‘People say they’ve never met a trans person, and I say, I bet you have’
‘When you’ve heard one transgender story, you’ve heard one transgender story’
Dr Chloe Schwenke: I was fired from my job when I transitioned, and my marriage fell apart. Photograph: Mark Stedman
To look at her, you couldn’t guess Chloe Schwenke’s age accurately. Tall and slim, with straight shoulder-length hair and a strong face, she’s an eloquent, elegant woman who appears to have life sussed (though this was far from always the case). To look at her, you couldn’t tell, either, that she was born into a boy’s body.
As she says in her TED Talk, “When you’ve heard one transgender story, you’ve heard one transgender story.”
Her story starts around age six or seven, when Schwenke knew there was something different, but didn’t have the words for it. At age 55, after a lot of unhappiness, and with a wife and two young children, Schwenke finally acknowledged her reality and came out as a woman. That was just over 10 years ago.
As a child, Stephen Schwenke had traditionally “feminine” traits. At seven, Stevie asked for a toy ironing board for Christmas, which might not have gone down well in a military family: “My father was a colonel in the Marine Corps, but much to their credit my parents got me that ironing board. I had three brothers doing all the boy stuff and I was there ironing. That was the space I wanted to be in.”
Schwenke came out as trans when her father was 91; her mother had died some years earlier. “He spent a couple of weeks being mad at God. But God can take it. He was never mad at me. It was wonderful, as it opened up all his recollections and memories about how confused my mom and he were, about what little Stevie was all about. At seven, you don’t have any ulterior motives. You are just being who you are. And my parents did not know what to do. Fortunately, they didn’t intervene.”
Stephen Schwenke went to a military school. “I reacted very badly. My response to the hyper-masculinised environment was to gain weight.”
He ate and ate, and gained 50 pounds in a year as a way of coping. Two years later, back in a public high school, Schwenke was much happier.
These days, Dr Chloe Schwenke is an academic and LGBTQ activist, executive director of the Association of Writers & Writing Programs (AWP), near Washington DC, and adjunct professor at the School of Public Policy at University of Maryland. She visited Dublin for a Christian Aid conference on reducing and preventing gender-based violence, including gender inequality, discrimination against LGBTI, engaging faith leaders, and offering support to survivors. She is eloquent and clear-thinking about discrimination, hatred and violence towards transgendered people.
‘A terrible price’
Schwenke was an architect for 15 years, mainly in Africa, and designed the US embassy in Nairobi, which was blown up. “I gave it my best shot. I did everything I could to adhere to a masculine presentation and to out-macho the guys. I led a very adventuresome, risk-taking life and tried to define myself in very masculine ways. But I paid a terrible price for doing that.”
She was well into middle age before she came to understand her gender. “I was a mature person. It’s not unusual. You build these lives to other people’s expectations and people are invested in you in a particular gender.”
It’s a constant, like tinnitus, a ringing in your ears that never goes away
She describes her gender dysphoria as “inside there’s a dissonance you feel between a projection and your authentic self, which gets progressively more unbearable. And it’s a constant, like tinnitus, a ringing in your ears that never goes away.”
Transitioning is not an easy path, and can be devastating for families. “The pressure is immense to conform to your assigned gender.” Transgender people have the highest suicide rate of any demographic (in the US about 4.1 per cent of the general population, but 46 per cent of transgender people, attempt suicide). “It’s off the charts, and that’s a reflection of the phenomenal pressure of trying to live a false life. It’s just not bearable after a while.”
Even after acknowledging your gender, “you’re going to get so much pushback and stigma and your relationships and your job will be in peril. I was fired from my job when I transitioned, and my marriage fell apart. I had lots of really horrible things happen. It’s the hardest thing imaginable and it’s certainly not a choice in any sort of obvious sense. You do it because it’s really the only way to stay alive.
“Having said that, the experience of transitioning was a joy-filled search to discover yourself. You’re more and more aware of the richness of who you are coming through, and the chance to be yourself finally is very, very fulfilling.”
Schwenke was 55 years’ old when this was happening. Even 10 years ago in the US, transgender identity was relatively unfamiliar. “I knew something was fundamentally wrong because I was so depressed.” Therapists “wanted me to go back to my inner child and work out my issues with the men in my life. That’s all the psychiatrists, psychologists and counsellors were trained to do.”
At the end of her tether at the failure of professional help, one day “I just walked out of [a therapist’s] office and decided I was going to take my life. I got to that point and said, ‘this is not worth it’. It was a moment of immense peace, to know at least I had that choice.”
Eventually, a counsellor “listened, like they all did. I talked about the frustration of always feeling what I genuinely wanted to be was not allowed, that the way I was trying to structure my life lacked a common core that would hold it all together, that I just didn’t fit within the traditional male norms and I didn’t know what to do with that. She looked at me and said: ‘Did you ever stop to think you might be a woman?’ Nobody ever asked me that question before.”
Even now, you can see the joy of dawning in Schwenke.
“Her question was a phenomenally big opening for me. It was too big of an idea, way too big.”
It was a relief, but her whole life was thrown in the air. “Being married to somebody who’s chronically depressed is not great. I said, ‘I think I’m a woman’. It was devastating for her. This was a transition, not just for me, but for everybody connected with me. She had a sense of being disempowered: she had no say in this at all. She could not stop me from doing this, but she was seeing her husband disappear before her eyes.”
Schwenke’s wife watched her growing in her new identity, “the intense joy that filled me, connecting with that feminine identity at my core”, while her wife’s life was collapsing.
We live like sisters in the same house
They were very strong friends, “and we had that core to build upon. It took a long time, but we are still really good friends. We still live together. We still raise our children together. We live like sisters in the same house. We’re not married anymore. We both identify as heterosexual women. But she’s my best friend and she understands me better than any other person on the planet. And she knew this was not a choice. This is something I had to do.”
Oddly enough, Schwenke’s father was aware his local city manager in Florida had come out as transgender, “so he had been exposed to this sort of discourse. The person was fired and was very badly treated. So he was concerned, and he had reason to be. But he also knew this was something real.”
She and her wife told him together. “It was a big thing for him to take on board, that I was using women’s toilet rooms. The old Marine was worried that they’d beat the crap out of me.”
There were many incidences of rejection, particularly by doctors. It was difficult “accessing basic services where you have to deal with intimate details of being transgender. You get really strong pushback and rejection and humiliation thrown at you all the time. I think for most transgender people in most of the world, that’s the norm still. People say they’ve never met a trans person, and I say, I bet you have. You just don’t know. We don’t walk around with a sign on.”
Schwenke had to navigate how it affected others. “I have two children I had to work around. It was a terribly hard transition for them.” She pauses and smiles. “We all got there.” Her daughter was seven and son 12. Explaining it to them was “one of the hardest things we did. We did it together.”
They were advised to talk to their children’s friends’ parents first. “When their friends show up and this person that was the father is now dressing like the mother, they’re going to run home and have a great story to tell and it’s going to be scandalous and sensational. Everything depends on how those parents respond, and if they say, yes this happens sometimes, it’s part of human diversity, and put it in language their own children will understand, the kids move right on. They’re able to keep the friendship going and everything moves forward. Keeping my children’s friends’ network in place was critical, building that safe space for them.
‘A long process’
“It was a long process. My son essentially wanted some private space and asked me to stay away from his school for a year, which was perfectly legitimate. He worked it through in his own way and we’re incredibly close. He needed to navigate that space himself as an emerging young man. It was a tribute to his maturity and his love for me that he did that heavy work.
“My daughter was at an age when fantasy is the norm – change is what happens in the world and everything is wonderful and exciting. But it was hard: it took years, as she grew more emotionally mature, to work her way through what it meant.
“It’s not unusual anymore to have a two-mom family, so people assumed we were a lesbian couple. That wasn’t very comfortable for my wife. She has nothing against lesbian couples, it’s just that’s not who she was. And I didn’t know how I was going to end in terms of my orientation. I was kind of hoping it would turn out to be lesbian because women are just so much easier to understand for me.” She smiles. “It didn’t work out that way. I’m much more inclined towards men.”
The family still lives in Washington DC; their son is a Peace Corps volunteer in west Africa and their daughter a first-year student in Maryland.
Schwenke had a good experience with her Quaker community. “My meeting said: ‘we’ve never dealt with this before but we’re all going to transition with you and with your family’. As a community, they put a really earnest effort into understanding the phenomenon and how a spiritual community needs to embrace this new person coming into the world in a way that still protects the other people in the family.”
She worked in international development for a Catholic family-owned firm. “When I came out to them, they were blown away. They had never heard of this and they were appalled.” Though it was illegal, they fired her. “I struggled to get work. People were very uncomfortable with me. Most employment decisions are still made by old white men, and old white men are the demographic that have the hardest trouble with it. They just cannot wrap their heads around transgender women. I don’t think they even think about transgender men.” She couldn’t get a job so she worked as an independent consultant in international development; “I could find short gigs, but it was a struggle to get by. It was really hard.”
I was the first transgender person in the history of the US to be put in the foreign affairs agencies as a political appointee
But things improved, and later the Obama administration appointed Schwenke as senior adviser for LGBTQI policy, democracy, human rights and governance at the US Agency for International Development. It was a big deal, and unexpected. The US civil rights lobby group Human Rights Campaign put her name forward. “I was the first transgender person in the history of the US to be put in the foreign affairs agencies as a political appointee.” Two other trans people – a trans man and another trans woman – were appointed to the departments of Labour and Commerce.
Going to the White House was “one of the most important moments of my life. We sat down with this very senior bunch of Obama people and they looked at us and said, ‘what can we do for you and your community?’ It was the last thing I expected, and that was the tone of every meeting from then on. They would report to us on progress the administration had made on the issues we brought forward from our community. In an ideal world, that’s what governments ought to do.
“They were open to learning about the transgender phenomenon, and were eager to make sure government served our community. It was a heavy responsibility to carry, but it was something I take very seriously.”
With a new administration, the tone has changed, and she describes herself as in the “Trump resistance”. “It’s very problematic. But we are still finding remarkably committed people within the permanent civil service. They understand transgender and sexual and gender minorities now. And despite the political messages from on high, there’s pushback and resistance internally, to the extent that a civil servant can resist.
“There’s much more understanding, even in the face of the current administration, that we are human beings, that we deserve to be treated with respect and dignity and that’s not going to be eroded that much. It will be very challenging for the next few years. We’re easy scapegoats. The easy thing for building a political base is to attack us, but there’s a lot of people now who understand it is not okay to use people that way. It’s been hard but it’s not been devastating. It’s been a call to the barricades if you will. And we’re there.”
Tuesday, November 20th is Transgender Day of Remembrance, which honours those who have lost their lives as a result of violence against transgender people.
Not all trans people opt for medical therapy. “It was relatively new and phenomenally expensive, and insurance didn’t cover any of it. But I decided I would only come to some peace by getting the medical interventions. I had gender confirming surgery in Montreal, electrolysis – it was very expensive and painful – voice therapy, and hormone therapy.
“I used my retirement money and whatever I could borrow. I will not have a retirement – there’s nothing left – so I will work till I drop. That’s a decision I made consciously because I needed to stay alive and needed to be Chloe. I don’t regret it. Being in this body, being 100 per cent female, is the most wonderful feeling. It’s just an incredible rebirth for me, to be the person I was always best to be, and to feel so whole and at peace. The years and years and years and a lot of pain, really deep, wrenching pain that I didn’t understand at all – that’s gone.”
She has been accused of being selfish. “How selfish can you be, to do this to your wife, to your children, to do this to me – whoever they were that was inconvenienced by my gender.
“I finally had to own that and say I need to be present in the world as myself. I’m going to be self-ish. Because we have to be ourselves, otherwise you’re not real in the world.” That word self-ish, with the hyphen, is the title of her recently published memoir, SELF-ish: A Transgender Awakening (Red Hen Press; chloemaryland.net ).
‘People accept me’
“I’m lucky in a sense because I ‘pass’, which is a horrible expression. People accept me as a woman. Nobody guesses I’m transgender until I tell them. The investment in voice therapy and in what I had physically makes a huge difference in your ability to navigate the world and the gender that you know is your real authentic identity. But that’s not the case for many trans people and the issue is complicated.
“Transgender people often think about gender all the time, and because of that intensity we’re able to offer insights that often run counter to some prominent feminist theories. The whole notion that you’re socialised into gender – we are testimony that that is not the case. Society did its best socialising me as a male and it did not work. We know there’s something inside of us that is telling us the truth about our identity and we’re willing to risk everything to own that. It’s not simply that you become a woman because you’ve been socialised into it. Of course, the roles are defined a lot by sexualisation. But gender is a critical piece at the very core of who you are. We know that gender is real and we’re willing to give everything to get it.”
Her experience gives her additional insight into gender equality. “I’m not a former man, I was never a man. I was a woman in a man’s body and it’s a fake. I lived as a man and I was in male space and male conversations and I bring that perspective.” She observes that men are not focused on gender equality. “It doesn’t come up. We’re talking about issues affecting more than half of the world. And men are not there.
“They’re starting to get there. There is a movement for men to get engaged on gender equality but it’s still a small movement. The idea of women talking to women about women is only getting us so far. We’ve got to get men into that space. They need to be part of this, not because we’re their wives and mothers and sisters and daughters, but because we’re human beings with dignity. And men need to respect that as much as women do. Why men are not in these spaces now confounds me.”
Her ex-wife is not particularly interested in dating at the moment, but Schwenke is. Relationships are difficult as a trans woman. Online dating was disastrous. “I had a rule to tell men on the third date, and every single time they’d be gone, and often really rudely. They were always outraged and indignant. My generation is so freaked out by the idea of a transgender woman.
“And yet, we sometimes have great three dates. Things are going so well and we’re getting on really well and these are nice guys – interesting, intelligent, funny – and they go into the most bizarre fits when I disclose this. I say, I can’t not speak about my whole life. I’ve been not speaking about it for the last two dates. I’m not going to be disrespectful of you by pretending to be something I’m not. I’ve done that for 50 years.”
But Chloe Schwenke is not bothered if she doesn’t form a new romantic relationship. “If I find someone, that’ll be great; if I don’t, it’s going to be just fine. I have never been happier. I have my best friend, some wonderful friends and I’ve got some important work to do. So what more can you ask?”