As many of you know, this past year I took on the role of being Co-Chair for my local Pride committee. It was a humbling experiencing to learn to navigate the waters of steering a committee to make a week of events, flag raisings, coffee houses, speeches, movies etc. all come together. We had a whole board of amazing volunteers who helped us pull it off and at the end of the climatic week I was exhausted in the best way possible. I felt enveloped in a wave of warmth and pride for my community, my board members, my friends and loved ones who came out.
But I also felt inexplicably lonely.
As mentioned in my previous stories I first came out of the closet at the age of 13. Beginning before then and progressing from there I was someone who dressed obviously masculine, and growing up and into my young adult years I wore my label of “lesbian” with pride. Being a “butch” lesbian was something that was my coat of armour. Everywhere I went people assumed I was gay. There was no need to “come out” there was no need to explain to anyone anything different about me. My closet was made of glass. They saw me, made assumptions and I would know right away whether that person was going to be okay to interact with or not. Social cues such as stares, double checking the gender marker on the public washroom I was in, or even being asked to leave were all things I was quite comfortable defending against.
But when I got to a pride event, it was no longer a weak point among the dominant straight culture, it was a badge of honour. I could talk to cute girls, I could see myself reflected back at me among my peers, other lesbians would reach out and high five me, fist bump me. It was an amazing feeling of solidarity, comfort, familiarity. I saw other girls who liked girls reflected in my media. Admittedly, very few masculine presenting women, but I still had access to TV shows and books with people like me in them. With similar problems, fears, and hopes. If I was dating someone, we fought the good fight of being openly gay together. Obviously the visible queerness came with its own set of struggles, but ones I had 7 years of learning to deal with.
And as someone who grew up in a small town, and moved to a slightly larger but still small town, I have had years of experience learning how to be the only LGBTQ2S+ person in my day-to-day life. For the most part. Blending in, getting along with, befriending, and even falling for straight people has always been the bulk of my life. So those times when I arrived at pride, it was an empowering experience unparalleled by anything else in my ordinary days.
But since transitioning I have been struggling with feeling invisible. I was never invisible among straight people before, but now that I can fully pass as male, no one looks the other way. I know many of my transgender siblings long for this, and I understand that passing is a privilege I have access to that many may never have. I recognize and appreciate my passing and by extension male privilege. But for me, it has caused a tumultuous relationship with my transition at times. The skills I developed over my years living as a lesbian to endure and enjoy living among a predominantly straight population come in handy now. I have moments where I see another LGBTQ2S+ person on the street, and before when there would be a smile of acknowledgement, there is wariness, because I look like a cismale that so much of our community is rightfully wary of.
It may seem like a strange thing to take issue with, but I grieve the loss of easy access to my community. I did what felt right to be true to who I was, but along the way it became isolating. When I walk down the street at the pride festivals, I cant easily identify people who share my background and stories. I cant walk up to someone I find cute without having to at some point explain my situation and hope they are okay with my gender identity. Its such a strange experience for me to have to explain anything at all. So when I’m at pride, and expecting to feel uplifted, included, celebrated, I often feel even worse than in my day to day life. Maybe the fault is with me and having expectations at all. But it is something I struggle with rendering my relationship with Pride festivities complicated to say the least. Feeling cut off from my own community is lonely, its isolating, and its something I am still struggling with on a day to day basis. I don’t regret my choice to transition. I feel like this is the authentic me. I just am still learning how this authentic me finds other people like me. Online dating, preemptively explaining when meeting new people, constantly having the burden of education whether talking to someone straight or LGBTQ2S+ is exhausting. And I don’t have any answers on how to fix it. So I had to share this struggle and let there be power in vulnerability.
Pride bums me out, and I’m still trying to figure out how to fix it.
I’ve used this blog up until now to talk about some really heavy-hitting topics. I think talking about hardships we’ve gone through in life, how we’ve learned from them, how the things that hurt us shaped us and so forth is extremely important. This is why I choose to share these stories from my life and why I created this blog in the first place. But this is also a blog about my life, and I wanted to share about something that is extremely close to my heart.
For those who know me you know that I am what I would describe as a nerdy guy. Some people might view this as a negative descriptor, but to me its a badge of honour. A quote from the author John Green describes it perfectly:
“…because nerds like us are allowed to be unironically enthusiastic about stuff… Nerds are allowed to love stuff, like jump-up-and-down-in-the-chair-can’t-control-yourself love it. Hank, when people call people nerds, mostly what they’re saying is ‘you like stuff.’ Which is just not a good insult at all. Like, ‘you are too enthusiastic about the miracle of human consciousness’.”
That quote deeply resonates with me. That is what being a nerd means to me. I am full of passion about creations other humans make, stories that help me understand other human experiences, other worldviews and paradigms that I do not have. It helps me develop my own relationships with others and the world around me. This passion drives me everyday. I spend my waking hours often contemplating the books I read, the albums I love, the video game characters and their story arcs and how from those stories I can draw direct parallels to my life, and the people who create these things. It makes my world a vibrant place to live. When I crack open the spine of a book, and get transported to a fantasy world full of political conflict, magic systems, romance, friendships, oppression, heroism and the stories this world holds, I take away something new every time. I learn a fresh way to look at something I might never have looked at that way before, because I got to live it through the eyes of a character who was once just a piece of someone’s consciousness. When I invest hundreds of hours into a video game where I get to make complicated moral decisions, decide right and wrong about racial groups, my friendships between the character I play and the others that are written into the story, when I get to save people, love people, and shape the world in that virtual reality, it helps me ponder morally ambiguous dilemmas we face every day. It helps me deepen my own convictions and shape my own heart and mind towards compassion, and teaches me how to face another day, even when those days get hard. Playing a video game isn’t just about mindless button mashing. You’re investing your time and heart into a world someone else poured their blood, sweat, and tears in to create, hoping those who encounter it would walk away better for having played this game. That is what nerds do for each other.
But today I wanted to talk about a very specific passion of mine that many have probably seen me mention or speak about, but not know exactly what that was about. And that, is a band called Nightwish. Nightwish is a symphonic metal band from Kitee, Finland. I know to many readers that probably sounds exotic and intimidating. In reality, Nightwish fuses elements of opera, choral music, rock, and celtic folk into one diverse offering that has come to be something that fuels my soul.
I first discovered Nightwish back in late 2008. I was barely fourteen, and was developing my music taste as I went along. I loved bands like Evanescence, Skillet and so forth. It was my first experiences of the mixing of orchestras with hard rock, and it really stirred something in my heart. I first encountered the song “Wish I Had an Angel” from their 2004 album Once and was intrigued. I downloaded the album onto my Ipod and it was then that I heard the song that really shaped my musical tastes from then on. “Planet Hell” was the song. This song opened with a choir, and fused elements of power metal and a symphony to create an experience bigger than anything my young self had ever encountered before. The band felt otherworldly. With the atmosphere they were able to create with this music it was something I had never felt before. Of course, those around me were all very skeptical of this type of music. There aren’t a lot of 14 year olds in the rural maritimes listening to symphonic metal, that is for sure. But for me, this unlocked a whole new realm of possibilities.
As I grew up, and went through life music always remained a constant fixture in my heart and integral to my wellbeing. But it wasn’t until my second year of University at age 20 when my love affair with Nightwish really got taken to the next level. I was at the beginning phases of my transition from female to male, and in the middle of a very unhealthy relationship. During this time, I started to revisit Nightwish. The band has this cover they did of a Gary Moore song called “Over the Hills and Far Away”. This song tells the story of a man wrongly accused and found guilty for theft, but he couldn’t dispute the claims, because on the night he was accused of stealing he was with the wife of his best friend. They were deeply in love, and the song is all about how the lovers’ are dedicated to enduring his prison sentence and getting back to each other. This level of masterful storytelling, melded with celtic influences, their lead singer, Tarja Turunen’s unique operatic vocals on the foundation of hard rock/metal completely woke my senses up. Listening to the stories the band crafted and conveyed propelled my sinking ship through the rocky seas of my transition.
I continued over the next few years to revisit the few favorite, but deeply influential songs I had grown to love of Nightwish. And over those years of growing, becoming more comfortable with myself, settling into a job I felt content at, and gaining new friends I began to get more serious about the band. The band formed in 1996, so there was a huge catalog of songs and rich history to become acquainted with. Not everyone is interested in knowing about the musicians behind what their listening to, but I have always been taken by interesting people and their influences on culture, history and most of all, myself. So, I began listening to more and more of their music, all the while hungrily consuming hours upon hours of documentaries about the band, interviews with each and every member, past and present, throughout the two decade career the band had had. The more I listened and watched, the more connected I felt to the band.
The band’s mastermind, maestro as his nickname has come to be, is Tuomas Holopainen. Tuomas is a quiet and thoughtful man who grew up in Kitee, Finland. After some time as a session musician for other bands, he decided he wanted to start writing his own music. So he recruited members Jukka, Emppu, and lead vocalist Tarja to create a gothic rock project which eventually got the title Nightwish. Tuomas is the main songwriter, and while the band has gone through a highly publicized split from first their original lead singer Tarja, and then also her replacement, Anette Olzon, they have found a permanent vocalist in industry veteran Floor Jansen. Despite the band drama akin to Fleetwood Mac, and the troubles that plagued the band, what is indisputable is Tuomas’ songwriting ability, his love for life that seeps through the words and notes he writes.
What finally and totally cemented this spiritual connection I have with this band was the live performance of their 2004 10 minute epic “Ghost Love Score”. Originally sung by Tarja, their new singer, Floor’s take on this song is absolutely breathtaking. She sings with such power, emotions and charisma that I get chills every time I watch it, and tear up as she hits the final high notes in the epic song. Before this band, I had never been moved to tears just by being so deeply impacted by how beautiful a piece of music is. But Nightwish can do this, not only with “Ghost Love Score”, but again and again. I will be on my way to work at 4 in the morning, and have to sit for a minute and absorb the Nightwish song that came on shuffle because it feels so indescribably connected to my heart. The band writes about loss of innocence, grief, joy, wonder at the beauty of nature, fantastical worlds of new and old. And every time I’m taken to a place of extreme comfort and joy because this band just gets me in a way that I’ve never encountered from any other band, book, friend or lover.
So when I traveled by train in March of this year to Montreal to get to see the band, it was akin to a religious experience. Seeing this band live was a dream come true. One that I never thought would happen. But through the generosity of my family and friends it did. As I was squeezed next to other people, holding a giant vinyl boxset and waiting for the band to appear on stage, excitement was building. The lights all suddenly came on and the band started singing “The End of All Hope” which is a song about losing childhood innocence, but still hanging onto that into adulthood. There’s a lyric in the song
“This is the birth of all hope
To have what I once had”
So when I got home, I had to get this moment immortalized on my skin. And there are no words for how much it meant to me.
So, if you hear me gushing about Nightwish just understand how deeply connected this band is to every fibre of who I’ve come to be. And, if you feel this way about a band, book, movie, or anything in your life, never be ashamed of that passion. Loving something even if its unconventional or unpopular is a wonderful faucet of being alive. Unfiltered passion is defining part of the human experience. And I am so blessed to be able to have found that in this band. And so are others around me with the things that set their souls on fire. I don’t wake up everyday driven with career aspirations or big plans to change the world. I wake up thankful for a band from a small town in Finland, and how they could bring a heart once so deeply troubled so much happiness. Every single day.
Today, I’ve decided to write about something that has been a ghost I’ve carried around with me for the better part of a decade. I thought for a long time how to go about sharing this story, this piece of my history, and do it in a way that isn’t just a hit piece or having an open forum for grinding old axes. But I believe in my heart that stories like this have been hidden for too long, and as I work on my passion project in being the Co-Chair of Cumberland Pride, building it up in our communities and celebrating a community I’ve been apart of since I was 13 years old its been laid on my heart that there’s power in stories. We see this fact through example all around us. And this story needed to be told.
As seen in previous blog posts, I was a kid who felt very lost in the world. I didn’t quite know how I fit or where I belong. So, when I was ten and first arrived at biblical camp, and found so many welcoming faces, warm hearts, and lots of fun I naturally felt right at ease. It was this time when I was first introduced to the concept of accepting Jesus into your heart. I had been brought up going to Sunday School faithfully, but prior to that time I had never known that faith was something deeper than just learning cool stories about Arks and mustard seeds, that it could shape your life in profound ways. These camps tended to be emotional at times for a lot of the kids attending. Even at young ages a lot of us had been through hardships, and camp was a place we could safely bring it out on the table. And we did.
After that, I asked my parents if I could attend Sunday School at the church that also ran the summer camp. They agreed it would be good for me. Not long after that, we all become involved in both Sunday School and church afterwards. And as I grew into a teenager, it became time to enter the Youth Group stages of my life.
As I was growing, I began discovering more things about myself. My parents bought me my first drum set and got the pastor’s son to give me drum lessons. I loved it. I began playing drums in church and feeling a real sense of pride in the music. I can remember playing my first concert at the Capitol Theatre and just playing my heart out to Bob Seger’s Old Time Rock & Roll. That moment of pure bliss was the spark the struck and inspired a lifelong passion for music. Just ask to see my tattoos, you’ll see plenty of references to that passion there. I also remember around this time beginning to fill up journals full of diary entries, poems and songs I would write. My heart was so full of feelings, and it just poured out of me into expressions like this. Sometimes it felt as though I had so many feelings I didn’t know what to do with them all. And if you were to ask my mom, I’m sure there are still some of these hidden away somewhere in our family home.
One of my first live performances, fall of 2008.
I also came out as gay for the first time at the aforementioned biblical camp. It was at this camp I had felt so free, so at ease, so it felt like the perfect setting to tell my friends what had been a secret I was keeping for some time. My school friends weren’t surprised, and as I set off for home I knew my next biggest task was to confess this to my parents. I’m sure this was a hard thing for my parents to hear. I was so young, and all a parent wants for their child is to have a healthy and happy life. They knew being gay is hard, the world is hard on anyone who is different and I think they were scared for me. And all of those feelings came from a place of deep love for their child. I was young and confused and trying so hard to carve out a space for myself where I fit.
After this not a lot changed. I’m sure people talked about me behind closed doors, a child coming out was quite the ordeal in our small town in 2008. There had maybe been one other openly gay student that I could recall since I began attending. He was much older than me, so at the time it was just me. Of course I got the typical “it’s just a phase” and all of that. But as I write this at 23, I can confidently say it was not. And my safety and my love with the church continued on. None of the adults really said much about me coming out, and I had a very close relationship at the time with our Youth Pastor and his wife. Their home was always a safe haven, and I’ll always be grateful for those years of them being accessible all the time, opening their doors and hearts to me as I was at such a turning point in my own life. I began choosing more masculine clothing choices after I came out. After my mom let me cut my hair short, I would raid my dad’s closet and borrow his leather ties from the 80’s and proudly wear them with my button up shirts. But I didn’t want to be like Avril Lavigne. I wanted to be Pete Wentz or Gerard Way. (the bassist of Fall Out Boy or the singer of My Chemical Romance were who I looked up to at the time) And since my outward appearance made my sexuality more noticable, my closet was suddenly made of glass. People start noticing then. You can’t ignore a 13 or 14 year old girl with spiked hair and a suit on when she’s sitting next to you in a pew. And that’s when things started getting a bit more difficult.
The more outwardly expressive I got with myself, the more I started to feel at a distance from my peers in the church. I loved God, I loved my faith, I wanted to be apart of things. But my destiny couldn’t involve having a courtship with a man and marrying him. It couldn’t involve a church sanctioned marriage or a life that unless I was celibate any church would support. That was a lot of heavy things for a fourteen year old to ponder. It made me question my faith a lot. I would often pray to God and ask Him why He had to make me gay. Why couldn’t I have been like the other girls? I wanted to go to christian university, to share the faith that meant so much to me to others. But unlike my peers, I was never looked at as truly living out God’s word. I was never quite at that same bar others could reach.There was always a degree of separation that held me back from the rest of the group. And after years of finding peace and home in the church community, I started to feel rejected.
I continued on attending but things started to reach a climax when I was fifteen. Our pastor at the time had resigned and moved away so the church had an interim pastor. This guy was well respected in our congregation but was an old school minister. He believed in the value of tradition and respecting the past. So he questioned a lot of what my youth pastor was doing. And when I got nominated to be president of our Youth Group, he started to question me as well. The church board is a panel consisting of 5 or 6 people who discuss and make important decisions regarding the church. They handle the finances and the day to day politics and administrative duties of the church. Kind of like the senate does for our government. So once my sexuality was brought to the official attention of the board, everyone started to have an opinion on me. This was an incredibly hard thing for me to endure. Suddenly when I walked into my safe space I was no longer just a person it felt. I was an issue you were either for or against. My Dad was on the church board at the time and was my advocate, of course, but he was just one person. And for me it felt like my world was collapsing inwardly.
The board eventually accepted my position as president, with the stipulation that I was a “non-practising homosexual” Imagine! Asking a fifteen year old to commit to celibacy to be able to serve in their faith community. I had never even had my first kiss! It was a large burden to place on a child’s shoulders. After church that day, the interim pastor asked me if he could speak to me privately. I was cautious of the man and asked my youth pastor to come as well. The interim pastor congratulated me on my position, and just when I was feeling a bit of relief he asked me “Are you a homo?”. My wide eyes looked over at my youth pastor, and I resolved to say “I’m not going to lie to you, yes.”. I then of course got the lecture about sin and hell, temptation and forgiveness. I know that this guy felt in his heart he was doing the right thing. He was trying to save me from what he thought was a life of sin. And I get that now as an adult, but at the time, it was just another implosion in my world. The following sunday, the interim pastor preached a sermon specifically about homosexuality with me knowingly in the audience. It felt like he was on a podium attacking me personally. I left the building and waited until the service was over. It was a physical representation from how far I felt from everyone else.
Soon after that my youth pastor and his wife decided to move away to pursue more education. It was a huge loss for myself, and the other youth. They were amazing people. But they needed to grow as a couple and family and we all understood that. The church board designated me a new mentor to help me navigate life and faith. And this lady ended up playing a huge role in my success in my teenage years. She opened her home and her family to me, her heart and her cupboards, and accepted me and loved me through every battle I had with myself, through every hard thing I went through, through every moment of doubt or fear, through every storm she was my shelter. Her home was my safe island paradise away from the world and my own issues with myself. I owe this lady so much, I wouldn’t even know how to begin to thank her for what she did for me. And I hope she gets to see this.
That summer, i went back to biblical camp. I got through the thick of it and though the wounds were still fresh, I figured I could find some reprieve at the camp that was so consistently magical for me. By this time, i was attending senior high camp. In the afternoon, we decided to split all the campers up by gender (sigh.) and tackle tough theological questions. Of course honosexuality was brought up, and I gave my consent thinking it wouldn’t be a big deal, or all about me. But that’s how it ended up going. The leaders and people around me all looked to me to answer big theological questions asking why I couldn’t pray it away, how I felt I could live a Godly life like this. Everyone in the room had an opinion, and I was the mediator in a sea of dissent. I had 2 or 3 people defending me, but mostly it was either silence or dissent. I walked out of the room after it was all done feeling emotionally exhausted. To this day I can’t shake the feeling of sinking when I think of that afternoon.
Our church got its new pastor, and things started to flourish again. All the drama of the past was forgotten as our renewed church moved forward. But I was still aching with all the pain of what was a huge whirlwind in my life. I was resentful, and angry, and I tried so hard to continue being involved and to persevere. I slowly started to fade away from the church all together. I went back to one church service at the summer camp. Another long time attendee was out of the closet by then. I was in my senior year. I had my first girlfriend and job. I had never really made peace with what had happened years prior. My friend and I went to go to the bathroom together and I got a text from my mentor saying we were being watched closely. The leaders of the camp were worried that something would transpire between myself and my friend. We had been going to the bathroom together since we were ten years old! That was the final straw for me. I walked away from that church, and I never went back.
In my third year of university, after years of identifying as an atheist, I had met some friends who were involved with the local Christian community on campus. I had longed for that sense of community and faith back and so I agreed reluctantly, to attend. I won’t lie and say it was perfect. I still always feel like an outsider looking in. But I did find my faith again, and rekindled my relationship with God. I’ve tried since to attend bible studies and churches in the area.I want so much to have a community of like minded believers. But I struggle, because I can’t do it at the expense of my personal politics. I was subjected to so much hurt by my church, and I’m terrified of both going through a similar rejection again, and participating in a community that might make other LGBTQ+ kids feel the way I did. Every time I go to a bible study or a church service its an act of vulnerability for me. And it’s very difficult. I’m still trying to find my place as a trans person of faith.
This morning I got up and prepared my coffee. This story of my life has been on my mind for so long. I’m now helping to advocate for LGBTQ+ rights organizing Cumberland Pride in my area, and I give talks to groups about mental health and what its like to be trans. I work with other struggling individuals who are questioning their own gender. And I love all of that. I love the advocacy and guiding our communities down a more progressive path. But I decided this morning that this story needed to be told. Not as a way to air my grievances with the church or the leaders who let me down as a teenager. But to say safe spaces for LGBTQ+ people are so important. I know the things I went through only made me stronger, but what if I had been at a church that loved and accepted me? Where would I be now? It would have saved me a lot of pain, and I know there are hundreds of others out there with similar stories about faith communities and their sexualities and gender. Our faith communities need to become more progressive. We need to make space for LGBTQ+ congregation members. It is the only way forward. And I would argue, the thing that is most Christ-like to do. And most importantly, I am responsible for my own healing. I cannot continue to carry ghosts of the past, and expect them just to go away. I have to be the one to take those experiences and turn them outward for good. So this is what I hope this does for you. I hope you think about inclusion and acceptance, and open your hearts to anyone who is different or struggling. You may just be saving a life.
Most of you reading this today know most or all of my story. For those of you who do not, here’s the recap:
I was always a gender nonconforming child. What many would refer to as a “tom boy”. For a lot of girls growing up who are called tomboys, that’s all it ever amounts to. Girls with interests and fashion choices traditionally associated with masculinity. In reality, I’m all for stripping away those harmful norms and just letting little girls and boys be whoever they want, and like whatever they want without marking them as different with othering language like tom boy, but we will save that for another day.
As I got older in my teen years this became a much more prominent theme in my life. I had come out as a lesbian when I was thirteen and I thought that was going to be enough to explain the feelings I had about myself and what made me so different. However, part of me knew inside that there was still something wrong. I grew up in a town with just over a thousand people rendering my interaction with anyone of the LGBTQ community exceedingly limited, and with little representation of any LGBTQ people on TV, especially women who are more masculine, there was no point of reference for me to understand that what I was going through was something more. In grade ten I started to exclusively wear men’s clothing. I had long since convinced my mother to let me cut my hair all off. Having already endured the backlash of coming out, and appearing more masculine (ex: you’re such a man, wow, what a dyke etc.) the people around me were already used to me beating to my own drum. Around that time I got my first job, and with my own income I was able to buy as many clothes as I wanted in any style I wanted. I can still remember back when we had the Bluenotes in Amherst, looking at the side of the wall lined with all the plaid button ups popular with men at the time and just being over the moon with the idea that I could now own and wear any of them that I wanted. These clothing choices were freeing. When you’re indescribably and deeply uncomfortable with the body you were born with, there is something so liberating about starting to wear the clothes that help you feel that the person you are on the outside reflects who you are within.
Around the time I first cut my hair, 2008.
These feelings of wrongness can be traced back to early in my life. From the days in vacation bible school as a kid, where we got participate in gender bending day, an begging your mom to continue letting you keep wearing your brothers clothes because you had never felt more at peace with yourself on that specialty themed day. When I would take a bath in the middle of puberty as I was developing, and taking an extra washcloth in the tub to cover up the spout so I wouldn’t have to look at my reflection while I bathed. Or when I’d be standing in front of our full length mirror in the hallway of my childhood home, holding my chest up and wondering what I would look like if it was as flat as my male classmates’, thinking that would never be a possibility for me. These were all moments I knew other girls weren’t thinking about, but I didn’t know why I was. All of this leads to a turning moment in my high school career.
Our teen health coordinator during high school was a lady who was extremely knowledgeable about social issues of our time. As I got older and grew more comfortable with myself, I was much more open about my relationship with my body. She knew of these experiences and one day as I was sharing a bit about it with her, she asked if I had ever heard of binding. I recalled seeing images of some transgender characters on TV using ace bandages to bind their chest, knowing that was very painful I had never attempted it myself. When I expressed interest in finding a way to bind safely, our teen health coordinator had a staff member from the Youth project come down and educate me about chest binders. The Youth Project is a nonprofit based out of Halifax looking to educate and raise awareness for LGBTQ youth. The woman there put me on a waitlist for a free bider from her organization. She also directed me to the registration for a four day free summer camp they held that was especially for transgender or gender-questioning youth. I attended the camp that July and for the first time in my life met other people who had ranges of experiences, all very similar to my own. I met adults who were completely transitioned, employed, partnered and happy. I met youth who were in the same position as me, who were in the middle of transitioning or somewhere else on the spectrum. This camp opened my mind to the possibility that I could be transgender, and that being transgender didn’t mean you wanted every single thing that came along with being male. You can be transgender and not want surgery or hormones. You can be transgender and still like things that are usually considered “female” interests. This was world changing for me. I finally felt like I had a description for myself.
I remember while at this camp other youth in my position were trying out different names for themselves while they were in the safe space of camp, free from the pressure of coming out. On a whim before I went home, I looked up a list of baby boy names that started with the letter “R”. I knew I wanted to keep my initials, and as I was scrolling I came across the name Rogan. When I clicked on it, the origin of the name was irish and the meaning was “The red-headed one”. Everything instantly clicked, and I swore to myself that if I ever got brave enough to come out, that would be my name. After I got home from camp, I had my new chest binder. A chest binder is a tank top like piece of fabric made of medical grade compression material. It is uncomfortable, and painful if worn for too long at once, but when I first struggled to pull it on up over my hips and onto my chest I was absolutely amazed at the experience. I pulled a shirt on and couldn’t believe what I was seeing in the mirror. All those times I avoided looking at my chest finally became a reality. I was flat, and it looked real and amazing. It was an emotionally defining moment in my life.
That September, I entered my first year of University. It took me over a year of discovery, mistakes, growth, relationships, and failures to come to the point where I finally looked my then-boss in the eyes and said “I’m going to transition to male, and my name is Rogan now.” That moment started it all.
I began meeting with my teen health coordinator from high school to start the process of getting on testosterone to physically transition. And as I began spreading the news of my new name, and getting more confident when people asked me to introduce myself in saying “I’m Rogan” Getting used to a new name was hard at first, and even now if I hear my given name I will respond. But these were the baby steps I needed to get to where I am today.
In January of 2015 I started testosterone for the first time. The physical changes were rapid, and it was a very rocky first several months for me on that path. No one can really prepare you for how much your body is going to change. There were times when I didn’t even feel like I recognized myself in the mirror. These feelings of a changing identity can be very alarming as you go. And when you’re in public, and when all your life you were seen and treated as a female, and suddenly you are seen and treated as a male, it is a huge adjustment. That’s not to say this experience did not overall enhance my well being, it did. However, I don’t want to make this process seem like going on testosterone was an instant fix for all of my issues in regards to my identity. There is still so much work you have to put in to emotionally become okay with yourself. There is so much pressure on people to fit into neat black and white boxes. But it’s just not the way things work. I am never going to be all the things it takes to be considered “male”. I still love candles, the majority of my friends are still girls, I still take bubble baths and watch Grey’s Anatomy on thursday nights. But what I had to learn was none of that mattered. Regardless of my interests or friends, fashion choices or emotions, I was still a boy. My identity was still true and valid. And I was no less than any other boy who was born in the body he belonged in. That was the hardest lesson of all.
So when my legal name change finally came in the mail yesterday, over 3 and a half years after initially requesting people refer to me as Rogan, it was an amazing feeling. But I knew I had to treat my old identity with respect. I am not someone who can just cast aside my old self without any regard. I wanted to write something to commemorate this moment and say goodbye to who I used to be. So, Ruth-Anne, I just wanted to say thank you for everything. You will always be a part of me. And you got me through the first 19 odd years of my life, and they helped me become the strong, smart, nerdy boy I am today. I will forever be grateful for you, and those years. And I wanted to wish you farewell. You are no longer me anymore. But you will never be forgotten.
My relationship with writing throughout my life has largely been to use it as an outlet for pain. I can remember having notebooks in my too-small room as young as nine and just writing juvenile poems that were saturated with all of the hurt a child with limited vocabulary could convey. As an adult reflecting on my life, and learning that stories have power I have decided to start to share my stories in hopes they might affect people in the same way others stories affect me. For years now I have been silent about my own experiences and rather just living vicariously through the stories I have been reading, the games I have been playing and the music I have been listening to. I cherish these outlets and the sense of community and belonging they universally endowe on to whoever delves into their worlds but now it’s time to break my silence.
This particular instance in my life has been prompted by a comment on my picture on Facebook this evening. I’ve slowly been acquiring more tattoos on my arms and decided I needed a new profile picture to showcase the ink I’ve been collecting. A selection of nice comments followed, but what stuck out to me was one I received from a lady who had been my teacher in fifth grade. It read
“ Was thinking about you today actually! Took our kids to the ski hill today and saw some former students…had a hug and a smile and was talking to a colleague about special students…. you were spoken of with great affection. Always! “
As I read these words from this wonderful lady, memories began surfacing around me as my mind recalled the stories of my 5th year in elementary school. When I reflect upon the narrative of my life, I always regard 5th grade as the turning point for myself and sense of worth. And as I was pulled back into memories of the past by my own consciousness, and all these images of those days surrounded me, I was struck by something my father had said to me a few weeks ago. He was sitting in my kitchen and we were discussing my job in the service industry, and he says. “There’s nothing wrong with what you’re doing. But I think your true gift lies in writing. I think you could share your stories and make a difference. I really think that is your calling.”
As I heard these words play back to me, I knew I had to at least share what this fifth grade year, and this teacher, did for me.
As a young girl, I always felt different. There are countless girls who feel different in their young years, but I always felt exceedingly and unquantifiably different than my peers. I didn’t fit in my own skin. I began puberty at a young age and was vehemently uncomfortable with what those changes were doing to me. Aside from the physical, my interests and hobbies, coupled with my emotional needs seemed to differ so greatly from the kids around me. I wasn’t interested in just the superficial happenings of being ten. I was afflicted with a great sense of loneliness, pain, and anger from almost as far back as I can remember. Looking back on pictures of myself at that age now, I objectively don’t look any different than anyone else. I wasn’t much bigger or smaller than anyone else. There are no jarring physical imperfections, no gangly limbs or birth defects. I was just a kid. But I hated myself. And that hurricane played on in my head and wreaked havoc with my relationships with myself, teachers, and those around me.
A ten year old doesn’t know they hate themselves. Our emotional intelligences and introspective abilities are not developed enough to recognize the self hatred blooming within us. But looking back well over a decade later, I can see that theme clearly born back then. I was a kid who never felt loved, who felt so utterly and completely distant from those around me that it felt like I was the only one who felt anything like what I was going through at all. My childhood was far from terrible. I had great, loving parents. Maybe ones that weren’t as equipped to deal with the cards they were dealt, but they were devoted and selfless when it came to both mine and my brothers needs. My brother had behavioral issues coming to the surface at this time, and this tension it caused lead his needs to, rightly, be the focus of my struggling parents. No parent is given a guidebook on how to steer a child through the things my brother was dealing with. It was a tumultuous time in our household. My parents were late having us in comparison to those around us, so in some way that just allowed another degree of separation between my peers and I.
On top of all this I must add what many already know coming into reading this. Not only would I come out as a lesbian in a few short years, and take on an entire rural population’s reaction to that, but in my early adult years I would come out as transgender. If i had had the words to describe my feeling then, and the power those labels had, and the freedom to choose my own destiny, maybe I would have felt more at ease with myself. We will never know for sure, and I would like to believe my story unfolded in the way it was supposed to.
So what happens to a ten year old child on the LGBTQ spectrum, struggliing with their self worth and identity, with a tense home life and a big, angry heart on their sleeve? Hurt, pain and a lot of mistakes along the way, that is for sure. I had trouble relating to my classmates because I was feeling raw emotions in a way bigger than most ten year olds can recall feeling. I was obsessed with listening to sad songs and reading sad books to find someone out there who was like me, who felt things like I did. Often those stories and songs were found in the worlds of adults. The only solace I found were in these escapes, and it lead to a gaping wound of loneliness that I didn’t have the means to convey to those around me. It’s difficult looking back to explain the breadth of what I was feeling. All I can say is even now at 23 I feel for that little girl that I was.
I didn’t feel like I belonged in my body, at my school, or in the family I had. How could one person feel so much rejection without ever really being rejected? How could one person feel so unloved while still being so loved? It’s a paradox of my childhood. I desperately sought affection and acceptance in any form I could find it. In many ways I feel like I was numb to myself ever being good enough for anything at all. Until one day my story was turned upside down.
For half of the year in fifth grade, we had a familiar substitute teacher filling in for our class. The woman who was to become our full time teacher was on maternity leave. So, when it was becoming time for second semester start and for this new teacher to take over, my mom and I headed to a parent-teacher conference to meet her. We went into my classroom and sat at my desk. As I was showing my mom some things I had been working on, a short, redheaded, woman turns her attention to us. She remarks that I, too am a redhead and how I must be special. I can recall this moment with perfect clarity even now. I remember looking up and seeing her for the first time. She was, in fact, a red head just like me. There aren’t many of us, and it was a similarity of kinship that began this turn in events for me. I was quite shy in this moments, because I was so afraid of showing vulnerability and being rejected, but she persisted. She made conversation with me, talked with me, and said she thought we were going to get along famously. I had never been singled out as anything but negative things before, or so it had felt, leading up to this point. If I was noticed at all. I was not a gifted athlete, I had walked away from most extracurriculars my parents put me in, due to what I now know as extreme introversion coupled with my aforementioned insecurities and my grades never really soared due to lack of effort on my part. My confidence was never there to try. I took comfort in knowing that I wasn’t trying and not doing my best, which was far easier to deal with than if I were to try and still not do well.
The first days of her teaching our class we began to blossom a bond. This teacher took the time to listen to me. She listened to my stories, she never belittled or invalidate any of the immense pain I carried around with me. She even let me grapple with my self esteem about my physical body, by wearing hats in class when that was expressly forbidden in our school. But those hats were comfort for me, and I think she knew that, and she cared for my well being. So she let me have those little leniencies. For the first time ever, the shadow I carried around my heart started to ease up. I remember this being the first year I started forming genuine friendships. I started writing as an outlet more frequently, and I was gaining confidence in leaps and bounds. Of course, this was not quick fix for all the years of self doubt I had endured before, but if not for this teacher and her care and thought, I may never have seen the light at the end of the tunnel.
I recall her support in my academic pursuits. She never once was hard on me for not reaching my full potential. She just gently prodded me along the right path, helping me to realize my own worth on my own. One day in class, we were editing another classmate’s papers and my partner complained to the teacher that my penmanship was too messy and she couldn’t understand it. Instead of chastising me for not caring to write neatly, she said to the student that “Her thoughts come out so fast, she can’t write them down and keep up with them.” I never forgot her, and it felt like finally someone saw me.
As the year wore on, and with the unyielding support of this teacher I was feeling ready to take on the next steps in my life. In my town, when you reach grade six you go to the high school. That is a big change for the kids, and without this teacher I may not have ever had the strength to go on and face the challenges that I didn’t yet know lay before me.
After a tear filled end of the year, weeks into the summer this teacher invited me to her house for lunch. My mom and I came and it felt so good to be back in her presence again. We talked and shared stories and at the end she presented me with a gift. I was so excited I couldn’t even speak. I opened it and inside was a figure of a girl holding a star in her hands. The title of the figure was “Bright Star”. She explained that it was because I was, and always would be, her bright star. That gift touched me so profoundly, and now as I write in own household as an adult, that figure sits on my bookshelf.
So I write this post to share my experiences, and to hopefully help anyone realize that they really aren’t alone in this world. Moreover, every day we live our lives we absolutely never know how our actions and our kindness is going to affect someone else. If this teacher hadn’t of saw me, I’m not even sure if I would have survived through the hard times that were to come that got me here to write this story. And of course, after this teacher commented on my photo, I wanted to wholeheartedly and sincerely thank her for what she did for me. That moment at my desk looking up to see my new teacher commenting positively about our shared red hair changed me forever. Neither she nor I knew it would. But it did. And I am eternally and deeply grateful for that.