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