As I think about how Gov. Pat McCrory and the N.C. General Assembly have prevented towns and cities from protecting lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people, all in response to a vague fear of bathroom predators, I think not only about the high school students I counsel but also about my Uncle Tony.
In almost five years of counseling high school students, I’ve spoken with more than a dozen young people who identify as trans. Some are out to their parents, some are not. I’ve worked with parents, teachers and administrators to help trans students feel more accepted and safe. Not once have I heard from, or heard of, a student who felt unsafe because of the action of a trans youth.
None of that would come as a surprise to my Uncle Tony, whom I once knew as my Aunt Angie. In the poem “We Are All God’s Children,” he once wrote, “When you look at me/I’m no different than you/I come in all sizes and different hues, too/Why are you frightened?”
My uncle, who died a few years ago, wasn’t a great poet: By most literary measures, his work would be criticized as sing-songy. But that opening stanza reflected a lifetime of hard-earned wisdom. Born in the late 1930s, he knew by the teen years that he identified as male. Those years were full of turmoil as who he knew himself to be conflicted with how he presented to the world.
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By the mid-1960s, after more than a decade of self-discovery, therapy and consultation with psychiatrists and other medical doctors, my mother’s sibling transitioned to become my Uncle Tony. I was so young that I didn’t really remember “Aunt Angie.” The name drifted into the haziness of family history, popping up only when a senior relative who didn’t fully understand or accept my uncle’s journey referred to “Angie.” The 7-year-old me didn’t know the family math equation of “Angie equals Tony.” I just knew I had three uncles on my mom’s side, all of whom were very different from one another and all of whom I loved as much as they loved me.
It wasn’t until the late 1970s that my uncle’s appearance on a pre-syndicated Maury Povich show in Chicago prompted my mom to explain my uncle’s story. She was nonchalant, basically saying, “Your uncle used to be your aunt.” It didn’t faze me; as any teen, I had my own identity issues. What was most important was that Tony’s change in external appearance had no effect on how much he loved me.
In 1977, under the pen name Mario Martino, Uncle Tony wrote “Emergence,” a memoir of his self-acceptance. Then, having shared his story in a most public way, he settled into a more private life, divorcing, remarrying and leaving “Mario Martino” behind. When he died, his wife asked that there be no references in his obituary or eulogy to his early years. Out of respect for her wishes, we agreed.
Though never far from my heart, Uncle Tony came back into my present several weeks ago. I reread his memoir as I prepared to share it with someone who needed to read about a similar journey of discovery. While reading it, I understood again the power of the closet to silence.
Speaking several weeks ago to the Illinois legislature, President Obama said, “So often, these debates, particularly in Washington but increasingly in state legislatures, become abstractions. It’s as if there are no people involved, it’s just cardboard cutouts and caricatures of positions.” It seems to me that Gov. McCrory and many legislators do not know (or think they do not know) people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender. Their fear of the unknown tramples all common sense.
My Uncle Tony’s story is far from unique. It’s the story of your friends, co-workers, family. It’s the story of your children and grandchildren. They need to understand they can count on your love – not your fear, anger or hate – to help them as they learn the most challenging lessons of their lives. What the governor and the General Assembly chose to do, and how North Carolinians respond, can make a very real difference in helping self-acceptance flourish or pouring out the poison of guilt and shame.
“Why are you frightened?” my Uncle Tony asked. That’s a darn good question.
Chuck Small, a former News & Observer staff member, is a counselor at Enloe Magnet High School in Raleigh.