"The Trans Experience" was the fourth episode of my LGBT Stories podcast and still today it is our most downloaded episode. People from all over the world have reflected back to me how much Jen's story has influenced them to love themselves in a more deeper, more personal way — no longer denying their true identity.
In "The Trans Experience," Jen shares the most intimate details of her life, from starting the journey of transitioning to her experience of being stalked and abused by her hometown’s police department simply because she made a decision to enter the world as the woman she had always been. I was humbled as I listened to Jen’s story. It was the first time, even as a gay man, that I was confronted with the reality of what trans men and women go through on a daily basis. Today, as I remain in contact with Jen, I have had the pleasure of watching her continue her journey. Jen lives a life of integrity and is an inspiration to people near and far.
As you read Jen's story below, it is my hope that it inspires you to live your life out loud. As much of the world continues its attempt to suppress our community, I encourage you to stand proud with your brothers and sisters to speak your truth. It is when we share our stories with the world that we begin to change the world. The struggles we’ve endured and the successes we’ve experienced pave the way for generations after us — don’t let your story go to waste.
From my earliest memory, I knew I was different. I couldn’t really pinpoint exactly what that difference was; I just knew that I felt at odds with the way I was being addressed, and felt much more associated with the girls in my classes rather than the boys.
I had a friend in kindergarten who was a girl, and at recess we had a dress-up corner. And so our roles actually were swapped when we played; I remember a feeling of elation knowing that somebody in my life knew that there was something different about me and they got it without me actually telling them, even though we didn’t have a name for what that feeling was.
Unfortunately, during the latter course of kindergarten, she passed away. So I was left without my best friend in kindergarten. In first and second grade I would play with the girls at recess; I would avoid the guys, partially because I would use crayons to color my nails, and playing with the boys at recess those nails would be scraped across the asphalt until the crayons were rubbed off, and I had bloody fingers instead. The girls didn’t seem to mind, and I became their liaison between their crushes. And I was the verbal note-passer I suppose, as I would go back and forth between the boys and say, “Hey, so-and-so likes you, do you like them?”
And I really felt alone at that point. So what I decided to do was be what everybody thought that I should be. So I became this perfect young man who was funny. That was my escape — humor.
As junior high drew to a close I found that my best friend experienced the same thing. We were talking one day and it came out that he really fell more into the line of a cross-dresser. And so we had this common bond, besides really kind of looking like one another, and I remember one particular Sunday going to spend the night at his house. And when his parents had gone to bed, we raided his sister’s bedroom. It took me about 10 minutes to realize that I was the one that was actually wearing any of the clothes. He hadn’t changed into anything; he still had his jeans and shirt on. And so we went in as if nothing were any different, we went out and were playing video games, and at one point, he shut the video games off and I noticed that he had kept moving closer and closer to me.
I was a little taken aback by that because I had never even had a girlfriend at this point. Finally, he was right next to me and he put his arm around me. I was pushing him away and quietly telling him to stop, because I didn’t want to wake his parents up who were upstairs. It finally got to the point where I couldn’t push him away anymore. He was stronger than I was, and he was trying to kiss me and touch me, and there was no way to get away from it. And I couldn’t yell at him, you know, because his parents would wake up and if they came downstairs, I would be the one to get into trouble. I managed to push him away, and I got up and was running into the other room, but he grabbed me and pulled me back to the couch, threw me down, and climbed on top of me. He put his hand over my mouth and told me to be quiet. Then he took his hand away and I whispered, “I’m going to tell. I have to tell.” And his reply, his face it just went completely blank, and he looked me and was like, “You’re not going to tell anyone, because if you do, everybody is going to know what you are and I don’t think that you want that, so you know you’re just going to have to deal with it.” Luckily, for me, there was no removal of clothing, so there was no penetration, there was nothing like that, but in essence, in all truthfulness, I was raped by my best friend.
At the age of 19, I was actually going out dressed as Jen, which was a name I had chosen very early on. And I would usually just sit in my car because I was too scared to go inside; what I was doing fit in with the experiences of several other trans people. On one particular day I decided rather than drive around my small college town, I would go to the next town over because I knew nobody in Anderson, Ind. Nobody knew me, but I was familiar enough with the town that I could drive around and have an escape route if I got too uncomfortable or if anything happened.
So on this particular day, I’m driving to different locations, but I decided that this was it; I was going to actually go inside and shop. So I go to their mall, and with all of my nerves against me, I drove around to the back instead of the front, and I was about halfway to the door and I saw this car parked nearby. It was black and had dark windows, so I actually got really freaked out, and decided not to go to the mall and get back in my car. I didn’t want to go back home because I was enjoying the day out. But what I noticed as I drove over to Kmart was that this car was there. I hadn’t noticed it following, but I saw it there. So I decided to leave and I went over to another shopping center.
So I got there, I didn’t see the car anywhere around, so I went inside and shopped around, you know, nothing bad was happening, my nerves calmed down, and as I was exiting the store, there’s that car. And my nerves went straight out of control again, so at that point I wasn’t thinking, Hey, I should go back into the store and let someone know, I was thinking I just needed to get away from that car. So I got back into my car and drove off, and drove all over Anderson, and never saw the car following me so I decided that I would do one more stop before heading home, and I went and I parked in this little plaza.
I was about ready to go in and do some shopping, and at that point I saw the car pull into the parking lot, and so I just sat in my car freaking out. Because now it was obvious that nothing was coincidental about this; I was being followed by this car. And this time there was a gentleman that got out of the car and walked toward my car. And he didn’t do anything, you know, he walked by, kind of looked in, and kept walking. And if you look at any '70s cop show, that’s what this guy looked like. I mean, he was in this tan blazer, a plaid shirt with a bad tie, sunglasses, mustache. He just fit that description, and even though that’s not really where my mind went, I knew that it was time to just go home.
So I started my car and pulled out of the parking lot, and as soon as I got to the main street in Anderson, I was passed by a motorcycle cop, who as soon as we passed, he turned around, flipped on his lights, and pulled me over. I hadn’t made a connection with this other car yet, and I didn’t understand why I was being pulled over. But once inside this parking lot, here came the black car. And this guy had been in an unmarked police car. And so, you know, I roll my window down, I was being very respectful when the cop in the car asked for my license. So I hand it to him and he immediately looks at it. “What the fuck's going on? Your license says you’re a guy.”
Trying to remain calm, not knowing what was going to happen, I said, “Well, you know, I am, I’m just out and about.” And he was like, “So, what are you doing?” and I responded, “Well, I mean nothing, I was doing some shopping.” And he goes, “Yeah, but what were you doing back over in that plaza?” And I was like, “Well, I mean, I was sitting there, I was debating on whether or not to go in, and then you—“ And he cut me off, and says, “Oh, you were doing something out there, I don’t think debating is what you were doing.” And he threw my license back in the car and he stepped away. And so, in a classic case of good cop/bad cop, the motorcycle cop comes up and he goes, “You know, you better just say what he wants to hear because he’s just going to get more and more upset, and this could go very badly for you.” So he came back, and he was like, “So, why don’t you fess up, you were masturbating in your car, weren’t you?” And I just sat there, and I was like, I knew that this was not the case. And I was in a situation where I was going to have to say something that was not true just so I could get home, or hope I could get home. So all I said was yes. I didn’t say, verbally, I didn’t confirm what he said, I just said yes.
But what they ended up doing was calling a patrol car, so they were going to take me into the station and tow my car. So when the squad car pulled up, I was immediately mistreated by that officer, verbally, not physically, just being made fun of during the entire ride to the police station. At the police station, obviously they had phoned ahead, they called, you know, they had radioed in, and as he’s walking me through the front door, every single person in the police station including the public that were there, they all knew, they all started making fun of me, they all started shouting and whistling, and you know, asking if I was his date. And so they took me upstairs and they shut me in one of the interrogation rooms, and nobody came in, they just sat me there.
Eventually the undercover, or the unmarked, cop came in and sat down. He was less angry than he had been outside when they pulled me over, but he still made threats that I could be arrested because even though I wasn’t doing anything, just being there as I was, was actually in Indiana considered public indecency. But he said that he was going to let me go, and that I had to go into therapy, and he had to have proof of that therapy or he was going to issue a warrant for my arrest. Now, I was 19, and I was scared to death, so I had really no idea what any of my rights were. So as I got up to leave he decided he was going to take mug shots. So they led me to that room, took my pictures, and made me take off my wig, and took more pictures. And then he goes, “OK, that’s it, get the hell out of my station."
And that did make me go back to college, that did make me go find a therapist on campus who, and this cop has no idea how instrumental he was in actually bringing me to where I am now, because when I found this therapist and as I walked into her office, her words were, “Do you want to embrace this, or do you want to get rid of this?” And I paused for a moment, and I was like, “Well, I mean, I want to embrace it.” And her reply was, “Good. Because there is no getting rid of it. There is no conversion therapy, this is a part of you.”
And so life went on, I was more at ease with who I was and college continued. I had plans to leave Indiana after graduation and head to California, and to transition. And then life got in the way.
I ended up meeting a girl who I fell deeply in love with, and she knew most of how I felt, but we got married, and we actually had a daughter, and we lived, you know, amazingly happily together. Indulging here and there, and letting Jen, you know, out of the bag, so to speak. But as the marriage progressed, there were always hints toward me transitioning. In 2011, we had been married for 20 years at that point, and she just asked if I was happier as Jen. I was quiet, but I remember seeing the look of compassion on her face; she assured me that no matter what the answer was, that it was going to be OK. So I told her yes and we spent the rest of our anniversary dinner talking about what was next. The plan was to stay together through transition and after. But as time progressed, we realized this probably wasn’t going to happen.
I began hormones and living full-time on February 18, 2013. Five days later, my wife and I celebrated our 22nd wedding anniversary, and the following Monday we filed for divorce.
So I moved to California and was completely alone for that first year; there was actually one point where I felt that I had made such a huge mistake. I was not understanding the job that I took. I was missing my parents, I was missing my life in Indiana, I was missing my ex-wife. My life consisted of work, going home, staying in my bedroom, watching Netflix, going to bed and waking up and doing it all over again. I didn’t go anywhere, I didn’t do anything, and so those walls really started to collapse in on me. There was one particular day, it was probably March of 2014, around the time of my ex-wife’s birthday, that I was a wreck. I was sitting on my bed and was getting this increased tunnel vision, I could feel the blood, I actually could hear the blood, just like pounding and coursing behind my ears, and with one quick and very easy motion I ended up with the barrel of a gun in my mouth. I actually pulled the trigger, but there was nothing in the chamber.
I jumped up and ran into the restroom and was howling. I was crying so much that I could do nothing but scream. So I remember climbing into the shower, and flipping that on, and just sitting in the bathtub, fully clothed, and just crying and shaking uncontrollably as the shower beat on me. After five or 10 minutes, I found myself going from this darkest moment of pain and tears to laughing. I was laughing hysterically at where I was at that moment, sitting in the shower with my clothes on, completely drenched. And so I got up, got out of the shower, left my clothes in the tub. I’m just standing in front of the mirror, and when I had gone into the bathroom I couldn’t even see my reflection in that mirror, and at that point when I came back out of it, I could see myself standing there. And it was comical, you know, my hair was a mess and was just hanging there. But it was at that moment that I truly saw myself, I saw there’s a woman that I had spent 47 years trying to meet and embrace and become. And I knew then that I was going to be OK.
And it’s nice to look back and see where I was just two years ago.
It’s from that point, I’ve done so many things that I’d never thought that I would. Life has been fantastic, I’ve done background work in a couple of commercials, I started doing theater again, I was in a play last March. I hadn’t been onstage in more that 25 years. I started drawing again, I started writing again, I started doing a lot of the things that had taken a back burner because family came first, and because I was still struggling with being trans and being married, and figuring out how that all was going to work out.
My ex-wife and I are also very good friends. I went back to visit in June and we decided we were going to meet up for coffee, so we hadn’t seen each other since I had moved out here in July 2013, almost three years since we’d seen each other. And afterwards, we had no idea what emotions were going to come up. And so we talked for about an hour. And all we did was catch up, and there were no emotions, there were no tears. That night, I texted her, and I was like, "It was good to see you, and I was surprised that there wasn’t any tears or emotions."
We basically texted for about an hour about how great it was that we were able to meet up and not feel anything for one another. And we laughed about it, and to be in that place, and the realization that we were who each other needed for 22 years, we provided the strengths that one another needed to get us to the next point in our lives. Now our lives are completely different, and we have no regrets of being married or of divorcing. So we talk every so often, and life is good now.
To hear all of Jen's journey, listen to the full podcast episode of LGBT Stories below. You can find additional episodes and learn more about LGBT Stories at it's official website.