I love personal stories. They have the power to change people’s perspectives and deeply held beliefs. They allow listeners to understand and relate to another person’s experiences and emotions, thus normalizing the life experiences of someone who may be perceived as different. I’ve found this to be especially true when it comes to people’s understanding of the transgender experience.
As a transgender woman, much of my personal story involved struggling to come to terms with the truth of who I am.
From a very young age, I knew I was different, but I didn’t have the words to describe the internal gender dilemma I was experiencing. Assigned male at birth, I spent the majority of my life living according to cultural expectations of heterosexual, white males.
I was a good student and talented athlete. I married a beautiful woman and had three amazing children. I had a successful career. I was a leader in a large prestigious Atlanta church.
By all outward appearances, I had it all. But in reality, I was living a life of turmoil. I had not yet to come to terms with my true gender identity, my internal sense of whether I was male, female, a combination of both, or neither.
In my 40s, five years of internet research brought me some glimpses into the truth of my gender identity. But it wasn’t until eight years ago, that a life-changing event enabled me to embrace my truth, that I am a transgender woman.
An Atlanta woman who made a living dressing biological males as women worked her magic on me. When I stood in front of her mirror, completely dressed in my true female gender expression, my heart realized, “That is me!”
I was 49 years old… and meeting myself for the very first time.
I quickly learned I would need to develop a deep self-love to successfully live out the truth of my gender identity. As my trans siblings and I live our stories, we risk losing the essentials that all people need to survive: affordable housing, respectful healthcare, adequate paying jobs, supportive family, friends and spiritual communities.
Without a deep sense of self-acceptance, we would not have the courage to risk it all.
Personally, I was fearful of losing my relationship with God. I am a fifth generation, Pentecostal preacher’s kid, and my connection to the Divine has always been essential to my well-being. The truth of my gender identity with my faith community brought accusations that I was turning my back on God.
It wasn’t until after many sleepless nights that I came to a new awareness. I did not choose to be transgender; God established that reality for me. God is much bigger than my gender identity; God can handle this, and I, Gabrielle, am pleasing to God. This set me on a course of redefining my relationship with God, a journey which continues to unfold today, with the support of several welcoming spiritual communities.
While navigating my spiritual journey has been challenging and scary, it has not been nearly so difficult, nor terrifying, as coming out to my family. In hindsight, I made mistakes along the way, but I did the best I could with the knowledge I had while facing fears of rejection and separation.
The reactions were mixed. To date, my family and I have navigated through many painful and hard conversations. We have also celebrated some sweet victories. Our relationships have changed form as we continue to define what they are and what they will be.
As much as this is my journey, it is their journey, as well. I’ve learned the importance of holding space, allowing my loved ones the time and room they need to navigate their own journeys with my gender identity. I strive to be patient, and not force my time tables or expectations on them.
My story, like all stories, continues to evolve. I do my best to own my truth in every area of my life, in order to write an even more courageous and authentic ending.
The journey is long and difficult at times, but it is the incremental, evolutionary changes, as we fall down and get back up, that keep us on this revolutionary path of living a more wholehearted life.
Gabrielle Claiborne is the award-winning co-founder of Transformation Journeys Worldwide, an Atlanta company providing diversity and inclusion training for businesses and organizations. transformationjourneysww.com
A version of this article originally appeared in Q magazine. Read the full issue below, and pick up your copy around town.