Transgender in the Heartland: Transitioning and Seeking Community in Middle America
"Stories are meant to be told. The more I tell my story, the more cemented it is."
Tara Biddinger, Rochester, Indiana

Documents selected and interpreted by
Jamie Wagman
Interviews conducted by Jamie Wagman, Sarah Allen, Jordan Lolmaugh, Caitlin Mahoney, and Megan Temple
Interviews transcribed by Jordan Lolmaugh
March 2020



   Oral history testimonies of middle-aged transgender men and women across varied landscapes in the Midwest reveal some of the challenges of living as transgender in middle America. They also bring to light the agency, resilience, and strength of transgender people who seek, find, and create community and support in ingenious ways. These 20 oral histories give readers knowledge about the lived experiences of transgender people who are neither born on nor flock to the coasts but instead remain in their hometowns or near their places of birth. The stories reveal that there is no singular way of coming out or transitioning, just as there is no singular formula for finding support and community. In addition, this IRB-approved oral history project supports Jack Halberstam's argument about "metronormativity" from In a Queer Time & Place that disproves that the rural and small-town setting are only spaces for closeted queer life.[1]

   Transgender oral histories bring new perspectives on belonging and resistance to U.S. History, consistently broadening and challenging readers' understanding of transgender people's lived experiences, activism, and resistance to stereotypes and discrimination. The interviews walk readers through narrators' lives: from early impressions and ideas about gender to coming out and transitioning to finding community in small to mid-sized towns and suburbs across the Midwestern landscape. While the oral history testimonies detail the painful challenges of coming out and transitioning in oftentimes conservative, religious, Midwestern cultures and families, the stories also communicate the resilience of transgender people who do not let the lack of visibility prevent them from ultimately transitioning and either finding or creating new supportive communities and spaces.

The Midwest as Middle America

   The Midwest encompasses cities both large and mid-size, sprawling suburbs, and a cornucopia of small towns. Barren winter landscapes blossom into lush and colorful springs across rolling hills, prairies, parks, plains, farms, and county fairs. This sprawling landscape, sometimes referred to as "flyover country" by people from the coasts, is often segregated by race and class. The seasons here serve as omnipresent reminders of routine, change, and aging, and while the Midwest has many limitations, it is also a site of the constant transformation of nature. The Heartland can be considered the "heart" of the country: it is not a fulcrum for U.S. historical beginnings, but it is the geographic center. Traditional values in many small towns across mid-America focus on nuclear family roles, religion, and patriotism, values that some of the interviewees discuss when detailing challenges they have faced in communities where being different can be misunderstood, devalued, or feared. In many ways, their stories and lives challenge the gendered landscape of the Midwest.

   The Midwest functions both as a geographic location and a social construct. My students and I met and interviewed transgender men and women and activists who grew up or currently live now in St. Louis, Missouri, and South Bend, Indiana, in addition to smaller and more rural towns in northern and northwestern Indiana, southern Missouri and Illinois, rural Ohio, Kalamazoo, Michigan, and the suburbs of Chicago. These locations are strikingly different in their cultural offerings, population size, racial makeup and histories. St. Louis historically served as a gateway to the Western front: the National Park Service built the "Gateway Arch" in the city along the Mississippi River to honor the millions who passed through to settle in the American West in the nineteenth century. The nationally recognized landmark is a point of city pride, but it's also a symbol of colonialism and racism.[2] The Midwest also functions as a cultural touchstone for the sentiments of so-called average Americans, from the Iowa Caucus to Middletown sociological studies conducted in Muncie, Indiana, to zoologist Alfred Kinsey's reports on sexuality out of Bloomington, Indiana. Once mores and morals, cultural customs and cues reach the Midwest, journalists take note of the everydayness of a trend.

   In many ways, the ordinariness of the Midwest also reinscribes heteronormativity, whiteness, and Christianity. While the range of Midwestern locales include urban, small town, and rural settings, the name alone conjures up a symbol of nationalistic and patriotic "America:" white, masculine, heterosexual freedoms. Whiteness has functioned as a central feature of so many Midwestern towns that used to be known as "sundown towns," where people of color were not welcome once the sun set. These were towns across Missouri and Indiana where African-Americans experienced high rates of housing and job discrimination and violence. From the 1918 East St. Louis race riot, redlining across Midwestern cities, and Klan activity in Indiana, racism has had profound effects across the Midwest. As recently as 2017, the NAACP warned that minorities' civil rights might be violated when traveling in Missouri. Yet resistance exists in the Midwest as well. While racism, patriarchy, and privilege have had a grim past nationwide, including in the Midwest, allyship and activism spring up all across middle-America, from rural outskirts where veteran centers open LGBT support groups to city centers that offer an array of structured and supported civil rights social justice organizations.

   Concepts of post-racism and color blindness are still pervasive and harmful across the Midwest. Sociologist Margaret A. Hagerman conducted ethnographic research with white affluent Midwestern families for two years for her 2018 book, White Kids: Growing Up with Privilege in a Racially Divided America. Her work exposed the ways in which Midwestern white privileged parents and children embrace color blindness and the notion that America is "postrace" and that "any persisting patterns of racial inequality are the result of individual- or group-level shortcomings."[3] In contrast to the white children Hagerman interviewed—children whose parents achieved "some of the highest levels of educational attainment possible"—the interviewees in this transgender oral history project did not experience economic privilege.[4] Some of the white transgender men and women we interviewed did not attend college, and after transitioning, some interviewees experienced temporary homelessness, unemployment, and lack of health insurance. Yet the notion of whiteness as ordinariness, as scholar Richard Dyer writes, is notable in the interviews, because of most interviewees' lack of discussion of race as a crucial part of their identity. Dyer explains, "There is no more powerful position than that of being 'just' human. The claim to power is the claim to speak for the commonality of humanity. Raced people can't do that."[5] The lack of discussion about race identity speaks to the privilege of many of the white interviewees. All but one interviewee identify as white, and Aizen-Choi Kym, who grew up in small town Indiana, was born in South Korea in 1984 and then adopted by a couple from Elkhart, Indiana, which he described as a "very white community, very small community." His comment reveals the way in which the singular nonwhite person in this study felt and experienced racial difference in ways that the white interviewees did not experience.

   All interviewees experienced a range of challenges that this geographic region presented them with: at times this meant lack of resources, education, community, and acceptance from children, parents, colleagues and acquaintances. A brand of Midwestern conservatism and religious fervor oftentimes hindered them on their journeys--from members of JJ Glasser's Apostolic church in small town Ohio praying for JJ and refusing to let him work in a nursery with children when he was first outed as a lesbian at age 14, to Jeannette Hughes' realization that her Church of Christ congregation was deeply patriarchal and sexist, to the Catholic church not holding space for Meghan Buell throughout her transition. Yet interviewees pursued and found community in a range of diverse places, in non-traditional and ingenious ways. Several transgender people found one another only by driving nearly 100 miles to a Chicago transgender women's clothing store to find community. Others forged new friendships in roller derby, drag king communities, and church groups. Yet another transgender woman founded her own non-for-profit to provide transgender education and resources to Midwesterners. This collection reveals the layered and complex transgender oral history experiences across the Midwest, and together the stories could serve as a text for transgender people in the Midwest who are seeking community today.

   The twenty interviewees in this collection have had varied experiences informed by their Midwestern geographic experiences.[6] Steph and Gail were born and raised in the St. Louis area, a mid-sized city, while Darleen transitioned in the Chicago suburbs, one of the largest suburban areas in the country. In contrast, Cole was born in a much smaller Indiana town of around 2,000 residents. Codie's experience in rural Ohio and Kalamazoo, Michigan, differ from Eugene's experience in southern Illinois; these geographic locations differ in climate, residents' accents, and proximity to larger cities. What the project is not, however, is an exploration of urban transgender histories.

   Interviewees in the collection experience both pain and discrimination in spite of race, gender, and class privileges, depending on their intersecting identities. In addition, some of the transgender men, Eugene and JJ, discuss the gender privileges they experienced since transitioning. Others have experienced a range of class mobility and disadvantages, from owning property to renting to squatting while homeless, from never attending college to attending some graduate school, from working night shifts to working in corporate America. Class disparity, as always, is heightened for non-whites and women. Yet all experienced some level of discrimination upon coming out to employers and colleagues.

   People do every kind of work imaginable across this region, but the people who share their stories in this collection of oral histories are cabinet makers, cooks, retired military officials, landlords, writers, salespeople, caretakers, and factory workers. They also face unemployment, relying on friends and neighbors to share couches or squatting in abandoned buildings until they find financial and emotional security. Some manage night shifts, and others parent children and grandchildren. Their stories speak to the struggles of transgender workers interviewing for jobs, negotiating with managers and institutions of power, and seeking and finding safe spaces to transition.

   Due to the nature of using snowball sampling as a method, drawing on acquaintances to recruit interviewees, many people we interviewed live either in Northern Indiana on the border of Michigan, or "Michiana" as it's often called, or St. Louis/St. Louis County. I have lived for a combined 33 years in these locations, which have specific religious histories, histories of conquest, and histories of deindustrialization.[7] Several interviewees also recommended I talk with transgender men and women in Illinois, Ohio, and northeast Missouri, among other places. In addition, several St. Louis County and Michiana residents were born and raised outside of these locales--moving to bigger cities from the "boot heel" in the southeast of Missouri, Fort Leonard Wood in the Ozarks of Missouri, and southern Illinois. As LGBTQ Center of South Bend Executive Director Jason Wilkinson explains, "Michiana," where the University of Notre Dame is the largest employer in St. Joseph County, is a deeply religious space: "a very religious heavy area. So there's going to be a lot of people who are questioning what their religious beliefs might say in conjunction with LGBTQ issues. . . . The Midwest is so heavy with religion that some kids will stay in the closet for years and years and struggle with who they are or hide it."[8] While not every participant grew up in a religious home, the majority of people whom I interviewed said that religion shaped and constructed their ideas about gender and sexuality.

Being Transgender

   This project focuses on people who identify as transgender men or transgender women. When I began the project in 2015, networks of support for nonbinary, genderqueer, and agender people did not exist yet in the South Bend, Indiana area. Discrimination transgender people face prevents accurate statistical studies on the size of the transgender population. Many adults in midlife in the Midwest, however, identify as nonbinary, genderqueer, and/or agender. I became connected with people who identified as either transgender men or transgender women. Some of them introduced me to their friends and acquaintances who also identified in this way. At times they also used and selfidentified with the terms, "trans," "transsexual," "FTM" and "MTF," in addition to "cross dresser," terms that all carry with them their own histories and meanings. "FTM" and "MTF" stand for female-to-male and male-to-female and refer to people who were identified as a gender by birth that they have since moved away from. As scholar David Valentine asserts in Imagining Transgender, "language shapes how we make sense of our worlds."[9] The term that one person embraces, another might quibble with or find pejorative. Yet that does not take away from the fact that a term may have helped someone make sense of their experiences. Valentine also explains varied responses to "transgender": that some people have conflated transsexual and transgender or feel that the latter category renders the first invisible. In addition, he writes, some female bodied masculine people have argued against the term transgender, and some younger genderqueer people have rejected the term as an identifier partially due to the term's institutionalization.[10] The oral histories reveal interviewees' preferred terminology and how they construct their own identities in relation to institutional and academic discourses.

   As scholar Susan Stryker explains in Transgender History, the term transgender "implies movement away from an initially assigned gender position."[11] It is an umbrella term, and oftentimes refers to a range of variations from gender "norms." When a person "comes out" as transgender, this often means communicating to one's loved ones and colleagues that one is moving away from an assigned social gender. Sometimes, though certainly not always, transgender people experience two "coming out" phases, initially coming out as gay and then coming out later as transgender. Just as transgender people are of every class and race, transgender people also identify as gay, heterosexual, bisexual, pansexual, asexual, or polysexual, a multitude of sexual orientations. "Transitioning" also has a wide range of meanings, from hormone use, hair removal, and surgical modifications, to choosing a new name or new clothing. As the National Center for Transgender Equality explains on its website, "there's no one way to be transgender, and no one way for transgender people to look or feel about themselves. The best way to understand what being transgender is like is to talk with transgender people and listen to their stories."[12] This oral history project responds directly to this call to readers to listen to the voices and stories of transgender people.

   Interviews with transgender women Steph James and Meghan Buell give voice to the ways in which the binary culture of gender norms in their upbringings shaped them. As Meghan said of Catholic school in Whiting, Indiana, "Boys in this line, girls in this line. Boys go in that bathroom; girls go in that bathroom. Boys wore shirts and pants. Girls wore skirts and blouses." Steph also reflected on her experience in Catholic schools in which boys and girls were always divided and there was no room for anything but the binary. "The segregation part just really got to me: why can't we associate with the girls?" The sharp and dividing lines between boy and girl in their youths left them feeling alone at times for not fitting into society's norms and standards for gendered behavior and expression.

   Transgender history, especially landmark riots and resistance along the coasts, has been well documented by trans history scholars and queer scholars Susan Stryker, Leslie Feinberg, Jack Halberstam, Anne Balay, and Mary L. Gray. The most documented story of resistance has been the 1969 Stonewall Inn Riot in New York City. Stryker wrote of the riot and preceding stories of activism in Transgender History, identifying terms, concepts, and theories. She walks readers through the transgender movement, from nineteenth century anti-cross-dressing laws in San Francisco to Nazis burning the library of Magnus Hirschfeld's Institute for Sexual Science in Berlin in 1933, to early activism and advocacy for transgender social justice issues. These stories placed transgender activism in the U.S. largely on the coasts in New York and San Francisco or European cities where transgender political activism and resistance flourished. In addition, Stryker explained that the twenty-first century has brought heightened surveillance, increased attention to travel documents, and more stringent standards for obtaining identification, making it much more difficult if one is born in a geographic location that does not recognize name and gender changes on driver's licenses.[13]

   Mary L. Gray and Anne Balay charted new territory in Midwest queer history, including trans embodiments, with Gray's book Out in the Country: Youth, Media, and Queer Visibility in Rural America and Balay's Steel Closets: Voices of Gay, Lesbian, and Transgender Steelworkers. Gray's book focuses on rural LGBT-identifying young people and the negotiations they make in encountering public spaces. While gay rights organizations "dot the rural landscape," as Gray wrote, young people also create queer visibility in local churches, skatepro shops, and new media websites and cultures. Gray's book examines how media has been transformative in providing information, though at times harmful, in the lives of rural queer youths. In addition, Queering the Countryside: New Frontiers in Rural Queer Studies, Gray's edited book with Brian Joseph Gilley and Colin R. Johnson, exposes the flourishing communities for LGBTQ people who live outside urban centers, from Nova Scotia to the U.S. deep South.[14] Anne Balay's book is striking in its powerful use of oral history that detailed the lives of GLBT steelworkers in Northwest Indiana. Balay wrote, "Learning about the mindsets of steelworkers, the choices they make, and the logic of their lives provides a window into a piece of American mythology."[15] As Balay's book explained, steel, as a quintessential and major U.S. industry, conjures the "construction of the nation," through the highways, automobiles, the railroad; it also accompanies assumptions of working class heterosexuality and masculinity. Her stories revealed that the mill culture workplace creates a community through "shared insults and jokes," but that workers' personal and dating lives are also routinely scrutinized, building a culture of surveillance and fear.[16] The stories in this transgender oral history collection build on the narrative about the challenges and the flourishing communities that trans people in the Midwest have sought and found.

Oral History Methodology

   Why do people want to share intimate stories about coming out, transitioning, and the challenges of finding community in the Midwest? Reasons vary; some, like Tara Biddinger, have said that telling stories about their lives helps them both figure out and gain control of their own narrative. Oral history offers both unique and limited insights into lived transgender experiences. The project features people who shared both their names and vulnerable stories about coming out and transitioning; people who did not feel comfortable doing so are unfortunately left out of this project. Attorney and scholar Dean Spade's work documents the ways in which transgender people face discrimination from housing, education, health care, employment, public facilities, in addition to "transphobia that produces targeted violence as well as numerous administrative catch-22s that render basic life necessities inaccessible."[17] Some narrators spoke to the benefits of going "stealth," or being passable, especially when outting oneself as transgender posed possible risk to one's personal safety. The people who agreed to be interviewed in this project provide insight about the range of experiences they have had in coming out and transitioning. As JJ Glasser explains in his oral history interview, there is no one way to transition. Together, the interviewees' experiences reflect community-based studies of transgender employment discrimination, including being fired because of their gender identity or expression, not having bathroom access, and being referred to by incorrect pronouns or previously used names.[18]

   The project began as projects often do, with curiosity. When I first started meeting with Meghan Buell to discuss having Gender Studies students volunteer at the LGBTQ Center where she had worked before establishing her own non-for profit, Transgender Resource, Education and Enrichment Services (TREES), I did not know I would be interviewing her days later. Meghan began telling me her life story, and I responded by saying, "Someone should record your oral history." I will never forget her response: "So do it." While I had experience interviewing people--I am a former journalist and had worked on oral history projects--I worried about my positionality as a white, cisgender, privileged academic. Was I the best person to work on an oral history project with transgender people in the Midwest? I feared that my own identities would prevent access and the intimacy that is so often created during an oral history interview. But my interest in the project as an ally, historian, and a gender and women's studies scholar, however, did not wane. Reading Susan Stryker's Transgender History, among many other texts mentioned here, in addition to listening to the words and experiences of interviewees, were the best teaching tools for expanding my and my students' vocabularies in addition to increasing our knowledge of transgender lives and experiences.

   Meghan began connecting me to interviewees through our local LGBTQ Center's support groups in addition to contacts she has made through her activism and work, and they in turn recommended more people to interview. I also reached out to people I knew in my hometown of St. Louis for more contacts and connections. One of the first people I interviewed in St. Louis County, Steph James, recommended I interview Dean Rose and Vicky Sheehan. After interviewing several people in Indiana, Illinois, and Missouri, I realized that my undergraduate students would greatly benefit from working on this project with me, moving beyond the college classroom where we merely talk about oral history. To prepare students, I assigned readings from Catching Stories: A Practical Guide to Oral History, Bodies of Evidence: The Practice of Queer Oral History, and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum's Oral History Interview Guidelines, in addition to several articles from the Oral History Review journal. We discussed authors' practical advice of researching and preparing question lists to interview people, and students then read additional materials such as Susan Stryker's Transgender History and Leslie Feinberg's Transgender Warriors to help them prepare their question lists, which we reviewed in class. We also all talked to interviewees about the process before meeting face-to-face, explaining that we were interested in learning about their life experiences coming out and transitioning, seeking and finding community, and activism in the Midwest.

   Although we all prepared question lists [See Appendix], we knew that we would follow the lead of the interviewees. Students practiced interviewing each other to gain confidence in the classroom with being flexible during the interview process. This approach allowed for later organic conversations led by the interviewees, who at times discussed abuse, addiction, discrimination, suicide attempts, homelessness, and turning points in their lives. Had we stuck to our question list without flexibility, we may have missed candid, insightful stories that we were so honored to hear and learn.[19] Not all students who participated in this project continued to use oral history methodology in their research. All of the students, however, agree that they benefited from the experience of collecting oral histories. They left their comfort zone of the classroom, learned valuable research skills, and gained insight about the struggles and resilience of transgender men and women.

   After recording several interviews, I quickly realized that age would become a central organizing principle for the project. "Middle age," a term often understood as meaning beyond young adulthood but before old age, is a murky category. It suggests people grappling with the problems that adulthood entails: balancing work and family, paying for bills, and finding meaning in one's life. I focused largely on interviewing people in their thirties through early sixties who had already come out to family members, friends, and colleagues, and transitioned in a variety of ways. Transgender research, awareness, and education are rapidly developing, and midlife transgender people are not facing the same kinds of challenges as young or elderly transgender people. In To Survive on This Shore, photographer Jess T. Dugan and scholar Vanessa Fabbre shared testimonies from transgender men and women who faced a lack of information about transgender people throughout midlife and so therefore oftentimes transitioned much later.[20] The range of midlife testimonies in this Midwestern oral history project illustrates the ways in which transgender people experience coming out, transitioning, and finding support in rapidly new, changing, and transforming ways. Striking similarities exist in testimonies from both younger and older middle-aged interviewees who experienced discrimination, assault, and physical and sexual abuse in their journey toward seeking and finding community. Their experiences echo scholar Kyla Bender Baird's Transgender Employment Experiences assertion that "the privileging of non-trans people's discomfort over the safety and well-being of "trans people" was evident in both court cases and personal testimonies.[21]

   Queer oral history methodology has its own history, and the editors of Queer Bodies of Evidence discuss the use and methodology of queer oral history used by researchers since the 1970s. As Nan Alamilla Boyd and Horacio N. Roque explain, "Unlike researchers who choose to work with special collections of well-preserved documents, those who study women, queers, and--we might add--other subaltern groups such as communities of color and migrant workers by and large have had to start from scratch: where no documents or acid-free folders existed, researchers set out to create them." They also assert that partial and fractured histories come forth in oral history--a limitation, of course, but also "the promise of queer oral history work." Through the act of remembering, transgender men and women and advocates for transgender rights are able to recall feelings about identity, discrimination, puberty, romantic love, family relationships, and searches for acceptance and community in the workforce, one's place of worship and families one is born into, and families one makes and chooses. My students and I learned so much from this project, from doing queer oral history and memory work to understanding language and the histories of identities and words.

   The history of transgender belonging in the Midwest reveals the ways in which public panic over traditional and heteronormative gender roles relies upon other national fears about bodies and the stability of family and religion. Recurring themes from all of the oral histories include gender identity and expression, geography, social class and economics, memory, privilege, and social activism. The sharing of oral histories reveals multiple narratives about body anxiety and body history, underscoring the ways in which different interest groups--employers, religious institutions, psychology texts, and the media--interpreted and misinterpreted the transgender umbrella, and the ways in which transgender people, in turn, define their gender in their own terms. These stories also illuminate transgender men and women who are simultaneously at home and not at home in the Heartland, where they have worked, loved, raised children, and lived decade upon decade.

   Along with featuring the stories of transgender men and women, this collection also features the ways in which activists, physicians, and organizers work to create inclusive communities for transgender and LGBTQ people in the Midwest. Resistance became an important theme of this project since so many interviewees were actively working to build a world they could survive in. Social justice activism has allowed many interviewees an outlet, a goal, and an avenue for leadership. When Meghan realized that transgender education was lacking in the Midwest, she established her own non-for profit, TREES. Eli realized that LGBTQ sex education was limited in the Midwest, so she created inclusive sex education courses for teenagers. Jason opened the LGBTQ Center of Mishawaka, Indiana to several transgender support groups. When Katie heard from a patient that no other physician would see a transgender child as a patient, she established the only LGBTQ healthcare facility in Indiana: Mosaic Health and Healing Arts. Transgender people across the Midwest have found leadership roles, care, and information through supportive organizations like TREES and Mosaic.

   Oral history projects always explore the tension between fact and fiction, collective memory and objective reality. These particular stories, too, show people struggling to remember and acknowledging that memory is flawed, that for some the past is dotted with sharpened details while for others memories are at times blocked. The range of stories shared in this collection reveal pain, losses of privilege, and, at times, gains of privilege, depending on an interviewee's transgender identity, class identity, sexual orientation, and race. While identities and norms are socially constructed by institutions and cultures, they very much shape the interviewees' lived experiences.

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