Most of my life I felt isolated and alone. Being different carries a heavy burden, and the weight seemed to get more and more oppressive the older I became. As children, we are ignorant of the corruption from the adult world, but we all-too-soon become immersed in it, like a reverse baptism. Boys are supposed to act like boys. Girls are supposed to act like girls. On the playground, the boys were playing rough and tumble on the field, while the girls played hopscotch or jumped rope. I was standing off by myself, wondering when we could go back inside and do school work. I preferred to be with the girls, but boys weren’t supposed to play with girls.
I started to put the puzzle pieces together in early adolescence. I definitely liked wearing my sisters’ clothes and makeup, and I felt most comfortable around girls. Boys were definitely from Mars, or some even more distant planet. My school crushes were always girls, so I knew I wasn’t gay. So, what was I? The voice inside me knew the answer.
When I discovered Christine Jorgensen’s autobiography at the local library, I heard from the voice inside. It all made sense. And yet somehow it made no sense. How can a person be one gender in mind, and the opposite gender in body? By then I had internalized transphobia, though there was no name for it then. I had spent adolescence trying to battle against bullies who tried to label me as gay due to my feminine behavior, and I had so much fear about even talking about my revelation. I could not accept who I was.
I made a conscious decision to not listen to my inner voice and make the best of my life and move forward as male. I told myself that everything would change when I got married. That it will go away. That this was just a phase. Boy was I wrong.
Marriage just confirmed what I knew all along. Yet, I still chose to make the best of my assigned male role. I was determined to be successful, and professionally I was. I taught college and high school English, served as a Peace Corps Volunteer training teachers in the Philippines, and took on leadership roles on the job and at church. Something was missing—I was not happy. I did much, accomplished much, but still I felt dead inside. Sleepwalking through life, dreading social interactions, hiding from the world, withdrawing within my own home—this is not living.
After fifteen years of this, I stood on the edge of a crisis. My life could not continue the way it was. Refusing to go on as a severely depressed male full of anxiety, I saw two possibilities, and both frightened me beyond comprehension: I could take my own life, or I could transition and live as a woman. As far as I was concerned, there was no other choice. Living with severe depression was no longer an option.
The thought of my wife and daughter finding my lifeless body disturbed me. They loved me and no matter how desperate I was, I could not bring myself to do such a thing to them. So, I chose life. I chose to become who I truly am. But I was scared. I had no idea if it would work, if I could pull it off. I would be risking everything I had worked so hard for—could I ever teach again? Could I face my students? Could I tell all my family, my friends, my co-workers? Then I realized that I was in a struggle to save my life. I had no choice. I must transition. I must listen to that voice inside of me, for once.
Once I started, I never looked back. And it happened faster than I expected. I was on estrogen therapy after just a few months, and I began living as a woman. Just weekends at first. But soon, every day in the evenings during the week, and full time on the weekend. In the beginning, I started telling friends who I thought would be accepting and built support for myself. I found a support group, saw a therapist, and gradually did all the things I had always done, except now I was a woman. A woman everywhere, except at work.
Workplace transition would be the final step, and I came out at work less than a year after I first decided to go down this road. I came out to the principal and the superintendent a little over a month into the new school year, and we discussed ways to roll out my transition to the school community. We chose just before Thanksgiving break to announce, and I would begin working as a woman on the first of December. I had three weeks to work until Christmas break, which would provide some separation time for any issues to be worked out.
Letters went out to parents. I told my colleagues in a special meeting. Then I told my students. On my first day of work as my authentic self, students presented me with large posters that spelled out “We Support You” written in glitter, with student signatures filling the remaining space on the posters. It went remarkably well. On the surface.
Five different families complained and demanded their child out to be taken of my class. Problem was, the school was very small and I was the only twelfth grade English teacher on campus. The superintendent negotiated with the parents over the Christmas break. Two of the affected students were allowed back in my class, while the remaining three were to be moved to an online program for the period they were in my class, which they took in the continuation school for credit recovery. I was told that I could not be in the same room with any of these three students.
Then, at the end of January, I was told that I would not be coming back to teach the following year. No explanation or reason was offered. It didn’t take long, and my job was advertised as a job opening for the next year. I was in my second year of probation, and schools are allowed to “non-re-elect” probationary teachers without giving a reason for dismissal. Despite the fact that I had sixteen years of teaching experience, extensive success as a department head and leader of accreditation at a former school, a BTSA mentor for new teachers, and a glowing track record and career that the majority of teachers could not compete with.
If I had waited until the end of the school year to transition at work, I would have probably held onto my job. Looking back, though, I have no regrets. I did what I had to do to save my life. Losing a job is an acceptable sacrifice, in my opinion. And losing a job in a very conservative, rural district where I have worked for the past two years is a positive step forward in my journey to become my true self. While it is true that the news of my job loss hurt my pride, as I had never experienced anything like that before, in the long run this is only a small bump in the road of a long life of success.
At this moment, I am the happiest I have ever been in my life. I now mix easily with people and have let go of my fear and anxiety. My depression is gone, and the gloom that I used to feel has been replaced with positive energy. My future will be bright, and I will shine with a light that will drown out those who rejected me. I am free, free at last.
When I do look back at my present situation, finishing out a school year at a place where I no longer feel welcome, I will feel sadness for my many students who gave me those posters. Students who had faith in me, who supported and looked up to me. Those responsible for my dismissal cannot hurt me, but they can hurt their own children by depriving them of a teacher who has passion for her subject and who cares for every student who enters her classroom. All because of their ignorance, because of their fear.
The greatest lesson of my life is this: do not let fear keep you from living your life on your own terms. Listen to that voice inside you, and let love be the guide.
- Sophie Gilbert