CARBONDALE — Dylan Caraker doesn’t understand why his genitals are a political statement. He actually isn’t even sure why they are the subject of anyone’s thoughts at all.
He said humans wear clothes to cover themselves for a reason — privacy.
As a transgender man, Caraker and thousands like him are the subject of speculation, curiosity and discrimination every day.
This fact was reinforced last month when it was revealed that President Donald Trump and his team at the Department of Health and Human Services are considering limiting the definition of gender to an immutable, biological status as defined by a person’s genitals at birth.
A transgender person has a different gender identity than what is assigned by the appearance of their genitals at birth. The way trans people express this varies. Some choose to socially present themselves as a different gender, while others seek medical treatments like hormone therapy or surgeries. Some transgender people don't change their physical appearance at all.
A New York Times report from Oct. 22 sites an internal Trump administration memo saying that certain government agencies needed to come up with a uniform definition of gender determined “on a biological basis that is clear, grounded in science, objective and administrable.”
“The sex listed on a person’s birth certificate, as originally issued, shall constitute definitive proof of a person’s sex unless rebutted by reliable genetic evidence,” the memo also states.
The Times story says these moves to tighten the definition of gender are related to Title IX protections that bar federally funded educational institutions from discriminating students or employees based on gender.
Caraker thinks the Trump administration plan is ridiculous on its face. “Is (Trump) going to have us all wear little badges with a picture of our baby genitalia?” he asked.
Despite his tone, Caraker and other trans people in Southern Illinois said these types of comments from Washington do have a big impact on the mental well-being of transgender people. Caraker said he thinks Trump is OK with that.
“The pain that he is causing," Caraker said, "I honestly think he takes glee in it."
Growing up different
“I was brutally abused by my parents and sent to conversion therapy,” 23-year-old Clare Killman remembered.
She came out as trans at 14 and recalled weeping over her homework in the backseat of her parents' car several times a week as they drove her several hours to and from St. Louis for her therapy.
“They went so far as to modify the way I sat,” she said.
Killman’s family also removed all vestiges of femininity from her life — one of the few remaining items from this time is a small, ceramic miniature tea set that sits on Killman’s dining room table in Herrin.
In 2015, Gov. Bruce Rauner signed into law a measure making conversion therapy for minors illegal in the state — the practice has been derided by critics as non-scientific and is said to present serious mental health risks for those going through the programs.
Caraker said he put himself through such a program before he transitioned and came out not cured of his attraction toward women but with a deep-rooted sense of loathing for his feminine side.
Like Killman, Caraker always knew he was different. He said it was as early as kindergarten that he started noticing he was treated differently than he felt. At that age, it meant being told not to play with trucks and blocks, but with dolls and tea sets.
“Quit bothering the boys and come over here,” he recalled his teacher telling him as she brought him from the “boys' toys” to the play kitchen.
There was some validation, Caraker said, when he got the status as a “tomboy.”
“OK, well, that’s halfway there,” he thought.
Jennifer Davolt said that growing up, she was raised in a house of hippies and openness, but not without its limitations. She remembered being bookish — interested in history and music. This was a hard sell when all her friends started to love baseball.
This meant, to fit in, she had to find some way of relating — in this case, it was memorizing team histories and rules. She said it wasn’t until she was 15 that she really started to learn about what being transgender meant, and thinking that this might fit the feelings she’d had her entire life.
It was then that she made her first email address with her female name and told an online community that she might be trans.
Caraker said he had a similar experience — as the child of a professor, he had access to Morris Library and was able to read about people whose genders didn’t fit the binary male-female model. At 12 or 13, this started to open his mind to the idea that his feelings might have a place.
However, it would take decades and three marriages to decide he needed to make the transition from female to male.
The dark place
The human experience is not static, but one thing Davolt, Killman and Caraker said they all related to was crippling depression. The roots and causes vary, but each said their feelings in some ways stemmed from their identities as trans. This has led to suicidal ideation, social distance and even eating disorders to cope with feeling out of place, not just in their own bodies, but also in the world.
There is another dark place, though: abuse, discrimination and threats of violence.
Davolt said she has routinely had a problem keeping a job and finding a steady place to live.
“I’ve had trouble getting into places, let alone paying for them,” she said. “I just couch surf a lot.”
Davolt is currently staying at her brother’s house in Carbondale, and has semi-regular work as a merchandiser — a job that takes her around the country. But, it’s hard for her to get ahead. She said this is a common thread among trans women.
Killman said she, too, has had job problems with employers and companies in the area discriminating against her because of her status as a trans woman. She recalled one man calling her “it.”
Killman and Davolt said they live in fear. A lot of times they said they can pass socially as a cis woman — "cis" being a term to describe a person who identifies with the way their genitals appeared at birth. However, both said there are scary moments when people may catch on that they are trans.
Davolt and Killman said they also worry about their friends and family and the retribution they may face for associating with them — Killman described this as a heavy burden.
“I don’t want to put them in danger,” she said.
As a trans man, Caraker said he he is able to hide a bit better. But, he said fear has cropped up as the rhetoric at a national level has become more openly hostile toward trans people.
“The fear didn’t kick in until this thing with Trump flared up,” he said.
An uncertain future
Davolt, 34, said she looks to 53-year-old Caraker as a second father and said she is afraid that all the work she has done to change her official documentation will be voided by what the Trump administration is suggesting.
Beyond the documentation, the choice by Health and Human Services to potentially define gender this way could drastically affect Davolt’s and others’ health care options.
Davolt said her health care needs are different than a cis woman — for example, if identified as a man, Davolt is unsure how she would go about affording mammograms for the breasts she developed through hormone therapy.
“That’s why these things are important,” she said.
Life, not lifestyle
All said their statuses as a trans people were not something they chose.
“I don’t think of myself as trans, I think of myself as male,” Caraker said. “I never have existed as a female.”
Each identifies as a person, and that is what matters most.
Each said their mental distress began to lift when they began their physical transition, which can include things like hormone therapy and other procedures.
Caraker said his “worst days now are better than the best days pre-transition.”
All said it’s important to note that the physical side is not what their transitions are all about — it’s not just a boob job or hair extensions. It’s helping to bring their bodies in tune with their own minds, and with this, bring them the stability they see others live with.
Caraker said so many people identify with biological sex instead of someone’s humanness, which is part of the problem.
It’s not unreasonable to understand why shifting this thinking is a big thing to ask, but it’s also not unreasonable to see it as possible, either.
But the real request Caraker, Killman and Davolt ask is to look beyond their physicalities.
Davolt said instead of having the world fit into a very limiting, binary mold, it should be the other way around: The mold should be built to fit the world, remembering that someone’s feelings and identity are not exclusively defined for them by the outward appearance of their bodies.
“Sorry, I have a girl penis, and I’m OK with that,” Davolt said.
As moves are made to erase their gender identities at the national level, Killman, Caraker and Davolt all said they had one thing they wished people would understand about their experiences as trans people.
“We are people. We are humans,” Killman said. A professional artist and trans activist, Killman said she works constantly to get this message out there, but it’s times like these that her efforts get harder.
“I don’t know how much louder I’ll have to scream,” she said.
Editor's Note: This story has been updated to correctly spell Dylan Caraker's last name.