Why I still go to support meetings…

I can still remember my first support meeting like it was yesterday. The entire experience had a profound impact on me and still does to this day. The experience is partially the reason why I still go to support meetings today.

Many trans people have a tendency to only attend support groups while going through transition. After transition, they eventually disappear. One reason, is that it sort of becomes contradictory to the state of mind you begin to attain. I had an issue, I corrected it, and now I don’t want to stand out any longer. Being trans becomes a fact of history and not necessarily a definition of who you are as a person. You’d rather have people see you for what you are; not necessarily for what you went through to get there.

I understand it, I get it, and a lot of the times I feel the same way. But then, there is something in me that says, you need to help others. It comes from thinking about the people that have helped me along my journey, the things I learned, and some of the experiences. They start to become more important than any of my personal needs.

It was early 1999 and I had found a telephone number for a local transgender support organization — Renaissance (The Renaissance Transgender Association, Inc.). I got up the courage to call them. I was very nervous, not knowing what to expect. I was somewhat relieved when the call went to voicemail. I left the required basic vital information with a phone number to call me back at.

Sometime later, I received the return call from Angela. As we began to talk, she asked me some questions and I asked her lots back. Over the course of the discussion, she disclosed that she was also trans. She was absolutely wonderful and quickly put me at ease. It was obvious to me that she likely had experience doing this before (welcoming first timers). I did not know at the time, but she was one of the founders of Renaissance, and I am sure that I was not her first trans person in a closet to talk to. We talked for what seem like hours, ran out time, so we scheduled some time to get back together for another call.

During the second call, I was invited to come to a meeting. However, when we discussed where I was living at the time(the Poconos), she suggested that I may be better off if she put me in contact with another chapter based in the Lehigh Valley. It would probably be more convenient to me.

So I waited for yet another phone call…which I then received from the President of the Lehigh Valley chapter. She asked me a lot of the same questions, and there was a reason for that. I didn’t know it at the time, but all these conversations I has having was because I was being vetted. Basically, being checked out to make sure I was not some crazy person that was going to put the other girls in jeopardy. Trans organizations were not as public as they are today and things were a bit more guarded. It was truly a different time and era. And after this next vetting, I was given the keys to the kingdom per say. I was given the information of where and when they met and asked to keep it a secret. That’s really the way it was back then; a bit secretive.

Then, I got another phone call…from Angela again. She wanted to help me prepare for my first meeting. I had decided that I was not going “dressed” to this first meeting, I was a bit too nervous to do so. I wanted to check out this group of people before I committed to doing anything that was possibly risky. Plus, I was not sure I could swing that past the family…even though she told me they had changing areas there. (I was thinking gym locker room style and thought absolutely…NOT! BTW I was wrong about that and many other things….) I had never gone out anywhere in public at that time. Little did I know at the time, but I would be doing exactly that one month later.

She then gave me some of the best advice that I still remember to this day. She reminded me of what it took for me to reach out and make that first phone call. There were likely many others who are just like me that haven’t made that step yet. She used that example as an analogy to relate to the people I was going to meet. She wanted me to realize that all the people I would meet were in my shoes at one time. I would see people at all stages of transition and types, and wanted to prepare me for that . And finally, she covered, what I will call, some interaction protocols. She suggested to treat people how they were presenting, not necessarily how they looked. And a key item; that we all support each other no matter what. Pass compliments only….and we joked about the old phrase of “if you have nothing nice to say….”

I have never forgotten this advice, as it touched me profoundly. It was exactly how I wanted to be treated. I followed it then…and still do to this day. It was great advice for not only trans people, but everyone in general!

Transgender Community News, May 1999 Issue

Taking those first nervous steps, I was greeted and given a short little tour by the President at my first meeting. Later on, when the meeting started, she put me on the spot during announcements and introduced me to the group. There was a featured speaker, and then the rest of the time was really for socializing. There was a table with some literature and some resources you could pick up. I purchased a copy of the latest magazine. It contained a ton of information and resources when much of that type of information was not readily available. It was like the bible of community. (I still have it to this day and cherish it as a part of my history…pictured left.)

All the people Angela had mentioned were there. She prepared me well and I intermingled with a bunch of people. And then there was this one girl. It seemed kind of odd to me that she was there. Most of the others were looking much like I did when I dressed…you could tell. But not this one girl, and therefore she stood out. Later on, I found out that she was trans too! Holy shit! I had to talk to her….How did she do it? How long did it take? What was it like? Forty million questions were swirling around my head. I was immediately drawn to her.

I was listening to the conversation she was having with others. It was all very Greek to me. She was talking to the president about a visit with her Endocrinologist. It sounded like some sort of doctor, but I had no idea what kind that was, what they did, and why she was seeing one. (I obviously know now…but I had to go home and look it up to find out. It was the first time I had ever heard the term.) I had to speak with her. I asked if we could speak privately and she obliged. I opened up a little bit to her and she was very supportive. Over the next couple of months, she was part of the reason of why I went. She is what I aspired to be…and the fact that she had done it was absolutely amazing to me. It showed me that there was hope, that it was possible to change genders and match the way you felt.

I dressed to make my inner self feel better and to align with how I felt inside. But when I looked at myself in the mirror, it brought back the utter futility of my situation. I may have felt like a girl…but I certainly didn’t look like one. Its part of the reason why I hated to look in the mirror while dressed…because what I saw…was the reality of a man in a dress. Even looking while not dressed, I always saw someone who didn’t really match my internal mental image. It always felt a bit odd, strange, and out of sorts. Meeting others with even a hint of maleness…reminded me of this and it was almost depressing. Not only for the reminder, but also because I felt sorry for them knowing what they felt inside. This why this other girl was so special. To see someone who once felt like me…but had managed to change her appearance…you may be able to see how this appealed to me….and how special it was to know that it was truly possible.

For me, all this activity and experiences eventually came to a grinding halt and I ended up going back into the closet several months later. But these things don’t change and the feelings that drew me there never left.

When I was ready to come back to a support meeting, I looked for the same group. I was happy to rejoin Lehigh Valley Renaissance in 2015, after a 16 year hiatus. This time, the initial experience was definitely different. There is no longer any vetting and the meetings were posted publically on a website for anyone to find. It is no longer as secretive as it once was.

Going back was like coming home. Meeting and talking with people with common experiences will never grow old. It was not a whole lot different from my first series of meetings. The only thing different was that that special girl was not there. It was OK, I was much more knowledgeable about what was possible today. However, there were plenty of others to draw inspiration from. I immediately reverted back to Angela’s advice and it was still treating me well.

A short while ago, I realized that over time, I have likely become one of those “special” girls. My appearance has changed, I talk about HRT and Endocrinologists…and when I look in the mirror, most of the time I don’t see that guy whose appearance didn’t quite seem to fit. I now see the woman that I always believed was inside. (And its utterly amazing!)

I think its important to have people like Angela around to give that special advice and reach out loving arms like she did. I also think that “special” girl needs to be at those support meetings…almost a requirement…to be there for those newbies that will show up here and there. The newbies experience would just not be the same without her.

So, call it part of paying it forward or giving back to the community, I will continue to go to support meetings, even though I really don’t need it any more. I go because I think its important to have more experienced people to be there simply for inspiration and possibly as a mentor. I currently have no plans to stop going to support meetings either…

In 2016, I finally had my chance to meet Angela in person. I thanked her for help and the words of wisdom she gave me those many years ago. She will always be special in my eyes. She inspired me and I try to pay it forward by helping others where I can…

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Christine Penn

Trans woman, parent, cyclist, software engineer, author, chef, and many other things.