“As the transition itself goes, the physical and mental aspects of it went fairly smooth,” she said.

It was, after all, a transition to an identity she had long felt but had been unable to openly express.

“This continuous nagging self-doubt as to who am I and what exactly I am faking — also this persistent feeling of wrongness and envy toward women who had what I wanted — is gone.”

There have been prices to pay. Kander’s sons remain in New York, but the distance also allows her to be more open as an activist.

“I can go and freely speak in public without involving my family,” she said.

She has taken a public role in speaking out on the medical needs and barriers to care faced by LGBT individuals.

“Medical providers sometime don’t want overtly trans people in their practices, and that’s a factor,” she said. “The next main actual barrier to treatment is trans people suffer from massive employment discrimination, so their access to health insurance is not great. Then, after that, many health care providers are clueless about the medical needs of trans people and gay people, as well.”

Then, there was the controversy over HB 2 in North Carolina, a bill that would have required people to use the bathroom of the gender indicated on their birth certificates. Portions of the bill were recently revoked, but the dispute revealed one thing, Kander said.

“Laws like that are really hateful, but they’re also a very large acknowledgment from a majority that, `We have no idea who you people are,”‘ she said.

Kander has an answer to that.

“One of the most important things that has to happen is trans women and trans men becoming publicly visible — and not only in their functions as activists, but just as people,” she said. “Where you say, `Oh, you know, here you have a journalist, an entrepreneur, a carpenter, an airline pilot and she’s trans.’ This is an accomplished human being with a life and career and a family.

“People must realize that, in the end, trans people have unusual personal histories, but they’re nevertheless people.”

Kander made the point herself, inadvertently, talking about her interests and future plans.

“I’m looking at my guitars here,” she said.

She plans on recording some demos of songs with a friend, now that she has, both literally and figuratively, found her voice.

“I’m an amateur musician. And, you know, that’s also something where I found my voice, especially after the transition,” she said. “I feel freer to express myself.”

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