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Brynn Tannehill Headshot

A Paradigm Shift Without a Clutch

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When you work on big-picture items, sometimes it is easy to lose sight of how much impact you can have working in much smaller venues. This was the case two weeks ago when a friend of mine asked if I could fill in on a panel of LGBT community leaders in Columbus. I agreed readily but had no idea what to expect. The audience was going to be a group of high school juniors and seniors participating in the Mosaic program, and the topic was examining the concept of straight privilege.

I arrived before any of the other speakers, despite fighting my way through an hour-long drive in bad weather. The panel was being held in a large auditorium in an old downtown church. My point of contact, Steve, was also to be the moderator. He met me in the well-worn, wood-paneled basement and gave me additional background.

The day before our panel, the students had been part of a discussion with some people from the Ohio State gender studies department. Our panel was intended to expand on the idea of "changing perspectives" by examining straight privilege.

The fact that I got there first gave me an idea, so I asked Steve a follow-up question: "Have you shown my bio to anyone else on the panel or any of the students?"

"No," he replied, seeming a bit worried. "Why? Do you want me to?"

"No, no, thank you. I have an idea, though. I just need you to roll with it when it happens, though, please."

Steve gave a knowing smile. "OK, I think I see where you're going with this. Just let me know when you're going to do it."

When the panel started, we introduced ourselves to the 60 or so students in attendance and talked about our backgrounds. I talked about growing up Mormon, going to a service academy, flying in the military, and hiding part of myself while I was in the service. I mentioned blogging on The Huffington Post and being a part of the LGBT advocacy group SPART*A. I told them I have been with my partner Janis for 13 years, and that we have three young children.

I never mentioned my transition or used the words "lesbian" or "transgender." I just let the students draw their own conclusions.

As the panel went on, I fielded questions about my family and how the children deal with having two moms. I told the story of my oldest daughter standing up for herself when another child asked her about me. "That's my other mom," she said defiantly. "Got a problem with it?" The story drew laughs and cheers from the students.

Then, about midway through the panel discussion, I asked Steve if I might do an audience participation exercise. He agreed, and I addressed the students.

"So, I want to tell you some things about my past that may not make sense at first when I say them. If you think you know how these can be true, raise your hand as you figure it out.

"My partner and I have been legally married for 13 years."

No hands went up.

"I only came out to my partner three years ago."

One or two hands went up.

"We were legally married in Florida."

Perhaps three or four more hands were raised.

"All three of the children are biologically ours."

Another three or four. I called on someone who had her hand up early. She kind of reminded me of one of my best friends in high school.

"Was it a green card marriage?" she asked, obviously unsure whether this was the correct answer.

"No, a green card wasn't what made this possible," I told her. "Great guess, though." Some of the hands quickly went back down.

I called on another young woman with her arm in the air, and she asked almost timorously, "Is... Janis transgender?"

"No, Janis is not transgender," I told her. Two or three hands went back up.

I called on one more person, and she asked with a voice full of doubt, "Are you transgender?"

"Yes," I answered plainly.

There was a collective gasp and "ohhh!" from the students as it all clicked. It was the sound of 60 paradigms shifting without a clutch.

And it was beautiful.

This group of students will never think about being transgender the same way again. Being transgender to them will never look like what the media pushes. It will never look like what hate mongers preach. When they think of transgender people, the first thing that will come to mind is the 38-year-old minivan-driving soccer mom who made them reassess everything they thought they knew about being transgender with one word.

After the panel discussion many of them came up to me and thanked me for being there and changing how they see things. This was a great group of kids, and I feel a lot better about our future knowing that they will go out into the world having learned something about the essentials of being human and the confidence to remind others of it.