By: Deja Nicole Greenlaw*/TRT Columnist—
Like many trans women, I came from the straight, heterosexual community. I knew very little about the LGBT community. All my views and thoughts were seen through my hetero-normative filter. As a child growing up in the 1950s, I was taught that gay men, (they were referred to as homosexuals back then), were evil and unstable people. If someone was thought to be gay, I was warned to stay away from that person. Lesbians, on the other hand, were invisible to me. I never knowingly saw one. Bisexuals were also inconspicuous to me and I had never even heard of the word, transgender. Back then, it seemed either you were straight or you were gay. As far as me back then, I always knew that I was different since the first grade, when I began dressing in my sisters’ and mother’s clothes. I knew that I wasn’t gay and I knew that I wasn’t really straight. I just didn’t know who or what I was.
As I grew into adulthood I found out that there were many gay men in the arts, acting, and music world. All of a sudden gay men didn’t seem so evil to me. Some of them even dressed in women’s clothes for an artistic statement, for doing drag, or for performing glam rock. I felt a connection with these folks. In my mind, they became my secret community.
In high school and college I began to frequent libraries and search the soc/psych sections to see if I could find any more clues about who I was. I finally came upon two words, transvestite and transsexual. I liked to dress as female but I didn’t want to have a sex change, (that’s what they called it in those days). Instead, I diagnosed myself as a transvestite rather than transsexual. I was honing in on who I was. Then, I met a girl who would become my wife and mother of our three children. My quest for finding out who I was was now put on hold as I needed to become a husband, father, and provider for my family.
I was now well steeped into the straight, hetero world. Gays were still looked down upon and still thought of as evil, but I no longer believed in that thought anymore.
I would listen to stories and jokes about gays and laugh along when the punch line came, but I really knew that I shouldn’t have been laughing. I laughed to fit in with whatever group of people I was with at the time. It could have been at work, with friends at a party or just plain chatting with anyone. I felt awful, but I played along.
I spent a couple of decades raising my three children with my ex and we did it in a heteronormative environment. I had no idea what was going on in the LGBT world. I knew that it was happening, but I was unaware of who, what, when and how. Why I knew! It was because they were different. I also knew that I was different but I stuck to my straight, hetero roots.
It wasn’t until the internet was available to me in the late 1990s when I first heard of the word transgender. I finally knew who I was, as soon as I heard it. I took steps into the local trans support groups. I was finally in the LGBT world. I now had many friends who were gay, lesbian, bi, and trans. I suddenly understood that they all existed in numbers far greater than I had imagined and that they all needed rights. I also understood that as a trans person, I no longer had the rights as I did before I identified as trans. On top of that, I lost the support of family members and friends. My life was being torn apart. It needed to be rebuilt. I found support in the LGBT community and especially in trans support groups such as UniTy, my Springfield, MA support group. Without that support I shudder to think what might have happened.
There was a lot for me to process as I assimilated into the LGBT community. Sometimes I look back at the changes of identity, thought, and life that I went through and I’m amazed that I survived.
*Deja Nicole Greenlaw is a trans woman who has 3 grown children and is retired from 3M. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.