Drew Cordes

The Importance of LGBT Role Models

Filed By Drew Cordes | November 15, 2012 10:30 AM | comments

Filed in: Living, Transgender & Intersex
Tags: growing up trans, LGBT, LGBT youth, queer, role model, trans*

I spent a lot of time on the Internet as a kid -- looking at the personal pages of gay people, reading coming out stories, chatting and IMing with other (often older) queers. laineobama.jpgI realize now that I was looking for role models. People like me. Someone who made it through what I was going through, or was currently going through it too, and could maybe give me some advice, or even just inspiration. Someone about whom I could think

I wouldn't mind growing up to be like them. They actually seem pretty cool and successful and happy.

In the past few years of my life, particularly in the past few months, I've started becoming aware of just how important it is to have role models in one's life, especially when young.

Merely 15 years ago, when I was 15 years old, there were not many people I could look to. I knew I was not straight, I knew I wanted to be a girl, and I hated myself for both of these things.

I knew I was different, but what did that mean? Was I supposed to act differently? Have different interests? I knew I'd have to find my way in the world in a different manner than my family and my peers, but I didn't know how, or why that was so.

I didn't know many gay people. The few I did come to know, as I reached my late teens, didn't qualify as much beyond acquaintances or hook-ups; and I certainly didn't know any trans people.

I knew Elton John was gay, and I liked some of his songs, but I did not identify with him (nothing against Elton). Plus anytime his music came up a faggot joke was sure to follow.

Ellen was gay, and holy shit did she do some great things, but I didn't identify with her either. She was a cis gay woman, whereas I was a gender-confused queer man. While watching her primetime sitcom did clue me into some important things about being queer and being oneself, she also was ousted from the public eye a little more than a year after coming out, banished to relative obscurity for several years, before her more recent return and triumph on -- and the irony of this is still crazy for me to think about -- mainstream daytime television.

Aside from a few limited then-contemporary public figures and representations, there wasn't much else out there -- at least not as far as I could see from my limited, small-town vantage point, lacking as it was in access to broader cultural exposure. All the evidence I saw about my sexuality suggested the life ahead of me was going to be full of derision and disenfranchisement.

Media depictions of trans people conveyed a similar message. The only portrayals of people who gave voice to the disturbing things I felt deep inside were on channels like Discovery or on semi-exploitive daytime talk shows like Phil Donahue's. They usually featured only older trans women or crossdressers who didn't pass and endured torment because of it; or people who lived double lives filled with shame, deceit and alienation from friends and family. If my choice was that or denial, I was choosing denial.

I wanted, with everything that I had, NOT to be trans. I wanted this for a long time -- pretty much from my earliest memories until only a few years ago. Even after I had started living as female and passing well, I still wished I'd been born a cis girl.

It dawns on me now that this social/cultural void is a big reason why I so loathed my difference. There were no trans or queer people I could look at in the generations before me in the media or in my community who were successful, happy, or (most importantly for a teenager) cool -- someone whose life not only seemed awesome/fun/rewarding, but conceivably attainable. As much good as people like Ellen and Elton did, they did not fit that bill. They're more celebrities or idols than role models. Not to diminish their importance, but a role model is someone you can see yourself in, someone you could see yourself becoming if you apply yourself. Usually, the most influential role models are people who are already in your life -- family, friends, teachers, etc.

It is at this point that I will reveal the reason the importance of role models has been at the forefront of my mind lately is that, at 30 years old, it dawned on me that there finally is one in my life. More surprisingly, it dawned on me that I still need one, and that you're never too old to benefit from a role model.

I assumed that after I transitioned to female and started passing, my gender issues would be pretty much resolved. However, I soon found growing disillusion at the lack of visibility that is often congruent to passing. I was no longer seen as queer, which had been the most defining characteristic of my life thus far. My sense of identity was facing a new, very different challenge. I also started to realize there were some things I didn't hate about masculinity once it lost the anchor of chromosomal/biological sex. It was my body, and the trappings of social expectations that came with it that had to change.

It was around this time that I first met my friend Laine Campbell in a queer discussion forum. I was all femmed up, and she was all butched out, dapper and dressed to the nines. We were talking about these very issues -- visibility vs. invisibility, the expectations of gender expression both pre- and post-transition. She mentioned she was often mistaken for a trans man, a misperception I'd just fallen prey to. She also touched upon her reassignment surgery, which she'd had roughly 10 years prior. At the time, I was in the throes of my own research on the subject.

Weeks later, we emailed and chatted about reassignment surgeons and surgery, as well as some other things. We became social media buddies, and when I perused the photos on her page I was shocked to discover she used to be femme like me. She transitioned at 19, and many of the pictures of Laine in her mid-20s (roughly my age at this time) featured makeup and girlier clothes. Apparently, gender expression was still free to evolve even after transition.

As Laine and I met a few more times at the occasional conference, I learned more things about her. All of them were impressive and cool as hell. She grew up in New Orleans and returned frequently -- I adore New Orleans and visit as much as I can as well. She lived in a chic Greenwich Village loft -- living in the village was a daydream of mine since I cracked my first Kerouac and cranked The Velvet Underground in my early teens. She owns and runs a highly successful database management company (PalominoDB) and jet-sets to places like San Francisco, London, Miami, Chicago, Amsterdam, Las Vegas (these were just in this past year alone) -- places just about anyone would love to visit. Her manner is calm but confident, and I never see her in a single article of clothing that fails to make a stylish statement.

Having recently turned 37, Laine isn't even much older than me. Yet, whenever I had a question about my upcoming surgery, Laine answered it as best she could. She'd been there. When we discussed gender and our shifting relationships with it, her experience enlightened me. I still remember her telling me that it was her transition to female that finally allowed her to accept her masculinity, because now it was on her terms. This made so much sense to me. When people talk with me about my gender journey and my current butch/androgynous presentation, I use Laine's line just about verbatim, because it fits so perfectly.

And here's the funny thing: If you asked Laine if she was aware of this role she played in my life, or if she felt like she was THE ONE person her friend Drew could come to with concerns about transition, sexuality and gender, I'm confident she'd say no. Because that's the truth. We talked periodically, but not super frequently. We are friends, but we're not extremely close. My support system has many cogs. Laine is certainly among them, but that's the fascinating thing about the inspiration a role model can provide -- often they're not even aware of it. The inspiration they create comes simply from being, from living openly and awesomely, which Laine does with great aplomb.

Could and would I be following the same progression in terms of my gender expression and identity without Laine in my life? I probably would. But it would be a lot more uncertain and intimidating. To be able to look at someone whose path mirrors your own so closely, and see that they're already doing it -- succeeding and celebrating it -- immensely helps you to feel more secure and confident in your own next steps. They can remind you that you not only can achieve your goals, but wildly exceed them.

lainehug.jpgLaine recently reminded me of this, yet again, when her company was employed by the Obama campaign at its Chicago headquarters for Election Day/Night. Even when I think I no longer require guidance or inspiration, or when I think she couldn't possibly provide any more, there's Laine, in a photo, hugging our fucking president. Barack Obama. The president who has done more for LGBT people than all others put together (in just his first four years). Laine shook his hand. Hugged him. Thanked him personally, face-to-face, for health care reform. She heard his tearful words of thanks firsthand. My friend did these things. A gender-nonconforming queer trans woman. Just like me.

Maybe I can finish writing that novel.

This is just another reason why it's so important to be out, to set an example, to be part of your community. Someone might need a person to look up to. They might not even be aware of this need. I wasn't. You might not even realize you're someone who can fulfill that purpose. But you can. Laine might not have thought of herself as a role model before, but she is to me.

Similarly, I don't think of myself as much of a role model, but someone else might disagree, so I put my face out there, I put my words and my story out there, just in case there's a confused kid somewhere, lonely, depressed and scouring the Internet like I used to 15 years ago. Like me, they might not even know what they're looking for, but they deserve to be able to find it.

It took me awhile, but I found what I was looking for.

Thanks, Laine. Rum and cigars on me next time.


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