Devin Lentz was starting to imagine how her funeral would play out, and she became angry and distraught about what she saw.
She would be lying in a casket wearing a suit and tie, and no one would know that she didn’t belong in the man’s body she was born in.
Lentz and I are sitting in a coffee shop as she tells me how those visions of her death and funeral were dangerously close to becoming a reality just a few years ago.
Her voice breaks, and she apologizes for becoming emotional as she describes the tipping point that pushed her to seek guidance in making the transition to becoming a woman.
“It was just the thought of people looking at my body in a casket, with me looking like a guy, and nobody having ever known,” she says. “I couldn’t live with that. ... There had to be a someone left on this earth who knew the real me.”
Lentz, who grew up in Raleigh, is 46. She’s describing the journey from D.A., as she was known for years, to Devin.
She gave it much thought before agreeing to talk to me. While she’s felt like a woman almost all of her life, she only has felt comfortable looking like one in just the past few years.
Lentz doesn’t know it, but I’m nervous as well. She’s trusting me, and I want to get it right.
But she said she should talk about her experience. She was named chair of the Transgender Initiative at the LGBT Center of Raleigh earlier this year, so she feels some responsibility to do so as the center’s point of contact and appointed expert in issues affecting transgender people.
She says the more people hear stories like hers, and those of Caitlyn Jenner, teen activist Jazz Jennings and actress Laverne Cox, the better. Maybe they could help someone going through their own struggles, or their families and friends. She didn’t have positive examples to turn to, and there was no Internet to offer answers about why she was feeling at odds with her body.
“Carrying a big secret about yourself for that long, it isolates you,” she says. “It walls you off from the rest of the world.”
Media reports and television shows about transgender people have dramatically increased in recent years, peaking this spring. Olympic gold medalist and reality show dad Bruce Jenner announced in a choreographed media campaign and reality show that Jenner would now be known as Caitlyn, an identity she had been hiding her entire life.
Jenner is joined by other well-known transgender people in the news. Cox has appeared on the covers of Time and Entertainment Weekly as the face of the transgender movement – at least in Hollywood. Jennings, an articulate transgender girl, has become an activist at the age of 14, earning her and her family a thoughtfully done TLC reality show, “I Am Jazz.”
Lentz feels it’s their role to educate the public about why using the right pronouns is important and why it’s inappropriate to ask about someone’s medical procedures. A trangender person’s identity isn’t based on his or her genitalia, plus it’s personal information. And on a bigger scale, they also want others to know the struggles faced by transgender people: finances, unemployment, violence and suicide. Statistics show those problems are magnified for transgender people of color, Lentz says.
Lentz hadn’t been familiar with Jenner’s involvement with the Kardashian family and their TV and tabloid exploits, but she remembers Jenner on her Wheaties box. Some have told Lentz that Jenner, who comes from privilege and money, isn’t necessarily representative of the transgender community. But her experience is valid, Lentz says.
“I want people to know that we’re here, and we’ve always been here,” she said, emphasizing that she’s voicing her opinion, not that of the LGBT Center nor the transgender community. “Maybe I’m naive. Personally I’m optimistic. (Jenner) has this power. If she uses it responsibly, she could do a lot of good.”
Lentz is funny, smart, honest and well-read, especially about LGBT issues. She wears purple glasses and tiny stud earrings in her ears. A necklace hangs from her neck, and her hair is pulled back in a rubber band. She complains about how hard it is to shop for women’s clothes and that she dislikes shaving her legs.
Still, she feels calmer and happier than she ever has before.
“I feel like I’m kind of making peace with my body finally,” she says. “We’ve been at war for, like, 30 years. I’ve hated my body so much. It certainly seemed like it hated me.”
Growing up, Lentz, a fan of science-fiction, couldn’t get enough of body swapping movies. “Freaky Friday,” or any film that had a transformation in it, offered her a little comfort that maybe one day there could be a spell that would allow her to live in the body she desperately wanted to inhabit.
She confesses that her high school dream is a little embarrassing, but when you’re growing up in the 1980s in a religious family, that’s the type of fantasy you cling to.
For most of her life, she didn’t tell anyone how she felt and that in her dreams she had a woman’s body. She alternated between two extremes. At first, she tried to convince everyone she was male, which she called “a matter of survival.” Other times, she pretended to be a gay man. She said the alternative – admitting she was female when she knew her parents and other adults wouldn’t understand – had been a “complete and total disaster.”
None of the options were ideal.
At home while in high school, she hid makeup and women’s clothing in the bottom of a drawer. She didn’t dare go out of the house dressed as a woman.
After she graduated from N.C. Wesleyan College, she traveled the world on and off for years, teaching English. She again pretended to be a gay man, finding she didn’t have to try as hard to blend in.
But when she finally returned to Raleigh three years ago – her diabetes forcing her to come home – she hit a wall.
“I couldn’t take it anymore,” she said. “I can’t spend the rest of my life pretending to be a guy. I can’t be a 60-year-old bitter, angry, bald man with a potbelly. I can’t do that.”
Slowing coming out
By this point, she had started telling a few friends that she was a transgender woman, and she had legally changed her name to Devin, a name nebulous enough that if she never went through with the transition, it would still be considered an acceptable man’s name.
Still, she felt like she had no more options. She hoped she would succumb to a heart attack or in a car accident. She didn’t want others to know that she ended her life deliberately.
Finally, Lentz went to a therapist, who confirmed that she was a transgender woman. Over the next few years, she slowly tested the waters of becoming a woman. She wore one item of woman’s clothing or a dab of makeup. She went through numerous medical tests and hours of counseling. The therapist and a doctor helped Lentz decide that she was ready to make the transition for good. She would start taking estrogen and hormones and would start dressing full-time as a woman.
Lentz also had to tell her family the truth. She first blurted it out to her mother, who had suspected she was gay, and later told her father. Lentz says her family has been supportive, and she considers herself lucky, given the stories she’s heard about other transgender people getting kicked out of their homes.
But she and her father have an unspoken agreement. He still calls Lentz his son and refers to her as “him.” This is perhaps the greatest insult a transgender person faces, Lentz and others say, of being called the wrong pronoun. For the moment, Lentz says, she will deal with it.
“He won’t object or criticize if I let him pretend it’s not happening,” she says. “That works for us. For now.”
Lentz knows transgender people who have been kicked out of their homes and have lost their jobs. Many have crowdfunding campaigns online, not just to fund any potential surgery or medicine but to help with living expenses.
The changes in her life are happening fast. Lentz worries about finding a job. She left teaching, assuming that she would have trouble finding a school and a classroom of parents who would accept her teaching their children. She’s now studying to become a nurse.
She never thought she’d channel the social justice warrior part of herself so soon after making the transition to presenting as a woman. She feels simultaneously nervous and empowered. And she’s got a simple message for the rest of us.
“Try to believe us and take us seriously,” she says. “This is really important to us.”