Do you remember Sandra Bullock in the movie, Gravity, floating around alone in the deep, dark, endless cold of space? Those of us in the theater were right there with her because of the film technology we have today. Now close your eyes and be Sandra. You’ve already lost Clooney, but you have a state-of-the-art, impenetrable spacesuit and helmet with its own oxygen supply. You are sure that, if you just stay strong, and stay in your suit, help will come. You know you only have to wait. Suddenly a piece of your damaged space station comes hurtling at you. You move, but not far enough and not fast enough. You hear a rip and feel a change inside your cocoon. As you look down you see a trail of vapor, moving fast, hissing across the vastness of space. It’s your oxygen supply, your protection from an unlivable environment. This is what so many in the LGBT+ community felt when House Bill 1008 was introduced. They had begun to feel like they were accepted as they were in the community as a whole. Then, as violently as shrapnel hitting a space suit, that feeling was ripped away. Maybe you know someone in this situation, maybe you don’t, or think you don’t. Either way, those feelings need to be shared from a personal experience. This is Austin’s story. – Julie Sauer, Editor-at-large
My name is Austin and I am transgender. Austin is my name, it is not just a preference. I grew up in tiny Blue Earth, MN, where, despite the world’s gradual progress in letting people be who they are, there was no LGBT+ group reaching out to those of us at school who identified with the acronym. Amazingly enough, in a town where people know each other’s business, I rarely heard any slurs or nasty comments tossed at the non-traditional population. I had surrounded myself with good friends and was insulated by their kindness. But, despite that comfort bubble, I was cautious about revealing too much. It was high school, after all, not the place to draw attention to your differences.
After graduation I was off to Mitchell, SD to major in Theatre and Digital/Web Design at Dakota Wesleyan University. DWU is a religious institution in a conservative state, but it turned out to be the place where I met lots of people who gave me the room to breathe and explore who I was.
At this point I was getting comfortable enough to think about sharing. While I never felt directly threatened, I had read many articles about others like me and had been shocked and disappointed to see the cutthroat comments that were written. Of course I was well versed in what many churches and politicians had to say on the subject. All of this made me hesitate to move forward. I would be leaving myself completely vulnerable and unprotected as, once again, there was no LGBT+ community to lean on.
But, what I needed was to be me, whoever that was, so I stepped off the cliff into the unknown and came out as gay. I was obviously anxious about the response I would get. Coming out is risky business; anything could happen. Also, people don’t realize that the “coming out” stage doesn’t end, at least not for a long time. There are always people from the past that haven’t heard yet, and the explanation and emotional upheaval happen each and every time. I was so relieved to discover immediate acceptance from the DWU theatre community. They welcomed my decision to be who I was with open arms.
During summer breaks I worked in Sioux Falls, staying with family members. It was definitely a “big city” compared to Blue Earth and Mitchell, so I was happy to spend much of my free time with a close friend from Minnesota who was also living there. On the whole, we found Sioux Falls to be a fairly accepting place. One thing that really stood out as a beacon of hope was gay pride display set up at Zandbroz that summer. Seeing it gave me an uplifting feeling of support, and told me that the day would come that fear and rejection of the LGBT+ community would be a thing of the past.
I was still pondering exactly who I was, and my friend served as a sounding board. Though she came from a conservative background, she was very open-minded. I was able to bounce thoughts and ideas off of her, knowing that she would listen openly and give me constructive feedback. We became very close friends that summer and I found myself comfortable enough to share thoughts about my sexuality, though I was not yet exploring terms of gender. I can’t imagine anyone being a better source of support than she was and I will always be grateful.
At that time I don’t believe that any of my friends or family suspected that I would soon be facing a gender identity dilemma. I was viewed as a “tomboy”, which isn’t uncommon. Everyone saw this as acceptable behavior for a girl, and didn’t question it. Of course, though I still had identity questions, I never let on.
One of the highlights of my time in Sioux Falls was the invitation to serve as stage manager for the Sioux Empire Community Theatre’s spring production of Spamalot. By then I knew I was trans, but had been too overwhelmed to tell people at school. It was just too much to envision dealing with multiple teachers and administration in a virtual “startover”, so I could comfortably be myself; a guy. So, I took the spring semester off and used the break to begin using my name, Austin, as well as masculine pronouns with a few select people. However, I had not told everyone, not even the Spamalot team.
By the time rehearsals started I had been Austin, with a small group, for about eight months. I had been seeing a great gender therapist who was supporting me on my transition journey and encouraging me to be me. One night, after all the cast had left and I was locking up, I had the urge to tell the director. I had worked with him on a few shows and he’d always had my back. I trusted him. It was time.
Taking a breath to steady myself, I told him what I’d been going through. He listened, and I shared my new name with him. A tremendous sense of relief came over me. I hadn’t realized how much anxiety I was holding as I worked up to this moment. In case you haven’t figured this out, coming out as transgender is a massive emotional ordeal. How do you explain to someone close that, in a way, you’re completely different than they’ve ever known you to be? How do you make them understand that, though your gender has changed, your feelings for others, your creative energy, your opinions and life goals, your HUMANITY has not. Though you are different, you are also the same. You are trusting them with this huge part of yourself and hoping they will respect it.
I have heard about relationships being ruined by the inability to comprehend that a loved one is transgender. I really do understand that the revelation can be a shock and can take some time and thought to get used to. I get that. It’s a huge change and some people feel like they’ve lost someone as they gain this new individual. But, though I can empathize with those feelings, I don’t believe that the gender of someone that you love and care for should be that vital in your relationship. Those feelings just can’t compare to the daily pain a transgender person, still “in the closet”, must endure. The anxiety, the self doubt and the fear are all constant companions and we are living day to day as our self-esteems absorb blow after blow. This is not a “choice” anyone makes for themselves. Who would choose to live a life in hiding? The only choice we have is whether or not we live as our authentic selves. When we take that step into the light, we hope that our families will continue to love us unconditionally, even in uncharted territory.
Within a short time after I shared my story with the Spamalot director, I was Austin to everyone in the production. People were very understanding and quick to adapt. There were a few slip-ups, which happen, I understand that. I was thankful, though, that there was little attention brought to the slips; whoever it was just corrected themselves and moved on. I was overjoyed to hear my name said aloud as Austin by the Spamalot team, and I made sure they knew how much I appreciated it.
The Spam team’s reaction bolstered my courage to talk with my immediate family and close friends. They came to see me work and to see the show, saw my name as Austin in the playbill, and heard my team members and the cast address me by name. I think that this helped them to feel like it was okay, that other people were accepting of it too.
I’ve been truly fortunate to have a family that has stuck with me through this, and I don’t feel that I have lost friendships as a result of my transition. The sad thing is that most every trans person has to worry about losing people in their life because of their quest to be themselves. If we love someone, shouldn’t we try to keep their spirit afloat during difficult times, not sink them? What kind of person would abandon their own child because of this? It does happen, it’s wrong, and it causes extreme heartache for the transitioning person.
I have considered myself very fortunate to be welcomed as I have by so many great people. Though this is a conservative state, people’s overall reactions have given me hope and an idealistic view of what things can be like when we choose kindness and empathy. I’ve found safe places here.
These thoughts came crashing to Earth when I read about House Bill 1008. I am filled with fear for the youth of South Dakota affected by this. I had come to believe that our state had made strides toward acceptance of the LGBT+ community, but this bill feels like a kick in the stomach. The students targeted by it endure a great deal of stress every day, whether they are “out” or not. They’re struggling with their identities, with acceptance, with bullies, and with thoughts about how their revelation might affect their loved ones. It’s a lot for a young person to handle. I may not have been exploring my gender identity in high school, but if this much hate and stigma had been surrounding me at that age, I would have been terrified. I would have felt unsafe in an institution meant to educate and protect me. Some of these students can’t feel safe in their own homes if they out themselves as trans; why push to make another place unwelcoming for them? Now South Dakota, instead of helping its youth become the best it can be, has made it acceptable to bully those that identify as LGBT+.
Trans kids need support. They deserve protection, not targeting. They need to know that they are cared for. We have lost so many that felt unloved, unaccepted. And when I say that I mean they felt driven to take their own lives to stop the pain. This is just my story and I am hoping that, by sharing it, some empathy will arise and the ostracism will cease. The futures of so many are at stake.
– Austin Schoenfelder