The nonprofit leadership retreat at a fancy conference center started out easy enough. The twenty of us stood and introduced ourselves. We drew pictures with our non-dominant hand. We shaped multi-colored pipe-cleaners into flowers.
Then things got dicey.
“Choose a partner and interview each other using the questionnaire on your table,” the facilitator said assuredly.
I was the odd woman out and ended up with two men, both strangers. I looked at the questionnaire. The third question roared: “What was the biggest challenge you’ve faced in your life?” Other questions asked how I’ve changed over the years and what I valued in my life, all of which made me—a transgender not out to this group of straight married people—exceedingly uncomfortable.
My pulse raced. I thought, Get out of here before you are forced to self-disclose.
I went into the hall with the facilitator and explained that I was transgender and felt violated. “I don’t know these people,” I said. “And you’re asking me to tell two men what was the biggest challenge in my life? I can’t do that. Hell, I won’t do that.”
The facilitator was supportive and told me to disclose only what I felt comfortable with. “Please, don’t leave,” she urged.
I went back to the room and sat with the men. I refused to answer anything except about where I was born. “Newark, New Jeresey,” I said. “Don’t hold it against me.”
From there, we went to ice breakers and Myers-Briggs personality-type exercises. I learned I’m an extrovert and a “feeler,” as opposed to a “thinker.” Slowly the group got to know each other. I started to feel good until someone reframed one of my comments. In a split second, I heard, “I agree with what he said.” The person had never known me as a man.
My heart sank.
The next day, we tested our leadership and team building skills with a scavenger hunt. In the heat of the exercise with energy abuzz because of our frantic search for items, another person referred to me in the male pronoun.
Again, it hurt.
Over lunch, I talked about the Marriage Amendment and how we needed to defeat it.
A woman attorney, not accustomed to GLBT people, asked probingly why GLBT people should be allowed to marry. Minnesotans United for All Families trained me well and I had all the right answers. What I didn’t expect were her last questions: “Can I ask if you were a man at one time? Do you now consider yourself a woman?”
The inquiries were well intended and innocent. Still, many transgenders–this one included–hate being reminded that they don’t pass.
“Yes,” I answered, reluctantly. “I used to be a boy, and now I’m a girl.” I went on. “Actually, I’ve always been a girl. Only now, after a very long journey, have I been able to live as one.”
The woman smiled genuinely. We went back to our last retreat exercises.
By then, it had become obvious that I needed to say something about the elephant in the room. It helped that I had come to trust everyone–they were all good people, I could see now.
At the end, we went around the room summarizing what we’d learned in the day and a half seminar. When it was my turn, I explained that I had learned a great deal about leadership. I ended with, “For the one or two of you who haven’t figured it out, I’m transgender. It’s taken a long time to be myself. Feel free to ask me about it.”
I looked around the room and saw smiling people. Maybe these people won’t judge me; maybe they will accept me anyway, I thought.
People started in on the goodbyes. The lunch woman who wanted to know about GLBT issues grabbed me as I headed for the door. “You get a hug goodbye,” she said. The embrace warmed me.
I took a couple more steps. Dennis, a sixty-something who rarely said anything, was leaving at the same time. He stopped and grinned. In one quick move, I heard, “Goodbye Ellie, see you at next month’s meeting” and got a tight hug. It was a cosmic event, completely unexpected. Could he have ever known a transgender before me? I doubted it.
I drove away from the conference feeling numb, reminded yet again that I don’t entirely pass as female.
Luckily, it doesn’t seem to matter.