New chapter of support group focuses on transgender people and their families
After 13 years of marriage and a lifetime of struggling with her gender identity, Paula Ellis finally came out to her wife.
“I said, ‘I am a woman.’ It didn’t go well,” Ellis said.
The couple didn’t have that much support living in rural Oklahoma. The closest city was Tulsa, home to such notably conservative institutions as Oral Roberts University.
“There was no support for [my wife] where we lived. I had the support — I had to drive far, but I had it. She didn’t have anyone,” Ellis said. “Things could have ended better or more amicably. It was critical for her to talk to someone or spouses.”
While groups like Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays have long provided a critical bridge between supporting both individuals coming out as lesbian, gay or bisexual and their families, no such group has formally existed for the transgender community.
But as Ellis learned, transitioning impacts everyone.
“One of the things that happens when you’re married is relationships break,” Ellis said. “Spouses and parents feel like they’re losing someone. There is no one for families to talk to. Many are new to the coming out process or transgender individuals.
“It’s important to find people who can tell them these experiences are not unique. They need a place to learn and talk,” she added.
As head of the Resource Center’s Gender Education, Advocacy & Resources program, Ellis organized events, meetings and talks. But she also took it upon herself to reach out to other area transgender resource groups. Among the many active groups was DFW Trans-Cendence in Fort Worth, founded by Finn Jones and the Rev. Susan Blanchard.
She was struck by their kindness and commitment to one another.
“A couple of the members roped me into a Facebook conversation with a member who was struggling,” Ellis said. The long conversation addressed the person’s problems and fears.
After a period of juggling GEAR, a job and a personal life, Ellis decided to leave GEAR to establish a Dallas chapter of Trans-Cendence. Whatever she had planned, it would complement area groups like GEAR, Trans Pride Initiative and others.
Still, planning means organizing little details like paperwork. It also means hunting for a venue, preferably free, accessible via public transportation and a space large enough to hold a crowd.
After months of work, Dallas Trans-Cendence will host its first meeting next Thursday, Jan. 28 at the MCC of Greater Dallas in Carrollton, just a few blocks from the DART rail stop.
Addressing a need
Blanchard and Jones were already together when Jones told Blanchard he was transitioning.
Her dream of growing old with Jones suddenly seemed distant.
“When you’re in a relationship with someone and they tell you that they are changing their gender to match who they feel they are on the inside, you grieve because you had a whole dream in your head of how life would be,” Blanchard wrote in an email to Dallas Voice.
She knew Jones would remain the same, at least personality wise, Blanchard wrote, “But there are some changes and that makes you grieve the loss of what was. In addition, you grieve because some family and friends will reject your partner or child, and you grieve the loss of those relationships.”
“All of that changes when someone transitions,” she wrote.
But when Jones began his transition, the question was not if Blanchard supported him, but how to keep the family together.
“I couldn’t find resources out there to help me through [Jones’ transition]. I had my own counselor, but she has not been through the same situation,” Blanchard wrote.
Blanchard knew another couple going through a transition. They began calling themselves “SOFFAs,” or significant others, family, friends and allies.
“When we started this group, we SOFFAs wanted to make sure that that didn’t happen to anyone else…all of us were partners of trans guys and we helped each other by listening to the experiences we each had,” Blanchard wrote.
In an informal setting, the spouses and partners shared the hurdles, complicated feelings and tears.
“We felt like we weren’t alone. That there were people who understood us [who could talk about] what it is like to be in a relationship with a trans guy,” Blanchard said.
As awareness of the group spread, other people started attending as well. The draw was primarily having a safe space and community to share one’s feelings.
“Having someone to talk to, to grieve with, to normalize things for us, helped many of us to process what was going on,” Blanchard wrote.
Typically, the meetings are divided in two sections. The first half is reserved for speakers or group discussion. The next half is reserved for a trans discussion group and a non-trans discussion group. The talks could be about anything: sexual orientation, gender identity and expression or personal stories.
What is key is including everyone.
“Our meetings will include all types of identities. People who do not fit in the binary or even are gender fluid or queer are welcome.
There are some people whose gender is fluid or don’t identify or even understand gender,” Ellis said. “We will not just be talking masculine or feminine topics. We make it clear we do not define one another. I can tell my story, what worked for me while transitioning.”
Rooted in research
“When you’re transitioning, support groups keep families together. You’re more likely to avoid alcoholism, depression, homelessness,” Jones said.
Two research studies on transgender stigma back up Jones’ claims.
The Health of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender People: Building a Foundation for Better Understanding, a 2011 report by the Institute of Medicine, revealed negative attitudes and misunderstanding about transgender people leads to high rates of alcoholism, suicide and HIV infection.
A study in American Journal of Public Health conducted by Walter Bockting, clinical psychologist and co-director of the LGBT Health
Initiative at Columbia University Medical Center, affirms the IOM’s research. Among those surveyed by Bockting, half of transgender women and a third of transgender men said they struggle with depression from the stigma, shame and isolation caused by how others treat them.
Providing resources to families, friends and significant others decreases the stigma against transgender people, increases understanding and contributes to positive self-esteem.
“We’ve seen those success stories in our group. One couple’s relationship is better than ever,” Jones said.
Blanchard and Jones’ relationship is better as well.
“Personally, I think Finn and I are stronger as a couple because” we have a support group, Blanchard wrote.
Jones and Ellis make it clear their group is not meant to compete with other transgender awareness and support groups in the area. That’s why they are not focusing on youth, for one.
Ellis said a number of factors, including liability issues, factored into the decision. But they also do not want to overlap with Youth First’s “great outreach” to transgender youth.
“We want to help all trans people regardless of identity find the best path for themselves, and to help loved ones make the journey with them,” Ellis said.
While Jones may eventually see his group move toward youth work, he agreed that their focus should remain specifically on families.
“We don’t want to infringe upon other support systems in the area. But we saw a need for supporting families,” Jones said. “Education is going to change the tide. We just came around at the right time.”
Dallas Trans-Cendence meets on the second and fourth Thursdays monthly at 7 p.m. at MCC of Greater Dallas, 1017 S Elm St., Ste. 105, Carrollton. For more information, contact Paula Ellis by e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or phone at 214-674-9051.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition January 22, 2016.