Overcoming the stigma of being transgendered

Wes Staley (center) smokes outside of The Q nightclub in Lincoln, Neb. A regular at The Q, a gay bar, Staley regularly performs in drag.

Wes Staley (center) smokes outside of The Q nightclub in Lincoln, Neb. A regular at The Q, a gay bar, Staley regularly performs in drag.

Story and photos by Morgan Spiehs, for NewsNetNebraska

After coming into the store regularly, the customer finally questioned Wes.

“I could tell for a while he had been trying to figure me out,” Wes said.

The customer leans over the counter at the Blockbuster Wes has worked at for over four years.

“Let me ask you a question. With your voice the way it is… Say something.”

“What do you mean?” Wes asks.

“You know, and the way your hair’s cut…” The customer adds. “Are you a girl or a boy?”

Over a year ago Wes Staley, 25, was Rose Staley. When Staley was 23, he came out to his friends and family as transgender.

“It started with me realizing I was having some gender issues. And then as time went on, I started dressing more masculine, I was getting my haircut more and it just made more sense,” Staley said. ”I was more comfortable and I didn’t feel as awkward as I had before.”

There are about 9 million transgender people in the United States, according to a UCLA study. Yet, there remains a stigma, even among the LGBTQA community. While gay rights takes strides, transgender rights are left behind.

Staley grew up in Lincoln, Neb. His parents adopted him when he was nine days old and he remained the only child. When Staley was about nine, he went through a radical tomboy phase and refused to be called a girl.

Throughout high school, Staley went back and forth between more masculine and more feminine.

“I knew I wasn’t straight but I didn’t really know what that meant,” Wes said.

It wasn’t until years later he came out as transgender. Staley’s parents have supported his change from the beginning.

“My dad said that ‘the least of our concerns is what gender you are. We want you to live a good life and be a good person,’” Staley said. “They’re like, ‘Oh, you identify as a guy? Good for you. Go get a job. Set up a retirement fund.”

Staley’s mom, Jan Staley, talks openly with him about the struggles she goes through as Staley changes, such as what gifts to get him after shopping for a girl for 23 years. Although Jan accepts his choice, Staley says he knows it’s hard on her at times.

Jan knows a few other mothers that have children transitioning to other genders and says that “the kids don’t seem to grasp that there is a loss to the parent” when they choose to transition.

The hardest part is losing your daughter,” Jan said. “You just want your kid to be happy, healthy and productive but you’re losing the person you raised.”

Sometimes Jan says she feels like she’s telling a lie when referencing to her son in the past.

“That wasn’t Wes in the third grade, that was Rose,” Jan said. “You start to feel that person can’t exist anymore, that daughter you raised.”

Jan’s advise to a parent going through a similar situation is to be patient.

“You will adjust. It will happen,” she said.

Wes Staley drives home from his job at Blockbuster in Lincoln, Neb. on Dec. 1, 2011. Staley came out to his family as transgender about a month before.

Wes Staley drives home from his job at Blockbuster in Lincoln, Neb. on Dec. 1, 2011. Staley came out to his family as transgender about a month before.

Staley was introduced to Scott Schneider through a mutual a couple years ago. Staley and Schneider are both female to male transgender. But that’s really where the similarities stop.

Schneider identifies as straight and Staley identifies as gay. Oh, and they dated briefly.

Schneider is legally a man. He has undergone surgery to remove his breasts and a hysterectomy. Staley has not yet had any surgeries but believes he will some day.

Staley sent a letter to his family and friends to reveal his change. Schneider’s coming out process was a little more complicated.

Schneider, 31, knew that his biological gender didn’t align with how he felt as early as five or six when he didn’t understand why he had to where a shirt while playing outside when the boy didn’t have to.

Schneider, also from Lincoln, was enlisted in the Air Force when he told a circle of friends about his trans feelings.

“They were all on board,” Schneider said. “It worked out really well. I thank them for pulling me out of the closet.”

About two years after Schneider joined the military, he decided to see a counselor. He had only told a few people and didn’t feel comfortable around people that he didn’t know.

“I kind of lived two lives,” Schneider said.

He went to a counselor for about three months and she supported his sex change. She paired with a lawyer and they drafted a letter to tell the military that Schneider was going to start hormone shots.

The testosterone hormone shots cause body hair to grow, body fat to shift to the stomach and other places it’s prone to on males and the voice to drop.

By the time the letter reached the military, Schneider had already received his first shot. He still had four years left to serve.

“Once I decided to let the floodgates open, that was it, it was all over,” Schneider said.

Schneider sent a letter to his parents at the same time he sent one to his commander in the military.

“My family did not like it and there was lots and lots of crying,” Schneider said.

Even though his voice has dropped to a low pitch and thick facial hair has grown, Schneider’s family avoids talking about his change. They still call him by his old name, Meghan, and use ‘she’ instead of ‘he.’

“My family is not close,” Schneider said. “We’re all friends and border on strangers.”

This Christmas, Schneider received a present from his mother that had ‘Scott’ on the tag. This was the first time she acknowledged his new name after five years.

Although Wes’ first name came from the stable boy that gets the princess in the movie “The Princess Bride”, his parents helped him choose his new middle name, Grant. Schneider picked his new first name and middle name, Anthony “out of the blue for absolutely no reason.”

Even though Schneider is male on all his documents and could legally marry a woman, he doesn’t quite see himself as male.

“I have this theory that especially in the ways of gender, it’s not necessarily how you feel about yourself as far as like pieces and parts, but it’s your reflection off of other people,” Schneider said. “I guess male is what people call me, and that’s how they see me and that’s how I’m comfortable so that’s probably the best descriptor of me.”

Schneider is attracted to femininity, while Wes is usually attracted to masculinity.

So how can these two be so different yet identify as transgender?

Transgender can be an umbrella category for people that blur the boundaries between masculine and feminine but it can also be an identity for people,” said Pat Tetreault, assistant director of LGBTQA student involvement for the University of Nebraska – Lincoln.

The idea that a person isn’t attracted to one sex and blurs the lines of tradition confuses us, according to Rosemary Holz, associate professor of practice in women’s and gender studies at the University of Nebraska – Lincoln. “You’re so ingrained with this desire to want to know one way or the other.”

Wes Staley holds documentation that changed his name from his birth name Rose Ellen to Westley Grant on April 17, 2012.

Wes Staley holds documentation that changed his name from his birth name Rose Ellen to Westley Grant on April 17, 2012.

Holz points out that there is even a masculine and feminine binary built into the language with pronouns like ‘he’ and ‘she’ and people have suggested replacing them with ‘ze’ to eliminate the binary.

Birth is where the binary starts, according to Tetreault. Whether the baby is a boy or a girl is the one of the first things, if not the first, the doctor says after delivering a baby.

“We say this is how you will be raised and this is the toys you should play with and the colors you should wear and the type of activities you should engage in and the kind of verbal and nonverbal communication and the types of emotions you can express,” Tetreault said. “There’s a lot of imposed behaviors and expectations based on the sex we’re assigned at birth and that sex may or may not be accurate.”

While transgender does fall within the LGBTQA acronym, others in the community accuse some people that identify as transgender as not being “transgender enough,” creating a stigma even within their own community, according to Staley.

They also don’t share the same rights. The recent repeal of the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell bill does not include gender identity, according to Tetreault.

“There is a shift in the large of society towards more acceptance of LGBT but I think there’s greater acceptance of LGB because people aren’t as educated about transgender issues,” Tetreault said. “There may be bills that cover sexual orientation. But sexual orientation, gender identity and expression are different things.”

Last year Maine, Maryland and Washington became the first states to legalize same-sex marriage by popular vote. While the LGBTQA community is creating milestones, other bills are pushing them back.

A bill passed to the Arizona House floor on March 27, 2013 that would make “local LGBT nondiscrimination laws unenforceable and protects businesses and other facility managers that choose to discriminate against transgender and gender nonconforming public restroom users,” according to the National Center for Transgender Equality.

The center says that over half of transgender persons who live in Arizona have experienced harassment or discrimination in places of public accommodation such as restrooms.

“We’re a very gendered society and I think some people have more issues with gender nonconformity than they actually do with sexual orientation,” Tetreault said.

Staley and Schneider try to rise awareness about being transgender by holding events at UNL telling their stories and holding ally training workshops. These workshops teach people how to be trans friendly and the right language to use. They talk about the definition of transgender and other identities, sexual orientation and expression and their differences.

“I don’t feel like I need this and this and this to feel good about myself,” Schneider said. “I just do what makes me feel like I fit better into the world.”


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