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An Unexpected Meeting on the Campaign Trail

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DOOR KNOCK HAND
Daniel Grill via Getty Images

Knocking on doors is not the favorite activity for most candidates; few in my district do it much at all. It's probably only slightly more pleasurable for many than fundraising-call time. I, however, have loved canvassing since I overcame my jitters on my first day out, back during a summer deluge in June 2006. Since then I've knocked on nearly 18,000 doors, having walked every block in my district at least once, and in some cases as many as three times. There are few experiences as heartwarming as being recognized and remembered, and it is happening increasingly frequently during this campaign.

The pleasure lies in meeting my neighbors. There are really interesting people in suburban Maryland, many of whom are experts in their fields, having been attracted to this area to be close to the center of our nation's political power and some of the world's best scientific institutions. Others are hospitable, engaged individuals and families working to carve out a good life for themselves. It's a diverse crowd, with African Americans, Latinos and Asians in significant numbers; Montgomery County is majority-minority today. There are growing numbers of gay couples, more often married these days than not, raising their families, or just nesting or retiring in our great county.

Sometimes the engagement turns out to be of great personal significance, one that ties together loose ends from one's life, and the life discovered overlaps so much with one's own that it is uncanny. This is one such story.

I was walking down the block in Rosemary Hills and noticed a man sitting on his porch, sipping his drink. It was a lovely spring afternoon, a Saturday, and as he was on my list, I called out, "Mr. Egan, may I come in?" I introduced myself as a candidate for the Maryland state Senate, and I noticed he was reading the Psychiatric Times. I pointed it out and told him I had read it on a rare occasion, though psychiatry was not my subspecialty. I asked him if he had any political issues or concerns. He responded, "I'm gay." I immediately responded, "I'm gayer." He then asked me to sit and offered me a drink, and we began to play "gay geography" as we delved into our histories.

It was a warm Saturday night, June 28, 1969, and I was taking my future wife on our first formal date, at the Village Vanguard downtown. As we exited the subway we were swept up by the NYPD into a river of protesters heading north, away from the Village. As I've told the story before, I saw the trans women and drag queens among the crowd and was alternately attracted and repelled by the scene, desperately wanting to turn around and enter the fray more deeply, while also being panicked that my girlfriend would sense my secret. Little did I know that a closeted Jim Egan, doing his postgraduate work in psychiatry in New York, was, at that very same moment, going out with his girlfriend to dinner in the Village and got caught up in the same riot scene. It was the second night of the Stonewall uprising, the beginning of the modern LGBT rights movement.

Jim grew up not far from me, in Forest Hills, Queens, his best friend in high school in class with Simon and Garfunkel. Out as a gay man in college, and in a romantic relationship with a man, he dove back into the closet to protect his medical career. At about the same time I outed myself to my future wife, with whom I was present at Stonewall. Just as he chose to do, I remained generally closeted to allow my medical career to proceed.

During his early years in psychiatry, which must have been tortuous on a daily basis, as this was before homosexuality was removed from the DSM-2 and declassified as a form of psychopathology, he found a mentor named Dr. Jerry Wiener, who helped direct him into a career in child psychiatry. Jerry was a mentor to many gay men, both out and closeted, and after a long stint at St. Luke's Hospital of Columbia-Presbyterian in New York, he moved to George Washington University and was later appointed to the presidency of the American Psychiatric Association. After they both had moved to the D.C. area, Jim and Jerry lived a few blocks from one another in Chevy Chase.

It turns out that Jerry, his wife Louise and their four children and spouses are all close family friends of mine, having lived across the street from me for a decade. As I was about to complete my gender transition, I planned on coming out to Jerry. I had read the chapter on gender identity in his classic textbook on child psychiatry and was petrified because of the author's profound ignorance and deep hostility, but I never got the chance to speak with Jerry, as he soon died tragically of metastatic lung cancer. Instead, I came out to his eldest daughter-in-law, Mari, soon thereafter, and then the entire family just a few months later.

When Dr. Egan was studying and working in New York and living in the Pelham section of the Bronx, one of his neighbors was Dr. Paul McHugh, the man later hired by Johns Hopkins School of Medicine to shut down their historic sex-reassignment program. Though both Catholic, their professional relationship was never fruitful. I had my first run-in with Professor McHugh when I criticized an essay he wrote for the Phi Beta Kappa journal, The American Scholar, calling for the end of gender reassignment. Professor McHugh, without any training in human sexuality, became the leading Catholic opponent of trans women, acting against our interests while serving on the President's Commission on Bioethics and as an advisor to the Vatican. Jim didn't care for the professor's attitudes toward homosexuality either, and we both have a history of having let the professor know of our feelings.

On a personal level, Jim came out again 12 years ago and settled in Silver Spring with his partner, Ben, fitting right into the neighborhood. Several months later I transitioned in place in Chevy Chase, also fitting right into the neighborhood. The world had changed. I applaud him for his efforts on behalf of children and gay rights. One of his most important hires when he was serving at the Children's Hospital Medical Center in D.C. was Dr. Edgardo Menvielle, my friend and colleague on the American Psychiatric Association Task Force on Gender Identity, which rewrote the diagnosis of gender dysphoria for the DSM-5. Edgardo started the first program in the country for trans children and their parents, with Catherine Tuerk at Children's Hospital, a program made possible by the foresight of Dr. James Egan.

It's a small world, and small acts can have very large impacts. My advice: Keep showing up with a smile and change the world.

Oh, by the way, I think I earned his vote.