Coming out to my mother was like a solar eclipse. It happens more times than you’d think and usually you have to shield your eyes to avoid injury. I tried coming out in the beginning of every school year in high school, usually sitting on our living room couch with hot tea on a chilly Saturday morning. My mom would curtly reply, “But you have long hair.”
My mom knew before I sat her down that I was a dyke. My pubescent youth was riddled with darted stares from my parents, catching me ogling at the breasts of friend’s moms, eyes glued to their sheer stocking legs as they knelt in nearby pews on Sunday. One particularly toxic fight during puberty culminated in her viciously whispering, “I hope you confessed to the priest that you like girls.”
My futile attempts in my teens were nothing like what happened when I tried in college, ripe from my first summer away from home working for an opera company. I had fallen for a lighting designer a decade my senior and was determined to make my mom listen. A bottle of cabernet and two filets later, there we sat at the local steakhouse, gravitating back to our serial conflict. Fortunately, I had a solution: instead of focusing on being gay, I decided to focus on what made her so upset. “Mom, your problem is that you don’t know any fabulous lesbians,” I explained. “You know, you’re right, we have none at work that I really know of,” she admitted.
“Well, now you do.” She stared. “Me!”, I retorted. She snorted, ordering another bottle of wine.
By the time I had moved out on my own after college, I had given up: we stopped discussing my sexuality. As the director of a successful chain of gyms, I was constantly working and buried my shame and anger. Whenever the urge welled up inside me to discuss it, I retreated into myself.
Until I met Lee. At 137 pounds and 5’10”, Lee was a scrawny blond kid who wanted to get in shape for the approaching summer. He mentioned casually that he recently had surgery overseas, and we started training three times a week. His left side was extremely week and he could barely lift his water bottle let alone a dumbbell. When I asked about his mysterious surgery, he mentioned the term “latissimus dorsi flap”. At the end of our session, I went online and discovered that Lee was a transgendered male undergoing a full phalloplasty. A three part surgery that involves removing back muscles as well as veins and skin from the thighs, Lee was in the midst of the transformation of his life. I soon learned that he was no stranger to the knife. A double mastectomy, hysterectomy, and weekly testosterone shots were just some of the physical challenges that brought him closer to his dream, peppered with consistent bruises from his conservative father, whom Lee could not afford to move away from.
Within two weeks, Lee and I had met for coffee half a dozen times. Word had spread, and every week another transgendered male came into the gym to start training. I had unknowingly broken into this clandestine circle, this tight knit community. Within a few months I was holding self defense and body image seminars at the Pride Center. At the gym, the looks my own General Manager and other employees were giving my new clients were infuriating. These men were subject to ridicule at every turn and were trying to learn how to protect themselves and be proud of what they saw in the mirror. Worst of all, they had nowhere to change clothes.
Few of these men could not afford top surgery. Years of testosterone usage deflated their breasts, so they couldn’t use either locker room. The risk of exposure was high, and the gym had no unisex bathroom. After my boss mistakenly called one of my clients “she”, instead of “he”, I was fuming. My lack of knowledge about state law made me feel helpless as I scrambled on websites trying to figure out if gender identity was a protected class. I wrote a stern email to Human Resources, and within weeks, I was transferred from my current location to a women’s gym twenty miles away.
My work with the transgender community has continued. Lee has completed his phalloplasty, and we are still close. The feeling of uselessness that swept over me like a wave after being transferred to avoid conflict eventually led me to leave the company and leave New York State altogether. I never want to feel that helpless again. After I was transferred, not knowing who to reach out to, I called Lee. He half laughed, and then asked me to dinner to cheer me up. He was used to this treatment, and I realized I could never get used to it.
Having the courage to stand up for what you believe in is probably the greatest lesson Lee taught me. Reflecting on the past makes you fortunate for the present, and my relationship with my mom has never been stronger. She has accepted who I am because I taught her that being gay does not mean being a nuisance or ruining the family, but just being yourself and not apologizing for it. I never want to back down from a fight like I did with my mom, and thanks to the courage and strength from inspirational friends like Lee, I never will. The “T” in LBGT is a daily inspiration for me because I realize my challenges are nothing compared to these men and women, my courageous allies in the LGBT community. This weekend, I am honored to be telling jokes on the Columbus Pride Stage, but I am more honored to be opening for transgender comic Ian Harvie, a true hero and pioneer in the LGBT community. I encourage you to come out, come party, come listen and have fun, and let this weekend remind you of the heros walking among us.