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Thistle Farms was buzzing on a recent Wednesday morning, as dozens of residents, staff, and visitors made their way to ‘the Circle,’ for what many in attendance cherish as the highlight of their week.
Joyous greetings and embraces fill the room as current residents and graduates of the Magdalene Program—all survivors of trafficking, prostitution, and addiction—make their way to the Circle to share their stories.
In the center of the Circle burns the candle that a member of the Thistle Farms community lights each day as a powerful symbol of sanctuary, love, and hope. As we go around the Circle, several women gesture toward it and express gratitude that this candle burns for all of their Magdalene sisters, as well as for the women who have not yet found their way here. They offer comfort and encouragement to those who are struggling. They applaud and cheer for those celebrating milestones, like sobriety anniversaries, reunions with families, a new job, or a new home.
Thistle Farms cafe foodPeggy Napier
With the help of the Magdalene program and Thistle Farms, these survivors are recovering and building beautiful lives for themselves. And now they return to the Circle again and again to share their stories and words of wisdom like these with each other:
“I am grateful that God is making a ministry of my mess.”
“I’ve been struggling these last few weeks, but I know my sisters are here and they’re lifting me up.”
“No matter where life takes you, remember that God’s love is there. And love heals.”
Many in the Circle express gratitude for each other, for their founder Becca Stevens, and their CEO, Hal Cato. One resident closed her remarks saying, “We all know how much Hal has done for Thistle Farms, but I want to say that nobody has ever fought so hard for me personally as Hal Cato has.”
Cato says it’s a privilege to serve these women in this way. “Earning the trust and respect of women who have only known men who were there to buy, sell, or abuse them is a tremendous honor,” says Cato. “I don’t take it for granted for a single moment. I think my leadership mantra has served me well in this regard: people don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.”
Thistle Farms - Magdalene Graduation 2016: What Freedom Looks Like youtu.be
Thistle Farms was founded in 2001, and by the time Cato took the reigns as CEO in September 2015, the organization had expanded to the point it was limited by its space. Cato led major changes that would enable Thistle Farms to attract a growing customer base and continue to thrive.
By 2017, they had completed the beautiful renovation of the Café, they had moved into a huge facility that allows them to scale production of their bath and body products, and they re-branded those products with a new ‘upscale’ look to reflect their uncompromising quality. And all those changes have been worth it, as Thistle Farms continues to grow.
Cato says, “I believe mission only gets a social enterprise so far. Quality products and/or a great experience have to be immediately in step behind it. If you combine the two together, there is no limit to what is possible. That was my goal—create a product and an environment where mission and quality were equally and beautifully yoked together. Sales have doubled since then and net income has improved 700%. And I know we’re just getting started.”
Cato is beyond passionate about the mission of the Magdalene program, and to support that mission he must run Thistle Farms as he would run any business. As such, he knew that joining the Nashville LGBT Chamber of Commerce would introduce Thistle Farms to a network of potential vendors and customers it needed to continue growing and serving those amazing women.
Thistle Farms recently hosted the August Brewing up Business at the Café. Cato values their membership in the Nashville LGBT Chamber, and also wants his business to support its mission. He says, “This community has been good to us over the years and we want to give back and be of equal service to it. We love the direction the LGBT Chamber is taking and appreciate how many of its members meet up here for coffee and lunch!”
The Café is the perfect spot for our Chamber members to enjoy breakfast, lunch, or their impressive afternoon tea service. You will not find a friendlier or more eager staff! These women are grateful to be working, love their co-workers, and are incredibly proud of Thistle Farms. And the food is fantastic!
Just off the Café is the Thistle Farms store front where customers can browse their bath, body and home products, as well as jewelry and accessories made by women recovering in Thistle Farms sister programs around the world. Thistle Farms uses natural, high quality ingredients in making their bath and body products such as hand soap and lotion, lip balm, body butter, shaving cream. They all feel and smell amazing! Using these products doesn’t just feel like supporting a social enterprise; it feels like self-indulgence.
They also offer home products such as essential oils and their hand-poured soy candles like the one that burns in the middle of the Circle. Cato reminds us that “The holiday season will be here before we know it. Every 50 candles we sell employs a survivor for a week. Remember our gift shop when you’re making your holiday list. You’re giving more than a gift…you’re giving a woman a second chance at the same time.”
The women of Magdalene who are given that second chance take every opportunity to give back to their community as an expression of love and gratitude. That commitment is evident everywhere we look on the morning of our visit to Thistle Farms.
Rachel Goldzweig, a 2017 graduate of the program, stopped by the Café to meet a friend for coffee. Every few minutes, another staff member ran over and offers Goldzweig a warm embrace and welcome ‘home.’ Goldzweig was excited to share the news that she had just joined the Board of Thistle Farms and attended her first meeting the night before.
Nearby, Shelia McClain, the Director of Education and Outreach at Thistle Farms, led the group tour of the facility. "I've never done this before," she announced. "I'm filling in for the amazing tour guide, who is on vacation." And, of course, the tour was wonderful, closing with the confident, hopeful phrase we often hear within this beautiful community, "We are more than our story."
To shop for Thistle Farms products, plan your next event at The Café, or inquire about volunteer opportunities or your place in the Circle, visit thistlefarms.org.
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  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” . 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.”
 Grossman, A.H. & D’Augelli, A.R. (2007). Transgender Youth and Life-Threatening Behaviors. *Suicide and Life-Threatening Behaviors* 37 (5), 527-37.
 Tiffany Herring, January 28 2015 Iowa State Daily [goo.gl/YSL3SC].
Many of us have made resolutions and pledged ourselves to transforming some aspect, or aspects, of our lives. For some, these resolutions will involve career, budget, home ownership, etc., but for a LOT of us, they will involve various health, exercise and fitness goals.
Often, these resolutions are vague, like “lose weight” or “exercise more”, and way too often they begin with a gym contract and end with Netflix and a bag of takeout. Getting specific can help in holding yourself accountable for these commitments, though. So we thought it might be interesting to talk with a local gay trainer, James Mai, about his fitness journey, his work as a trainer and how he keeps himself motivated, and get some of his suggestions for carrying through on this year’s fitness resolutions!
Mai said he hasn’t always been athletic, though he was thin. “I have not always been athletic. I danced a bit in college but never lifted a weight. I was what you call ‘skinny fat’ and I didn't know any different. I only started truly working out three years ago, when I started in the entertainment industry.”
The motivation to get into better shape was work. “Fitness was a byproduct of having to keep up my looks for castings,” he explained. “I found a love for training because everyone is on a different path, but I knew that I enjoyed being on that journey to help others get to be their more confident selves.”
Training, of course, keeps Mai in the gym, and helping others reach their goals keeps him motivated. He trains at Barry’s Bootcamp in Nashville, and he’s clearly passionate about his workplace.
“Barry's Bootcamp has been my family for the past 3 years!” Mai said. “There is a community of people that come together and actually encompasses what a fit family truly is.”
Barry’s describes its gym as “the room where everything becomes possible. Where you push through the ‘I can’t’s’ and ‘If Only’s.’ Where you run faster, lift more, lean out, quiet down. This is what transformation looks like. Where you become the best version of yourself.”
“The workout itself is designed for efficiency. The intervals and strength training combinations are proven to lean and tone your body. This isn’t a fitness trend. It’s just science. And it works,” the company says. “Then there’s the ‘thing’ that happens when the doors close, lights dim, and music turns up. There’s a palpable energy in the room that pushes you one step further. It’s the soul, body, brain revolution that’s uniquely Barry’s.”
Mai’s commitment to health continues outside the gym, though. “Outside the gym, I love dancing, and you can see me taking classes at DancEast to brush up on my technique or out and about just jamming to music. Dance is a great way to move your body and a cardio workout, if you are really get into it.”
It’s not all about what you do with your body: what you put into it matters as well. “Diet is a huge part of getting results that you want, in addition to time at the gym,” Mai explained. “I meal prep every week, so that I know what goes into my body and I can monitor the macros that I am consuming each day. There are plenty recipes and information about meal prep options to help you reach yours goals. Check it out, test it out, and choose what you like and don't like.”
Mai also doesn’t do something that might be a hard habit to break for some of us: “I also don't drink, so that helps keep off those unwanted calories that I don't need!”
Asked for some strategies he’d suggest for people looking to get healthier and keep those New Years resolutions, especially those of us out of practice or new to trying to get in shape, Mai offered the following:
Try to exercise every day.Be active, whether it's a simple walk or run, bike ride, dance class, yoga, or swim. Daily exercise builds adrenaline, endorphins, pheromones, and testosterone—which are ingredients for the perfect healthy addiction. Once exercise becomes a daily habit, you will miss it if something gets in the way.
Get a workout buddy.Friends don't let friends down. With a friend, you can hold each other accountable and keep that motivation intact. Try a new studio together, take a class together, and laugh and share the joy of your journey together.
Vary your diet.Most people will eat the same thing every time, given the option. Think about how what you eat powers you through your activities. There are many types of diets out there. From keto or whole 30, paleo to low carb, research and try out what works for you. Even gradually incorporating aspects of these diets can help you towards your goals.
Get more sleep.Take naps, go to bed earlier, and give yourself more time to rest. Sleep volume is directly correlated to physical and mental health.
Focus on yourself and your feelings.Often, people strive to lose weight or make muscle gains and focus on the scale to see their progress. Making change takes time and is not immediate. Instead of focusing on the numbers right away, focus on how you feel after a workout: strong after a lifting exercise, energized after cardio, or relaxed and connected after a yoga session. By focusing on how you feel rather than the scale, you are more inclined to stay motivated on your fitness journey.
Mai also had some suggestions for incorporating health goals into daily life. “Being healthy is comprised of many parts: Mentally, physically, and emotionally. Filling these capacities takes time and needs attention and care. At the end of the day, you are working on living your best life, and, by living a healthy life, you impact not only how you feel but also how others feel around you.
“Mentally,” he explained, means “Keep learning. Feed your mind and continue to grow. Workout your mind and allow it to keep you informed and motivated. Eat well. Drink sensibly. Take a break from social media, because the perceptions versus the realities of posts on social media can mess with your emotions and how you think. Allow yourself to connect mind, body and soul.”
“Physically, working out and exercising allows you to get to your best self. Like Elle Woods says in Legally Blonde, ‘Exercise gives you endorphins. Endorphins make you happy. Happy people just don't shoot their husbands, they just don't.”
“And emotionally, how you feel about yourself feeds into how you perform. If you look in the mirror and you don't like how you look, you are less likely to want to go out and have a good time,” he added. “By emotionally feeding yourself positivity, you are creating a more well-rounded version of yourself. Every time you look in the mirror, tell yourself ‘I'm beautiful and worthy.’ These words of affirmation to yourself may seem silly, but are crucial to your health. Start believing that you are beautiful and worthy and that positivity will take strives in your life.”
For more information on Mai’s gym, visit barrysbootcamp.com.
Rarely are the words, “I’m bi,” heard. Whether on TV, film or even from friends and family, it’s almost nonexistent. Coming out as gay is thought to be brave; a pivotal moment in someone’s life. Coming out as bi, however, is often met with rolled eyes, being viewed as a sexual object, and even with the chant, “Bi now, gay later.” Being bisexual isn’t heralded as brave: it is often treated as if it isn’t even a real thing!
Many well-known blogs have used the purple analogy to explain bisexuality. Purple is known as its own color and not half red, half blue. There are even several shades of purple, some with more red or some with more blue. The same exists in bisexuality, where attraction can be fluid. Some can be hetero- or homo-romantic (meaning that when it comes to establishing romantic relationships they are primarily attracted to members of the opposite sex, or same-sex, respectively) but do enjoy physical, sexual contact with someone of different sex than their partner. Some can be polyamorous and even cohabitate with both sexes. And others decide on their romantic and sexual partners freely, a person to person decision based on what about the individual might tickles their fancy.
Understanding bisexualityPhoto by Isi Parente on Unsplash
While bisexuality, on the surface, should be welcomed as yet another beautiful way of living—loving hearts and not parts, if you will—bisexuality is often viewed in a not so great light or simply swept under the rug by both the straight and broader lesbian and gay communities.
I asked men and women who identify as bisexual to help us take a look at what it means to be a shade of purple in the big world of pink and blue. It should be noted, and of some concern, that most did not want to be identified by full name, or to use a photograph, in order to avoid judgment from one community, the other, or both, or even because of the risk of losing their jobs and family.
Sorting through the responses to our questions on bisexuality, early feelings of attraction for both sexes was a common theme. Most relate it to the same feelings as straight or gay people face. “I’ve known I was bisexual since I was very little,” Emma Frye stated. “I realized I was not attracted solely to one sex as early as I understood attraction. Most people know they’re straight or gay early in life; I was the same with bisexuality”
Some state that they did not recognize their feelings as bisexual, or perhaps did not know there was a name for it, like Lish Rodriquez: “I didn’t know about bisexuality—I just knew that I liked those people. As I grew older and the media picked up more stories about homosexuality and the AIDS/HIV epidemic, it gave me the word ‘bisexual’ to identify with.”
What comes up also, is the difference in fluidity. The majority of respondents were in an opposite-sex marriage and thus present outwardly to the wider world as heterosexual. Out of those people, many refer to themselves as “swingers.” This is a way for them to explore their bisexuality, with or without their spouses’ involvement, while keeping their marriage and families intact.
Taking the “B” out of “LGBT”
Despite its banner of open acceptance, there is a great deal of questioning in the wider lesbian and gay community about the status of the “B,” and just as some have called for the expulsion of the transgender community from LGBT, others are calling for the removal of the “B”.
One Tumblr blog, “Unpopular Opinions,” states, “I think we should take the B out of LGBT. Bisexuals have it way better than most of us in the queer community. They have straight privilege and ride on the coattails of the gay community.”
Turns out, that just as in the transgender community some agree for very different reasons, some bisexuals likewise argue that this just might be a good idea. Recently a YouTuber known as BisexualRealTalk called for the “B” to be taken out of “LGBT.” He concluded that a bisexual looking for support in the LGBT community was ultimately going to have more questions, be left with a greater sense of uncertainty, and come away with a deeper sense of being alone. “Expectation kills,” he says. “The LGBT community is not our friend”
In fact, a major Canadian study published by the San Francisco Human Rights Commission in 2010 called “Bisexual Invisibility: Impacts and Recommendations,” found bisexual men are 6.3 times more likely, and bisexual women 5.9 times more likely, to report having been suicidal than heterosexual people. Bisexuals are also 3-5 times more likely to feel suicidal than gay men and lesbians.
The majority of those we surveyed also felt discrimination from the LGBT community. Rae Schomburg-Hall states, “I receive scorn from most lesbians as they feel I should ‘pick a side’ and I must just need to ‘make up my mind.’” She feels she is seen as “a confused individual. An oversexed person, just looking for fulfillment. Not to be trusted. An interloper. This, coming from a community that heralds inclusion and acceptance is just…just…wrong.”
Views and Perceptions About Bisexuals
Reading through blogs and articles mentioning bisexuality, it doesn’t take long to find the words "greedy," “whore,” or “slut” being heaped upon bisexuals individually or as a group. The belief that bisexuals, regardless of the evidence, aren’t actually, or can’t be, monogamous is another common attitude.
“There are definitely people who think being bisexual means the exact opposite of monogamous, which is kind of hilarious” answers one of our participants. “I think people's sexuality is so personal, and it varies from person to person. Not all of us sleep with everyone, just because we can, although I have had close friends say that I was a whore or a slut because I dated both ‘sides’ from my pool of friends as a young adult.”
R.J. Aquiar, YouTube’s “NotAdam,” has a series he calls “Ask a Bi Guy,” where he addresses many of the perceptions and attempts to use his personal experience to change the attitudes on bisexuality. In response to our questions, he wrote, “There are still so many people out there who can't accept our identity as valid. They're so adamant about sticking to their existing world view, so they'll look for any reason to dismiss us rather than accept this new information that might require them to change their world view. That doesn't necessarily make them bad people, since it's human nature to do that. And it's even more understandable when you look at how much society enforces that gay/straight binary. Most people would, for instance, refer to a male/male or female/female couple as a ‘gay couple’ rather than a ‘same-sex couple’ while a male/female couple is most often referred to as a ‘straight couple’. If you know what to look for, there's bi-erasure all over the place. This can make it really difficult for a bi person to consider coming out since it means having to face all of that adversity head on.”
Men vs Women
Attitudes men versus women concerning bisexuality certainly differ. It is often said that women have it “easier” being bi. The acceptance of a bisexual woman actually involves oversexualizing her. When a woman says she is bi, many men would jump at what they think is a sure-fire way into a threesome. Very rarely is she viewed as a potential monogamous partner.
And if she comes out to a potential same-sex partner? She is often not taken seriously. There is a fear she will want to return to a heterosexual fantasy of husbands, children, and white picket fences in the suburbs. After all, bisexuals are always viewed as having the potential for passing in straight society as an option. One lesbian told us “I’m scared I’ll be hurt by bisexual women, so I won’t mess with them at all”.
Bisexual men do face a different demon, and because of it, very few men will ever come out as bi. Cooper S Beckett—author of “My Life on the Swingset” and “A Life Less Monogamous”—offers personal insight on this. There is “the immediate assumption that I was gay and kidding myself. I've been told it was a phase as well. Straight men don't like bi men, because they're afraid of another man coming along and treating them the way they've traditionally treated women, as someone you could cajole into doing something. They're worried about being cajoled into ‘gay sex.’ I've been told to my face by a gay man that I'm not bi, I'm just on the road to gay town. It's shocking and sad. But I think acceptance is growing.”
Finding a Tribe
There are plenty of online communities to join. Binetusa.org and shybi.com are places to discuss the unique challenges and obstacles bisexuals face. Bisexual.org has a fantastic library of articles, and discussions, and even lists famous people you might not have known were bi. In your local community, look at meetup.org to find bisexual or bisexual friendly meet-ups.
It is much easier to research within the bisexual community than to look in the LGBT community. It is most important to fight for your rights and support others who are questioning or longing for understanding.
“A lot of LGBT experts call bi people ‘the silent majority', since there are likely a lot more bi people out there who would rather hide than come out and deal with all the stigma,” Aguair writes. “Unfortunately, the only way we can change that is for more bi people to live their lives openly, and demonstrate firsthand how much it doesn't have to be that big a deal. It also illustrates how important it is for bi, pan, and other sexually fluid people to come together and form a community to support one another”
Pam Simmons, who has struggled with her bisexual identity for many years, wrote, "The best advice I could give is to find someone you trust and share what you are feeling, how it is affecting you, your fears & doubts. The journey to identifying as bisexual may be a lifelong process. But that’s ok. You define you…. Nobody else. Be true to yourself. And most of all, love yourself.”