How Punk Rock Saved My Transgender Soul
Hi everyone, my name is Riley, my pronouns are she/her and I am a transgender woman and a punk. First off, thank you for taking some time to check out this article and hopefully others down the road. Of course, thank you to the Mable Syndrome for giving me a platform to have a voice amongst all the other women doing awesome work in uniting and amplifying women’s voice in the punk scene. I can only hope my contributions help further discussions in the punk community, to keep making the community even more accepting for everyone, regardless of race, gender identity, sexual orientation, religion or other label meant to divide us.
In this first of at least two posts I'll really just talk about my journey into the punk scene as I allowed the real me to be known to the world. To do that though, I'll have to give you a big portion of my story that has nothing to do with punk, because to put it bluntly I didn't really listen to much punk of any kind until after I came out as transgender at 42 years of age. There were a few bands like Suicidal Tendencies, The Ramones and Bad Religion that crossed over close enough to the heavy metal that I did listen to, or songs covered by metal bands like Metallica and Megadeth, but I never really continued to follow the scene.
I was born in a small town in Central Illinois in September of 1973, yes I’m fucking old. The doctor took one look said, “it's a boy”!! and from that point on I tried to live up to that proclamation for the next 15400 some odd days. In the long run, I couldn't ever be what was expected of me, but damn if I didn't try. I played baseball, basketball, football, ran track, was in the boy scouts. I drove fast, listened to metal, drank hard and did stupid shit. I wore a cloak of masculinity, one that I would now consider toxic masculinity, wrapped in massive amounts of internalized homophobia and transphobia. Pretty awkward because I knew who I was, yet I desperately didn't want to be. I just wanted to be like everyone else, so I did that, I emulated everyone I wanted to be like. I tried so hard to ‘fake it ‘til I make it’ and from most outside views, I was a successful at it.
I went to college and although I didn't graduate the first time, but I did meet THE girl and we fell in love, we fell so hard I asked her to marry me within 3 months, but we waited until she finished school to actually tie the knot. I got a couple DUI's, stopped drinking for almost 18 years and got a good job that over the last 21 years turned into a great career. We bought our first house, got married and we've been together for more than 24 years as a couple and married almost 19 years now. We upgraded and bought our second house, I ran an Ironman Triathlon at 33 and I finally graduated with my bachelor’s degree when I was 40. All of those things which are all considered great goals to make a successful man, never made me feel like one. Every success, every time I achieved a new goal in life, I realized it didn't fix anything, I was still faking it and in doing so, was breaking everything. Our marriage was dead, it wasn’t that we hated each other, not at all. It was that we loved each other too much to leave, we were so co-dependent that we just went through the motions, but it was just that, going through the motions and saying all the right things to everyone else.
That right there should tell anyone who ever says I can't accept your choice of 'lifestyle' that I didn't choose anything. If anything, I actively ignored it and pushed it down for decades. I tried everything I could to ‘fix’ myself because nobody would choose this willingly. Let me repeat that for anyone in the back row, NOBODY WOULD CHOOSE THIS WILLINGLY, nobody would ever willingly choose to be transgender. I made only one choice, the choice to live, because there was only one other possibility and that was death, specifically death at my own hands.
I had always hoped I could keep doing little things to keep myself from ever having to admit who I was, but they lost effectiveness. Things like crossdressing at home helped but now that I look back at that time, I realize I used crossdressing just like a drug of abuse. That may seem like something odd to say, how is wearing clothes like a drug?
Simply put, it gave me a great high, I felt right as a person for the first time in my life, but society was in the back of my head telling me I was still wrong. Yes, had had done some crossdressing when I was younger, but those early attempts did nothing but bring me shame. They lead me to abuse alcohol because I knew I was different. Now, later in life crossdressing finally gave me a “high”. The earlier life crossdressing was a root cause of almost all my alcohol abuse. If it felt good to have on women’s clothes, I must be a freak, there must be something wrong with me. That’s what society told me and told everyone.
Yes, I had some basic understanding of why it felt right, but the only representation when I ever saw of trans-people when I was younger, and really until very recently, was wholly negative. Especially examples of trans-women. If there was a trans-woman character shown at all, it was almost always portrayed by a cis-gender man. They were usually as a sex worker, a sexual deviant or in the case of Silence of the Lambs, a serial killer. Other representations were as the butt of a joke like Ace Ventura (although in that case played by a cis-woman in Sean Young) or on a sensationalized talk show like Jerry Springer. So instead of accepting who I was then, I tried to drink Riley away, to make that part of me shrivel, go away and die.
The later life crossdressing was with the knowledge and understanding that I knew I was transgender, but with the hope that doing it in the privacy of my home, with the knowledge of my wife, would help me hide my true self until someday I died a natural death. I hoped that nobody except my wife would ever know even that part of my secret, because at that time I still hadn’t told her the whole truth of who I wholly was, even though I knew it. The day I told her about crossdressing she actually asked “Are you transgender”? I said I didn’t think so, but deep down inside I knew the truth, I just hoped I could keep it pushed down and repressed forever.
The problem is like I mentioned, crossdressing lost effectiveness, just like a drug of abuse. At first it made me feel right, it gave me a high to throw off the expectations of societal pressures and norms. So like a drug it initially made me feel great. Then like a drug I started to realize when I took off my clothes, wig and makeup at night to go to bed, that the next morning, that nothing had changed. I still had to wake up and play the part of “him” again and to put it bluntly, I hated that character I tried so hard to play, I fucking hated him. So just like a drug, the high didn’t feel as high, because the low that came after kept getting lower and lower as I sank into depression and further self-hatred.
I was at the point that I had two options, kill myself, or risk my otherwise comfortable life. Looking back, if it were just me in a vacuum, I probably wouldn't be here today, but it wasn't in a vacuum. I had the most lovely, talented, smart and beautiful wife. One who I could not stand hurting anymore, because my unhappiness, my issues, were hurting her too, just indirectly. By that I do not mean physically hurting her, that has never been an issue in our relationship, neither of us have ever been physically abusive. What I mean is she could tell I was unhappy, her thought was that if I was unhappy, it had to be because she wasn’t good enough for me. Which by the way, anyone who's ever met her knows is fucking ridiculous, she is simply put, the most genuine and honest person I have ever met in my entire life. In reality she was the only thing in my life that mattered to me. As much as I hated myself I knew that if I hurt myself, I would break the woman I love irreparably for the rest of her life. If I killed myself, she would have blamed herself for my actions and unhappiness until the day she died. I just couldn't hurt her anymore, that above all is what made my choice, my love for her.
See the day before I finally admitted what I knew in my heart, one simple thing my sister said to me was the straw that finally broke the proverbial camel’s back. We were over at my brother’s house, there had been a birthday party for our niece the night before and my sister had stayed instead of driving back to her home 120 miles away with a young daughter herself. We stopped by to see everyone again before she left. Our Mom was in Florida for the winter and missed the party, so someone said, let’s get a picture of the three siblings(my brother, my sister and myself) along with their 3 kids to send to Mom. So we all stood there for the camera and whoever was taking the picture said “Smile”. The those words, fom the other side of our group, my sister, not out of malice or ill intent, said, “except (deadname), he never smiles”. Those 5 words shattered my idea that I was fooling everyone, the idea that everyone thought I was happy, when in reality they knew I couldn’t even smile for a picture. Those words broke me, I couldn’t sleep at all that night, I had to finally tell the truth about myself.
So on the morning of Jan 18th, 2016, I finally allowed my true self to be known, I finally uttered those two words out loud to my wife. “I’m transgender”. It’s kind of ironic really, I finally ‘manned’ up by admitting I wasn’t one.
My coming out was her chance to leave, to realize what I always said was not a lie. That when I said it was me, not her, I meant it and it was true. I had resigned myself to the fact that if she left me at least she would have a chance at happiness, even if that was with someone else, my unhappiness would no longer be her burden. Regardless of her choice, I finally got the chance to be my true self.
Funny thing happened though; she didn't leave, instead she said, let’s give it a chance although I can’t promise anything. What happened was pretty amazing though, instead of it being something that drove us apart, it gave us a chance to heal. It gave us a chance to talk openly and honestly for the first time really, ever. Instead of breaking us, it made us stronger, it brought us closer than we have ever been, to where we still are today, still in love, but able to love ourselves too.
Anyway, that's my backstory up to the point where I, as a recently out transgender woman, found the incomparable Laura Jane Grace. Just by chance I was browsing a trans forum on Reddit and someone posted a picture of themselves with Laura. My reaction was, who the fuck is that? So, I fired up the Google machine, found out about her story, the band and started listening to Against Me! I quickly realized not only did I love the music, but I knew a few songs like Don't Lose Touch & Teenage Anarchist, I just didn’t know who it was that sang them or her story.
Fast forward a few months later and we're flying to Vegas to see Against Me! open for Bad Religion (with Dave Hause on first). There I am, in Vegas, it's one of the very first times out of the house in my life as the true me and I found my home. We made new friends that very first night from Australia & New Zealand. Friends that we were planning on seeing again this year until PRB was canceled(next year is gonna be awesome ladies)!!! Amazingly we got to meet Laura that first night, she asked the 5 of us (the two of us and the 3 ladies from AUS/NZ) if we wanted to walk with her to the 7-11 across the street to buy a last minute birthday gift for a crew member. I think it was Mark, their sound engineer and the bassist playing with her in the Devouring Mothers, although I could be wrong, it was almost 4 years ago. Those moments and so many after finally made me feel at home. Punk found me when I was about 43 years old and I’ve never I been happier, more at peace and more a part of something in my life.
Next time I’ll write about our life since and much more about my journey into the punk community. Almost all our new friends are from the scene somehow. So thank you, Punk Rock, thank you for being a home and a community I didn't know I needed, for allowing me to meet so many awesome people, including all of you amazing women here as part of Mable Syndrome!!!