Upstate South Carolina is also where I made the decision, in 2010, to undergo gender transition. It is where I made the decision to be Austin. I wish I could say that my transition was met with the hospitality that Southerners like to boast about on roadside signs, in magazines, or in tourist advertisements. I also wish that I could say that my Christian family met me with scriptures of God’s unconditional love and acceptance. My family—like most families in rural areas of the country where information about queer and trans folks doesn’t circulate as often—was not what most would call supportive. When I opened up to my family about my decision to transition, my vulnerability was not met with a hug, open dialogue, or questions about how I was handling this difficult decision. Instead, I was told that while they would always love me, I would never be Austin to them. That no matter what I did to myself, I would always be Stacey, their daughter and sister. This invalidation and disrespect made me feel displaced, pushed out, and in a way disowned, not only in my family but also in South Carolina.
Shortly after opening up to my family about my gender identity, I left South Carolina to pursue a Ph.D. in Sociology at Kent State University in northeast Ohio. Sociology is a special kind of discipline where folks kind of have to be open-minded or at least fake it, lest they be publicly shamed by a majority of their colleagues. As a result, I have felt validated by and truly comfortable in my workplace and my colleagues in the department have been phenomenal. Prior to any legal steps in my transition, my department changed all names and pronouns and made sure everyone in the workplace treated me with the respect given to any new member of our campus community. I have had what most would call an ideal trans experience in the workplace, in stark contrast to my coming out experience with my family.
This summer, I returned to Upstate South Carolina for three months to conduct fieldwork for my dissertation project on transgender health and community. I have been back several times but this time was different. This time, rather than spending time with family and feeling invalidated and disrespected, I met a whole new group of folks who met me with the respect that they know trans folks deserve. The Gender Benders group was overwhelming for me at first – I left SC at the beginning of my transition and never really formed or joined a trans community. I didn’t know what or who to expect. Once I let my guard down, I can honestly say that the summer turned into the best summer of my life. I met folks from all walks of life and most everyone in the group met me with a smile and a hug. The GBs have an uncanny ability to make strangers feel like family. After this summer, I no longer situate South Carolina in nostalgia. While I do miss it often, it is not a missing that is abstract. I miss the familiar smiles, the repeat-after-me songs that we all enjoyed even when we thought we wouldn’t, the nature walks where we bonded and just let the business of the world go, the hugs that always come when I need them the most, the open-hearted nature of all interactions, the radical acceptance of all things and all people without judgment, knowing that I’ll be met with respect and understanding even if I’m not agreed with, and the love. I miss the love the most.
The Gender Benders are not just a support group for trans folks. The Gender Benders are a family. The GBs are my family. Thank you for reminding me what home feels like, y’all.
This post was written by Austin Johnson on September 6th 2014