I met Sharlene in a meditation class taught by a member of our liberal church. She needed someone to accompany her to concerts, so she asked me if I liked classical music. I remember sending out stay-away vibes (but not because I knew she was gay). I conquered my antisocial feelings and agreed to go to a concert. From there, we shared dinners and short excursions out of town, and we exchanged long e-mails and phone calls. We went to my sister-in-law’s retirement party and proceeded to ignore everyone else while we played Scrabble.
At some point I realized that Sharlene and I were becoming more than just friends. (This realization was helped along by some really interesting dreams that were asking me to pay attention.) I called my younger sister, who is also a lesbian, and said: “We need to talk!” She was not as surprised about all this as I thought she should be. Neither was my best friend Toni, who had supported me through all my unhealthy relationships with men (not entirely their fault). Toni was immensely relieved to hear that it wasn’t a man I had fallen in love with this time!
As it happens, I was leaving town to housesit for Toni, who was out of the country. Before I left town, I wanted to declare my intentions to Sharlene, so I placed a red rose with a note on her gate. We talked later that evening, and she agreed to give the relationship a chance, but she was a bit cautious. Maybe I was just a straight woman looking to experiment.
That was 16 years ago, and we’re still together. We’ve been married twice; the second time it was legal! When I first came out, I lost two friends. One breakup was a complete surprise; she was a liberal, but my guess is she had some unresolved sexual issues of her own. The other friend dropped me for religious reasons. But I always knew that, at age 52, I didn’t have the option of pretending to be someone besides who I am. If I had come out in my 20s, like my sister, I’m sure things would have been way different. Being more mature now, I don’t worry so much about what people think of me. I don’t play “pronoun games.” Now that same-sex marriage is legal in California, I believe people need to get used to the idea that some women have wives and some men have husbands.
I am convinced that my wonderful, accepting father (who died in 2003) would have marched in the Pride parade with a t-shirt stating “Proud Father of Two Lesbian Daughters.” My mother was tolerant (nothing more), but she was probably in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease by that time. My other sisters were delighted for me — and probably more hopeful than they’d ever been about my chances for long-term happiness.
One last thing: I’m technically bisexual, since I’m sexually attracted to both men and women, but I identify as a lesbian because I’m — emotionally, spiritually, and intellectually — much more attracted to women. Or as Toni says, “women-identified.” Too bad it took me so long to figure that out. I had crushes on women before, but the timing was never good. I’m so glad I met the right woman eventually!
Here’s my advice to everyone: Above All, Be Yourself.
But, my world was rocked by my daughter’s pronouncement and for six months, I mostly put it out of my mind and carried on without dealing with the news. My behavior was obviously affected, as my angry daughter described to me six months after she came out. She said that I was treating her differently, was more reserved with her. She was going through a lot of feelings around coming out, plus dealing with changes in her friendships, her self-image, some very bedrock identity issues. I was not there to help her with this, as I was emotionally unavailable to her during that time and this hurt her deeply. I realized that she was right, that I had done a great disservice to this most important relationship, which had always been close, supportive, and loving.
After several good cries, I called the local Nevada County PFLAG phone number for support. Answering the phone was our past president, now my good friend Pat Rose, an out lesbian who is a tireless advocate for our local LGBTQ community. She set me on a path of education and change that I am still following. I read books, came to meetings, agreed to volunteer with PFLAG, and slowly changed my attitudes. In looking back over my upbringing, I remembered incidents which led me to having the internalized homophobic beliefs I carried. I was told by my church, the culture, and even my parents that homosexuality was an illness, a sing; that gay people were not really human, were people not worthy of respect or love. There were no out gay people in my world as a child. I was shocked at the few brave gay people in the early 70’s at my liberal college who dared to express who they were. I feared them, avoided them, undoubtedly harmed them with my attitudes.
In the 80’s, I had a few gay fellow nursing students who really only hinted at their orientation, too afraid to be completely open. This, of course, led to a reinforcement of the attitude I had that there really was something wrong with “those people.” For a person who leads with her heart, is compassionate and open to so many, I was closed to the humanity of my fellow humans who happened to be gay. I am ashamed of my past beliefs, but as Pat has told me, all people, even gay people, grew up with homophobia and need to fight it in their minds and souls.
I am dedicated to the fight against homophobia, to assisting other people who are struggling with these issues. I am a true straight ally for the LGBTQ community, and welcome contact with any person struggling with issues around homophobia. Please read out to me if I can do anything to help in your process. My journey has resulted in a deeper, closer relationship with my wonderful daughter. The struggle has been so worthwhile and my gratitude to PFLAG and the wonderful people I have met in the organization is so profound. Reaching out for their help is something I highly recommend. Thanks for allowing me to share my still evolving story with you.
I am transgender. This is not something I chose to be or was somehow influenced to become, and it is nobody’s fault, and there is no “cure” for it, because like every variation in nature, it is valid and real, like being left-handed. It just is what it is.
Being transgender is not a mental illness, nor is it a lifestyle choice. If you are not familiar with what it means to be transgender, I encourage you to contact PFLAG or the Gender Health Center in Sacramento, CA, for information to help become educated about it, and to connect with others who can provide any needed support. There are many people faced with this issue (including their friends and families), and many more to come, as more people become aware of us, and more of us come forward about who we are as the constraints of cultural adversity are loosened. I only wish I had the resources available to me when I was a kid, that kids and parents – and you – have available today.
I know it can be difficult to adjust to the idea when brought up in a world of arbitrary cultural distinctions, where gender roles are so clearly defined and defended that never the two shall cross. But when you awaken to the reality of the diversity of nature, and the true spectrum of gender identity and self-expression, you can begin to recognize the beauty of all people, and let go of judgment and preconceptions that may have otherwise prevented you from fully embracing what it means to be human.
It can be a difficult adjustment to think of someone you know in a different way, and I can certainly appreciate that, for a mother, it must be exceptionally difficult to look at their baby girl or boy and refer to them with pronouns traditionally reserved for members of the opposite sex, especially after their baby has grown. But gender and biological sex are two different things. The physical body, and thus sexual development, is extremely complex, and in the whole of nature and life itself, no two organisms are ever the same, and nothing conforms to the ideal. Often there is no clear distinction at birth as to whether a child is male or female, nor does that distinction guarantee that the brain – the most complex organ known to man – is developmentally aligned with the visually observable anatomy. It’s just not as simple as what chromosomes or body parts a person has.
Being transgender isn’t some fad that someone sees on television and suddenly decides that’s what they want to be. Life is a discovery process, and in our developmental years, we discover what drives us, what we’re drawn to, and how we feel about ourselves and see ourselves to be.
I experienced my entire childhood, feeling that life was completely unfair, because I was being raised as a boy despite the fact that I felt like a girl. I was drawn to everything that girls had, and got to do – the clothes, the games they played, the way they interacted with each other, the toys they played with, etc. Everything except boys. But because I was a boy, I was taught I was not allowed to partake in those things, because that was simply not what boys did, and with no explanation as to why.
As a boy, I was not allowed to cry, and I was supposed to be strong (as if emotions were a weakness) and learn to be a fighter and a leader and to be the one to pursue the girls and ask them out and open the door for them, etc. So, I learned to stuff all of my feelings deep down inside me, and hide my secret desire to wear dresses and skirts and play hopscotch and jump rope and play with dolls and ride a pink bicycle with white wall tires and a pretty basket. I wanted girls to open the door for me and ask me out. But I did what I could to fit in and act like the boy everybody expected me to be, based solely on my external body parts and the way other people treated me. I was unhappy and very lonely most of the time, and I felt isolated and completely alone.
I had no one to confide in about this. I had no language to talk about what I was dealing with. There wasn’t even a word for me. And before I discovered the word “transvestite” I thought I was absolutely the only person on the planet who felt this way, and even though “transvestite” didn’t really describe my situation, it gave me hope that at least someone out there was looking into it, and that there must be others like me. Suddenly, I didn’t feel so alone. But the Internet didn’t exist, and All In The Family was the most popular show on television, with it’s opening song about, “when girls were girls and men were men,” so I still felt like I had nowhere to turn.
Because there was so much pre-existing support for these arbitrary gender distinctions, and for equating masculine with male and feminine with female, and enforcing their separation, there seemed to be no place for me in this world. I considered suicide many times, for I felt as though I was a freak of nature that was to be discarded if anyone were to find out. Because that’s the message I was getting from the ignorant world around me that chose to only look skin deep. But it was unbearable to live a life that was not authentic to who I was inside. And when one suppresses a core aspect of who one is, there comes a point in one’s life where one can no longer continue to live the lie, and there is no other option left except to either express who you are, or die. There simply is no other alternative; because to continue living a lie, is to be dead already.
I write this from my heart, from my personal experience, and I hope that you can hear me through these words. I did not have a choice in the biology I was born with, but I have a choice in how I live my life, and I am finally choosing to live a life that is free of the constraints that have prevented me from living a full and authentic life for so long. It is a choice to be happy and healthy, as opposed to continuing to hide and suppress my true nature, which can only breed emotional, psychological and even physical problems, as repressed feelings tend to eat their way out from the inside. There will be new challenges, of course, but I will face them as my authentic self.
As a matter of survival, I have developed the self-confidence and courage to finally stand up and announce to (my little part of) the world who I really am, trusting that the people who truly matter in my life will receive me with warmth and support. The world has changed a lot since I was a kid, and people have become more enlightened about who and what we all are as living beings, and how little relevance gender really has in the value and worth of a human life. It is very encouraging, and although I know there are still narrow-minded people in this world who will not accept me, or will judge me for religious or other reasons that are not their own, and perhaps would even wish me harm, I also realize that I do not accept those people in my life. So I am finding strength to stand up for who I am, and with people like Caitlyn Jenner stepping into the spotlight to bring attention and awareness to the issues that transgender people face, and to give a peek into the lives of transgender people (who are just as ordinary as anyone else who just wants to live their life and be happy), I am encouraged to stand up for others who are like me as well.
My given name was chosen for me, without any opportunity for me to approve or disapprove. So were the gender pronouns that people have used for me, since the day the doctor declared my gender upon my birth. But now I am old enough to choose a name that suits me best, and I have chosen a name for myself, and I prefer pronouns that better align with who I see myself to be. And the name I chose is more mine than any ever given to me, because I have chosen it.
Again, I know it can be a challenge to get used to, and I don’t expect anyone, especially a parent, to make the transition quickly or easily. But try to understand the life I have lived, and the transition I will undergo as I finally step into the life I always felt I had to keep hidden, practically since the day I became self-aware. Understand that for me, I feel like my entire life has been an act, and that every reference to my given name and pronouns has felt uncomfortable and wrong. Imagine wearing a Halloween costume your entire life, that you could not remove, making it impossible for anyone to see who you really are. Imagine what it would feel like to you, if everyone referred to you as, “sir,” or “he”, or “that guy” – or a “man” (if you are a woman), or “ma’am”, “she”, or “that girl” – or a “woman” (if you are a man).
What it means to be a “man” or a “woman” is not determined by whether you have a “male” or “female” body. Gender, as opposed to sex, is a sociological construct, and the mind is more than just the body that carries it. Not everybody identifies as a “man” or a “woman”, as these are idealistic constructs, which often lead to judgments made by people who think in black-and-white terms, calling out others as “not a real man” or “not a real woman”. The reality is, we are all a unique blend of masculine and feminine, and thus only individuals can decide for themselves where they fall on the gender spectrum. And it truly is a spectrum. We are all simply human.
It is a show of respect to consider a transgender person as a human being and to refer to them in the manner in which they, as adults, have chosen to present themselves. And it can be a difficult adjustment to alter your references to someone who you have known for some time who is now undergoing a transition. Powerful cultural influences may have conditioned your perspective to encourage others, as well as yourself, to conform to these binary ideals, but there is nothing anyone can think, say or do that will change who anyone really is. Asking a transgender person to change their reality in favor of conformity is like asking a left-handed person to stop using their left hand, or asking someone to change the color of their eyes or skin. I realize it can be a struggle to accept a condition that is not visible – like being deaf – but no one can speak for a mind that is not their own, and it is disrespectful to do so.
I stand as a testament, along with others of similar experience, that society and convention cannot force anyone to be who they truly are not. And I can appreciate and respect the challenge that has been placed in your path, for you to advance to a place of understanding and acceptance of this reality, but only you can make the choice in how you respond to it. All I am asking is to be respectful of my choices as an adult. And I will be as helpful and supportive to you as I can in your efforts to understand me, if you so choose. After all, we’re all in this life together.