By Sunnivie Brydum, Guest Blogger
When it comes to telling the stories of transgender people, many focus on the trauma that often surrounds the transgender experience. While it’s worthwhile to acknowledge the significant discrimination, harassment, and violence that transgender people regularly experience, it’s also important to recognize that being transgender in and of itself is not a traumatic condition.
Most trans people live out, happy lives as their authentic selves — many with partners, families, and meaningful work. The honest sense of self and peace that comes from living as one was meant to be is liberating and often brings with it a host of positive results.
This November, as part of Transgender Awareness Month, we want to highlight some local stories of trans people who are living happy, healthy, whole, and productive lives as the gender they were meant to be. These people are leading by example, and their courage, honesty, and authenticity are worth admiration.
Meet Courtney Gray, a 35-year-old MTF transgender woman. Courtney lives in Arvada with her wife — to whom she is legally married — and is a prominent activist in the transgender community. Courtney volunteers at the GLBT Center of Colorado (The Center) and with One Colorado, and she also travels the country speaking at colleges and forums like the Police Academy at Arapahoe Community College, University of Colorado, Metro State College of Denver, and Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.
Here’s a brief introduction to Courtney as she steps in for Brad Clark to chat with Deputy Director Jess Woodrum. For a more in-depth examination of Courtney’s story and experiences as a transgender woman, activist, and wife, keep reading.
I asked Courtney to start at the beginning — with her coming out experience and her process of coming to terms with her gender identity and authentic self.
Courtney Gray: Like so many people, early in life, between nine and 11 [years old], I started to feel that something was different, amiss, askew perhaps. I didn’t really know what that was all about. I knew that I liked to dress in women’s clothing, but I didn’t have any language to match that.
The disconnect between how I felt about myself and my actual anatomy grew as time went on. When I was about 25 [years old, that disconnect] really came to a head. It wasn’t until 1996 that I actually had some language to match it. But I was still very much in denial.
I think one thing that often gets overlooked is that this is very much a process that people go through. So I very much identified as a cross-dresser for a long time. Which is, coincidentally, one of the reasons that I really like to include the cross-dressing community in a lot of our work, because many of us started in that position…
I didn’t want to be trans. I knew what that looked like — I’d heard stories, I’d gone to support groups and had very bad things happen as a result of seeing some of the strife that takes place. So when I was 25, I really started to explore my gender identity more, and feel the waters out — dressing up on weekends and that sort of thing. It became more difficult to de-transition, so to speak, at the end of each weekend. I knew I had to do a little something about that. But it wasn’t really until I was 30 that I decided that I absolutely have to do something about it.
And so I did. I sought counseling — did that for the required year, and got my [doctor’s certification as transgender and corresponding] hormone letter. And I was still working as a welder and a mechanic at that time — while I was on hormones. I was very closeted. No one at work knew. That went on for two years before I really started to come out. I came out amongst all of my friends, but none of my coworkers, and none of my family knew… Until I was about 32, when I came out to everyone in my life.
In that process, it was really liberating to finally just be able to be me and not make any excuses for it. Not to have to hide anything was like having a weight lifted off my shoulders. That’s not to say that it wasn’t terrifying — it was absolutely terrifying.
I had lived a very sheltered life outside of the LGBT community, so I didn’t see too much of how people took people that were like me. I only had things that I’d seen in the media to reference. So I was definitely terrified to be in the world, and I had lots of trepidations. I felt like I had to have numerous surgeries before I would ever even be able to walk out my front door. It was definitely a struggle in that sense…
I describe my former masculinity now as kind of a coat of armor that protected this shy, undeveloped little girl that I didn’t want anyone to know about. And once I allowed that part of myself to come out, I really started to feel like I could finally blossom and be whole and not so angry and pissed off at the world.
I started doing volunteer work at The Center [in 2007], and that gave me at least a singular place that I could go to really be who I am, all the time. And that really helped me come out of my shell; getting involved in the community, knowing other people like me, having people not react at all. I’d walk in the door, and they’re like “Sup?” And that’s it. So that helped a great deal in my coming out process.
Coming out to friends and family overall went really well — much better than I thought it ever would. Which isn’t always the case for everyone, but for me, I lost very few friends. And I have very few family members that have any sort of an issue with it. Almost everyone that I’m close to in my family is great with it, and I actually have better relationships with many of my family members as a result, because I think they understand that part of my anger was rooted in not being who I was. Everyone was really shocked, because I was very hypermasculine, but everyone was accepting after the initial shock wore off.
I did lose one relationship over [coming out as trans]. It wasn’t entirely the reason for the demise of the relationship, but it was definitely a contributing factor. She needed to be with a man, and I wasn’t that man.
Getting involved in the community, I started to see that there weren’t lots of resources, places that people could go. There was only one support group a month at The Center. And if it happened to be the day after that support group that I was working at the front desk, and someone came in, what was I to tell them? “Well, I really appreciate all the courage that it took for you to walk through our front door, that you’ve been thinking about for three months, but come back in a month?” That just didn’t sit well with me.
I knew that that needed to change. So now at The Center we have two support groups a week – one for the transmasculine and one for the transfeminine end of the spectrum. We also have a monthly SOFFAs [Significant Others, Friends, Family and Allies] group.
So doing that [work] was kind of the spark of what I started to do. I got involved with One Colorado, I got involved with The Center more, and I’ve done some work with the ACLU. One of the things I knew I needed to do when I was getting into activism and getting away from welding and mechanics, was to focus my energy. I looked at a lot of different needs in the community — and the top need was health care. And that seemed like an overwhelmingly daunting task to me, to tackle health care. I didn’t feel like that was something I could accomplish on my own, or even within the offices of the local community.
The second was jobs — discrimination in the workplace is huge for trans people. So getting through the jobs piece, I thought about that, and realized that people who are employed get health insurance. So we could kind of back-door that primary problem with the secondary problem. So I started looking around — I read an article about Atlanta putting on a [transgender] job fair. So I started to do some research around who had done job fairs, and who had done the most — and that turned out to be the Transgender Economic Empowerment Initiative (TEEI) in San Francisco. With my own money, I flew out there [in April 2009] and learned everything I could about their job fairs. And they were very gracious in giving me all the information they had on putting something like this together.
So this year we [at The Center] put on the very first transgender job fair that wasn’t on a coast. And for 2012, we’re actually doing two job fairs — one on May 5, and one in October.
In conjunction with the job fairs, we also did preparedness workshops. Most of the preparedness workshops are for the employees, kind of navigating how to put together a resume where some of your experience might be John, and you’re living life as Jane now. How do you navigate that? [We discuss] interview skills, and being confident in who you are; how to navigate once you’re in the workplace, and acknowledging your trans existence, but it shouldn’t be your primary issue.
We’re also making sure that those employers have trans-inclusive policies on the books, not just lip-service towards it. And then we also do a training session the day of the job fair, with all of the employers to make sure that they understand what they’re doing moving forward.
Sunnivie Brydum: How do you feel like the world views transgender people? And does that play into the difficulties of walking through life as a trans person?
CG: I think the world at large deals with trans people in a fearful manner — and that begets a lot of different feelings. Some of those feelings are anger — some people view us as freaks somehow because not everyone can “pass” [as their authentic gender]. Those are some of the people who I admire the most, because it takes an enormous amount of courage to go about your daily life, to order your lunch, to go to work everyday, and everyone knows you’re trans. That’s a heavy burden to bear. So I think that’s probably a lot of how folks view us.
SB: Would you say that’s one of the more difficult parts of living the trans experience?
CG: I think that, coupled with the disconnect between how you feel about your person and how the world sees you, and how even you see yourself is huge. We’ve talked about jobs, and getting a good-paying job so that you can actually complete your level of transition, whatever that looks like for you — getting to that point is really difficult for most people. Because it’s extraordinarily expensive to do.
For general reference, between hair removal and surgery and hormones and counseling, right now I’m in about the $80,000 range. And I’ve had one surgery. I didn’t have breast augmentation, I didn’t have facial feminization surgery, I just had bottom surgery. Breast augmentation costs $6,000 – $8,000; facial feminization is $30,000 – $40,000. If you do the math, it’s a small house.
SB: Now that we’ve discussed some of the difficulties of being trans, what do you feel like are some of the unexpected benefits that come from being able to live authentically?
CG: One of the things my wife Rachel and I joke about is, what in the world am I going to do with all my brain energy when I’m not busy thinking about being trans anymore? Because even though I do this work on a daily basis, in talking about it, I don’t necessarily feel trans, per se. Because I’ve achieved my level of completeness.
So I’ve really dove headlong into activism, and it’s been quite amazing to experience what happens when you live your life completely honestly and authentically. I’ve really felt like I’ve been able to blossom in a way that I never would have expected, and on a level that certainly seemed impossible for most of my life and through most of my transition.
SB: Can you give me an example of what that blossoming has felt like, or an experience where you were particularly aware of that ability?
CG: I did a lot of work with the Denver Sheriff’s Office on their transgender inmate policy. They came to the Denver Mayor’s Commission, and the Commission asked me to come in and talk with them a little bit. We spent nine months working on that policy, every two weeks. It was a really difficult thing to do, to sit in a room with 40 deputies and captains and officers, trying to get their brains wrapped around what it means to be trans. And what that looks like in the auspices of an inmate situation.
To be able to sit there and have the presence of mind to to do that, and to have the strength and empowerment to do that, blew me away. I certainly never thought I would find myself in that situation — never thought I would have the chutzpah to do it.
It’s been really empowering to have such a sense of self, to be able to stand up and tell your story, and to help people come to an understanding of what it means to be trans, and how to support the community.
SB: You said that you knew from an early age that something was off, but you didn’t have the language to describe that. What do you think the impact is of these young people who come out as trans at seven, eight, nine years old — and the parents who support their children in their gender identity — when everyone else is telling them that it’s a phase, that they’re too young to know themselves? What do you think the potential is for that, when you’re seeing more families embrace their children’s identity, even though that’s still a minority reaction?
CG: I do think that’s still the minority. But the Information Age has definitely dawned an age where parents can say — without going to a doctor, without having to go to a psychologist, without having to talk to your mom or your friends about what’s going on — “I’m curious. My kid only plays with Barbies, and he likes to dress up in little girl’s clothes. Or my kid likes to play with trucks and likes guns and won’t wear a dress and throws a fit if we make her do it. What’s that all about?”
You can get on a phone and find this information out. That information is certainly very powerful. As is the fact that media has picked it up. Whether you like daytime talk shows or not, Oprah and those kind of respectful talk shows have done a great service to the community, to be able to give parents the language and stories and YouTube videos to go and check out. That way you can start to understand what might be going on for your child, and at least start to ask the right questions of your kid.
SB: Is there anything else you’d like to add?
CG: One of the things that’s really important for people to do and understand is to take your time with this. It takes a while. Going through a gender change isn’t something that you can remotely expect to happen overnight. Or in a year. Or three years. … Because it takes time for your body to change — five, six years. It’s no different than normal puberty. It happens just as infuriatingly slowly.
Sunnivie Brydum is the Denver LGBT Issues Examiner and a guest blogger for One Colorado. This article is also available on Examiner.com. You can also find Sunni on Facebook and Twitter, exploring and talking about her passion: the politics of equality.