Dangers In the Closet and Beyond the Bubble

The day Abby Wessels came out to her parents as a transgender woman was the last time she saw them. She was going to college in Bowling Green, Ohio—a few hundred miles from where she grew up in Northern Michigan.

“(Where I grew up)  was a town that labeled itself as very progressive, very liberal,” Wessels, 27, says. “It wasn’t until I left to go to college that I realized… the reason the town I lived in was very accepting was because everyone was the same.”

In college, Wessels began expressing her true self. After coming out to those around her, she gathered the courage to come out to her traditional, conservative family.

Abby Wessels, Photo: Melissa Squires
Abby Wessels, Photo: Melissa Squires

“I came out on Thanksgiving over the phone,” Wessels says. “Christmas rolled around and when I got home my parents immediately wanted to talk about it. About an hour into the conversation, they told me if I went down this road, I would no longer be welcome in their house. I left two days later. I have not seen my parents or talked to them in two years. In the beginning it was very hard, but I realize I am achieving more than I ever thought I could while they were in my life. With that oppressive relationship removed, I was who I wanted to be.”

The acceptance Wessels has found in the area is reflected in many local transgender people’s stories. Washtenaw County residents refer to it as “the bubble.” For locals, it is difficult to understand the dismissal, abuse or rejection many transgender people experience elsewhere.

Inner struggle

Wessels, newly empowered, found relief from closeted anxieties and depression. Fear and anxiety are feelings that Kiersten Gawronski knows intimately. Two-and-a-half years ago her son came out, which she describes as a huge relief.

Keirsten Gawronski and Son Oliver, Photo: Melissa Squires
Keirsten Gawronski and Son Oliver, Photo: Melissa Squires

“It was difficult to see my son struggle to tell his feelings to his family,” Gawronski says. “It was also painful because I knew he was going to face discrimination, hatred and possibly violence. However, my fears of what could happen to him were far outweighed by the pain he was experiencing in a body that didn’t match how he saw himself. The amount of anxiety, depression, and fear a transgender person can feel as they try to be true to themselves is heartbreaking.”

The Ann Arbor area is generally accepting of transgender individuals. “I feel lucky my son’s school has been very supportive and that we are in a generally open-minded pocket of Washtenaw County,” Gawronski says. “Having said that, no place is truly safe. I worry about people feeling emboldened by our current political climate who may choose to lash out.”

Becoming Powerful and Prom Queen

Joanna Elyse, 27, a recent Eastern Michigan University School of Social Work grad, is empowered by speaking up against hatred. From a young age, she knew was different. She was enraged when told she could not be a female ballet dancer. “My femininity was overt and obvious throughout school,” she says. “I didn’t know why people were constantly teasing me, or why teachers would encourage me to talk, walk and act differently. I was just being myself.”

Joanna Elyse, Photo: Melissa Squires
Joanna Elyse, Photo: Melissa Squires

“People either view us as disgusting deviants or admirable heroes,” she says. “The truth is we are complicated, multi-faceted human beings just like anyone else. We have strengths, weaknesses, passions and shortcomings. We desire love, connection and understanding. We have fears and demons and also great resilience, developed by constantly fighting for equal treatment and respect.”

By age 14 she had fully come out to family and close friends and begun the process of transitioning. “During the middle of sophomore year (in high school),” she explains, “I attended all my classes dressed as myself. People asked ‘What are you dressed up for?’ and ‘Is this a joke?’ I answered, ‘No, I’ve been dressing up all my life. This is the real me.’ I got to attend my school’s prom as well as a “Queer Prom” held by The Neutral Zone and got elected Prom Queen.”

The bubble

“For better or for worse, I feel safe and rather insulated right now,” says Bryan Adato, a transgender man who works as a paraprofessional in the Ann Arbor Public School District, “but that could change at any time.”

Adato, 38, began to transition when he was 31. “As a child, I was frustrated I was put in the ‘girl’ box,” he says. “Although I was raised in an open-minded household where it wasn’t a problem that I was playing with toy cars instead of dolls, there were still social and societal expectations that were imposed on me because I was a girl. I felt awkward, uncomfortable and out-of-place. I did not understand what it meant to be transgender until I was an undergraduate in college. Even then, the notion of undergoing such huge changes seemed unfathomable. It wasn’t until 10 years later I finally came out as trans and began transitioning.”

“I feel safe in Washtenaw County,” he adds. “Living in Ypsilanti, I have been fortunate not to encounter any problems.”

Shanna Katz Kattari, also of Ypsilanti, is fairly new to Washtenaw County. While she is not transgender, she considers herself to be a SOFFA (significant other, friend, family or ally of trans folks) and describes herself as “a cisgender (feeling the gender one is born as) queer femme partnered with an amazing queer trans guy.”

She met her partner when he still considered himself “queer butch.” Within a couple years, he started identifying more as genderqueer, and transitioned to transgender five years ago. When Katz Kattari achieved her PhD and accepted a position at the University of Michigan, they were relieved to find Ann Arbor an accepting community.

“Although Michigan doesn’t have trans-inclusive policies on a state level, Ann Arbor, Ypsilanti, and the University of Michigan do support gender identity. Moreover, places like Ozone House and the Corner Health Center reaffirm this area’s commitment to inclusivity, and we, as white, middle class folks with educational and citizenship privilege, felt this could be a good area for us to continue to work toward fairness.”

The intersection of racism and cissexism

“We really need to start talking about how trans women of color are consistently under attack,” Elyse says. “The murder rate of trans women of color is incredibly high.”

Katz Kattari agrees. “We cannot fight only for white trans folks,” she says. “We need to recognize how the intersection of marginalized identities harms members of the community disproportionately (like how the military ban for trans people hurts many more trans folks of color, low-income trans folks, trans veterans, trans folks from rural area, etc. than it does urban white middle-class trans folks), and make sure we center these folks in our advocacy.”

To Adato, the key is policies that deter discrimination entirely. “Nondiscrimination policies need to include sexual orientation as well as gender identity and expression,” he says. “ While nothing can act as a force-field to protect me from ignorance or hatred, I feel safe going to work because I know I can go to my employer if I encounter any problems.”

Trump Sparks New Worries

The tone emanating from the White House and the recently tweeted transgender ban in the military causes concerns for transgenders across the country.  “I am absolutely frightened and I am encouraging my child to go overseas once he graduates,” Gawronski says. “When lawmakers actively endorse bigotry, racism and hatred, it makes for a truly frightening time.”

“I’m scared,” Elyse says. “Although I am privileged in so many ways as a white, educated, able-bodied woman from an upper middle-class upbringing, the policies coming out about trans people greatly affect all of us. It worries me to witness a conversation about trans people banned from the military.  It is not okay and we all have to do our part to educate others that trans people are not inherently dangerous.”

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