By Andrea Zekis, Policy Director
I was 30 years old when I finally accepted that I was female, not male. I knew from a very young age that my body didn’t make sense to me, but I didn’t have the words to explain what I was experiencing. I grew up in a religious home in suburban Chicago. I attended Catholic schools, where I didn’t have a safe place to explore my identity. It took a toll on my physical and mental health.
My mother remembers me as an exuberant child until age six, when I began to withdraw from family. I became deeply depressed. I had ulcers, struggled with eating and spent weeks at a time out of school. I didn’t feel safe anywhere. I was trying to be two people at the same time—one for the outside world and the one I knew myself to be inside. I struggled to keep suicidal thoughts out of my head.
What I was experiencing is called gender dysphoria, the deep discomfort or distress from having a body that did not align with the gender I knew I was inside.
Gender is something most people take for granted. However, for more than 700,000 transgender people in the United States it’s a process—coming to terms with your body and your gender. I first learned about the existence of transgender people in college. It opened up the world for me.
Twelve years later, living in Arkansas, I finally found community and acceptance. I met people who shared my stories—I was no longer alone. I was working as a cartographer for the State Highway Department when I began my transition. My colleagues and supervisor were incredibly supportive—the right people to have by my side during a pivotal moment in my life.
Today, my relationship with my family and my faith has never been stronger. I am finally me. My mother tells me she has her exuberant child back.
I moved to Oregon in November around the time Elliot Yoder, a courageous high school student, came out as transgender in public testimony at a Dallas city council meeting. In the weeks since his bold act, we’ve heard many hurtful questions from some parents. Their concerns are couched in talk of safety and privacy, reinforcing a mean-spirited myth about transgender people—that we are predators or that something is wrong with us.
These comments contribute to the lack of acceptance, harassment and violence many transgender people experience. Despite our increased visibility, transgender people remain a very vulnerable population. We are four times more likely to live in poverty; more than 40 percent will attempt suicide.
While I am blessed to live in a state with strong legal protections, many transgender people still struggle to live their lives with dignity and respect. Nonetheless, I remain hopeful because of so many Oregonians believe in treating others as you yourself would want to be treated. Let’s give this same dignity and respect to transgender students in every corner of our state.
A shortened version of this post appeared in the Opinion section of the Oregonian on January 28, 2016 under the title “Transgender People Deserve Dignity and Respect.”