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"Just one of the girls": how a 61-year-old transgendered woman got elected student body president of her Pennsylvania community college. (Behind the Headlines).

By the time Alberta Hamm had enrolled in Pennsylvania's Harrisburg Area Community College two years ago, she had been through several lifetimes: as a husband and father, an elder in her Protestant church, a salesman at a Montgomery Ward department store, and, since 1995, as a transgendered woman (her transition was completed on July 10, 2001). Hamm was already speaking on behalf of the trans community when she entered HACC to study to become a therapist for gender identity issues. Last spring, Hamm, 61, was elected president of the student government. She spoke to The Advocate on the eve of her first semester in office.

You could have stayed low-profile when you first enrolled at HACC, but you decided to be very visible and active. Was that difficult to do?

When I started at HACC, I was approached about doing a presentation [on transgender issues]. I was very skittish about it. I thought, I came to school to get an education, not to put myself out front. But then I realized, No, what it's all about is to put myself out front, therefore preventing, possibly, somebody else from going through the same problems that I had.

You lived for 55 years as a man. What convinced you to make the full transition?

You might say I lived a double life for 55 years. And [in 1995] it was starting to take its toll. I was married for 30 years and all the time pretended to be something I was not. I was being treated for heart problems. They said to me, "Either you get rid of this stress in your life, or you're going to be dead." The doctors scheduled me for some mental health evaluation. It took me three months of talking with a therapist, and one day I just broke down and told this therapist that I felt like a woman.

What have you found to be recurring misconceptions about transgendered people?

One thing is, "Oh, you just want to have a sex change so you don't have to admit you're gay." As far as I am concerned, I am a heterosexual woman. Can I reproduce children? No. But I am as close to being a genetic woman as possible. And I'm comfortable with that. Do I hope to get married? Yes, I do. Will that happen? I don't know. I keep saying that my transition became part of my spiritual life. So if the good Lord wants me to have a husband, I think he's going to arrange that.

Was the transition harder or easier than you anticipated?

It was actually much easier. I anticipated losing my job, only to have my employer reinforce what I was doing, saying, "Hey, you're a good salesperson. We want you here. In your transition, you remember that you can always work for Montgomery Ward, and we just would appreciate it if you didn't embarrass the company." Well, I was company-oriented, so why would I do that? I started transitioning, and I went very slowly and very conservatively. And I think that's why I was so successful.

What did you think your chances were of getting elected by the students at your school?

I ran against four other people, all probably under 30. You have to understand, I live in a conservative area. I was concerned. Number 1, I was 61 years old. Number 2, I was a trans person. But the students at HACC didn't consider that at all. They just knew I was familiar with student government. I ran on issues of teamwork, diversity, fiscal responsibility, and accountability. I had a good platform, and I knew the issues. But yet I have students who say to me, "We don't care about those other things. We know you as Alberta, and that is what is important." I feel fantastic. I'm old enough to be these students' grandmother, and they accept me. I function just like I'm one of the girls.

What plans are on your agenda for your first semester as president?

I want to have a disabilities club on campus. I have a severe vision impairment, and if it weren't for our disability program, I probably wouldn't be in school.
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Author:Blotcher, Jay
Publication:The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)
Date:Sep 3, 2002
Words:701
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