How Coming Out As Trans To My Family Made Me An Activist
People can change. I know this, because I’m a living example of it. It is as true for South Carolina voters as it is for my mother.
Recently, I had the great fortune to actually go down to the state house when the committee for South Carolina's transgender “bathroom bill” (S. 1203) was in session. S. 1203 would have prevented trans people from using sex-designated bathrooms in schools and municipalities; although the bill was defeated, South Carolina's Senator Lee Bright had threatened to introduce another bill, and politicians like him have supported over 100 anti-LGBT bills that have been introduced this year alone. So, naturally, I started a petition with GLAAD on Change.org to ask State Senator M. Lee Bright to meet with me and other transgender South Carolinians.
The idea wasn’t so much to change Lee Bright's mind, but to change the minds of other people who would watch us meet. Luckily, Senator Bright was defeated for reelection last week, so in that way, my petition is now moot. But the principle remains the same: I've seen firsthand how the most effective change comes from being forced to interact with the very people you discriminate against. If we continue to put on display the humanity of trans people, and actually make our lives and our struggles visible, we will win. I believe this, because I put my family in that very position.
I grew up in a very sheltered, fundamentalist Christian home. Our family values were almost to the point of asceticism; you were taught to feel guilty all the time, to feel like everything that your brain and your heart desired was intrinsically evil, something you had to purge yourself of. Even when I was able to identify my desires as a child, I felt like they were something I had to suppress, because it was selfish to even think about indulging them. Mine was a childhood of confusion and frustration and feeling like there was always something different about me, something I couldn’t quite put my finger on.
As I got older, the tension inside me continued to grow and grow and grow. It was a tumultuous mix of frustration, tension, feeling out of place, a dissociation with myself, and a lot of envy towards the lives of women around me. I was in a deep distress about it, constantly. I would sometimes go out of my way to avoid people — seeing people and being seen by people, whether it meant taking a long route around campus, or finding a secluded area. The dysphoria was constant, but I still didn't "know" I was trans.
It wasn't until I moved out of my parents’ house after I graduated from college that I had any amount of relative freedom in my life. I decided that I needed to figure out what was going on with me. I buried myself in all kinds of research online, and I took little quizzes and surveys to try to figure it out, and that's when I found out about being trans. Once I discovered the word, I immersed myself in it completely. I couldn’t think about anything else; I would go to school and then I would come home and just dive into reading, every day, for months. It was just nothing but reading and researching and thinking — and it still took me awhile to admit it to myself. I was discovering the language that I’d been looking for my entire life to describe myself. I was 23.
I came out during the summer of 2011. In the fall, I was just about to start on Hormone Replacement Therapy, and thought it was probably a good idea to come out to my parents. In retrospect, that was a huge mistake. They didn’t disown me, but they yelled and screamed that they felt like I was punishing them and throwing this in their face, spitting on their legacy — all kinds of really awful things. When I tried to show them pictures of myself dressed as a woman, they were just completely disgusted. I was still on their health insurance, and they threatened to kick me off their plan. Indeed, they followed through on that, and left me high and dry without health insurance for several months.
They made it very clear that they were never going to accept me, ever. To be honest, I was more or less expecting that reaction, but I was still very disappointed. They thought I was being selfish, but I thought they were being selfish. Later, they would say things like, “Oh, we still love you, but we’ll never accept this about you.” Which, of course, is absurd. If they love the version of me that’s not really me, then they don’t really love me. I tried to tell them that, but, of course, they wouldn’t hear it at all.
Since I didn't have health insurance, I paid for my hormone replacement therapy out of pocket, using money from my student loans. For the first year, my family continued to call me by my old name and my old pronouns. To a certain extent, I tolerated that, because I was still presenting myself at that point as male, and I didn’t want to make a big issue of it. But once I was actually presenting as woman, I was starting to expect them to use my new name and pronouns, and they didn’t. They were still digging in their heels.
It started getting to a point where, emotionally, I wasn’t prepared to participate in family activities or holidays anymore. I’ve never had worse dysphoria in my life than going to a family event where I feel like I’m presenting as my true self, but am still being referred to as my old self. So I actually laid down an ultimatum: I sent that email out to everyone in my immediate family, and I basically told them, “Please use this name. Use these pronouns or I will not participate in anything anymore.” They didn’t ever respond to that email. To this day, they’ve never responded to it directly.
But, to my own surprise, after a few months, they slowly started to change. Once they saw me transition and begin to live my life as my authentic self, they saw that I didn’t become some grotesque stereotype. I can only assume their image of a trans woman was very much like a drag queen in their minds — the exorbitant makeup, the flamboyant over-the-top personality. There's nothing wrong with any of that, of course, but it wasn't me — I wasn't becoming totally different person. Once all of those misguided notions got dispelled, I think they started to realize, “Oh, she just feels a lot more comfortable in her skin now. She feels a lot more at ease. She’s still the same person with all the same interests.” They began to let down their guard.
They started calling me by the right name. Today, most of my family calls me by the correct pronouns — not all of them and not all the time, but most of them try to get it right. In the past few weeks, I've even seen them defending trans people on social media, which is amazing. I had never seen someone in my family defend anyone in the LGBT community before.
I think this year might be the year my mom agrees to go to Pride with me. I asked her last year, and I’m going to ask her every year until she does. That’s my plan. Last year, she said she "wasn't ready yet," but if I had even asked her even a year earlier, I suspect she would’ve said, “Absolutely not. That’s a sin.” “Not ready yet” is a huge evolution for her. I couldn’t even fathom that response back when I came out five years ago. I think all the people of South Carolina and the world are capable of the same kind of evolution, including Senator Bright.
But here’s the thing: Even if South Carolina does manage to pass a discriminatory bathroom bill in the future, I would still use the women’s restroom. I would have to pay any consequences that come, because there is no greater consequence than me having to continue to lie about who I am in any way. The thought of me using a men’s restroom, at this point, is preposterous to anyone who knows me. The only thing S. 1203 would accomplish would be to punish trans people for living our daily lives. I won't stand for that, and given the opportunity to see it for what it is — and to see us for who we are — I believe South Carolinians won't stand for it either.
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