‘There was something different’: Transgendered people tell their stories
By Susan Shinn
For The Salisbury Post
The appearance of Caitlyn Jenner on the cover of Vanity Fair magazine has opened a national conversation about transgendered people.
“Caitlyn opened the door for people to come out of the dark,” Jamie Monroe says of this group.
According to one study, transgendered people make up just 0.3 percent of the adult population, but that number is likely higher, because the census does not ask people to identify with a gender other than the one assigned to them at birth.
Several local transgendered people share a journey with a past filled with bullying and thoughts of suicide. But since completing their transitions, all say they are happy.
Here are three of their stories. Two did not want their names published.
‘At a very early age’
Jamie Monroe has been involved with the Salisbury Pride event, slated for this Saturday, since its inception. A transgendered woman, she is one of the event’s co-hosts.
Jamie was born and raised in Salisbury, and attended the city schools here.
“I knew at a very early age there was something different,” says Jamie, 50. “I realized I was relating to things girls related to.”
In elementary school, she loved dressing up and putting on plays for her family.
“They never knew what to expect,” she says.
When boys were asked what they wanted to do when they grew up, they’d answer a policeman or fireman, Jamie says. “I thought, I want to be a female, because in my mind, I was.”
When she was younger, she says she endured a bullying phase. “I don’t believe you should hide it, but at some points in your life, you have to.”
By high school, she says, her fellow students were used to her, and the bullying subsided.
In the meantime, she learned to sew and do make-up and hair. She had a side business making Halloween costumes for adults.
In the eighth grade, she contemplated suicide, but when a good friend of hers committed suicide, that made her realize it wasn’t the answer.
“I thought, ‘I cannot do that. I cannot put my family through that,’” she says. “At that point, I realized there was nothing I couldn’t get through.”
She eventually started dressing as a woman and went to a gay bar in Charlotte called Scorpio. Today, she says, “It’s still hopping.”
She met the owner and was asked to perform in the club’s drag queen show. She did just that, going on stage in 1984, the year after she graduated from Salisbury High School.
“I’d trained my entire life with dancing and sewing and wigs and make-up,” she says. “I needed a stable place where I could be myself and find myself, and make money.”
She eventually moved out of town, because she did not want to hurt her family.
“I knew if I stayed around, it would get out,” Jamie says. “My mom was my best friend. She knew I was different from day one. She sat back and let the cards fall. My dad and I had a good relationship later on.”
Her parents’ health brought her back to Salisbury. They both died in 2005. By then, she’d lived in Charlotte, Concord, Durham, Atlanta, Raleigh and Hawaii.
She struggled to find a doctor who treated transgendered patients, but she finally found one in Baltimore. She underwent breast augmentation in 1994, but has had no other surgeries.
“I’m extremely happy,” she says. “I’ve been happy for a really long time.”
Throughout her life, she says, Jamie has been interested in men, although she’s not dating anyone at the moment.
She is looking forward to this weekend’s Pride celebration.
“Pride has been amazing,” she says. “I never imagined I’d be on Fisher Street doing drag. I’m proud to be from Salisbury. So many straight people have come in and rallied behind Salisbury Pride. Every year, it just amazes me. I sit there and think, wow, this is my hometown.”
‘The right choice’
A transgendered man also grew up in Salisbury. A graduate of West Rowan High School, he is finishing a major in anthropology at UNCG, and hopes to work in a museum. He began transitioning to a male his freshman year in high school.
“Around 14 was when I had a word for it,” he says. He’s now 22. “I had weird feelings I didn’t know how to vocalize. That was pretty rough, especially when I started transitioning. It resulted in a lot of awkwardness. People definitely noticed, which made life more awkward.”
Still, he excelled in school.
“My grades were actually good,” he says. “It was something for me to focus on.”
He has been on hormone therapy for the past three years, and has no plans for surgery at this point.
“It’s going really well, except that the needle is huge and scary,” he says of taking hormone shots. “You have to get over stabbing yourself.”
Participating in PFLAG meetings in high school, he says, was a lifesaver.
“It was nice to have somewhere to go that wasn’t awkward to exist,” he says. “The meetings were definitely something I looked forward to.”
He adds, “My mom definitely did support me. We always went to PFLAG meetings together. My dad’s side of the family, not so much. It ended kind of badly. But it makes room for people in your life who support you.”
College, he says, provided a fresh start.
He says he’s been attracted to both males and females. “It’s been fairly fluid.”
He characterized himself as “an angsty teen,” but counseling has helped him learn to handle social situations. He doesn’t really talk about his transgendered status unless he’s in a solid relationship, a relationship in which he wants to invest.
“I definitely feel like it’s been the right choice,” he says. “Looking back, it was definitely worth it. I don’t think I would be where I am now if I hadn’t transitioned.”
‘Very happy now’
Another local transgendered woman would agree with him.
“I knew since the age of 3 that I was a girl,” says the woman, now in her 40s, who grew up in Rowan County.
The only thing was, she was her family’s youngest child, its adored son.
At a young age, she says, “I told my mom and dad I wanted to be a girl. My dad probably had a freak-out moment. I was his only son.”
Her older sister, she says, was her role model. “I was very comfortable around girls.”
In middle school, she says, she was bullied and made fun of. “I didn’t really develop like most guys.”
She found out later she had low testosterone. Normal levels are between 300 and 600. Hers was 80.
Puberty was a nightmare.
“Big things happened and I couldn’t control it,” she says. “For many years, I was anorexic. I was dead set that I was not gonna look like a guy. I wanted to be thin and beautiful.”
She found refuge in music.
“I studied with a teacher who knew I was having problems,” she says. “He was such a wonderful comfort to me. Music was a way I could be beautiful. I could fly.”
She knew her feelings were “hard-core,” she says, in eighth grade. “I had crushes on boys. I just didn’t feel anything for girls.”
Her best friend all the way through high school ended up committing suicide, and she played for his funeral. She believes he was gay, but didn’t want to deal with it.
As for herself, she says, “I knew something wasn’t right. I thought I was going to hell. I thought I wasn’t praying hard enough or studying enough.”
She didn’t date.
“I just didn’t feel right,” she says.
She went to her senior prom with a female, and had her first kiss.
“It was awful,” she says. “I thought, ‘Oh yeah, it’s not gonna work.’”
In high school, she attended a prestigious summer music camp. There, she learned that “your talent and your love of music were more than who you were.”
She ended up going away to college to continue her music studies.
“I knew something was going to happen,” she says. “I was just about to hit a breaking point. But I thought if I worked myself to the bone, I’d forget about it.”
At her new school, she didn’t know a soul. She didn’t care.
“I knew I could thrive with the musical and academic rigor,” she says.
Her sophomore year, she became friends with a young man who was “very straight. We spent a lot of time together. It developed into something I couldn’t articulate because I was in love with him. When I told him, he was wonderful. He said, ‘We’re going to get you help so you can work through your feelings.’”
Counseling with student health services helped, she says. In the meantime, her friend started dating a girl.
And he told her, “I’m sorry I’m not gay.”
Then he asked her, “What would you want, if you could change anything?”
Her answer: I want to be female.
“He said, ‘I think you should talk to your psychologist,’” she says, “and that opened up everything.”
To this point, she had not talked to her parents about being transgendered. She had no idea it was even a possibility.
“I did not want to disappoint my parents,” she says. “They were very proud of what I had done.”
She learned that in order to go through surgery, she’d have to live a year as a woman, and she began doing that her senior year of college.
She was on scholarship, but she worked two jobs to save money to begin hormone therapy.
Finally, she told her family what she was going to do.
“It was a huge shock,” she says. “It was hard on them. My sister knew something wasn’t quite right. It took my dad a long time to set up a dialog with me. My mother was torn. That was just really, really hard.”
“I had thought that he was gay,” his older sister says. “But I really wasn’t surprised. It really is hard to swallow. My dad took it really hard. But you get to a point and you think that’s my sibling. I don’t understand it, but you have to accept a person for what he or she is.
“You’ve got to ask yourself, is that worth not being with that person? And no, it’s not. That’s your sibling. That’s another human being. That’s the way you’ve got to look at it.”
Her younger sibling wrote letters to their extended family, explaining the situation.
She wrote, in part, “You can choose to accept me and have me in your life, or not. I don’t want to be a burden. But if I remain as I am, it would be devastating to me.”
“On the day they got the letters, every last one of them called me at school, and said, we love you and we’re gonna support you no matter what happens.”’
Her school, she says, was also very supportive.
After she began hormone therapy, she grew breasts, and developed more of a figure. She realized it was OK to eat.
And her longtime friend fell in love with her.
“We were very close, intellectually, and we were together for years,” she says.
Again, she graduated from school with high honors, and had surgery at age 23, just before starting classes for graduate school.
“I could barely walk,” she says, and it took weeks for the pain to go away. “But I cried because I was so happy. I knew there was a risk with surgery. I could never have children. But I was closer to where I wanted to be. Then the hormones really started working. Mom and Dad had no choice but to accept it, and they did. They came to see me in a concert I gave, and they knew it was OK. I’m still me.”
She went on to receive two degrees in music, and started dating a man with two young children.
“At some point in our relationship, I knew I needed to be honest with him because he was really amazing,” she says. “I told him, ‘I wasn’t born female,’ and he said, ‘I don’t care.’”
They’ve been married for 12 years, and haven’t decided when or if they’ll tell their children. She has not shared the information with her current colleagues, and people who knew her before her transition have been respectful.
“There is a big deal with anonymity,” she says. “I don’t want to be a poster child for transgendered people. I am very, very happy now.”
A couple of years ago, she played a concert in her hometown, and was nervous about being in front of the people she had known all her life.
“But when I looked out and saw those smiling faces,” she says, “I knew they were there for me and my music. A small town is exactly that. But there’s a lot of love and support there.”
Freelance writer Susan Shinn lives in Salisbury.