My fourteen-year-old son says to me, “I can’t fit in at school. Have you ever felt that way?”
“First of all,” I say, “I was a boy who thought I should have been born a girl. I didn’t have a clue how to act normal. Second, and more importantly, I don’t want to hear you say, ‘I can’t fit in.’ Instead, say, ‘I choose willful nonconformity.’ Like your brother, here, with his purple mohawk.”
The purple-haired son ignores me. -Excerpt from Miss Sophrosyne, award winning story by Christie Marie Kent.
This week's blog post was born out of my desire to keep our outreach true to our values of strength based conversations that honor the strength, humanity and dignity of all those we serve. As a therapist, I have the opportunity and a responsibility to create space for people to tell their stories, explore stories more deeply, develop new story lines, make connections with important people in their lives, and above all, recognize their own strength and power. It is never my job to tell someone else's story. As Alexa and I began to explore ways to get the word out about our gender identity support group, it became obvious to me that the best use of this week's blog space would be to showcase a person who has used the sharing of their gender identity story to help themselves and others. Someone whose compassion, talent and tenacity has been of therapeutic benefit not only to themselves, but to others as well. I immediately thought of Christy.
I first met Christy at writing workshop in Minneapolis. She read an excerpt from a novel she was working on. It was a murder mystery with a masturbating nun. Christy read it in her naturally smooth and colorful southern accent. I was disappointed when the reading ended, the best sign of a good story; I wanted more. She delivered. Week after week she came to read more of the novel. Then one evening, her reading was different. It was the story of a woman who transitioned from living as a male person, to living as a female person. This story contained the same dynamic characters, skillful structure, humor and humanism as the stories I'd heard from her before. It wasn't until a few weeks later that Christy shared why this story was different; it was true. The character in it was her, and the story was Changing With Grace.
I am thinking of how we first met when we sit down for a chat.
Kori: How has your art, writing and storytelling been a strength for you?
Christy: When I started writing and story telling I kept saying that I wouldn't tell the true stories because those are ones nobody wants to hear, and the ones people do want to hear I'm not going to tell. It wasn't until my family said some really, really mean and hurtful things to me that pushed me over the edge...I was getting ready to jump off the Smith Avenue Bridge because of what they said to me. I didn't jump, you probably figured that out (laughter).
It was probably a month or two after that when I said, people need to hear these stories. They need to know what they're doing to us. At the next Story Slam I told what had happen down at my uncle's farm in Mississippi. It wasn't a well structured story, it was not well prepared, I was having trouble just getting the words out. The audience was totally into it and completely supportive. It was after that when I said "I'm a Minnesotan now, y'all. You better get used to me."
The reception I got that night both gave me the external support I needed, (in addition to therapy and my immediate family who were wonderful), and at the same time I realized that they want to know these stories. They want to know how other people think and feel....There was a connection that night...It was after that when I started telling all my trans stories at Story Slams. By the way, that's when I went from competing well in Story Slams, to winning Story Slams. Because people want to hear these stories.
Kori: There are two parts to your work. The writing, which speaks to the introvert in you, and then there's the performing. Thinking of art as a therapeutic tool, do writing and performing each serve a different therapeutic purpose for you, or are they similar?
Christy: They're very similar. The one thing you get with performing that you don't get with writing is that immediate feedback. When the crowd is supporting and cheering for you, that makes it easier to deal with the more difficult things in life.
Kori: You used the word connection.
Christy: Yes. Storytelling doesn't work unless you make a connection with the audience.
Kori: How does the writing serve you in a therapeutic way?
Christy: Partly because you have to write your story, but separately because of the writing that's not intended for performance...I've done some memoir writing, but I'm more interested in fiction where I can create characters that exhibit these traits, or go through these experiences. In many cases those are different experiences than what I went through...but I can give the book color by experiences that I have been through...but at the same time I can create characters that have gone through far worse things than I've gone through and say, well at least I don't have to go through that.
Kori: So what does the give you?
Christy: Besides the generic act of creation, which is something in itself, how it relates to my experience is that I can create characters that other people have the chance to see from the inside out. They're in her head, and they can't do that in real life. So I'm able to share this with other people in a more effective way, because people want to know how other people experience the world.
Kori: Is that something you've always known? That people want to know how other people experience the world?
Christy: No! No. I did not believe it was true at all. I grew up in a very conservative Southern Baptist family. If you don't know how conservative Southern Baptists are, let me just say this, my parents freaked out when I joined the much more liberal, left wing Roman Catholic church (laughter). We were not encouraged to be different. We were not encouraged to act in anyway non-conforming to the roles we were assigned. We were told that gay people were going to hell. In high school I didn't know anybody who was openly gay...it wasn't until college that I got to know gay people. One of whom was in the dorm right next to mine. And I shunned him. Didn't even talk to him. It wasn't until we were seniors that I got to know him and I realized he was a really cool guy and I regretted not having gotten to know him sooner. But we just didn't talk about these things. They weren't acceptable.
So as far as who I was? I learned from an early age I better keep that buried. Nobody wants to hear about it, and if they do hear about it they're going to shun me.
Kori: So the Story Slam, was that a big epiphany.
Christy: Oh yeah!
Kori: Were you living as a woman at that point?
Christy: Oh yeah. I had been for about eight or ten years, but in stealth mode.
Christy goes into more detail about "stealth mode." She shares that she writes and performs under a pen name to avoid anyone at work or at her kids' schools finding out for fear of being fired or shunned. Or worse. This reminds me, that although Minnesota may have been a more accepting place for Christy than the South, we still have a marathon in front of us.
Kori: Did your art work support you earlier?
Christy: No, because I wasn't doing anything then.
Kori: So you didn't have a creative outlet when you transitioned?
Christy: Not really.
Kori: What did support you?
Christy: The support group. That was crucial. I would not have survived without them. There were only two times in my life when I've truly been suicidal. I told you about one, the other was before I came out. When I was hopeless because I couldn't go on. I saw no way, being married with two kids, I saw no way to transition and be who I wanted to be, but I had also discovered by that time I would never be happy if I didn't transition...
Kori: What did the support group give you?
Christy: Hope. The reason I was suicidal was because I lost hope. They gave it back to me. They showed me that there are ways to do this. I was also very fortunate that my wife was perfect. She was an angel. And she wanted me to be happy, even though it was going to hurt her...but she decide from the beginning that she would rather have me as a happy female friend and co-parent than as a late husband.
At this point in the interview I pause to thank Hope. Hope is my favorite.
Kori: Do you ever use writing as a therapeutic tool that you won't share with other people, like journaling.
Christy: No, I've never been a journaler. When I'm writing, I'm writing something that I want to share with other people.
Kori: So that connection is a big piece of it for you?
Christy: Yes. And part of it is knowing that I'm doing the right thing after all. And that's what story telling gives me. You know how much rejection you have to deal with in writing, you don't go into that for a pat on the back. But storytelling, when you make that connection with the audience and they're rooting for you, then that is very affirming.
Kori: What is it about the performance piece that means so much?
Christy: There is so much to it. Part of it is knowing that I'm sharing something very intimate, something that I could't share before. Years ago I could have never shared it. Now I get up on stage in front of 600 people! My general formula is in the beginning I get them laughing, and part of it is that I give them permission to laugh...and then towards the middle is when I hit them with what it really means, and then I bring it back up at the end. And when I'm up on stage getting to that middle part, where there's no reaction from the audience...I start worrying that I'm bombing, and then you get to the end and they scream for you...they give you high scores! I go, yes, yes, they like me! It's ok to be who I am!
Kori: That's a skill you have. Bringing in that humor, in your writing, your work gives us a range of human experience.
Christy: Yes, yes. You have to have a range of it. Or it falls flat.
Kori: How has it been for you to tell other people's stories? People you love. Because your story involves other people.
Christy: Yeah. I try to be careful about that because I don't want to tell their story wrong. If I'm going to mess up anybody's story, I want it to be mine...When we did the play Transfamily, they were not my stories...so we had three different actresses telling three different stories, none of them were telling their own story. The people who gave me these stories were not performers. They weren't writers either. And one of those stories was my ex-wife, and that was a challenge...to get her story right, to make it true and not make her feel bad. That was a challenge....but none of us do this transition perfectly. We all make mistakes. And if we don't admit to those mistakes then we're not telling the whole story and it's not true. With myself, that's easier, over the last year or so I'm trying to find more stories where I'm not the hero. Where I'm screwing up and learning a lesson from someone else who is the hero...
Kori: What is the importance of telling about the mistakes?
Christy: For the non-trans people, so they can see we're being realistic. We're not just making stuff up to make ourselves look better. For the trans people, for them to be able to learn from that experience because the people who are reading it or hearing it are going to make mistakes, and that's ok, because non-trans people make mistakes too....
We have to learn how to recognize that we make these mistakes and move on. Not let them destroy us.
Kori: I find memoir very difficult to write. You have to look very deep into yourself and make yourself a dimensional character.
Christy: But if it's just the five minutes at a time, you just need to look at that one aspect...
Kori: Is that how you started telling your story?
Christy: Yes. Five minutes at a time.
Kori: That's good advice. If you had advice to give to therapists, to folks who are working on gender identity issues with other people, what would you most like us to know? Especially cis-gendered therapists?
Christy: The biggest thing is what you're doing now. Talk to people who've been through it. And you're doing it now.
Kori: What's important to do in those conversations. For me, what's important for me to do?
Christy: To understand what they did well, and what they didn't. Obviously, everyone's situation is going to be different, but you can draw on those experiences to warn people about what could go wrong, because you have to do a lot of planning to get through this well...Everybody's path is different, everybody's successes are different, so just having that huge variety to draw on.
Kori: What about when you speak with people who are either younger, or people who are just staring to consider transitioning or publicly questioning their gender identity. What do you do to support them?
Christy: The most important thing is to let them know that it's ok to be who they need to be. That I am behind them no matter what they decide to do. If they want me to talk about what I've been through I'd be happy to tell them, you don't have to ask me twice to tell a story (laughter),...but if they want my stories they'll ask for them. Otherwise they just need to know that I support what they're going through, not what I went through. That we support them no matter what.
The simplest and most difficult words. No matter what. We support you no matter what.
Thank you Christie, for all the times and all the ways you've told your story. For all the stories belonging to other people that you lovingly hold and share, for all the characters you create for us to get to know from the inside out, and for sitting down with me for this conversation.
If you'd like to hear Christie tell her stories in her own voice, and I highly recommend that you do, you can see her new work Pope Joan: The First Transgender Pontiff which opens at the Minnesota Fringe Festival on August 3rd. Click here for a complete listing of Christie's upcoming performances and samples of her writing.