By Lisa Falkenberg
Originally published in the Houston Chronicle – June 18, 2016
For most of us, it’s a minor inconvenience. We’re at Target, or Lowe’s, maybe with a full shopping cart, when we realize we’ve got to go to the bathroom.
For April, that situation raises anxiety and fear. She can’t simply make a beeline for the nearest open stall. In fact, she’s afraid of stalls. She looks for family restrooms, or ones marked gender-neutral.
If her wife of nearly 41 years is along, she’ll go in first, make sure the coast is clear. Meanwhile, April searches out a manager or a salesperson to explain the situation.
“I’m 68,” she told me in an interview, “and I’ve got to raise my hand and ask permission to use the restroom.”
April is a transgender woman, the kind of person who is often the butt of jokes and fear-mongering. April is the name she goes by now; she declined to use her last name for fear that hatred would find its way to her family.
Looking at April last week in the offices of a local nonprofit where we met, she seemed the furthest thing from the boogeyman politicians and activists portray when they’re trying to scare women and girls about bathroom access.
She’s soft-spoken and polite. And that’s her approach in public restrooms.
“I go in the restroom, and I hope a lady doesn’t come on in,” she said. “I just want to take care of things and go.”
Combed-over wisps of thin gray hair just reach her shoulders. Her fair skin is streaked by time, and her cheeks tinted with a bit of rouge. She wears a skirt, dangling earrings and a wedding ring. Around her neck hangs a cross, inscribed on the back with words from Isaiah that she says may have saved her life: “Fear not, for I am with you.”
April had agreed to tell me her story. From an early age in Long Island, she – then, a he – knew she was different. She didn’t know what to call it. She’d never heard the word transgender, or even gay. She isolated herself. In class, she sat in the last desk, in the last row.
As an adult, she joined the Navy. Her father was a Navy man, and it’s what he wanted.
But throughout the six-year stint, she said she felt intimidated, scared and depressed. One night in Manila, on a ship serving as air control during the Vietnam War, she walked down a bridge amid the stars.
“I was considering going over and bringing this thing to an end,” April told me. “I just knew I was miserable.”
But she had a discussion with God that night and later felt at peace.
Searching to feel whole
She left the Navy, but eventually fell back on what she knew and joined the Coast Guard. She retired 14 years later and then worked for the postal service. Along the way, she met and married her wife – whom she describes as a strong, open and boisterous woman she’s still attracted to – and had two children, now in their 30s.
Then, in 2000, after her father had died, April said she couldn’t keep hiding.
“I just threw my hands up in the air and said, ‘I can’t do this anymore.’ I hated myself, I hated everything around me,” April said.
She said her wife gave her a few weeks of silent treatment, and then came around, saying, “well, it’s only clothes.” But it was more than clothes. Dressed as a woman, April felt whole, and clean. She found a doctor who explained the different parts of gender: the one in the brain, the biological sex of the body, the masculine or feminine one we express. Then there’s sexuality: the gender we’re attracted to. It’s a complex network that doesn’t always function the way “normal” people expect.
“?’Normal’ people,” April said, using air quotes, “create these labels and then they kick you aside, and they miss so many of the good people.”
April sought support from a transgender group she found on the internet, and then from church. Recently, she joined a women’s Bible study.
“One lady asked me, ‘Are you getting anything out of this?’ and I’m thinking to myself: ‘sitting here, amongst a group of 30 women and being accepted as a woman. Yes, I’m getting a lot out of this.’?”
Little thing called ‘love’
Eventually, her wife accepted her, she said. They eat out together, volunteer at the food pantry, shop at Macy’s and Dillard’s.
Her wife still calls her “husband.” It doesn’t bother April: “She’s more than earned the right,” she said.
I asked what she and her wife had that was able to transcend gender.
“I think it’s a four-letter word called love,” April told me. Her son and daughter have had a harder time adjusting. April’s son, who lives outside of Houston, doesn’t like her around his own son. The 5-year-old, though, seems to take it in stride, once telling April: “I love your earrings, Grandpa.”
After she retired, she grew more comfortable with dressing as a woman, even if she knows she doesn’t fully pass. She said something positive can come of being spotted: at least that person can not say they have never met someone transgender.
Where does it stop?
In the past week, April said she’s spent a lot of time thinking about the importance she’s given to the bathroom issue. She’s been relegated to janitorial closets at times. On trips to Florida, she tries to avoid exiting in Mississippi or Alabama. Recently, she declined a trip to Liberty with her church group because she feared bathroom access in the East Texas town.
Still, April acknowledged, she’s never had a bad experience in a bathroom. It’s just the fear of confrontation that makes her anxious.
But after the horrific attack in Orlando, even that has faded, April said. She sat glued to TV coverage of the mass shooting that took 49 lives and injured dozens more. She cried about it in her Bible study. She has attended local interfaith services and vigils, feeling a deep connection to the LGBT people targeted.
“This whole argument is so trivial, as compared to what’s going on,” she said, referring to the bathroom debate.
Now, there is a weightier, more profound fear, she said. The power of the hatred encouraged every day by rhetoric. We’ve seen what it can do. Where does it stop?
April knows the answer is education. It’s why she agreed to be interviewed for this column.
After more than 60 years, she’s finally at peace with the person she is, inside and outside. She prays that someday that acceptance is the new normal.