Michelle is lovely, funny and complex. She has a lovely voice that sounds like a delicate whisper. She worries about the size of her arms in a sleeveless top and the size number on the tag of her clothes. She frets over finding the right makeup and how long it can take to grow out her hair. She can feel self-conscious when she walks into room, especially in a dress. She hates how much her feet hurt after wearing heels, and worries that her feet can look too big in pointy shoes. She stresses over what to wear for the always vague “business casual.” She is a typical woman, she always has been, it just took some time for her body to catch up with her soul.
A couple of years ago I received a phone call from a potential client, whom I’ll call Mike. He explained that he needed my services because he was going through some changes in his life and he would be needing an entirely new wardrobe. Probably a divorce I thought, and I immediately pictured a scene from the movie Crazy Stupid Love, where Steve Carrell’s character gets schooled on how to dress for dates by the super suave character played by Ryan Gosling. Oh this will be fun I thought! I get to throw out the dorky dad jeans and show him the magic of good tailoring.
I’m undergoing a transgender transition.
Whoah. I shouldn’t have answered this call while I was driving, because I just about hit the car in front of me. Two things about me that I know for sure, I will pretty much say or do anything to avoid offending someone, and Iam incredibly curious about other people and what makes them who they are. I pulled the car into a nearby parking lot so I could focus on hearing Mike’s story.
If I’m being honest, my complete ignorance to any information about transgender people gave me hesitation. I was worried I would be awkward or uncomfortable, but this was not about me. If Mike had the courage to contact me, than I could do the work to learn about the transgender community. Sometimes I’m embarrassed with how often I turn a normal conversation into an interview, but in this case asking lots of questions was key. Keep in mind this was a couple of years ago, before the world met Kaitlyn Jenner, flooding us with that trademark Kardashian level of exposure, the one that turns everything into (K)rap.
I asked Mike a myriad of questions, some of which even Mike didn’t know the answers to. None of these answers are straightforward or simple, nor do they apply to the entire transgender community. There is no official handbook or guide.
What will your name be when you complete your process? Should I refer to you as that new name yet? How long did you know? How far will your transition go? What do your kids think? Will you be dating during this process? Are you attracted to men or women? Are you gay? Are you a lesbian? Are you scared? Are you excited? And…most importantly what do you want your style to be?
In order to know where Michelle was going, I needed to know where Mike had been, both in a physical and emotional sense.This is true for every single client. The reason they contact me is because something in their life is changing, or they want something to change. It’s never as simple as “I think you should wear more blue”, or “v-necks are your most flattering cut.” My job is to dig down to the core of my client, to peel back the layers of who they really are. I want to soften the harsh insecurities and help them feel confident and beautiful. I also need to understand where a client wants to go, so to speak. This is why I ask about dating, their career, their children and their life. A client who is divorced, up for a promotion and has kids getting ready to leave for college is very different from a client who is married and on a maternity leave with a newborn. I am very confident that I can help a woman discover or enhance her style, regardless of how different each client may be. But Mike was very different. I was perfectly up front with Mike regarding my lack of experience in outfitting his (changing) body type. It’s okay, he said, I’m new at this too. Good point.
Together we have gone shopping for everything from jeans to bras to gowns, her first official bra fitting was a big deal, and the staff at Nordstrom were incredible. And of course, like all my local clients, a trip to Chantilly Blue for the perfect pair of denim was a must. She has a terrific sense of humor so she can handle when there are discrepancies because her credit card says Mike but her driver’s license says Michelle. It took a long time but I finally convinced her to wear skirts and dresses to show off her fabulous legs. I realize how simple this sounds but imagine, just for second, that you looked one way on the outside and had to dress a different way on the outside. There are people who treat you as if you have some kind of disease, afraid they’ll catch it if they even talk to you. It takes mounds of courage and a very thick skin to walk in a room where you know people think you are “different.”
I’ve been lucky to be included in a part of Michelle’s journey. She has had to visit an astounding amount of doctors, both psychological and physical. There are meetings with lawyers, human resources, and letters sent from her company to her clients. This is the same brain that will be continuing the same successful career, but changing the body that performs the job has an enormous impact. She’s incredibly patient and brave, one of her surgeries required literally breaking one of the bones in her forehead to create a softer, more feminine face. The entire process takes years. To say this is an uphill battle would be an understatement.
I’m not trying to change anyone’s mind on their attitude toward transgender people, but I ask that you take your time to become educated on the reality of her situation. You can think whatever you want on the inside but please watch what words are heard on the outside. It’s easy to make obvious jokes, to take a cheap shot at something most of us know nothing about. What’s difficult is to accept something different, and for some people compassion is harder to feel than hate.
Here are some staggering statistics in tMichelle’s own words:
After some recent debates I’ve had about the existence of anti-trans discrimination and
violence, I wanted to post some facts about transgender people:
-2x more likely to be unemployed
-4x more likely to live in extreme poverty
-20% have been homeless
-25x more likely to attempt suicide as a result of harassment and lack of acceptance
-2x as likely to be raped
-7x more likely to be attacked… by the police
-truly countless physical attacks by citizens
-25 murdered in the US in 2015 simply because they were trans; 14 thus far in 2016
So yes, I try to be careful of my environment and support awareness efforts. Maybe my world will become a little safer.
-zero credible reports of transgender people harming others in a bathroom
I am still learning to open my mind up to things outside of my definition of “normal.” As a society, we tend to want to put things into specific categories or boxes, or recently even bathrooms. But people do not work that way. We are not one size fits all. Saying I’m open-minded and actually acting open-minded are two different things, and I want to be the example to my kids that there is no room for hate in this world. The older I get the more I realize that I don’t care to judge the way someone else lives their life. I care about kindness. Sometimes this world really scares me, out of ignorance comes fear and hate. Now more than ever we need to champion compassion and love.
My prayers go out to those in the tragedy in Orlando.