‘Peo­ple say they’ve never met a trans per­son, I say, I bet you have’

‘When you’ve heard one trans­gen­der story, you’ve heard one trans­gen­der story’

The Irish Times - Tuesday - Health - - Front Page - Chloe Sch­wenke

To look at her, you couldn’t guess Chloe Sch­wenke’s age ac­cu­rately. Tall and slim, with straight shoul­der-length hair and a strong face, she’s an elo­quent, el­e­gant woman who ap­pears to have life sussed (though this was far from al­ways the case).

To look at her, you couldn’t tell, ei­ther, that she was born into a boy’s body.

As she says in her TED Talk, “When you’ve heard one trans­gen­der story, you’ve heard one trans­gen­der story.”

Her story starts around age six or seven, when Sch­wenke knew there was some­thing dif­fer­ent, but didn’t have the words for it. At age 55, af­ter a lot of un­hap­pi­ness, and with a wife and two young chil­dren, Sch­wenke fi­nally ac­knowl­edged her re­al­ity and came out as a woman. That was just over 10 years ago.

As a child, Stephen Sch­wenke had tra­di­tion­ally “fem­i­nine” traits. At seven, Ste­vie asked for a toy iron­ing board for Christ­mas, which might not have gone down well in a mil­i­tary fam­ily: “My fa­ther was a colonel in the Marine Corps, but much to their credit my par­ents got me that iron­ing board. I had three broth­ers do­ing all the boy stuff and I was there iron­ing. That was the space I wanted to be in.”

Sch­wenke came out as trans when her fa­ther was 91; her mother had died some years ear­lier. “He spent a cou­ple of weeks be­ing mad at God. But God can take it. He was never mad at me.”

Stephen Sch­wenke went to a mil­i­tary school. “I re­acted very badly.” He ate and ate, and gained 50 pounds in a year as a way of cop­ing. Two years later, back in a pub­lic high school, Sch­wenke was much hap­pier.

These days, Dr Chloe Sch­wenke is an aca­demic and LGBTQ ac­tivist, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the As­so­ci­a­tion of Writ­ers & Writ­ing Pro­grams (AWP), near Wash­ing­ton DC, and ad­junct pro­fes­sor at the School of Pub­lic Pol­icy at Univer­sity of Mary­land. She vis­ited Dublin for a Chris­tian Aid con­fer­ence on re­duc­ing and pre­vent­ing gen­der-based vi­o­lence, in­clud­ing gen­der in­equal­ity, dis­crim­i­na­tion against LGBTI, en­gag­ing faith lead­ers, and of­fer­ing sup­port to sur­vivors.

She is elo­quent and clear-think­ing about dis­crim­i­na­tion, ha­tred and vi­o­lence to­wards trans­gen­dered peo­ple.

‘A ter­ri­ble price’

Sch­wenke was an ar­chi­tect for 15 years, mainly in Africa, and de­signed the US em­bassy in Nairobi, which was blown up. “I did ev­ery­thing I could to ad­here to a mas­cu­line pre­sen­ta­tion and to out-ma­cho the guys. I led a very ad­ven­ture­some, risk-tak­ing life and tried to de­fine my­self in very mas­cu­line ways. But I paid a ter­ri­ble price for do­ing that.”

She de­scribes her gen­der dys­pho­ria as “in­side there’s a dis­so­nance you feel be­tween a pro­jec­tion and your au­then­tic self, which gets pro­gres­sively more un­bear­able. And it’s a con­stant, like tin­ni­tus, a ring­ing in your ears that never goes away.”

Tran­si­tion­ing is not an easy path, and can be dev­as­tat­ing for fam­i­lies. “The pres­sure is im­mense to con­form to your as­signed gen­der.” Tran­sex­u­als have the high­est sui­cide rate of any de­mo­graphic (in the US about 4.1 per cent of the gen­eral pop­u­la­tion, but 46 per cent of trans­sex­u­als, at­tempt sui­cide).

Even af­ter ac­knowl­edg­ing your gen­der, “you’re go­ing to get so much push­back and stigma and your re­la­tion­ships and your job will be in peril. I was fired from my job when I tran­si­tioned, and my mar­riage fell apart. I had two broth­ers that didn’t speak to me for eight years. I had lots of re­ally hor­ri­ble things hap­pen. It’s the hard­est thing imag­in­able and it’s cer­tainly not a choice in any sort of ob­vi­ous sense. You do it be­cause it’s re­ally the only way to stay alive.

“Hav­ing said that, the ex­pe­ri­ence of tran­si­tion­ing was a joy-filled search to dis­cover your­self. You’re more and more aware of the rich­ness of who you are com­ing through, and the chance to be your­self fi­nally is very, very ful­fill­ing.”

Sch­wenke was 55 years’ old when this was hap­pen­ing. She talked to a coun­sel­lor “about the frus­tra­tion of al­ways feel­ing what I gen­uinely wanted to be was not al­lowed, that the way I was try­ing to struc­ture my life lacked a com­mon core that would hold it all to­gether, that I just didn’t fit within the tra­di­tional male norms and I didn’t know what to do with that. She looked at me and said: ‘Did you ever stop to think you might be a woman?’ No­body ever asked me that ques­tion be­fore.”

A re­lief

It was a re­lief, but her whole life was thrown in the air. “Be­ing mar­ried to some­body who’s chron­i­cally de­pressed is not great. I said, ‘I think I’m a woman’. It was dev­as­tat­ing for her. This was a tran­si­tion, not just for me, but for ev­ery­body con­nected with me. She had a sense of be­ing dis­em­pow­ered: she had no say in this at all. She could not stop me from do­ing this, but she was see­ing her hus­band dis­ap­pear be­fore her eyes.”

They were very strong friends, “and we had that core to build upon. It took a long time, but we are still re­ally good friends. We still live to­gether. We still raise our chil­dren to­gether. We live like sis­ters in the same house. We’re not mar­ried any­more.

“We both iden­tify as het­ero­sex­ual women. But she’s my best friend and she un­der­stands me bet­ter than any other per­son on the planet. And she knew this was not a choice. This is some­thing I had to do.”

There were many in­ci­dences of re­jec­tion, par­tic­u­larly by doc­tors. It was dif­fi­cult “ac­cess­ing ba­sic ser­vices where you have to deal with in­ti­mate de­tails of be­ing trans­gen­der. You get re­ally strong push­back and re­jec­tion and hu­mil­i­a­tion thrown at you all the time. I think for most trans­gen­der peo­ple in most of the world, that’s the norm still. Peo­ple say they’ve never met a trans per­son, and I say, I bet you have. You just don’t know. We don’t walk around with a sign on.”

Sch­wenke had to nav­i­gate how it af­fected oth­ers. “I have two chil­dren I had to work around. It was a ter­ri­bly hard tran­si­tion for them.” She pauses and smiles. “We all got there.”

Her daugh­ter was seven and son 12. Ex­plain­ing it to them was “one of the hard­est things we did. We did it to­gether.

“It’s not un­usual any­more to have a two-mom fam­ily, so peo­ple as­sumed we were a les­bian cou­ple. That wasn’t very com­fort­able for my wife. She has noth­ing against les­bian cou­ples, it’s just that’s not who she was. And I didn’t know how I was go­ing to end in terms of my ori­en­ta­tion. I was kind of hop­ing it would turn out to be les­bian be­cause women are just so much eas­ier to un­der­stand for me.” She smiles. “It didn’t work out that way. I’m much more in­clined to­wards men.”

She worked in international de­vel­op­ment for a Catholic fam­ily-owned firm. “When I came out to them, they were blown away. They had never heard of this and they were ap­palled.”

They fired her and she couldn’t get a job so she worked as an in­de­pen­dent con­sul­tant in international de­vel­op­ment. But things im­proved, and the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion ap­pointed Sch­wenke as se­nior ad­viser for LGBTQI pol­icy, democ­racy, hu­man rights and gov­er­nance at the US Agency for International De­vel­op­ment.

With a new ad­min­is­tra­tion, the tone has changed, and she de­scribes her­self as in the “Trump re­sis­tance”.

To­day is Trans­gen­der Day of Re­mem­brance, which honours those who have lost

I had three broth­ers do­ing all the boy stuff and I was there iron­ing. That was the space I wanted to be in

their lives as a re­sult of vi­o­lence against trans­gen­der peo­ple.

Not all trans peo­ple opt for med­i­cal ther­apy. “It was rel­a­tively new and phe­nom­e­nally ex­pen­sive, and in­sur­ance didn’t cover any of it. But I de­cided I would only come to some peace by getting the med­i­cal in­ter­ven­tions. I had gen­der con­firm­ing surgery in Mon­treal, elec­trol­y­sis – it was very ex­pen­sive and painful – voice ther­apy, and hor­mone ther­apy. I used my re­tire­ment money and what­ever I could bor­row.”

She has been ac­cused of be­ing self­ish. “How self­ish can you be, to do this to your wife, to your chil­dren, to do this to me – who­ever they were that was in­con­ve­nienced by my gen­der. I fi­nally had to own that and say I need to be present in the world as my­self. I’m go­ing to be self-ish. Be­cause we have to be our­selves, other­wise you’re not real in the world.”

That word self-ish, with the hy­phen, is the ti­tle of her re­cently pub­lished mem­oir, SELF-ish: A Trans­gen­der Awak­en­ing.

Dat­ing Her ex-wife is not in­ter­ested in dat­ing, but Sch­wenke is. Re­la­tion­ships are dif­fi­cult as a trans woman. On­line dat­ing was dis­as­trous. “I had a rule to tell men on the third date, and ev­ery sin­gle time they’d be gone, and of­ten re­ally rudely. They were al­ways out­raged and in­dig­nant. My gen­er­a­tion is so freaked out by the idea of a trans­gen­der woman.”

But Chloe Sch­wenke is not both­ered if she doesn’t form a new ro­man­tic re­la­tion­ship. “If I find some­one, that’ll be great; if I don’t, it’s go­ing to be just fine. I have never been hap­pier. I have my best friend, some won­der­ful friends and I’ve got some im­por­tant work to do. What more can you ask?”

PHO­TO­GRAPH: MARK ST­ED­MAN

‘This was not a choice. This is some­thing I had to do.’ Dr Chloe Sch­wenke.

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