My dear friend Robyn is forever reminding me that it’s a trap to focus solely on trans related stories which only serve to accentuate the trans-person-as-victim narrative. I hope this will redeem me; this is my personal success story!
Some of you may know a little about me: In the many years of my denial, I managed to create for myself a small niche as photographer for the Grateful Dead. This wasn’t a job I was hired to do, merely a way to stay on tour with the Dead and one thing led to another. Eventually, I became the first photographer the Dead ever licensed and I remain the only photo licensee to this day.
But, as many of you know from personal and direct experience, life has a way of changing when you decide transition is no longer something to ponder, but a critical component of your very survival. There are probably as many ways to approach transition as there are people faced with the decision. Many wait until their lives are somewhat stable financially; others, like me, after so many years of repression, can’t live the lie for even one more day.
The consequences of not waiting were dire. I lost my marriage, my career, everything. In the wake of a separation and divorce marked by extreme hostility and animus, I lost my photo gear, my archives, my darkroom, virtually all my inventory and my livelihood. (I should mention that my former wife and I are, again, friends.) But, for the support of my mom, who refused to let me down, I would have surely become homeless.
After realizing the problems, the search for employment would entail, I opted to return to school and pursue a marketable career. What problems, you say? Well, other than the obvious conundrum of a trans person finding work, I refer to the identification/document catch-22. In many states, you can’t get an identification card — say, a driver’s license — with the correct gender marker unless you can prove you’ve had surgery. When you go for a job interview, many prospective employers ask for identification. Imagine how readily employers are to hire you when your driver’s license says you’re a man, yet you appear to be a woman. The answer is…not at all.
It seemed obvious; employment equality for me and everyone else would never happen if we didn’t become vocal and active, so I studied to become a paralegal. Where better than the legal and political world to effect change! I worked hard, graduated top in my class, only to find that jobs were no more available to me as a paralegal, with an “M” on my I.D. card than they had been before. I knew I wasn’t going to be employed until I got that damn “M” changed to an “F,” so I nagged and cajoled and finally got the DMV to accede — mostly, I think, to get me out of their hair because they were reticent to set any new policy.
By that time, I had blown my chances as a paralegal…all my resumes had already gone out and it was clear the local and state attorneys were not thrilled to hire an openly trans woman. Several gay attorneys even told me they would most likely lose clients if they hired me. In a moment of desperation, I put in an application at Walmart, where I was to spend the worst three years of my life. I became so depressed and withdrawn and downright meanspirited that I finally attempted to take my life. Pills, carbon monoxide, slit wrists and the three days I hung between life and death…somehow…something, somewhere would not allow me to die. It, evidently, was not my time.
Since those days when existence was in the balance, my life has been miraculously redeemed. I have learned to appreciate that we don’t have foreknowledge of the future. I have accepted that any life can go in any direction and that our only job is to be authentic and follow our inner voice. I’m not sure of the source for this inspiration. You can call it what you want, but there are often questions to which we find no suitable answer. We must work through the medium of faith in ourselves and that inner voice.
I made the decision to resurrect my life. It’s hard to imagine, for me, but I had thought my career as a photographer was in the past and over, never to be reanimated. The medium of social networking has allowed me to reconnect with old friends and to connect with new friends and members of my extended Grateful Dead family. I finally acquired a digital camera — not the greatest, but one that would at least allow me to begin photographing again.
The “aha” moment happened about a month ago, when I was at a local music festival shooting images of bands. I was in the little roped off area in front of the stage and had this presentiment of utter clarity. Here I was back in the saddle again, as it were, doing what I used to do and what I loved so dearly. It was the culmination — well, not really, because nothing has finished and life is a graceful and beautiful crescendo — of what I have described to some as a complete sensation of being reborn.
I know that reclaiming my past has been nothing short of miraculous, at least for me. I don’t pretend to know the wheres and whys of existence, but I do know that regardless of who you are, how you look, what you believe or where your life takes you there is a place for you in the universe, and no one — no government and no person — can deny you as long as you don’t deny yourself. Neil Young penned those same words years ago…“Don’t be denied.” And I never will again!
Please follow your hearts; your minds will follow. And, remember: No one has the right to deny you the right to be who you are! : :
— Comments and corrections can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org. To contact Robbi Cohn, email email@example.com.