This article has been republished from Out & About Nashville, and was part of a series of first-person pieces written by the late Bobbi Williams.

When I was 14 years old, I surreptitiously made my way through the stacks in the local library until I came to the Psychology section. One after one, I took down the books whose titles I thought would provide an answer, went to the table of contents and, if there were any, I flipped to the pictures.

Eventually, I landed on one with a word I had never seen or heard: Transvestite. And on the next page there was a black and white photo of a man wearing a dress, looking like he had just crawled out from under a rock. I can still see the expression of guilt on his face.

Not long after that, the newspapers and TV broke the story of Christine Jorgensen, a former member of the U.S. Army who had gone to Denmark to have Sexual Reassignment Surgery (SRS). Of course, the majority of the reports were always accompanied by some sort of joke, such as “Christine Jorgensen went abroad and came back a broad!”

America's First Trans Celebrity: Christine Jorgensen youtu.be

But those two events rescued me. I learned that I was not the only person in the world with this “affliction,” this sense that something wasn’t right. And I got a word I could apply to it and maybe even hope for a cure. But it was too early. I knew that to say out loud, even maybe, that I should have been born a girl, would mean being ostracized, becoming part of the joke, so I chose the path followed by most transgender people of my generation. I put all of my energy into making sure that no one knew.

And that wasn’t easy. For no matter what I did, I couldn’t match the image of the all-American boy, so I became the class clown. If I wasn’t the John Wayne male, at least I could be Lenny Bruce. It was my way of deflecting the mismatch, and, to some extent, it worked.

Others like me took varying escape routes, becoming athletes, businessmen, or whatever role they could slip into and hide behind. Most married, had kids, and did whatever was necessary to survive, with varying results, but never with happy endings.

Segue to the present. The scenario I described above is, to a great extent, still being played out, but now there are exceptions. Transgender kids today can find some consolation on the Internet. They can learn early on that they aren’t “afflicted.” They can make contact with others like themselves. And they can read about transgender people who are proud of themselves and what they have accomplished as well as hearing about transgender children whose parents accept them and allow them to be who they are.

But the information highway is not all smooth driving. And naïve youth can get lost on detours and take wrong turns, winding up as prey to the trolls, predators, and religious zealots—as well as various other kinds of bullies—who inhabit the virtual world.

So is it any better today for our transgender youth? Most still have parents who reject them and peers who bully them. Nearly half of transgender teens have seriously thought about taking their lives, and one quarter report having attempted suicide [1] compared to a rate of 1.6 percent for the general population.

It’s far from a perfect world. But I believe it is definitely better than the one I grew up in, because it’s a world where the President of the United States has condemned “the persecution of women, or religious minorities, or people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender”; it’s a world where the parents of transgender children have publicly supported their sons or daughters and stood up to schools that would try to discriminate against them; it’s a world where the medical and psychiatric professions have come to recognize that being transgender isn’t a disease. All these things were inconceivable possibilities on the day I sneaked into the library.

Nina Simone To Be Young Gifted And Black youtu.be

When I was a teenager, Nina Simone had a hit record titled “To Be Young, Gifted, and Black” that has since been covered by artists as diverse as Elton John, Rah Digga, and Faith Evans. A portion of the lyrics say, “We must begin to tell our young / There’s a world waiting for you / This is a quest that’s just begun.” That same message applies today.

To be transgender is not a curse; it’s a gift. As Derrick Moeller, a graduate student in Education at Iowa State University and a transman explains, “Having to contemplate what your gender identity and gender expression looks like is a privilege that most folks don’t have to go through” [2]. Rather than being rejected they will know that they have been blessed, so that their plea “Why was I made like this?” will be replaced by a prayer of gratitude: “Thank you for making me like this.”

[1] Grossman, A.H. & D’Augelli, A.R. (2007). Transgender Youth and Life-Threatening Behaviors. *Suicide and Life-Threatening Behaviors* 37 (5), 527-37.

[2] Tiffany Herring, January 28 2015 Iowa State Daily [goo.gl/YSL3SC].

Photo by Hannah Olinger on Unsplash

Those of you who know me well – OK, anyone who knows me at all – know that I’m rarely at a loss for words. Imagine my surprise, then, the first time I sat down to write down some personal-experience essays, in hopes of melding them together into a memoir.

I was 34, had just left my position as managing editor of Echo, now OUTvoices, moved to the Sedona “suburb” of Cottonwood, and my partner and I were just kicking off what would turn out to be 18 months of (mis)adventures, filled with melodramatic plot twists, positive and negative reversals of fortune, and the kind of wisdom that only comes after getting kicked in the proverbial can a couple of times.

By the time it was over, my partner and I had experienced enough during that year and a half to fill at least one volume of our collective autobiography. And yet, when I sat down at the computer to record what I recognized as significant memoir material, I hit a patch of insurmountable writer’s block. I couldn’t think of anything to write about.

I was wrong, of course. There was plenty to write about, even if I had skipped writing about the details of my juicy then-current situation. I had grown up in a Democratic-leaning family in a heavily Republican county in the Midwest; had a lifelong love affair with creativity; started my writing career at age 14 and had the opportunity to interview everyone from LGBTQ spiritual author Mel White to sexologist Annie Sprinkle; learned to shoot safety videos in an aluminum factory and dangled off a cherry picker 70 feet up to get an “aerial” shot.

The assumption that my life stories weren’t worth collecting was wrong at age 34, and that feels even more true nearly 15 years later. I’ve always been drawn to writing about how ordinary people live their lives. In my early years as a writer, I expressed that interest by writing human interest features and profiles; more recently, that passion has morphed into helping people tell their own stories as a personal historian. What I’ve discovered along the way is that every life, including my own, contains extraordinary moments – ones that are important to us, as well as to those around us.

Photo by Eugene Chystiakov on Unsplash

Collecting and sharing our life stories can be profoundly empowering, especially if we belong to the LGBTQ community. Here are three basic reasons why:

1. First and foremost, understanding our stories helps us to make sense of our lives.

We can experience epiphanies related to how our life has unfolded at any age; also, how we tell key life stories to ourselves or to others often changes over time. Making the effort to record our stories is an important step in this “figuring out” process.

2. Expressing our life stories, even the sad or unpleasant ones, makes us more resilient and better able to cope.

About 20 years ago, Emory University researcher Marshall Duke measured the resiliency skills of children and found that those who could answer the most items on a list of family history questions scored highest. He also discovered that the family storylines that helped kids cope the best were the “oscillating” narratives, the stories that told kids that family members have made it through both bad times and good times, which helped them realize that they can overcome setbacks in their own life, too.

3. The process of personal story-catching can connect us to something larger than ourselves.

This may be the greatest advantage of “owning our story” for LGBTQ people. So many of our community members have been rejected by their families, churches or geographic peers, which can make one feel lost and alone. And we have all lived through historic queer milestones such as the LGBTQ marches on Washington, D.C., the AIDS crisis, the women’s music movement, “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” in the military, the advent of marriage equality and much more. As we retell our life stories, including the ones that touch on sexual orientation and gender identity, we get a sense of how ALL our various identities and their intersections make us who we are, and connect us to others.

There are many ways to share your personal stories once you’ve collected them. You can start a blog, attend poetry slams or live storytelling events, contribute to an online video initiative like “It Gets Better,” or provide an oral history for the Arizona LGBT+ History Project (arizonalgbthistory.com). All it takes to get started is an open notebook, the willingness to dig deep into your memories and the belief that your stories matter.

I know the next time I decide to write about my life, the blank page won’t get the best of me. Because I’ve seen it happen with others, I know that when it comes to discussing my own memories, I believe, along with Mark Twain, “There was never yet an uninteresting life. Such a thing is an impossibility. Inside of the dullest exterior there is a drama, a comedy and a tragedy.”

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Photo by James Barr on Unsplash

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