04/02/2012 08:56 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

I Am

There's a difference between a proclamation and a declaration. When you declare, you do that among people. You do that in a space that usually has certain boundaries and sometimes rules. When you proclaim, you do that to the universe. Something changes not only in the thing that's receiving but in the thing that's releasing. It's filled with everything we know and everything we don't know. Proclaiming doesn't take a special kind of person or a special kind of gift; it simply takes breath. Everyone's got that.

My mother warned me when I was first beginning my transition that if I came to her house dressed like Lana Turner, she'd shoot first and disown later. (I came looking like Rita Hayworth.)

My dad told me that for a fake girl, I looked pretty good.

My brother hasn't really spoken to me in about two decades.

I transitioned when I was 19 years old. I knew that if I went to college, if I was trapped in one more tiny space, I'd end up dead. I knew that to be true. So I went off to live my life and try my best to figure out why everyone hated me so much and wanted me dead, and who exactly all these voices were that screeched at me in the middle of the night. I was on a quest, and it was 1980, and there was nowhere for me to go. And then, out of the blue, completely by accident, I met my sisters. I was auditioning for a "talent night" at a club in Chicago called Club Victoria. I assumed "talent night" meant "show us your talent," so I got together with my pal Barb and decided I'd dance and take off some of my clothes and wow the audience with my sexiness. After that fell flat, I realized, as I was downstairs, that the 6-foot-tall showgirls I was dressing with had a very distinct reason for the low, bass-like tonality of their voices: they were all transgender. And that was that. I had found them. They had found me. We found each other, and we never let go.

They raised me, fed me, clothed me, taught me, fought with me, scolded me, birthed me, and berated me. And then, as the plague came, they died, one by one, person by person. Everyone I knew and loved and ate with, and slept with, and cried with, and held, and protected. All died. Every last one of them.

And then it came near me, and it infected me, and I almost died, except I didn't. And then I kept on living, and I still couldn't figure out what it was I was supposed to be doing, exactly. I couldn't figure out how to speak loud and firm enough so that people would hear me, so that I would get what I really wanted, so that I wouldn't feel insignificant or like I was bothering someone. My parents were still miles away, my lovers bored me to tears, and I was sick and tired of lip-synching to other people's music. I wanted my own voice to come out of me, not Streisand's.

I don't happen to think that my life is any less or any more strange or beautiful or maddening than yours. I believe that all of us have a story to tell, and it's just as big as we allow it to be. As I sat on the corner of the bar in the mid 90s, sipping on a Manhattan (a drink I loathed but one that always made me feel like Greer Garson), a tall, lanky man in a business suit waddled up to me and sat down. He smiled and lifted his glass to mine. We toasted, and he stared at me for the longest time.

"Stop staring," I said. "I hate it when people stare at me."

He took a chug of his beer, wiped his lip, and said very straightforwardly to me, "You're an actress who hates when people stare at you? You need to figure that shit out."

That night, after he left my apartment, I walked out onto my balcony and looked up at the Chicago skyline. And I heard the tall, lanky man's voice again: I needed to figure that shit out. That was the shit that I needed to make sense of. And it wasn't as simple as me not wanting attention, or needing approval, or begging for compromise. It wasn't any of that. It was about who and what I was and how I was going to make that clear. So, for the next decade, I searched. I tried it all. I kept going, and I kept living, and I got sick and almost died, and I got married, and I went to fewer and fewer funerals, and slowly, in my life, I became a student. I went from pretending to be a know-it-all to becoming a student of my own life. And once I did that, once I realized that I was never going to figure it all out, or come up with all the answers, or satisfy everyone's curiosity, or appease all the skeptics, I finally, ultimately, took my first, huge breath. I finally opened up wide enough and deep enough to let other people in and allow myself to learn and receive the gifts they had to offer, and I tried not to act like I knew everything. I finally looked up and said that I could be many things and not just one, and that no one had the right to judge me, live through me, or run over me. I asked questions, and I stayed in that place. I found a voice that shook my own soul and seemed to fly through the atmosphere at an enormous speed. I was overtaken by the people who gave me the strength to find that, and I learned how to proclaim. And once that happened, the people and the family and the lovers and the audiences and the students huddled around me and accepted me no matter what. We fought the bullies together, and we cheered the triumphs with grace. And they helped me see that what I'd spent years searching for had always been with me; I'd just never believed it. I never thought I had that much power. Not me. Not ever.

I now know who I am.

But that's all I know. I don't know anything else. I'm a dummy about a lot of stuff, and I couldn't care less. And who I am is a laundry list of people, places, things, and random experiences I've collected in the 50 years I've been on the planet. I am undefinable. I am unattainable. I have found my voice, and I'm never again going to search for what I never really lost in the first place.