Natalie Woods is a normal woman from Dallas who would find herself in a not-so-normal situation as she became an overnight viral sensation. Natalie shares the story of how she defended not only herself but the entire LGBT community. While eating at a diner in Dallas, Natalie overheard an arrogant, smug family spewing hateful messages about their newly out family member. Sitting there in the booth next to them, she couldn’t simply sit there and do nothing, so she acted. When the waiter returned to this family's table, they found that someone from the booth next to them had paid for their entire meal; this person was Natalie. Not only did she pay for their meal in protest of their hate, she left a note for them on their receipt.
The note read, “Happy Holidays from the very gay, very liberal table sitting next to you. Jesus made me this way. P.S. Be accepting of your family.” Before she knew it, the note was shared across social media millions of times across the world — in the United States, Spain, Denmark, Nigeria, the U.K., and on and on.
As soon as I heard what Natalie did, I knew that I wanted to have her share her story on LGBT Stories. Anyone who so strongly stands up advocating for the LGBT community, in my opinion, deserves a gold metal for their bravery. If I can in the smallest way provide them with a platform to share their truth, that is what I will do.
She not only told this story of heroism but she her whole life story. This was something that no news outlet had asked of Natalie — oddly enough, it’s the most important part of why she did what she did. If not for the life Natalie has lived, all the ups and downs she has experienced, she may have left that diner not having done anything at all. As the world continues to listen to Natalie’s story, I hope that they are inspired to step up in their own way when they notice any sort of injustice. Whether or not you are LGBT or not, or whether the hate you are witnessing is directed toward the LGBT community or any other group of people, step up! Be sure to do it safely so as not to put yourself directly in harm’s way. However, if you can find it within you, speak up. The world is listening.
My name is Natalie Elle Elaine Woods, and I was born in Odessa, Tex. Odessa is known for its mesquite bush and dirt, its rhinestones and revivals. I was born into this world prematurely. My dad was in the oil field, and my mom was a pastor’s kid. That meant that she came with Sunday school mornings and an apron. I was a fighter, and I always have been. Because I was born prematurely, I spent a lot of time in an incubator as a baby, and then had lots of breathing problems as a child. I’ve always had that sassy, charismatic, outgoing ability to have a conversation with anybody about anything. I was always expected to be good, I was always expected to excel.
My dad traveled in and out of the country because of his job. He was gone for a month and then he’d be home for a month, and whenever he was gone it was kind of like a ray of light and sunshine came pouring in, because we weren’t afraid anymore. My dad, as the older I got and the more I began to look like a woman, became more abusive physically and verbally. I was lucky because I had a mom who talked to me like I was an adult, from a very early age. I was home-schooled most of my younger years, and we spent a lot of our time in the parks in Houston, learning about bugs and Beethoven, talking about the majesty of trees. And she’d always say, “If you look closely enough, you can always see the good in the world.”
My dad was really hard to live with. Whenever he was at home, I would be physically attacked for things like leaving the back door open or my closet light on. He would take a crayon and draw a line in the bathtub, showing how much bathwater I could have. These moments were very hard. But then he would go away and things would settle and I would get to spend time with my mom and my brother, and the world that we lived in. My mom has a great imagination. She has always read three books a week and is always telling their stories and explaining why she’s inspired by them.
When I was 12, my dad had his final affair and decided to leave us. My mom hadn’t worked in 13 years, and we had to start all over from scratch. It was one of those situations where he could afford a good lawyer and my mom couldn’t have anything. Everything was taken from us. We moved in with a lady named Dorothy who had been a family friend for most of my mother’s life and all of my life. She lived in a beautiful home in Odessa, and we moved in with her.
While it was a trying time, I was also 12 and then 13, and obsessed with people like Lisa Loeb and Alanis Morissette and Janet Jackson and any female that came across MTV. I was inspired by female musicians and the angsty music that poured through my television. I had a best friend named Grace, the pastor’s daughter at the church whose youth group I attended. She was a thin, knobby-kneed, interesting person. She was my best friend, but she slowly became more than that. I thought every 13-year-old girl had pictures of their best friend plastered all over their walls. We would talk friends at sleepovers into going home so that we could kiss each other in my little bunk bed and pretend that nobody else existed. She never kissed me on the mouth, she only kissed me on the side of my lips, as if to remind me that I wasn’t a boy. But I never cared. In this youth group, at different youth events they would call for people to either commit or recommit their lives to Jesus, and I remember her throwing herself on the steps of the church, crying, and praying for God to forgive us. I didn’t know what she was talking about until 10 years later. I didn’t know there was anything wrong. I didn’t feel ashamed until she told me I was supposed to be.
My mom eventually remarried, to a man named Dale. He ended up being the best thing that has ever happened to my family. He really taught me the true meaning of what it is to give and what love is. Sometimes even silently. I would watch him fix little old ladies’ cars for free. He treated everybody the same who came through his shop, no matter what they looked like, no matter their ethnic background. And he gave and gave and gave when people didn’t have anything to spare, and he did it quietly. That is where I really learned what it is to love. When I was in junior high and was the president of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, I spewed homophobia, taking on the example that was set before me in some parts of my life. I was self-righteous, and I thought I was better than everyone when really I was crippled by my attraction to women and my desire to be more. Mediocrity has always been my greatest fear.
Near the end of those years I became involved in the theater, and that’s quite the rebel world. You see and experience everything new, and it’s a safe space and a safe place for the weird and the different and the strange. It was the first time in my life that I felt accepted. It was the first time in my life that I could kiss other girls and not necessarily hide it, at least not from my cast or my director. I ended up getting a full-ride scholarship for theater for college, and I was excited but I was also madly in lust with the music in Dallas. Because I had played music throughout high school in a small local band, I became highly intrigued by the Texas music scene, and I had a job in college just so I could get in my car with my friend Christie and we could drive down two lanes of highway until they met four lanes of highway where we felt free to be ourselves. It was interesting to find myself in music venues singing at the top of my lungs and realizing that the way I felt toward the music in these spaces was the same way I felt listening to praise and worship on any given Sunday morning. I never quite gave up on my faith and I still haven’t, but at that time I was terrified of coming out. I was 21 and making money by taking band pictures and selling weird art. I fell in love with everything that was different and everything that I hadn’t been exposed to. Growing up in the Permian Basin, where I graduated from Permian High School, the school portrayed in Friday Night Lights, I missed out on so much. It was culture shock, but it was a culture shock that I dived into headfirst because I was so in love with all of it.
My best friend asked me to marry him. His name was Josh and he was one of those people that as soon as you meet him you want to live in his area code. He was so funny and had this light about him. And he was a drummer for a couple of local bands. I remember, when he asked me to marry him, being completely shocked and mortified. I think I knew what was coming, but I thought if I married him, everything would fall into place. That didn’t happen. I went through with our wedding only because my parents had spent so much money and I felt guilty. Walking through the double doors of that tiny church to marry that man, the only thing ringing in my ears was “The Show Must Go On” by Queen. Tears trickled down my face, and everyone thought I was just really happy, but I felt like I was signing my life away. The good news is the pastor who married us forgot to send in our marriage license. So, two and a half years later, after Josh had asked me multiple times if I was gay, I finally admitted it to him one day. I packed up my things and moved to Denton, Tex. I didn’t know anybody there except for a friend who was working on her degree from the University of North Texas, and we would sit on her patio and drink almond milk and stare at the moon and have the kind of conversations that all friends should have. The deep ones, the gritty ones, the ones that make you reevaluate your life and everything that you stand for. It was the kind of friendship that challenged everything I believed.
My mom ended up having a severe heart attack. She had to have quad-bypass surgery and heart-valve replacement. She desperately needed me at her side during this time, when I was in Denton. My biggest regret is that I wasn’t there for her. I didn’t know how to deal with the strongest person in my life being the weakest person in my life. I had also just started seeing a girl who was extremely controlling, and I allowed that to come first. I came out to my mom shortly after her surgery, which I think was really selfish and the worst time to come out to her. And some of her first words were, “Well, maybe you’ll meet somebody who used to be a woman.” Which is interesting and funny now because I have so many friends in the trans community, but I explained to her that even though she believed that I was being rebellious or sexually deviant, that even if I could never have sex with a woman, that I wanted to be with a woman. She took this rather hard. All of my family, for the most part, did. In her defense, I think that that’s fair. There are YouTube videos of people’s families celebrating or making a rainbow cake or crying with joy. That wasn’t my experience. And it isn’t everybody’s experience, and some people’s experiences were much more traumatic, even to the point where they’re homeless. So the fact that it took my mom a little while to come around is OK. Because she’s a person too, and every parent has different dreams and aspirations for their children; this just wasn’t my mom’s.
After that disappointment, I started drinking heavily. In the LGBT community drinking is highly accepted. It helps you let your guard down, it helps you speak freely, it’s that liquid courage that makes it possible to go up and talk to that person you wouldn’t normally have the courage to speak to. But my drinking got out of hand, and it’s how I slept at night because I was so ashamed of who I was. I remember not eating so that I could just drink alcohol at night, just so I could go to sleep. Because I didn’t know how to come to terms with who I was. At that point in my life, someone was complaining about our right to get married, and I said “Well, why isn’t anybody doing anything about this?” and they said “Well, haven’t you heard it’s the Human Rights Campaign?” I said no and they said, “Well, look it up! You need to educate yourself on these things. If you care, you need to learn.”
So I did. I looked into it, I found a space to volunteer in Dallas at Pride, and I went. Went by myself, I didn’t know anybody. I was surrounded by people with stories that sounded a lot like mine or stories that were different than mine that I could empathize with, and people that could empathize with me. I found a space, I found a community. I found what had been missing for so long. With the Human Rights Campaign, I ended up quite quickly as their membership outreach coach here. And I got to travel to D.C. multiple times for different events, I was picked as one of 22 women to go to their Women and Leadership Conference in D.C. I met a handful of women that I still call my sisters. I can’t tell you how much the Human Rights Campaign did for me. But my desires and my priorities started to change the more diverse my friends became. The more trans lives entered my life, and once marriage equality was passed, I wanted to change the volunteer work I was doing. I wanted to do something more for my community, more locally. And I didn’t want it to have to be just specifically geared toward the LGBQT community.
I joined Outreach Denton, and they specifically work with the LGBQTA community, as well as a queer youth group. I got to work with them occasionally, but I started my own organization called the Denton Bird, and through that I’ve been able to volunteer with different places that help people with autism. I’ve been able to volunteer with nursing homes. I have marched with Black Lives Matter, and I have pushed and defended and worked very hard for the minorities that are in my life and the people that are in my life. Because the fact of the matter is, I’m a cis white privileged woman. And I’ve learned that my voice sometimes isn’t as necessary as my actions.
Through all of this volunteer work I really started to revisit my faith. I came to a place where I was reading different books and revisiting books that I had read in my younger years, and taking from them what I believed was necessary and leaving behind what wasn’t relevant. I’ve had that question over and over of, Is the Bible something that has just been translated over and over and over and over by a man throughout all of these years? And the fact is it has. Even the KKK uses Scripture to try and reinforce their ideologies and the people that follow them. Scripture can be made into anything. I think it was important to me to find a place for God in my life without the stress of needing all of the answers. I’ve accepted the fact that no one really has the answers. And I don’t believe that we live in a Christian nation, we live in a complete hypocrisy bloodbath that if I’m going to have faith in like a child, that’s exactly what it has to be. I have experienced depression and anxiety throughout the years as I think that most people in the LGBTQA community have experienced. I have been put on multiple medications for my depression and anxiety. My social anxiety was always a part of my life, but I was able to control it more when I was younger. As I got older and after my mom’s surgery it became quite disabling. And I lost one of my closest friends in 2014 to suicide. She was one of my cochairs with Human Rights Campaign. And that definitely was a kick in the teeth and a reevaluation of reality. The pastor at her funeral said that the wolves had come to get her and that they were coming for all of us. That church was divided with the left side being her family and the right side being all of the people from the Human Rights Campaign as well as everyone she knew in AA. He looked directly at us when he said those words. Her mother had put her in a pink casket, and all the pictures that they had laid out, even though she was 34 years old, were pictures of her from high school. It was as if they had erased her adult life because of shame. And that’s why to this day, if someone is being treated negatively for who they are, I want to stand up and defend them. A lot of times when I meet new people one of the first things I ask them is, What would you die for? Which is a strange question, a lot of times people look at me like, “What, really?” But that’s an important question to me because if you don’t know what you’ll die for, where’s the point in your life? And the one thing that I know that I would die for is equality.
The world has kind of exploded over what I did. I just happened to be eating dinner with a friend and the table behind me was speaking about how disgusted they were with their gay nephew, how they wanted Jesus to cure him. I was hurt in that moment, because I was scared that maybe there were times in my life (or maybe there still are) that people that know me say those things. So at first I was afraid and I had those feelings of shame surface. And then I became angry. Not angry at these people, but angry for him. Because he wasn’t there to defend himself. A lot of the backlash from this has been “You were eavesdropping; you were listening in on someone’s conversation.” And the fact is, these people were in such close range that it was impossible for me not to hear their words. And I could have disregarded it; I could have let it go. But I thought about the Jesus that I grew up learning about, and seeing, truly seeing through some of my family, and truly seeing through my mom. Because if anybody’s ever shown me selfless love, it was her.
And then I thought about Michelle Obama, who has always been an inspiration to me. At the Democratic National Convention she said, “When they go low, we go high.” And I thought now is the perfect time to do that. So I asked our waitress for their check. I paid it, and then I wrote on the receipt, “Happy Holidays from the very gay, very liberal table sitting next to you.” I signed my name, and then I said, “P.S., be accepting of your family.” I can see how that could come off as self-righteous or maybe an act of attention. But the fact of the matter is, that’s not where my mind or my heart was at all. It was maybe, if I do something kind and compassionate toward these people, I’ll be able to show them that liberals and gays, or “gay liberals,” are compassionate, kind, loving people. And that’s the beautiful part of our community. That’s why our community became what church is supposed to be for so many people. So my giving to these people was a very tiny, tiny small act of love. And that’s all it was. I took a picture of the receipt. And at first I really didn’t want to post it on social media. I was always taught to give anonymously or quietly. But in this instance, because the world, at least within America, and the world as well, people are so scared of what’s going to happen. The tensions are so high because of this election, I don’t really believe that anyone thought that we would be here, with Mike Pence as our vice president, who was talking about conversion therapy for us. That’s terrifying.
This year alone there were more trans lives lost than there have ever been before. And the scary part is, how many more lives are there going to be? How many people from all different backgrounds, and ethnic backgrounds, are all going to lose their lives? The black men in my life are afraid to drive to the grocery store at night, because they don’t know if they’re going to get pulled over. We’ve come to a place in America where it’s scary to exist. And it’s so important for us individuals to be that hope to each other and to know that we’re not going to step down or give up. Because love is unending, love isn’t selfish. Love is the only thing we have to hold on to right now.
My life dream, since I was nine, was to work in orphanages in China when I found out there were so many little girls flooding these Chinese orphanages. I told my mom when I was 9, “Mom, I’m supposed to go. This is what I’m supposed to do.” And she said, “What do you want me to do, put you on a plane?” And I said, “Yeah.” And I’ve never had that opportunity, I hope that I do. I’ve also always wanted to work with AIDS patients in Africa. And those are my big life dreams. But more important, right now, and in this moment, is what I’m doing and what we’re doing for our own community. Because America has become a scary place, but we have to be the safe in that scary.
It’s all those little stories that led up to that one defying moment. All the little expressions, all the small emotions, all shape Natalie and us into who we are and what we do with the lives we’ve been given. I encourage you to reach out to us. You can email LGBTpodcast@gmail.com. Because we’re a community, all of us. LGBT and not. We are a community of humans, and we’re here.
To hear all of Natalie’s story, listen to the full podcast episode of LGBT Stories below. You can find additional episodes and learn more about LGBT Stories at our official website.