I was recently asked by a friend if I’d be willing to allow her daughter to interview me for a group class assignment to learn how the recent restroom legislation in North Carolina impacts transgender persons. I agreed, knowing that explaining ‘transgender’ to 5th graders might be difficult. They (the kids, not the teacher) set up a Skype interview. I was blown away by the intelligence of the questions, which are the stuff everyone wants to know but that most people who aren’t 5th graders wouldn’t ask.
Here’s a summary of their questions and my responses:
Student: When did you decide that you were in the wrong body?
Stacee: You know, I don’t think that I ever felt I was in the wrong body, per se. I did feel that I could be happier living in a fully actualized female role and identity. From as far back as I can remember, I was different from other boys. As I got a little older, I started to realize that I wasn’t at all like them. I thought I was gay, which was hard enough back in the early 80s. But once I got out of high school, I realized that being gay wasn’t really what it was about in my case. I started doing drag- do you all know what drag queens are? [They did!]. Essentially, they’re men who dress as glamorous women. After a night of being in drag, I never wanted to get out of it. I knew then that I wanted to begin transitioning. I was happier and happier with the changes, so knew that life as a woman was right for me.
Student: Have you had any problems with anxiety as a kid or an adult?
Stacee: I had incredible anxiety in school because, beginning when I was in about 3rd grade, somebody called me a ‘fag’ every day of my school life. It got worse as I got older. I got threatened, people wrote things on my locker, I was punched in the face twice. One day, somebody spat Cheetos at me as I was walking out of my high school cafeteria. I was resistant. I wore make-up to school and carried a purse. I wanted them to think I wasn’t bothered. They didn’t need to think they were getting to me. Except that they were.
As an adult, life got better. There were hard times and sometimes, there still are; but adults can choose where we work and where we live, as well as how we spend our social time. For kids in school, there is a great need to rely on the adults around them. And I had so much shame that I didn’t feel I could talk to any adults.
Student: How has your life changed from male to female and what were the difficulties from the transition?
Stacee: That’s a hard question because I’m 45 now, and I had surgery when I was 23. The hardest times during my early days were on my job. I’d started when I was 19, and was still pretty much a boy…well, sort of a boy. Dr. Stacee had plucked eyebrows and platinum blonde hair. She looked pretty silly! (the kids laugh with me). I started my changes on the job. The big issue was about what restroom I’d use. It was hard for me because I really wasn’t trying to stand out; but because I did, I just accepted that I had to never let weakness show. People were pretty cruel about the whole thing. I mean, office restrooms? It was San Antonio, Texas in the early 1990s, though; and people just didn’t understand differences. I was one of the first people at AT&T to transition on the job. But the people I worked with didn’t make it easy.
Student: Would you want to change back to a boy. Why?
Stacee: Well…no! I’ve lived as a woman my whole adult life, and I can’t it imagine any other way. I’m probably older than some of your parents. What happens for adults is that the big, irreversible choices we make will come to seem like the only choice we could have made for ourselves. To ask us to imagine something different is to imagine a life that isn’t ours. And life as a boy (a man, now I suppose, because Dr. Stacee is getting quite old), wouldn’t have been the great life I’ve had! And frankly, I love being exactly who I am. I’ve had an amazing life experience as a woman, and I wouldn’t have wanted it any other way.
Student: How do people react on their first day of therapy? Do most patients know that you are transgender before they come to you? If not, what is it like for people to walk into your office and find out that you are transgender?
Stacee: People who seek me out as a therapist know that I’m trans. That’s on my website and all of my material that I put out to the public. So, they know, and many folks choose me for that reason. People react in different ways, but most are relieved to have someone who will listen to them and let them know that what’s going on for them is normal. Some are very nervous at first, particularly if they’ve been holding a lot of this stuff in secret prior to seeing me and haven’t talked to anyone about their experiences before. The general feeling, at least among transgender clients, is one of gratitude to be beginning the journey to live as they wish.
Student: What type of cases do people come to you with? For example does anyone come up to you with discrimination problems or do they have major depression issue and are thinking about suicide?
Stacee: Yes, to all of the above, unfortunately. The truth about being transgender is that people have to have love and support somewhere in their lives because it will be hard. Not everyone will admire us for the gorgeous mermaids (or in the cases of female-to-males, handsome men) that we’d like to think we are [I didn’t actually say the mermaid line to the 5th graders, but wish I had]. People will say mean things, “That’s a man!” when a transwoman is walking down the street, that sort of thing. For those who are in different ethnic communities or who are poor, it can be even more difficult because there may be cultural issues too with people expecting them to live and be someone different from who they are. Some people are completely overwhelmed by it all because they don’t have anyone who’s there for them.
I always tell people that it takes thick skin to live in a way that’s authentically your own. People will put you down and try to demoralize you. But you know what? Anyone who has to do that to another person leads a far sadder existence than anyone who’s living in truth.
Student: What are your experiences with the public? Has anyone excluded you or treated you different because you are transgender?
Stacee: I have a lot of privilege. I have a doctorate, I can afford to live in the neighborhood where I want to live. I have access to and attend the symphony, theater, museum events, sports. I eat out all the time. And I don’t look like a man in a dress. At least, I don’t think I do! I don’t have a particularly feminine voice, but it is what it is. I don’t have a lot of problems today. When I was first starting, life was much harder. But I made choices, hard choices, to continue on and to move away from people, places, and things that were the source of negativity. And you know what? It got better for me once I did.
Today, I love being trans. So I just represent myself. If people think I’m a biological woman, great. If they think I’m trans, a lot of people admire me for it because I’m sort of a rare bird. If folks put you down about some aspect of yourself that you feel really good about, they really aren’t the right people for you. [I really hope I got all of that out clearly to the students.]
Student: What do you think about the bathroom controversy? If you think transgender people should be able to use the bathroom of the choice can you give us a reason.
Stacee: It’s a bit more complex than using the bathroom of our choice. Trans people are generally a very respectful lot, and are sensitive to others as we move into public spaces. Sometimes, too much, like we need to apologize for existing. But that’s not your question. In fact, most people spend a period of several years transitioning from one gender role to another, and physical appearance changes tend to take time, as well. It’s a gradual awareness for most of us when, wow, we don’t look like we used to, and that we really have transitioned. That’s when people start accessing the other gender’s restroom, usually.
I was shopping at a department store with my girlfriend Denise, whose name had been Danny. This was about 25 years ago. She had to use the restroom. She’d been transitioning for a while. So, we went up to a counter to ask where the restrooms were. The salesperson directed Denise to the women’s restroom. She was so nervous because she’d always used the men’s room. It was a really scary experience for her, but because she looked like a girl, it was obviously where she needed to be.
Student: Why would you say that transgender people should not be able to walk into the bathroom they want? (If you weren’t transgender.)
Stacee: Well, I have to admit that it’s hard for me to imagine not being trans, because it’s been a minute that I’ve been living this way. The central argument by the people who are seeking and passing this legislation is that we need to restrict restroom access out of safety. But imagine this: a transgender person who accesses the public restroom space has had to take a bus, train, walk, or whatever to the destination where the restroom is located. If the individual is visibly trans, she or he is already terribly self-conscious and probably noticing the stares. Imagine if your dad, uncle, or grandpa dressed up as a woman and walked out into public. He’d know he didn’t look very feminine and probably wouldn’t go into a restroom unless he had to. That’s what it’s like for people who don’t necessarily pass as their identified gender. They know how they look, and how people perceive them. This is someone who, in whatever restroom is used, will want to get in and out as quickly as possible to avoid the humiliation of being questioned or looked at suspiciously.
Now, a lot of transgender people pass as the gender in which they are living their lives. In these cases, they look like ordinary women and men. Can you imagine how strange it would be to see a bearded bald man in the women’s restroom; or a woman who looks like she could be your aunt or your teacher using the men’s room? That’s what the legislation means though, because many people transition but do not have the ability to change their birth certificate.
Any other questions?
[Tiny hands raise.]
Student: What would your advice be to someone who’s considering transitioning?
Stacee: Be ready and know that it will be tough at times. People will hate you because they don’t understand you. The essential thing you’ll need is to gather people around who love you. Your support system will be everything to you. Give back to them when times are good, because they will be. There’s a lot of joy in being trans that people don’t think about, but our lives are truly unique. For one thing, after we make a decision and live through our transition, everything else we decide to do in life is much easier. Also, just as there are haters, so many, many people love us because we are so very unique. We inspire people, which I think is a hard thing to wake up to and realize. It’s actually a lot of social responsibility to be so visible because everyone’s looking to a transperson and saying, “Wow, you’re so strong.” Of course, we’re not always looking for that because most transpeople aren’t looking to be heroes, we just want to live in peace. But it’s part of our life journey.
We concluded our interview shortly after. It was a wonderful experience, and the very nice and amazingly well-worded emails from the students indicated that it was a fun and interesting project for them, as well.