"I can't do this alone."
I muttered those words to myself at several points during my transition, especially as I prepared to come out in my workplace. I can remember feeling as if I was staring up at Mount Everest wondering how, and if, I could ever make it over or around it. After four-plus decades of living someone else's life, putting up appearances and dealing with daily self-inflicted doses of shame, guilt and denial, I had had enough. I could no longer hide the real "me."
The only thing I knew to do was to enlist the support of those colleagues that were closest to me. Those that knew me best. Over a series of lunches, I came out to each of them in a highly personal way: one-on-one, explaining to them how I felt and that I needed to do this -- and I asked for understanding and support. I now realize that risks were taken on both sides of that conversation. For me, it was the risk of being rejected. For as much as I thought that they would respond positively to the news that I was changing my gender, there were simply no guarantees. On their side, it was risk in the form of making yourself vulnerable by being available to and showing compassion for someone who is opening up their soul right before your very eyes and asking for your help.
They could have chosen to turn away -- but they didn't. I was fortunate. Others like me aren't so fortunate. While I can report that these intimate conversations, held in diner booths and on park benches, gave me the confidence and the resolve I needed to move forward with my workplace transition. For many others, they do not have an empathetic ear to turn to.
For me, the importance of allies can never, ever be overstated.
Depending on what research you read, the transgender and gender non-conforming communities make up no more than one percent of the U.S. population. That's approximately 3 million people. But in reality that number is quite deceiving, because not all of us make ourselves "visible" to others and fewer still make the highly personal decision to publicly transition. Practically speaking, the number is quite less. The bottom line: It's a numbers game. We simply cannot fight for our equal rights alone. There is an absence of critical mass. We do not have the numbers.
We cannot do this alone.
You may be reading this and thinking that you can't possibly be an ally. You may not even think of yourself as an ally, but you know what? You may already be an ally and just aren't aware of it. I sincerely doubt that my aforementioned colleagues would have seen themselves as an ally in those moments, but rather as a friend who is listening and trying as best they can to understand a subject that they are hearing about for the first time in their lives. A subject that seems quite foreign to them. But yet they seek to understand.
Has that happened to you? Has someone with the same history as me ever approached you about having that conversation? Have you actually had that conversation? Well, guess what? If you have, you're an ally. Now I ask you to take it to the next level -- and own it.
Jeanne Manford stepped up and owned it. Who is Jeanne Manford, you ask? Jeanne, the mother of Morty, her gay son, is the person credited with starting what has now become PFLAG, the organization that I am proud to say I recently joined as a National Board Member. Hopefully, PFLAG is an organization that is not foreign to you. Chances are it isn't because of the wonderful work that happens each and every day in more than 350 chapters across the United States.
It was 1972, and she proudly marched alongside Morty in the Christopher Street Liberation Day March in New York City. Did she take a risk? Did she put herself out there for all to see? Did she come out as the parent of a gay son? Absolutely! I suspect that if you were marching with Jeanne that day and asked her if she was an "ally", she might answer in this way: "I'm his mother, he's my son, I love him and I just want him to live his life happily with the same rights as everyone else." Sure sounds like an ally to me. And that's my point.
You possess the power to change our world, and all you have to do is reach out and take the hand of someone who asks only that you understand, as best you can, what it means to walk in their shoes. Not sure where to start? I encourage you to visit PFLAG National's Straight for Equality project, and grab a free copy of their new resource: guide to being a trans ally. It might provide the information you need to give you confidence as an ally.
After all, as Christopher Robin once told Winnie the Pooh, "You are braver than you believe, stronger than you seem and smarter than you think."
To that I would add: You have the courage to change the ordinary into the extraordinary.