Evolution Revolution: From Finding Acceptance Within Myself to
Finding Compassion For All Living Beings Without
Growing up, as soon as I had a say in what I wanted to wear, I chose the gender-neutral or more masculine options. This was accepted as I was considered a tomboy. But it didn’t change the fact that, throughout my childhood, I was made more uncomfortable with the regretful apologies from strangers who made the “mistake” in referring to me as a boy. “Oh, I’m sorry… It’s the hat you have on, but now that I can see your face, there’s no way I could ever mistake you for a boy! Such a beautiful face you have!” There was also the insistence that I would grow out of it. I never thought I would. I never wanted to. I never did. Sexual orientation was unknown to me. Since I was a girl, I thought my only option was an attraction to boys. I dated a few and had a relationship with someone who was 6 years older than I was. He was my older brother’s friend and paid attention to me. I liked him. I was interested in these boys, but not in the “attracted to” way. It was more a longing to be like them. Things between us ended after 2 years dating on and off. It wasn’t until my junior year of high school that someone presented me with the possibility that my lack of romantic interest in boys was due to the fact that I was attracted to girls. My entire world opened up, and my body responded in ways I had never experienced when looking at boys.
It was the summer of 1996 when I came out to my family as lesbian. I was 16 and decided to break the news at a family reunion. First, I told my cousins individually and without incident. Then my Aunt Katherine, who knew I had something I wanted to talk to her about, asked me about it in front of everyone. I figured since I had already told everyone but her that it wasn’t a big deal to just come out to her right there. She wasn’t exactly closed-minded, but made sure I knew she didn’t believe that I was old enough to make such a “decision.”
About a week after the reunion, I received a letter from my other aunt, Amy, who was unable to attend the reunion. Katherine had filled her in, and Amy felt it necessary to express her opinion of my “inappropriate” announcement and make a point to say that, even though she knows gay people, none of them ever go around announcing their sexual orientation. Not to mention, of course, neither has she. Being heterosexual is assumed to be the norm. The only reason for coming out is if you don’t “fit” the norm. She wasn’t even there to truly know how my coming out to the family played out. Over the next few years, she’d make comments about my fear of men due to my having been in a relationship with a 19-year old when I was just 13. Yes, he did take advantage of me and it was not a healthy relationship. It wasn’t until 10 years after the fact that I realized he did, in fact, abuse me.
Over the last few years of high school and well into college, I struggled with the loss of my parents. My mother died suddenly, but not unexpectedly, from a prescription drug overdose when I was 14. Three years later, my father died of pancreatic cancer right before I started college. After my mother was gone, my aunts (my mother’s sisters) tried to provide guidance as they thought my father was unfit to raise us properly. He proved them wrong in time, but it was a tough road for him to raise three kids alone. My aunts’ guidance did not go well as they saw my behavior, lack of social grace, and not fitting in as a problem. I didn’t want to fit in. I wanted to be ME, and if they couldn’t accept that, then that was their problem. Not mine.
My father’s side of the family is more old-fashioned, and my Uncle John almost insisted I wear a skirt to my father’s funeral out of respect for my father. I refused and wore a shirt and tie, which I tied myself, just like my father taught me a couple years earlier when I was 15 and he took me to buy my first suit.
Once I was in college, my aunts eased up on me and saw that being in lesbian relationships was where I fit and that I wasn’t going to change. They even welcomed the few girlfriends I brought around once in a while to family gatherings. Everything was going well on the outside. Within me, another battle ensued.
For 4 out of the 5 ½ years I spent in college and living with my grandmother during breaks from school, I was a complete mess. I didn’t fit in anywhere, and my body was a prison. My involvements with women went on, but at some point, I shut down. I didn’t want to be touched or viewed as a woman. It felt so foreign. I felt like a freak. An unlovable freak. Gender expression for me had always been masculine. Always. At work, I was consistently referred to as “Sir” and with masculine pronouns. Of course, once I would turn around, half the people would profusely apologize as I rolled my eyes and tried to shrug it off. Most of the time I didn’t care, and I actually came to prefer the masculine pronouns. My name tags always had a shortened version of my name which made it gender-neutral. It would be whenever I went home to be around family that the deeper issues came to light. With each use of my full given name, I would cringe. Any reference to me as a girl, woman, she, her… it all didn’t fit. It was as though everyone saw something else when they looked at me. I saw something else too. It took me 2 ½ years to come out to myself as trans. It would be at least another year before I came out to my family.
Once I graduated from college, moved out on my own, and had a job with health insurance, I took the necessary steps to make me feel more comfortable living in this skin. I started testosterone in April 2003. My name change was finalized the following August. It was in October that I sent a letter to every member of my family. They all received it the week before a family gathering celebrating my grandmother’s 80th birthday. To my surprise, nearly everyone came up to me with open arms and acceptance, and a few even had no trouble calling me by my chosen name and referring to me as their nephew and using masculine pronouns. It was incredible! I felt more a part of a family unit and felt genuine love and support from nearly everyone. My aunts asked me about my transition and wanted to be reassured of my physical and mental health. Of course, my grandmother and a couple uncles couldn’t see past my past and break their habits. I tried to be patient, but after so many years, it felt like they never cared to try. One year, one of my uncles gave everyone cell phone charms. Mine was a very feminine butterfly. After seeing my reaction to it, he explained that the butterfly was a symbol of metamorphosis. I politely thanked him and never spoke of it again. Some people aren’t worth the energy.
Since my grandmother passed away a couple years ago, the pronoun and name slips have nearly vanished. Her insistence on using my given name and assigned pronouns were most likely the influencing factor.
Fast forward a bit to 2010. With my new comfort in my own skin, I found myself curious to explore my sexual desire to be with male-born men. After a time of getting used to the unfamiliar territory of being social with gay men, I found myself in a relationship. I mentioned the possibility of my dating men, and no one in my family that I shared this with batted an eye. I felt safe knowing my family is incredibly supportive and open-minded… but are they as open-minded when it comes to something outside of gender and sexuality?
I had been vegetarian since before coming out as lesbian, and this was never an issue. There was always food prepared that I could eat whenever a family party came around. In November 2010, I began volunteering for a sanctuary that rescues farmed animals from the food farming trade/industry. It wasn’t but a few weeks when I made the compassionate choice to no longer contribute to such unnecessary suffering and went vegan. I expressed in a blog post on Facebook that, on December 1st, I was going vegan. It was shortly before Thanksgiving, and I knew I had my family dinner to attend and wasn’t going to make anyone go out of their way for me. Again, to my surprise, they had prepared a Tofurky Roast dinner just for me with veggie sides without any butter. It was amazing! I couldn’t thank them enough for making the effort to include me, and I again felt support and love.
Over the past year, my involvements in veganism, activism, outreach, and animal rights have increased since I first went vegan, and my posts on Facebook have been a little hard to swallow for my meat-eating family members. Not once have I invited a debate. My only intention is to spread awareness of the plight of animals raised for food and what people actually pay for when they choose to eat animal products, all for the purpose of enabling them to make their own informed choices. It didn’t take long before the arguments, confrontation, and blaming me for making them feel like “a soulless bastard” for eating animals were expressed. Their denial and defensiveness for their choices only bring to light the questions they should ask themselves: Why do they feel this way when they see the truth of where their food comes from? What is it within themselves that makes them feel like “a soulless bastard?” And so the blocking of my posts from Facebook newfeeds and retaliatory posts ensued. Relatives I felt close to were now pitting themselves and their immediate family members against me in online debates. Family parties became awkward as people would hesitate to talk to me. What are they afraid of? I have also noticed the increasing lack of options for me to eat with each party I attend. Before going vegan, there were always 3-4 options that just happened to be vegan. These options continued to be a staple at these gatherings. I never went hungry. It was after the debates on Facebook and my “militant activist” posts that things changed. A baby shower called “Beach Babyque” in August had a large spread with only one vegan dish along with cut up raw veggies and chips. I was in a dark place emotionally, and my Aunt Amy noticed. When she asked me about it, she said it was good that I forced myself to come out and that she was happy to see me, but she couldn’t leave it at that. She had to make a comment about me needing more dairy in my diet to help with the emotional darkness. She laughed and again told me she “isn’t on board with the whole vegan thing.” I know she isn’t. She doesn’t have to make it a point to tell me numerous times.
Just last December at the annual holiday party, even vegetarian options were scarce. All they had for me was cut up celery, carrots, radishes, orange slices and grapes, and tortilla chips. The always-safe quinoa salad had feta cheese in it this time. Also, when talking to my vegetarian friend who I asked to come with me as a buffer, Amy talked about a friend who is a chef and made a phenomenal meat-based meal. Amy considers herself a non-meat-eater. She stopped eating red meat decades ago. She doesn’t equate meat with poultry and fish and calls herself vegetarian. Last I checked, neither fish nor chicken and turkey are vegetables.
So, my family has been able to accept and support me through coming to terms with my sexual orientation, to my transition from female to male, to my recent dating history with men… but when it comes to my vegan lifestyle and beliefs, they scoff and avoid conversation with me. Never have I felt so ostracized and alone among those I love and who claim to love me. I feel like I am the 500 lb purple gorilla in the room no one is supposed to acknowledge.
With all the horror stories I’ve heard about people being disowned and disrespected for their “choices” in terms of gender and sexuality, I considered myself extremely lucky to have a family so supportive and without judgment. It never occurred to me that my choice to abstain from the eating, wearing, and exploiting animals would outcast me farther than I have ever been from a group that is so open and accepting of everything else. No one can choose their relatives, but everyone can have a chosen family, and I have found the most acceptance and support within the animal rights and ethical vegan communities.
© TylerJaik for Acceptance Revolution, 2013
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