Courageous Story Sharing: Trapped in a Cage

On Wednesday morning, Dana and Stacey, challenged our Facebook viewers to Think Hard as a practice that helps us Call Truth To Bullshit. They mentioned many complex issues that require critical thinking along with civil & compassionate conversations from all involved if we truly want to make progress and find solutions. For me the hardest part of the thinking hard about hard things — is the conscious awareness that hot-button societal issues all have one thing in common…people. Behind every initiative, project, bill and Supreme Court decision are people. Real people who laugh and love and want to live with the same freedoms that I enjoy. I’m pained to admit for how long LGBTQ was just an acronym I thought I understood and cared about when it was convenient for me. Then I started to connect people I knew and loved to those letters and the game started to change for me. Here’s the thing – it’s hard to get to know people who don’t look like us or love like us it requires energy, time and thinking really hard. So today, I’m happy to offer our readers this chance to hear from a courageous and beautiful person named Jaime. She is my friend and a wonderful teacher. I heard part of her story live recently in a compassionate country church and it moved me deeply…I’m so honored that she is willing to share it with all of you here….

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Guest: Jaime Collins

My story begins one November evening in 1963. At the moment of my birth the doctor took one very quick look at me and informed my mother, “It’s a boy.” In that moment, that doctor was giving me a lifetime prescription for exactly what was expected of me. How I should behave throughout life. How I should talk, walk, act, and even THINK every moment of my life from birth through death.

But at an early age, I knew I was different. I vividly remember wanting to see a girl in my mirror. The boy reflected back at me didn’t fit my perception of myself, though as a child there was no way for me to understand or articulate that. I had no words. No reference points. No role models. Certainly no one who might listen to any such nonsense. And no permission to express any such feelings.

A generation ago, even less, this was common. Back then, transgender people were seen only as deviants, unfit for the workplace and a humiliation to families. Transgender Americans have long been shunned, fired, disgraced, disowned, beaten, and murdered. Simply for who they are. Far too often and in far too many places, we still are. I have friends whose families vow never to speak with them and others who have ended their lives to escape the pain.

In her groundbreaking 1983 essay titled, “Oppression,” Marilyn Frye writes:

Cages. Consider a birdcage. If you look very closely at just one wire in the cage, you cannot see the other wires. If your conception of what is before you is determined by this myopic focus, you could look at that one wire, up and down the length of it, and be unable to see why a bird would not just fly around the wire any time it wanted to go somewhere. Furthermore, even if, one day at a time, you myopically inspected each wire, you still could not see why a bird would have trouble going past the wires to get anywhere. There is no physical property of any one wire, nothing, that the closest scrutiny could discover that will reveal how a bird could be inhibited or harmed by it except in the most accidental way. It is only when you step back, stop looking at the wires one by one, microscopically, and take a macroscopic view of the whole cage, that you can see why the bird does not go anywhere; and then you will see it in a moment. It will require no great subtlety of mental powers. It is perfectly obvious that the bird is surrounded by a network of systematically related barriers, no one of which would be the least hindrance to its flight, but which by their relations to each other, are as confining as the solid walls of a dungeon.  

Frye’s powerful metaphor helps us understand why oppression is so difficult to recognize. Ultimately, my story is all about my own decades long process of stepping back to finally see the wires. And find my way out.

Unknowingly caged and with nowhere to go as a child, I performed the role prescribed to me. Shyly and awkwardly I grew up a boy. Day after day, week after week, year after year I was taught how I was supposed to act, and I learned to hide and pretend. Through this indoctrination, my feelings about who I was turned to shame, and the shame I pushed down in order to survive.

Finally at 23, I set out to travel the world, though traveling for me was not a way to build my career. I was just trying to escape. With the anonymity afforded me by a city of seven million people and living a vast distance from anyone who ever knew me before, I began to discover… slowly… who I really was.

A mere six months into my new life living in Southeast Asia, I dreamed what is still to this day the single most vivid and powerful dream of my life. I awoke and knew in a second this was something I needed to remember, so I searched for a little piece of paper and wrote down a quick few words before returning to sleep hoping the dream would return.

In the morning I explained my dream to my Taiwanese roommates who just looked at me like they’d just eaten something rancid. The words I had written down were, “girls for the mirror.” My dream was that I could look in a mirror and see a “girl” looking back at me, just as I longed for when I was little.

I could no longer deny the truth inside me and knew it had always been there. Though I was finally seeing what I had so long and so diligently repressed, it still took many years to fully process all that dream meant.

In the meantime, life moves on, and a short few months later, still in Taipei, my future was flung in a new direction when Florence Vincensini walked into my life – a beautiful young French woman I am still with and still in love with 31 years later.

We soon moved to Paris, France where we married. In love with our entire lives ahead of us, we eventually made the decision to trade the glamour of Paris for starting a family in Platteville. And for another quarter Century, I lived day and day out working hard, loving my wife, nurturing our two precious children, and pushing down the feelings that threatened to make it all unravel.

Fortunately, Flo and I have enjoyed a fantastically honest relationship, and through those decades, we talked often about that dream I had in Taiwan and these complicated and profound feelings I could not deny. But Florence didn’t sign up 31 years ago to be married to a transgender woman. Despite our love for one another, my transition was incredibly painful for both of us. She had to say goodbye and grieve her husband. I, in turn, had to bear the overwhelming guilt of being the monster who destroyed him and in the process destroyed that life for Flo.

I am the same person, of course. I am also, I know, a far better person for now being truly me. But, I am also a changed person, and the man Florence had been married to for so long, the man who had always been there with her, the father of her children, would never be seen again.

Nevertheless, we grew. And we learned. And we eventually weathered the storm. And today Flo fully accepts me and loves me for who I am. I’m getting there, too.

You might ask, “Why?” Why did it take a half Century to come out and live as my true self? The answer is only obvious to me now after so many years of sorting through it all. It begins with the fact I needed first to come out to myself. And to accept myself. And love myself for exactly who I am. I had first to see the wires of my own cage.  

You see, I was raised in the 60s and 70s in rural Wisconsin and during my entire young life was bathed from head to toe in the same putrid soup of prejudices and assumptions and misconceptions none of us had the courage to question in those days. Society pounded into me at every step – in family life, in school, in our media, and in our many institutions – that boys were boys and girls were girls. And that each comes with a preset, permanent, and totally separate set of physical characteristics, mannerisms, and other traits. These were unspoken laws of oppositional sexism, and they dictated every facet of what I was expected to be from my hair to my shoes on the inside and out.

If that weren’t enough to unlearn, I had, through the course of my indoctrination in this society, absorbed into my own unconscious the commonly accepted delusion that what is male and masculine is naturally superior to what is female and feminine. Misogyny. Or in my case, the ugly monster referred to more specifically as transmisogyny. The easiest, most common way to humiliate a man or boy is to imply they are feminine. This threat was so horrifying as a kid, it forced me to conform. No one needed to overtly judge me or call me names because I was already busy internalizing my shame and making those same harsh judgements about myself every day of my life. The idea that someone would willingly, eagerly even, want to be feminine in any way is seen by the vast majority as wrong. Or insane. And as a result, transgender people are sexualized, fetishized, disenfranchised, stigmatized, and ostracized for being themselves.  

In the face of an entire world operating under this rigid set of rules, how could I ever take my feelings and my dream seriously? The effect of this world on me was to persecute myself for decades. This, my dear reader, is how a small minority of fellow humans like myself is forcibly caged… imprisoned… in a gender that isn’t theirs. To step outside this system of gender rules is to exile oneself to a life of ridicule and discrimination and loneliness.

This broken old system also produces transphobia – the irrational fear of transgender people. I am personally very familiar with society’s aversion to people like me because society had implanted in me those same irrational fears, in addition to something termed cis-sexism – the nearly unshakable idea that transgender people’s genders are both inferior and phony.    

But unlearning all this nonsense brings understanding. And the cage I had been held in for so long came into view. To finally live authentically, I had to reject society’s firm and harsh and stark judgements about what or who gets to be labeled beautiful. I had to learn to see my true self as beautiful before I could love my true self. I had to begin to see my deepest, longest held secret as a source of power and strength instead of hiding it in shame.

Straight and cisgender people are the most visible people on the planet — by sheer numbers and because their lives are seen as normal. As society’s default, every aspect of straight cisgender lives is supported and celebrated in every community around the country. Straight, cisgender people hold hands as they walk down the street without fear of being accosted. They consume all manner of media entirely centered on THEIR relationships and THEIR gender expression. Ads everywhere for every products center on heterosexual and cisgender people. Our institutions the world over, including our government, is set up to privilege and favor heterosexual relationships above all others.

Being openly transgender in this world means in many ways I am still trapped in that old oppressive cage. According to society I simply no longer deserve the same protection and opportunity and experience in life as the next person. And that is why PRIDE month is so important to my LGBTQ community.

PRIDE month is also a time of celebration. Because we so often talk about simply tolerating or accepting LGBTQ people, CELEBRATING our lives and the tremendous diversity within our community represents for me a beautifully radical display of liberation.

No one should be forced to hide in shame all their lives for who they are. It is my great honor to be here today to stand tall and be counted. To be visible to all. To live as the woman I am. And to help forge a better, kinder, more loving future for all LGBTQ people and for all who care about them.

If you want to learn more about the LGBTQ Community here are some links I recommend:

This is a great place to start and one of the important sources of data on this far too under-studied, marginalized group: https://www.thetaskforce.org/injustice-every-turn-report-national-transgender-discrimination-survey/

Because laws regarding LGBTQ people differ from state to state, here’s a great visual source for info from HRC: https://hrc.org/state-maps

To better understand the very personal implications/impacts of policy on transgender Americans, I recommend this: https://www.advocate.com/commentary/2018/10/23/what-waking-transgender-america-feels?utm_source=facebook&utm_medium=social&utm_campaign=commentary&utm_term=transgender&fbclid=IwAR1Ix7Hli5oiv6XyZTlxyT4TjDCw7-IEuobQCFPIxrA-iSAw4rQS789TdaQ

How to be a better ally: https://www.indy100.com/article/trans-lives-shon-faye-juno-dawson-riley-carter-india-willoughby-travis-alabanza-annie-wallace-8099866?fbclid=IwAR0Ps7UEoi4SJu0ffp42j61Xhba44BfNYQDDHP3svGPiPZuhAfnH9eNK6gc

How to reduce the impact of discrimination against trans people at work: https://theconversation.com/half-of-transgender-and-non-binary-people-hide-their-identity-at-work-in-fear-of-discrimination-heres-how-you-can-help-115523?fbclid=IwAR1F7iVAmiE1FH2QYBLsZZlJ-ycgX724iU9ICd-hqoCzlug1JvwHF2bbmLI

Hear more of Jaime’s story by listening to her guest spot on the Get Up Nation podcast with Bed Biddick.

Listen here: https://youtu.be/xk3JIMKSDUQ

2 thoughts on “Courageous Story Sharing: Trapped in a Cage”

  1. Anna Pennington

    Very educational story of your life. I feel good knowing where and why you are where you are. You are very courageous and a beautiful lady. Thanks for Sharing your story. Happy Pride week. I attended a parade and festival in Nashville with my brother. Everyone was festive, friendly and accepting .

    1. Thank you so much for this story. I appreciate your vulnerability and openness. Your stories and others like yours have really shaped how I am attempting to raise my children. The other day my 4 year old son asked, mom can boys become girls when they grow up and can girls become boys? I took a breath and answered well, when babies are born the doctor says whether it’s a boy or girl but once our brain can determine if we really feel like a boy or a girl we may say that we aren’t what the doctor said. He then said I’m a girl I said ok. He said well what will you call me and I asked what he wanted to be called and he said girl. I then did this with him for a while and he switched to wanting to be called a boy. I have no idea if I handled that situation correctly but my hope is that both my children feel that they can come to me and share whatever is going on in their lives and know I will love them no matter what. Hearing your openness reminds me to continue to work on noticing my unconscious gender stereotypes and continue to challenge them. I also will be sure to share these resources with students in our School alliance group and I’m sure the students will be very appreciative. You sound like an amazingly strong person. Thank you again for your story.

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Julie Stephenson

Julie is one of the founders of Compounding Courage, a company that provides personal growth and leadership development programs. CLICK HERE to learn more.