This is the first of my interviews, Its a honour to give you this one first too. Shelly Songer was a remarkable Trans-female who identified herself as a Lesbian. Sadly we lost Shelly in October, however it was her families wishes for this interview to be used and a honour for me to pass on her inspiring story. Please enjoy and please reflect on such a wonderful person, fighting against all odds.
Lots of Love
First of all tell me about yourself?
I am a parent of two great children and a grandparent to four fantastic grandchildren. I retired from government work after nearly 20 years to move closer to my children and watch my grandchildren grow up. I think most importantly is the fact that my two oldest grandsons asked me to move closer so I could be in their lives more and they both had just become aware I was Transgender. I had been living in stealth until then even to my grandchildren.
How old are you now?
Where did you grow up?
I grew up in just outside Decatur, Illinois, USA, in a small suburb next to a farming community.
Many of the readers won’t know the area you were born in so could you describe it, especially the attitudes towards LGBT, if any.
When I grew up in “Farmville” as I will call it, in the 50s and 60s there wasn’t an attitude toward LGBT – we didn’t exist. This was the time when gay men either kept their closet doors shut or were ridiculed and mocked. Lesbians cut their hair short and wore masculine apparel as it was “required” to do it the farm work, but mainly they wanted other women to know their sexuality. Back then there was no way to really meet other like-minded individuals. People knew that they didn’t need to dress like that. Any gays or lesbians (and who am I trying to kid – they were called “sissy boys” and “dykes” or “those” people where I was) were whispered about in the sewing circles and coffee clutches. Snide comments were made by the “real” men as they spat at the “sissy boy’s” feet as they walked by them in town. This was a real “Don’t ask, don’t tell” society with possible dire consequences if too “out there” or “out there” at the wrong time, wrong place.
How do you identify yourself sexuality or otherwise?
I am a TransLesbian. I like to say that I am the L and the T of LGBT. This was very confusing for me until I met Jaime – a free spirited Lesbian woman who clarified it for me. After hearing my dilemma she merely stated, “There’s no issue here, you’re just a lesbian trapped in a man’s body – work it out”, and I did.
When did you first discover that you may be Transgender?
I knew at four years old. I was hiding under the coffee table while my mother talked to some of our new neighbors. All of the other kids were outside playing but I wanted to be a part of it. One of the ladies mentioned how cute I was and my mom said, “Yes, that’s one of my three boys.” I then started crying and ran out of the room screaming, “I’m not a boy, I’m a girl.” I remember they all laughed, but I was not laughing. Yet, my mom never talked to me about it. Never
Tell us a little about your early adult life?
I tried all I could to make my parents happy and lead what would be considered “normal” life. I really did. That even included some very miserable times happening, but also with some magical times occurring. I joined the Navy and not the good one that the Village People sing about. As a side note, I had been in college but managed to fail all of my classes, a large part is due to my gender dysphoria.
When I first met the woman who would be my wife and mother of my children, she was in full Navy dress uniform. I never told her, but I thought she was a lesbian. Her older sister, whom became one of my best friends and biggest allies when I transitioned, had told me that she was surprised her sister got married – she had thought she was a lesbian also. I loved that woman, and cherished everyday that I got to spend with her. We are still good friends and I still love her just as much now.
Who did you tell first, and how did they react?
It was my sister-in-law, Gail, one of my biggest allies. Even though my wife knew some things about my obsession, she thought I was gay. It was really Gail whom I first told, “I want to be a woman.” She was a social worker and was working with displaced youth and actually knew about Transgender people.
What was the reaction from your family?
Hatred. Simple and blunt. I was completely disowned by my father, step mother, older and younger sisters, and an older brother who basically wishes I had killed myself as it would be easier to deal with. I think I failed to mention that my entire family are also bigots. I’m pretty sure if I had still been living in Illinois I would have had a cross burnt on my lawn and a stake driven through my heart.
My mom died when I was 22 and although I think she “knew”, she caught me often enough over the years.
How did you deal with it?
Well, I didn’t actually like most of my blood relatives. I even wrote a poem about it once they rejected me – which I believed they would – it was titled The Blood in Our Veins which basically stated that the blood in our veins was our only real tie and that isn’t enough to hold a family together. I adopted my best friend (whom I had met in the support group) as my sister and I still had several family members. I am also a positive thought, meditation freak, and I chose to be happy regardless of what they did.
Tell us a little more about the transformation?
I need to be clear on something very important though. Transitioning will not fix any problems or issues in your life but one. It makes your body and mind congruent and this was only after surgery. I know many Transgender people say they have accepted the fact that they can’t have the surgery yet and therefore accept that they still have male parts. I just truly hope they are. I couldn’t do it. I had dysphoria until I woke up from surgery and knew “it” was gone. I couldn’t stand to see my own body from the waist down until after the surgery. I never had breast augmentation but I had developed small breasts from Hormone Replacement Therapy (HRT), and that was just fine for me. Any male body parts – well, I hated them and had often thought of self-mutilation both as a child and as an adult. Yet, even with surgery and living full time there is so much more I needed to work on to be happy. If I hadn’t worked on all that other “stuff” in my life, my life wouldn’t have changed for the better. Transitioning was just a part of my life, it wasn’t my entire life.
What about work, were they ok about the situation?
Where I had been working – they were not ok, very much the opposite. I had told several people and never heard from them again – ever. My General Manager (GM) was even attempting to withhold bonuses that I had earned, but I kind of blackmailed him as I was a qualifying signing party on a contractor’s license in another state and told him I would write and withdraw my name from the commission if he didn’t give me the money I was owed. He acquiesced as a business decision. This was in Arizona which is full of cowboys and “macho men”, and my GM was also a retired State Trooper and a bigot also. I also coerced him into giving me a letter of recommendation without using he / him in it. Although brief it did work wonders.
When I transitioned and went to work in another state I was totally stealth. No one at work knew of my past, except they thought I was a mother of two, divorced, and had left my children with their father to finish the school they had been attending for many years. I had to create new birthdays to make my children older than what they were so that I didn’t appear to be a woman that abandoned her children. That might have been worse than Transgender since my office was mostly women. I also drove back to Arizona nearly every weekend to visit my kids which made me unavailable for most “outside work” socializing.
What about when people don’t know how to react or speak to you, how do you deal with that?
This actually does come up with my daughter’s and son’s friends. I find it humorous since they don’t know how to react. But I’m straightforward and answer any questions – any. The more people I can educate on this subject the better it is for me
Do you think talking about it in general helps others became more aware, and do you think being visual about yourself actually helps or educates anyone out there?
I know it does. Even if it’s one person at a time
Also, thank you for being concerned enough to ask these questions and hopefully educate some people out there. Just replying to these questions helps me understand myself even a little better so it must also help others.
How do you now feel, years on?
I feel great – really great, and really grateful.