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An open letter to lawmakers about the transgender bathroom bill

I want to thank you for your work. For your long and stressful hours fighting to represent the people in your towns and neighborhoods, and trying to make the world a safer and friendlier place for everyone.

I know politics right now are extremely divisive. I know it’s hard to take a side that isn’t popular. And that’s why when there is courage to do so, it is all the greater.

Recently we have had a dialogue in our country about people who are transgender, and which bathrooms they should use, and whether or not it’s the government’s right to enforce it one way or another.

When I see the stories, and the conversations, I sense an underlying  frustration of trying to understand something that seems impossible.

I remember choosing a research assignment in freshman year of high school. I chose sex reassignment surgery. I snickered in the library as I asked the librarians where to find resources. I kept thinking, “why on earth would someone do that to themselves?” It was so perplexing to me. It felt alien. People who had sex reassignment surgery seemed psychologically unstable at best.

A few years later during my senior year of high school I remember talking to a friend on facebook. A husky kid with long metal hair who wore Pantera band T-shirts on the regular. They told me their secret. They always felt they were female. They were ready to transition but they were going to wait until after school so they wouldn’t be bullied.

I reacted with questions and tried to understand. It felt so strange. I couldn’t understand how someone could feel different than their sex. I decided to listen. They told me something that broke my heart and stuck with me ever since.

“When I was four years old, I kneeled beside my bed at night and prayed that I would wake up a girl.”

In the morning, she woke up, and when she realized the gender tooth fairy hadn’t come, she cried. She prayed every night. She cried every morning.

I realized two things from that statement that I didn’t realize before.
  1. This person knew they felt in the wrong body since they were a toddler. I would come to learn that that was not an anomaly but typical for people who are transgender.
  2. I realized I didn’t have to understand to accept their experience. I still was bewildered at how someone could feel differently about their sex and gender. I didn’t understand it, but I didn’t have to. I just knew the pain she went through--was going through, and that was enough.

I wouldn’t have any interactions like that for several more years. Then, in college I worked at a research lab that developed video games to teach middle school kids curriculum like ecology and biology.

I always got along particularly well with one of my co-workers. He (at the time this is how they were referred to) was always so kind, and so sweet to everyone else. But there was a sadness in him too. Once we became friends I learned of his struggle with a fierce depression. It never stopped him from being so kind and so sweet to everyone though.

Then, a year later, we grabbed a beer for his birthday. He said he was going to counseling and I was happy for him. He was working on his depression. Then he said that he was working on getting over his anxiety by going to the store to buy women's clothes.

“Huh” I said. “I guess that would be something that would cause a lot of anxiety?” I asked oblivious to the real reason he brought it up.

Then it got a little awkward, as we both came to terms with what the other was actually saying. I left that night not really understanding what happened.

That was the first vulnerability she shared with me. The way she opened up her story. Eventually the confusion lifted and I was left with a learning experience of a lifetime, and I hope she was left with a friend through her transition.

Like my highschool friend, she too felt this way for as long as she could remember. She struggled in her brain to convince herself she didn’t feel the way she did.

“No. I’m just weak and this is stupid and I’m making it all up! I just need to get over it. Stop being so stupid.” She struggled with tears in her eyes.

“You’re not weak, and I don’t think you’re making it up.” I looked up at her, through her tear soaked eyes. I meant what I said and I hoped she believed me. She looked up and I grabbed her hand. She sobbed and I hugged her.

I don’t think I’ve had a more beautiful moment in my life.

If I had my old outlook I might have helped that nasty side of her brain try to talk herself out of it. The tension that caused her years of depression and feelings of suicide and guilt.

Her days were filled with “I shouldn’t feel this way. I’m broken. This is not normal. I am wrong.”

I didn’t have to understand how she felt to know that she was telling the truth about how she felt. And how she felt was all that mattered. I wanted her to accept herself. I wanted her to love herself.

Slowly, very slowly, I think she started to.

We shared some beautiful moments. She never liked nail polish. I learned it was because she used to wear it as a kid and her dad berated her for it. She put a brave face on as she picked out a lavender shade of polish from my collection.

I painted her toes (fingers were too much at this point) and the color contrasted with her cream skin. “That color looks pretty on you” I said as I painted the last pinky toe.

I remember her pride a few months later when she had been painting her toes regularly. She finally worked up the courage to paint her fingernails, and she triumphantly displayed her pastel polished fingers to me.

She had so much anxiety about transitioning to the outside world. And for work, especially for work. Game developer studios aren’t the most comfortable place to transition and tell everyone you’re going to start wearing dresses. We had so many conversations about how she would tell people at work. She was so anxious. She was planning on quitting her job to cope.

Halloween was the first day she wore a dress in public. I cannot tell you the glee in her face. A smile that lit up from ear to ear. But It was also tempered behind moments of panic and self-doubt. She would cripple down on herself at times through the night. “Everyone can see me” she worried.

Eventually she told her co-workers, and despite some sharp jokes and awkward conversations, she made it through okay. Eventually, it became a new normal, and co-workers tried to ask questions to understand her, the same as I did in high school with my friend.

Then, she had to tell her parents. She was ready for them to disown her. She put it off because she didn’t want to lose her family yet. She was lucky. She was in her late twenties. She would miss thanksgivings and christmas she told herself, but she had her own income and her own place.

For millions of teens, that luxury doesn’t belong to them, and transgender teens are one of the highest numbers of homeless teens on the streets.

I tried to convince her that her parents would probably still love her and accept her. They might just need time. After all, she was their child, they spent 18 years raising her and she was rarely anything but sweet and kind. But honestly, I wasn’t sure even that was enough. But she was transitioning and soon the thanksgiving table would have an awkward silence about someone’s new boobs at the table. She had to tell them. So I told her it would be alright because I hoped it would be.

Throughout her transition she was constantly betrayed by her body. It told her she wasn’t female like she felt she was. The deep voice, the big hands, the sharp stares of people from the street.

Perhaps the biggest reminder of this for her was the bathroom. Which bathroom did she go in? The mens? If she was wearing a dress or a skirt would she get the shit kicked out of her for going in the mens? I worried for her. If she went in the female bathroom would she be accepted? Each time she had to choose, her self doubt and depression came hurling back at her.

I’m broken.

I’m wrong.

I don’t belong.

I’m a freak.

I’m stupid for transitioning.

Each bathroom trip was an anxiety moment. Which was she really? Male or female?

Choose. Choose. Choose.

Of course, she knew the bathroom she wanted to go in. The female one.

Halloween was the first night she tried going to a female bathroom. We went back to the small bar where she told me her secret a year earlier. She had been anxious about bathrooms for a long time now. Like so many other of her anxieties, she wanted to conquer it. To prove to herself she loved and accepted herself enough to push past the door with the little stick figure in a dress. And tonight, her and the stick figure had matching outfits.

It took me nearly 2 hours just to convince her it would be okay. That people wouldn’t kick her out. We walked to the bathroom together bravely, and she peed for the first time behind the door labeled “women”.

Work was the next safe space she used the women's bathroom. We all knew her. She learned to feel safe with us. No one was going to tell her she didn’t belong. Her anxiety slowly calmed about using the women's restroom at work.

My friend was in her late twenties when she transitioned. She was past the terrible turmoil of hormones and emotions of the teenage years. The years where a breakup feels like the end of the world, and a teacher humiliating you felt like you could never go back to school.

In high school she was still struggling with herself, trying to convince the female part of herself, the part that had been there since she was baby, didn’t exist. She hated herself.

If she had been brave enough to transition then, I would hope that I could be there to tell her it was okay. To tell her she wasn’t broken. To hold her hand and wipe her tears. To accompany her to her first pee in the girls room.

But instead, if she had been brave enough to transition then, she might be told that she had to go into the male bathroom. She would be accused of going to the girls room because she wanted to molest children.

One thing would be clear. Society didn’t accept her. Society didn’t want her there. Society saw her as a threat.

That part of herself she struggled with for so long. That caused that terrible sadness in such a kind human would come thrashing down. “You’re broken. You’re a freak. You’re a pedophile.” Not even the strongest people can take that torment for long before they break.

If these two women hadn’t shared their stories with me I would have had the same mindset I had in high school. I would have opposed the transgender bathroom bill. I wouldn’t have understood why someone would do that, and out of fear, I would try to control it.

But they opened me up to a pain that I cannot describe. A pain and a struggle to love yourself. The most beautiful thing she told me was when she thanked me for believing in her when she didn’t believe in herself.

The struggle of people who are transgender is lifted when they are told that they are beautiful just as they are. That they can fit-in and they won’t be judged.

Thousands of trans teens kill themselves every year because they don’t believe they are beautiful. Because they think they aren’t wanted. Because their peers make fun of what they don’t understand.

We cannot make this harder for them.

I told you these stories because they changed my view on people who are transgender. Because these people showed me a pain and suffering I had never understood before.

I know how damaging this bathroom bill would have been to each of my friends. I fear for the thousands of high school kids who struggle with themselves everyday. I fear how this bill will tell them that society doesn’t accept them. I fear that some won’t be able to live with themselves.

This is not hyperbole. This is the real experience of thousands of people in our country. Many of them are our neighbors, our friends, and even family; we just don’t know it.

I learned another thing from my friends. I learned how grateful I was to identify as the same gender as my sex. Seeing their struggle, the hate of their own body which betrayed them was incomprehensible for me. But I saw their pain. Whatever biological mechanism caused their brain to not be in alignment with their hormones was a burden I would never have to experience.

But from hearing their stories I cannot be silent. As cis people who identify as the gender we are. We’ll probably never be able to understand the minds of people who are transgender.

But that doesn’t mean we cannot understand their pain.

Please, talk to a few students at these schools who are transgender. Ask them what it means for them. Hear their stories. Work with them.

It might mean the world to them.


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