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Jessica Ballou, Published August 11 2012

Becoming Riah: A Concordia student’s journey from man to woman

FARGO - Riah Roe is used to funny looks and the occasional raised eyebrow. Some people whisper about her. Others simply stare.

The Concordia College senior just rolls with it.

As a transitioning male-to-female transgendered individual, the spotlight is on Roe most of the time, whether she wants it or not.

Transgender is an umbrella term for people who live outside gender norms and do not necessarily identify with their sex at birth. Many transgender individuals choose to alter their appearance to match what they feel their gender really is.

Roe’s morning routine starts with a shower and a shave, taking care to remove any stubble from her face and neck. She then does her hair and makeup and chooses an outfit before grabbing a bagel and running out the door.

Her morning routine is now down pat, but that wasn’t always the case.

“Makeup was a very interesting thing because no one ever teaches you makeup when you’re a 14-year-old boy,” Roe said.

Roe debated her sexual identity for years before finding the information and inspiration she needed to make sense of it all.

In April of last year, she began her life-changing journey.

An internal struggle

Roe used to daydream about waking up as a woman, but she suppressed those thoughts for years. Even though she identified as a gay male in middle school, high school and part of her time in college, she often was angry because she knew it was a false identity.

“It was one that I was able to construct to make sense of my orientation, to make sense of my practices,” she said. “It didn’t necessarily encapsulate everything of who I wanted to be.”

Other people categorized her as gay because she was physically attracted to men, and Roe didn’t fight that. Eventually, though, growing anger and insecurity caused her to be rude to others, she said.

“I think when people feel horrible about themselves in any way, shape or form, they tend to take that anxiety out on others rather than point it inward,” she said.

After a period of internal struggling with herself, Roe learned about Kate Bornstein, an author and speaker who underwent a male-to-female sex change operation in 1986. She started reading more about Bornstein and transgenderism, and something clicked.

Roe credits Bornstein for educating her and allowing her to define what she never understood. Bornstein spoke at NDSU earlier this year, and she and Roe have become friends.

From Zach to Riah

After legally changing her name from Zach about a year and a half ago, Roe underwent three months of therapy before being diagnosed with gender identity disorder, which Roe said explains transgenderism.

Roe then worked with Richard Adler, a speech-language pathologist and professor of speech, language and hearing science at Minnesota State University Moorhead, to retrain her voice to sound feminine or androgynous.

“When I went in there, I said I wanted to have a voice like Rachael Ray without chain-smoking for a few years,” Roe said.

She also met with an endocrinologist and was prescribed a testosterone blocker and estrogen. The testosterone blockers suppress things such as body hair. The estrogen makes her skin and hair softer and causes breast growth.

Alice Christianson, a licensed professional clinical counselor at Sanford Medical Center in downtown Fargo, has worked in the therapy field since the early 1970s. When a person wants to embark on such a transition, she outlines the process and possible risks of hormone therapy before any steps are taken.

Christianson said some individuals opt out of hormone use, while some use hormones but don’t have gender-corrective surgeries.

“Everyone has a right to determine what is right for them,” she said.

Many people ask Roe if she’s interested in surgery, a question she finds inappropriate.

“When people ask about that, I always say, ‘Well, how about we talk about your genitals and then we’ll talk about mine?’ ” she said.

According to the Family Life Development Center at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., only about one in 30,000 biological males and one in 100,000 biological females pursue gender-corrective surgery.

“If what was in my pants defined me, there’d be a lot of men and women who aren’t true men or women,” she said.

Roe said she is more “passable” now, meaning people typically don’t realize she’s transgender until she brings it up. Fewer people question her now, but it does still happen.

“When am I woman enough to not need to tell people that I’m transgender?” Roe said.

Handling the reaction

Roe told her family and close friends about her transition in person and over the phone, and she sent a letter to her extended family members.

She knew not everyone would be accepting, but she didn’t want her identity to be a secret.

“My grandmother on my father’s side said, ‘I was just getting OK with you being gay. For God’s sakes, I’m a Lutheran,’ ” Roe recalled with a chuckle.

When Roe’s mother, Tonya Bonnifield, was able to process the transition, she said it made sense.

“The gay road was just full of disaster. Everything was,” Bonnifield said. “I remember thinking, ‘Well, no wonder nothing worked out in the past.’

“She’s extremely happy (now), and that’s all I want,” she added.

Roe’s father did not show the same support. After hearing the news, he disowned her. Even though they had not been very close, the reaction still hurt Roe.

Bonnifield is angry about her ex-husband’s reaction over what he refers to as Roe’s “choice.”

“She’s got her stepfather. She needs something, he’s there,” Bonnifield said. “She’s got the support, but it’s still not Dad.”

Roe posts short videos on YouTube as both an indicator of where she’s been and where she’s heading. She said the site helps friends, family members and even strangers better understand her journey.

Challenges of strangers

Roe feared for her safety as she began her transition, and said that even though prejudice seems to be less overt in Fargo-Moorhead than other parts of the country, it still exists.

“Regardless of whether you agree with it or not, (transgender) people do exist and these are their lives, and it’s just important to make sure that they’re comfortable and safe above everything,” she said.

Fellow Concordia senior Jen Buchanan, who met Roe last May on a seminar trip to South Africa, said Roe’s transition had no effect on their friendship, nor did apprehension from others.

“I feel like most people don’t really know what to think about it,” she said.

Buchanan recalled a time she and Roe went to Herberger’s to find Roe a skirt-suit. When they asked a saleswoman for help, they assumed Buchanan was Roe.

“When we straightened that out, they said that we might have more luck in the men’s department,” Buchanan said.

At the start of her transition, Roe tried to use only gender-neutral or single-stall bathrooms. Sometimes, she would wait until she got home to use the restroom to avoid making other people uncomfortable.

“I remember for a little while I was like running in and running out of bathrooms just hoping not to meet anyone, and that was really stressful because, you know, all I wanted to do was use the bathroom,” she said.

Earlier this year, a bouncer in Dempsey’s bar in downtown Fargo told Roe she had to use the male bathroom because her driver’s license still says she is male.

She later spoke with the manager, and a resolution regarding transgendered individuals being able to use the single-stall bathrooms downstairs was reached. Roe hopes she can get that sort of acceptance from other area businesses.

Meet Buffy Backspin

After her transition was under way, Roe heard about the Fargo Moorhead Derby Girls and was immediately interested in the female-empowering sport.

The Women’s Flat Track Derby Association, the governing body of women’s roller derby, recently enacted a new gender policy that allows “intersex and transgender athletes with equal opportunities to participate in athletics,” which made it possible for Roe to join.

Because there aren’t many transwomen role models, Roe said, being a part of something so focused on female empowerment was “very legitimizing in a world that doesn’t want to identify you.”

Roe’s Derby name is Buffy Backspin, an homage to her childhood heroine from the TV show “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and her favorite kick from tae kwon do.

“She’s never been a sports person, so to find this little niche of life and be accepted with these girls is great,” Bonnifield said. “She’s one of the girls, you know?”

Unfortunately for Roe, a herniated disc in her back prompted her to take medical leave from the league. Although this has been difficult for her, she remains an avid supporter of her friends and teammates.

“These are life things, and you just kind of have to deal with them as they come,” she said.

Focus on the future

The past year has been draining but rewarding for Roe, and she said she’s made the most physical progress in the past several months. Some people treat her differently now, whether they realize it or not.

“People talk to me in different ways, the door is held for me a lot more,” she said. “I get hit on in bars all the time, which is something that never happened before.”

Roe has finished the course work for a degree in psychology and is working on a women’s studies major and sociology minor. She plans to focus on gender and sexuality studies in graduate school after finishing at Concordia this winter, then seek work as a professor somewhere.

Bruce Vieweg, associate provost, chief information officer and interim dean of students at Concordia College, said to the best of his knowledge, Roe is the first openly transitioning student on campus.

He has had many discussions with Roe on a personal and professional level. He applauds her courage, and not just when it comes to this latest venture.

“She’s experienced it all,” he said. “And bless her heart for sharing that experience with others.”

Others have started openly transitioning on campus now as well, and Vieweg said Roe started the movement.

“She’s blazing a path. She really is,” he said. “It takes courage to do that.”

If you go

What: Pride Parade

When: 2 p.m. today

Where: starting at Island Park Cycles on North Broadway, Pride Rally immediately following on the Civic Center west lawn