Acceptance, Validation, Support, Solidarity and how to do it

January 13  Erica Allen

Erica Allen of Concord, New Hampshire, will speak about LGBTQ issues before the Unitarian Universalist Congregation in Andover, New Hampshire on January 13, 2019.  A native of New Jersey, she moved with her wife to Concord in 1998 where they raised their two children.  Erica currently works as an Information Technology Manager for the State of New Hampshire. In her diverse career she worked in IT for CIGNA in Hooksett, was co-owner of Up in Smoke specialty smoked seafoods in Tilton in the late 90s, studied Culinary Arts in France and Oregon in 1989-90, worked as a chef in Portland, Oregon for many years, was a Field Director in Iowa for Senator Paul Simon’s 1988 presidential campaign, and organized for the League of Conservation Voters in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and New Hampshire.  She studied at the American University in Paris, Rutgers University, and Granite State College.

In her address to the Unitarian Universalist Congregation in Andover, she will share aspects of her lifelong challenges as a closeted and then out transgender woman in the hope of familiarizing people with and humanizing the community of transgenders.  She will speak to ideas universally important to any marginalized community such as acceptance, validation, support, solidarity and how to do it.  After her address, she will be available for additional questions.

Here are the elements from the Jan. 13, 2019 Service that Erica Allen presented, Erica presented her information in three parts, Poem (opening words), Message, and Closing words. These words are contained below:

Erica’s Poem:

for the twenty six women and men murdered in 2018 for being trans and to all victims of hate

we who are able

some say we are scandalous

others claim we are dangerous

some find us ugly, perverse, decadent

others think we are shocking, absurd, irrelevant

some say we corrupt gender, masculinity, the American Way

others claim we threaten culture, feminism, God’s Way

some say we violate churches, workplaces, classrooms

others claim we invade dorm rooms, locker rooms, bathrooms

some find us perplexing

others think we are vexing

we are children, spouses, and parents

we are siblings, cousins, grandparents

we are doctors, teachers, students, electricians

we are clergy, soldiers, plumbers, politicians

we are athletes, artists, writers, band mates

we are lovers, partners, colleagues, soul mates

we are all ages, all cultures, all people

we are all creeds, all colors, all equal

we cry, we play, we feel, we work

we sing, we pray, we love, we hurt

we share with all minorities, fear of our difference

we share with all minorities, suffering from ignorance

sometimes we bend

sometimes we break

we dare to lay claim to be who we are

we have waited so long to come this far

here on the common

we honor the fallen

twenty six lives lost to violence and fate

a rainbow of souls extinguished by hate

how many others died unremembered?

how many will be dead next December?

for those who were shunned and disrespected

for those who were beaten and sorely neglected

we who are able, must be ourselves now

we who are able, must show others how

we who are able, must beat ignorance

we who are able, must fight intolerance

we who are able, must destroy vile hate

we who are able, can no longer wait

we who are able, must dispel the fear

we who are able, must claim our place here

thank you

erica allen

Erica’s Message:

Audio of the message

Before I begin, I want to make sure everyone knows that the word trans is short for transgender.

In preparing for today, I was surprised, to realize, that I started transitioning nearly seven years ago.  I made the decision to do so, after a lifetime of debilitating gender dysphoria, which simply means feeling a profound discomfort with a body that does not align with the gender with which you identify.  No matter what I did to carry on as a man, I could never shake the turmoil within, a turmoil that started with my earliest memories.

In the limited time I have, I would like to give you a sense of my journey through life, in the hope of providing some insight into the struggles of the trans community.  Please understand, that while there are themes throughout my experience that are common across the community, each of the challenges, circumstances, and outcomes that trans people experience are unique.

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People often ask me, “When did you first know you were trans?”  That turns out to be a difficult question to answer.  As a toddler, I lacked the perspective to understand the distinctions between boys and girls.  I had no siblings close to me in age, and no idea yet, what other children were experiencing.  Throughout my early childhood, I was unaware that the repeated admonitions regarding my feminine expression, were unusual.  My mother, telling me not to play with her clothes was, to me, no different than her telling me not to touch a hot stove.  It was just one of the many rules of life that I learned growing up.  I had no idea I was breaking so many of them.

Elementary school was when I began to recognize, that my early behaviors and inclinations were different.  Overnight, I was immersed in a teeming community of boys and girls my age.  I could not help but notice obvious gender differences with bathrooms, sports, clothing, and so on.  I also noticed that everyone expected me to be like the boys, while I wished to be like the girls. I did not know anyone like me, and did not understand why I seemed so different.  I had no words for what I felt, and feared that discovery of how I felt would alienate me.  I chose, over and over, to hide who I was, and became good at it.  I stuck to a small circle of friends, focused on school, and was grateful to only be perceived as a bookworm.

With adolescence, I began to suffer the relentless onslaught of puberty.  Skin, hair, odor, and features all began to change in horrifying ways.  Worst of all was to hear the deepening of my voice.  I felt as if I were losing myself.  My desperate attempts to reign in the changes, such as shaving my body, further highlighted my differences and deepened my sense of isolation.  God forbid anyone should find out what I was thinking.

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At the age of eighteen, my father startled me with an unexpected proclamation. “If you turn out to be gay, I won’t have anything to do with you.”  I reeled with confusion and a rekindled fear.  The tenuous tethers that bound me to family seemed suddenly undone.  Though I was not gay, I wondered what did he know?  What had I done?  Why was he so angry?  It was one of many painful moments, in my life, that confirmed my fears; that the differences in me did not sit well with others.  I became consumed by anxiety borne from the fear that I would be abandoned by those I cared about, should they discover my secret.  It drove me deeper into hiding.

In college, the limited exposure I had to the LGBTQ community, did not include anyone who was trans.  I also learned, that I was such a departure from the ordinary, that the mental health profession deemed, in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, that I and others like me, were mentally ill.  My childhood fears were further confirmed; my secret was dangerous to me.  By the time I left college, I was certain that I was a deviant.

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Not long after, I met, fell in love with, and finally married a wonderful woman.  I believed that my love for my wife would win out over my inner secret and determined to bury it and pursue life as a man.  We began to build a life together and embarked on our careers and started a family.  Life was good.

Because of this secret I was ceaselessly working to hide, I learned over the next twenty five years, that being a man was nothing but a constant struggle with tension, repressed anger, and difficulty connecting with others.  Though I wished to, and tried to find joy in marriage and children, over time I grew into a moody, controlling, inpatient, petulant, resentful, and unforgiving husband and father.  I was not happy.  In a quest for fulfillment, I compensated by throwing myself into anything I endeavored.  Among many pursuits, I went from being a passionate political organizer, to a serious student of the culinary arts, to an ambitious professional in technology.  I craved validation, in order to obtain the self-worth I did not feel.  Because of this, any time, anyone I knew had a problem or a need, no matter how small or large, I dove in to help.  I catered extravagant meals, responded to all manner of requests for computer help, assisted with plumbing, electrical, moving, building or renovation projects, worked on translations, edited so many resumes, and on and on and on.  I was trying to save me by saving the world.

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Throughout those years, I lived much like a deep cover spy, wearing a permanent camouflage of manhood.  Yet, I could never shake the persistent beckoning from within.  Frequently, the desire to liberate my inner woman, clawed at my heart and sometimes overwhelmed me.  My confidence had been ruined by the ceaseless tension of living in hiding and fearing that someone would discover the truth.  At various moments, despite that fear, I could not resist awkward attempts to express my identity.  The disastrous results always drove me back into hiding.  With each passing year, I slipped deeper into the darkness of hopelessness, while grappling with the dawning awareness that this thing inside, was in fact me, and I was trying to kill it.  By my late forties, I was a wreck, and reached a dangerously pivotal point, when I concluded that if I finished out my life never having lived, life was no longer worth living.  For nearly a year, this reckoning dug deep, as I considered its meaning and its potential consequences.  Desperate as I was, ready as I was, I knew I did not want to die, yet could no longer tolerate, not being alive.  That left only one option.  I had to transition.

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It took me decades to decide to transition and I knew it would be the hardest thing I would ever do.  I had no idea how my future would play out, where I would land, and what sacrifices I would have to make.  I had, by then, been married for nearly twenty five years with two young adult children.  I was far along in a successful career, had a network of close friends, and strong roots in my community.  In my mind, all that I cherished, all that I had achieved, was at risk.  This is a great fear that trans people struggle with in choosing to claim their identity.  To make the choice, is to understand that there is a strong possibility that you will sacrifice much or all that is dear to you.

Some trans people transition quickly, others slowly.  It took me six years.  I was determined to take the time I believed was needed to preserve that which I cherished.  I did not want to lose my marriage and my family!  I did not want to jeopardize my career.  I did not want to end up alienated and miserable.  I could not accept the idea, that it was anything less than unfair, that I should have to sacrifice so much, just to be me.  As I began my journey, it was with the growing belief that it was not I who had a problem, but society.  Today, I am sure of that.  I resolved not to give in to the construct that, “You want to claim your identity?  Then be ready to end up alone.”   Sadly, many who do transition, suffer these consequences.  I personally know several who have lost their marriages, their children, their jobs, and their friends.

Every step of my transition, down to the tiniest details, was done with a lengthy calculation for how to avoid these undesirable consequences.  My first step was to get back in shape.  Over the years, I had let myself go physically.  After two years of hard work, I had trimmed down and toned up.  I knew the next stage meant pursuing a direction fraught with fear, mystery and visible changes.  With caution, I took baby steps.  This meant simple things like dressing myself as a man through the eyes of a woman.  Soon, I was the nattiest, most color-coordinated dressed man at work, right down to my shoelaces.

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I do not have time to describe the long process of my transition, but I will share two of the lessons I learned during that difficult time.  The first was to always keep in mind the goal of having as much consideration for those around me as I hoped they would have for me.  I recoiled at the notion of entitlement; that it was my right to transition and everyone had better accept it.  Sure, it is my human right, but I was certain that it was not the right approach for me.  The second, was to face every day a new fear.  In retrospect, I understood that it was easier to face small fears rather than the fear of a drastic change.  Additionally, I slowly developed mental toughness and confidence.  Over the next few years, I transformed myself, passing through a challenging period of androgyny, before reaching full transition fifteen months ago.  My deliberation, consideration, and luck paid off.  Today, I am finally free of my demons as well as the pain, anxiety, misery, anger, and resentment that I used to feel.  I still have my family, my job, and my community.  I even know peace, contentment, and joy.

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About a month ago a colleague of mine, new to his position and to our organization, reached out to me for help.  At that time, based on limited contact, I was concerned about how accepting he was of my trans status.  This consideration comes with the territory of being trans.  You are conditioned to expect, that, at any time, people will have difficulties with who you are.  During our first meeting, he peppered me with question after question about our organization and my team, all of which I was glad to answer and expand upon.  At the end of the meeting, he sincerely thanked me for the help I had given him, and was excited to continue the collaboration, which we still do.

After that meeting, I had a realization of something simple, but fundamental.  All I wanted at this point in my life was to be perceived as a whole person.  I wanted what I had before as a man – to engage in my community without the unnerving mental noise that arises, when others for whatever reason, visibly key in on my transness.  This is true for anyone marked by their difference, whether it be culture, religion, values, color, appearance, shape, orientation, identity, and so on.  Tension, intolerance, and conflict flourish when these differences challenge prevailing beliefs.  The obvious root of this is ignorance.  In societies with significant problems such as economic injustice, social injustice and inadequate health care, ignorance will feed hate and even violence.  This is not a profound concept.  It is also where you come in.

How can we bridge the gaps that exist where there is ignorance?  We can engage politically; we can educate; we can advocate; we can form alliances; we can fight; we can flee.  There are many ways to help us that are no different than how we might help anyone on the margins.  Welcome us into your communities as you have here today with me.  Work to understand us.  Welcome us into the workplace.  Join us when we speak out.  Stand up for us when we are threatened or attacked.  Be considerate of us as we work to navigate through transition.  Get used to, and eventually forget our sometimes distinctive differences.  Do not let the bigoted behaviors of others go unchallenged.  Let us see that we are not alone.  Many of us have been, and continue to be deeply harmed by the struggles of being trans.  Support us as we struggle with acceptance and fear.  Honor us all in our myriad forms, from the privileged who pass unnoticed in society, to those who do not, to the most flamboyant among us.  Statistically, we are more harmless than most anyone else.  We are, at worst, guilty of loudly demanding validation and justice, just as so many other minorities have done before.

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If there is one message I wish to share, it is this: do not focus only on how to support us with the struggles of transition.  While it is valuable to let us know that you accept our transness, and that you want to help us with transition related struggles, please understand, that validating the whole of who we are, not just our differences, is how you can most effectively support us.  I know people mean well, when they zero in on ways to acknowledge my transness with questions such as, “Is everything okay at home?  How is it going at work?  Are you still married?”  Or worse, questions such as, “Did you have the operation?  Are those your real breasts” or, “Do you still have sex with your wife?”!  These questions derive from harmful stereotypes, are incredibly intrusive, shine a glaring spotlight on our transness, and should only be asked with sensitivity by close friends.

Being trans does not, and should not, exclusively define who we are.  We share with everyone, common passions, values, needs, frustrations, and desires.  I am more than trans.  I am a spouse, a parent, a grandparent, a sibling, a friend, a colleague, a landlord, a chef, a traveler, speak three languages, and so much more.  Shining the spotlight of support, only on our transness, does not honor everything else that forms our identities.  Try to see us, accept us, and treat us as you would anyone else you care about.  There are many in my life who do this without even realizing it.  The naturalness of those interactions is beautiful in its ordinariness.

As I transitioned, I was amazed to discover how much goodness there was in people.  With my children, I was only a little surprised at how fully they accepted, supported, and loved me, but the truth remains, that I was terrified to come out to them.  Both my son and daughter are models for what I crave.  Their interactions with me, have not changed from before I transitioned.  We go about life as before.  When I am with them, I forget that I am trans.  If it matters to them or affects them that I am trans, it is entirely invisible to me and a thing of beauty I never imagined possible.

At work, I am very fortunate.  Some of this fortune is due to the half a year I spent working intentionally and deliberately to prepare my colleagues for my transition.   I asked Human Resources to step aside, so that I could write and send every communication regarding my journey and its anticipated end.  As I attempted to foster sympathy and understanding with the difficulties of being trans, I simply asked my co-workers to continue to treat me the same as before.  I even went so far as to prepare a list of frequently asked questions that they might be afraid to ask.  I let them know what to call me, that it was okay to make mistakes, as long as they were not intentional, and even answered the BIG bathroom question.  I received nearly a hundred supportive replies.  It must have helped to some degree, because, from the very first day I transitioned at work, everyone treated and continues to treat me as before.  I am respected, listened to, consulted, even teased, just as always.  In fact, I believe my colleagues are even more at ease with me, and some have shared their amazement at the perceived bravery of my journey.

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On my staff, is a man I supervise.  Prior to coming out at work, I dreaded the prospect of revealing that I was trans to him.  I had known him for ten years, and the profile I had formed of him was bleak.  He was an often annoyed, staunchly conservative, Texan, who visibly telegraphed his frustrations with others.  Worse, I had first-hand knowledge, that he did not have a charitable view of people like me.  Yet, we happened to work incredibly well together; our workplace values were nearly identical.  As the eventuality of my transition loomed, I drafted a carefully worded, two-page letter, describing my journey up to then, and my intention to fully transition in six months. My only request was that we continue to work together as well as we had before.  With trepidation, I snuck it into his backpack late on a Friday afternoon, just before he left for the weekend.  I felt as if I had leapt into an abyss.

About an hour later, as I was driving home, I had to pull over to read the text he had just sent.  This is what he wrote, “I just found your letter.  You are amazing, and very strong.  It takes courage to unveil oneself, especially to this degree.  A text cannot convey, how much I admire this step, and my commitment to ensuring nothing changes between us.  PS: full transparency – this is not a surprise, and I don’t have any reason to believe that it will change anything from the team, either.”  Needless to say, I was left in tears.  Two years later, he has remained true to that text.  He is one of my greatest allies and friends at work, and we are closer colleagues than ever.  When I am with him, I forget that I am trans.

If you can make the trans people you know or come into contact with, feel the way he and others have made me feel, you will have done a great service.

Thank you.

Erica’s Closing words:

Closing

As I leave you, I want to again thank you for giving me this opportunity to share a bit of my life and to hopefully help you better understand how to help the LGBTQ community, especially the poorly understood trans community.

When I was a child and for much of life, I tried hard to please people, especially my father, because I desperately needed approval.  I wanted people to think I was a good and capable person.  Somewhere in my subconscious I was saying, “see everyone, I am okay, please love me.”  I thought that maybe if I worked hard enough people would love me even if they found out about me.  I was so consumed by this need, that I had an unquestioning faith in the values of my father.  I thought he was the smartest person I knew and revered him.  Unfortunately, not all that he taught me was good.

He instilled in me prejudices that poisoned me for decades.  I had been conditioned to be intolerant and not question it.  From an early age, I was taught to scorn religion and to think less of those who were religious.  I was conditioned to believe that religious people were weak for allowing God to provide the answers to the great questions and mysteries of life.  My Dad even mocked religion, by telling me that if I misbehaved, he would send me to mass.  He was only joking, but he did succeed in making me think of churches as dark and forbidding places.

It took me many years, but eventually I began to see that this view was too black and white, and left no room for exploration or understanding.  It was actually my faith.  I was accepting the gospel of my father without question.  It was not until my thirties that I realized I was unfairly demonizing and judging other people for their differences just as I thought they would do to me for mine.  Why could I not learn to live in harmony with them, just as I wished everyone could be with me, the real me?  If some people turned out to be hurtful to me, it did not have to mean they all would be hurtful.  So, I gave myself permission to think about and judge others for the whole of who they are and not just for their religious beliefs.  I discovered that we have more in common, than we have differences.  My life is richer for it and I hope that their lives are too.

Peace be with all of you.

Thank you.

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