In April 2016, I became Argonne’s only openly transgender employee. I’m not the first – that honor belongs to a temporary worker who has since moved on – but I am the second. I am happy to report that coming out at work has been a highlight of my transition. While I have lost the companionship of a few friends, most co-workers have been accommodating and supportive.
As Sunday, November 20, 2016 is Transgender Day of Remembrance, it would be appropriate to write a blog post full of statistics about violence against the Trans. community, and the fight for equality. However, I thought it would be best if I simply told my story. There are many misconceptions about the trans community. I have no clever responses, but I hope that my experience opens a few eyes about the reality of being transgender.
For most of my life, I did not know enough to identify myself as “transgender.” When I was little, I knew there were differences between boys and girls, and I knew that I had “boy parts.” However, I knew at a very young age that I wanted to be a girl. People talk about the concept of being “born this way.” I can’t say whether there is any truth to this idea, but I do know that some of my earliest memories involved feelings of wanting to be female. Gender is a difficult concept, and so I had no idea of how to express my feelings to my parents when I was young.
By the time I was old enough to explain things, I was also old enough to realize that my feelings on gender were in conflict with the family religion. In my young life, I was taught the importance of “being a good boy” and making my parents proud. There was nothing more important. As a result, I grew up knowing something was terribly wrong with me, but feeling I would lose my soul if I tried to do anything about it.
Ironically, I coped by throwing myself into our religion. The faith had rigid gender roles, and a clear set of expectations for young men. I earned my Eagle Scout badge, enrolled in the church university, and even spent 2 years as a proselyting missionary for the faith. When I came home, I found a girl and we married. I truly believed that if I could just be good enough, God would bless me and my life would be made tolerable – all “those” desires of being female would go away. We had a large family, and I tried to find happiness in our children. Nothing fundamentally changed, though. As life went on, I became susceptible to bouts of depression.
Things came to a head ~16 months ago when I fell into an episode of depression like no other. Early symptoms showed up in the spring of 2015, I stopped taking interest in hobbies. I was in a lot of pain with myself, and gradually began to close off parts of my personality. Incredibly, I could work through the day fairly well, but the depression made it very difficult to go home. Looking back, I was gradually losing myself and my mind. On October 9 (2015), I took the day off of work thinking it would help. However, I woke that morning in a panic. I left the house immediately and went for a long circuitous bike ride from Aurora to Batavia and back. By the time I returned home, I was convinced that the thing I wanted most was to end my life.
The next day was a Saturday, and I tried one last time to get help. I ended up checking myself into the behavioral health unit of Mercy Hospital in Aurora. I remember being relieved as I was admitted; I simply wanted to be locked away and forgotten.
I spent the next 10 weeks in the hospital. The hospital is meant to stabilize mental health patients. However, I wasn’t responding to treatment – neither therapy nor medication. Nobody could figure out my problem. Nothing obvious was triggering my depression, so it was impossible to treat it properly. My mother passed away in late November, and I was released from the hospital so I could attend her funeral, but I wasn’t stable. I spent the next 4 months in a very dangerous place. I tried several different therapists and medications; nothing worked.
In March, I had something of a breakthrough. I had been working with a particular therapist since December. We were making no progress, when she asked if I was holding any secrets. At first, I didn’t say much, but she persisted, and I eventually opened up about my gender struggles. That was the first time that I told anyone. At first, she wasn’t sure what to make of this new revelation – she wasn’t a gender specialist. I remember she asked me if I had the desire to live and function as a woman. I knew immediately, from some deep recess in my being, that the answer was a resounding, “YES!!!”. That day was something like a bomb going off – 40 years of suppressed emotion suddenly came out. I knew I had to transition if life were to continue.
Coming out is a challenge, and that is especially true for those closest to a trans person. My wife is a good woman, but she is devoutly religious and has struggled with my transition. Even after explaining that I felt this way my entire life, she still views this as a lifestyle choice, and has always referred to it as “this challenge that you have to overcome.” With the help of my therapist, I came out to my wife on March 19th.
In the early going, I needed an outlet for a new gender expression. My wife did not want me to present as a woman to our kids; she would not allow me to “be myself” at home. I ended up using the Lab as an outlet. I came out at work in April. Without warning or explanation, I simply began wearing women’s clothing and makeup. I would change in the car somewhere along the way to work. I would work as “Rebecca” and then change again on the way home. I did that for a month, but being caught somewhere between 2 genders was emotionally draining. I spent another 2 months in the hospital from May to July of 2016.
Being in the hospital gave me a safe place to think and make a few decisions. I knew that I was literally at the end of my rope as a man. I simply could not go back to that life. On July 21, I separated from my wife and moved into an apartment not far from Argonne. I started hormone replacement therapy the same day, and began the process of physically transitioning my body. I cannot believe how happy I felt as that transition began. Originally, I even feared that someone, somehow would stop my transition.
I could go on much longer; I’ve skipped many details, but I have a few more things to say that I think are important. First, I know that my story will seem terrible to some. I know I look as if I have abandoned my children. However, I want them to know that I love them. I lived in so much pain as a man for 40 years. There are scars, and it will take me years to deal with them. However, my children are the one thing that I do not want to forget from that time. I want to continue to share my life with them.
Second, I am grateful for how my transition was handled by Argonne. I work in the Advanced Photon Source (APS) Detectors Group, and my office-mate and supervisor deserve a lot of credit. I also am very thankful for everything that was done by upper-management. Before I had even told anyone I was trans, I changed my preferred name in WorkDay, our human resources portal, to “Rebecca”. Within a day, I received a “Welcome” email from the APS Director. I came back from the hospital in July to learn that Stephen Streiffer, Associate Laboratory Director for Photon Sciences, had addressed the topic of respecting “transgender co-workers” at APS in an all-hands meeting. I believe the Directorate and diversity officer worked thoughtfully behind the scenes and deserve a lot of thanks for helping me at a time when I was very fragile.
Transgenderism is very real and can be a very painful condition for those who cannot express their true selves. If someone ever comes out to you, please be supportive. Realize they may have paid a terrible price to reach that point. Statistics for mental illness and suicide among the transgender are shockingly high. If you wish to help someone who is transgender, consider referring them to a professional therapist. Andrea Fisher, the EAP counselor for Argonne, is available at the lab 2 days a week. She is amazingly good. If you are the family member of a transgender person, and find yourself struggling with their decision, please consider talking with a counselor yourself, or reaching out to a local PFLAG chapter (http://www.pflagillinois.org/).
Finally, there is a lot of beauty in a transgender life. The trans community is amazingly close-knit, and the traditional greeting is a genuine hug. I am so grateful that I made it to the point where I can enjoy my transition. I have learned so much about myself and about the kindness of others. As you live without secrets, you learn how love becomes perfected.