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Lydia Phelps is a test driver for Roush Industries in Bemidji. (Monte Draper | Bemidji Pioneer)

Turning the page: Transgender woman brings LGBT awareness to Bemidji

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Turning the page: Transgender woman brings LGBT awareness to Bemidji
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"Most times you can't hear 'em talk.

Other times you can.

All the same old cliches, 'Is that a woman or a man?'

And you always seem outnumbered. You don't dare make a stand..."

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"Turn the Page" -- Bob Seger

Or do you?

Lydia Phelps did.

Originally from Vermont, Phelps moved to Bemidji with her girlfriend and children in 2006. A new chapter in her life, a new look, a new gender. Phelps was born Proctor Phelps Jr., a male.

It was about 15 years ago when she felt something was off. But at that time, Lydia said, being transgender was taboo. Seven years ago, times had progressed, outlooks had changed. The new generations were more accepting of differences. She turned the page.

"I know I opened some eyes in Bemidji," Phelps said. "It's a very open community."

After Phelps "came out," she founded the Bemidji Diversity Group. The group has a virtual presence on Facebook now. Phelps hopes to organize regular public meetings in the future. She said the Facebook page is a great way for the LGBT community to connect.

"I've got a wonderful mass of friends that are so supportive," Phelps said.

Phelps has developed a stronger support network in Bemidji than she has from some of her own family members. When she started wearing makeup and women's clothes after the move to Bemidji, her girlfriend left with their kids. Phelps' 27-year-old daughter from an earlier marriage is not accepting of her lifestyle either, although they are both lesbians.

"Figure that one out," Phelps said. "I guess because she always looked at me as a father figure, that she can't accept the fact of my change."

Phelps was married to her daughter's mother in 1981 while in the military. Because Phelps served as military police and a mechanic, the Veterans Administration covers her medical insurance.

"The biggest thing is insurance," Phelps said. "[Transgender care] must be medically necessary due to a mental state."

Currently, Phelps has lab work done every three months to check hormone levels. In January, she will have been taking estrogen hormones and testosterone blockers for one year. Once that time arrives, she can have her gender changed on her birth certificate and drivers license. It also means she can have sex reassignment surgery. She's waiting to change her name legally on her drivers license to coincide with the birth certificate modification.

Criteria to change a person's gender on their birth certificate varies from state to state. All states in the U.S. allow for a gender marker to be altered on a driver's license or identification card although requirements are not static. Minnesota does not require sex reassignment surgery to alter a person's sex on their birth certificate, nor does Vermont, where Phelps was born. Both states will not issue a new birth certificate, but will alter the original document. A court order or medical of appropriate clinical treatment for gender transition is required in Minnesota.

Transition is not simply the surgery and is not a simple process. To start, a patient must begin counseling sessions and undergo testing to be diagnosed as having "gender identity disorder." Once that is official, hormone therapy begins. Taking female hormones encourages breast development, widens hips, inhibits facial hair growth and raises vocal pitch.

According to GLAAD, gender identity is a person's internal sense of being male or female. For transgender people, their birth-assigned sex and their gender identity do not match. GLAAD deems gender identity disorder as an offensive diagnosis. However, at this time, it is a necessary diagnosis for transgender people to proceed with transition.

Phelps saw a VA therapist for three months. Through a three-hour test, other disorders such as bi-polar and depression needed to be ruled out.

The VA covers therapy and medications and will cover aftercare once Phelps has the surgery, but the VA will not cover the reassignment surgery. Phelps believes that will soon change.

"In the last few years, the VA changed so it would cover the therapy and the diagnosis," Phelps said. "There's so many in the VA system I wouldn't be surprised if in the next few years they'll have to cover the operation, too."

The cost for a male to female surgery ranges between $7,000 and $24,000. A female to male reassignment surgery can cost more than $50,000.

Phelps said there are more people in her age group that are going through transition since it's become more acceptable to be openly gay or lesbian. She knows of at least six people in northern Minnesota that are at some stage in the process. At the present time, Phelps considers herself approximately 40 to 50 percent through the transition.

Phelps doesn't hide who she is in public, not even at work. She is a test driver for Roush Industries in Bemidji and is a recent hire at Anderson Fabrics in Blackduck.

Minnesota was the first of 17 states to enact a law prohibiting discrimination based on gender identity in employment, housing and public accommodations. Rhode Island, New Mexico, California, Maine, Illinois, Hawaii, Washington, New Jersey, Vermont, Oregon, Iowa, Colorado, Nevada, Connecticut, Massachusetts and Delaware followed suit.

Although she finds Bemidji to be a welcoming community, Phelps has heard some snide comments but hasn't endured any threats of violence. She said she understands that some people are ignorant because they've grown up sheltered.

"I'm not doing this for attention," Phelps said. "Although, it has brought attention."

One of the greatest misconceptions that Phelps wants to correct is that most people think transgender people are gay or sex freaks. She said that's not the case at all, that being transgender is a person's state of mind.

"We're just another person like anyone else," Phelps said. "Don't treat us special. Just treat us with respect."

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