I was privileged to interview the remarkably kind, fierce, brave, and delightful people featured in Authentic Selves and help get their words and images in front of you.
I come to my role in putting together Authentic Selves as a 75-year-old bisexual and queer cisgender woman and as the mother of a nonbinary 35-year-old. Despite the many relationships I’ve had with trans, nonbinary, and genderqueer people throughout my life, I still feel like I am an aspiring ally, learning as I go. I picture you, dear readers, as a gorgeously varied community of people who are also lifelong learners about yourselves and the people you love.
I’ve dedicated much of my work life as a journalist to Family Diversity Projects, the national nonprofit organization I cofounded 30 years ago with photographer Gigi Kaeser. Our mission has been to fightsha prejudice, bullying, and violence by helping to teach children, teens, and adults to respect all people without exception. To do this, we created eight traveling phototext exhibits about marginalized groups, including trans and nonbinary people, which have been shown in thousands of schools, colleges, libraries, museums, workplaces, and houses of worship nationwide. Our most well-known exhibit, Love Makes a Family: Portraits of LGBT People and Their Families (also published as a book), was the subject of a federal lawsuit in 1995 after some parents tried to prevent it from being shown at our local elementary schools. One sixth grader who finally got to see the exhibit wrote in the guest book, “We’re all created equal!!! Remember????”
Clearly, a huge number of people still don’t remember or live according to this core statement in our US Constitution. While I’ve been working on Authentic Selves, horribly transphobic and homophobic bills have been passed or are on the path to becoming law in many states in our divided nation. All over the country, books about LGBTQ+ people continue to be removed from school libraries and classroom shelves. Sadly, I can easily imagine that Authentic Selves may join the ranks of banned books.
I spent the past year interviewing the trans, nonbinary, and gender nonconforming people and many of their biological, adoptive, and chosen family members that you will meet and get to know in Authentic Selves. I don’t think I made it through any of the interviews without crying at least once—often due to the descriptions of pain, discrimination, bullying, and violence many of them had faced, but more often due to stories of healing, transformation, joy, and triumph made possible by authenticity in the face of immense challenges.
This book is coming out at a time when the increased visibility of trans and nonbinary people has resulted in increased violence and incendiary political rhetoric. It is more important than ever for trans and nonbinary people to be recognized and celebrated in their full authenticity. I’m grateful to everyone who agreed to share their story to help counter these violent political narratives and to offer representations of families who fully embrace the authenticity of their trans and nonbinary members.
I continue to hold on to hope that this world will someday be a safe and welcoming place for all people. Although I suspect that Authentic Selves will not lose its relevancy for many years to come, my most fervent hope is that someday—in the not-too-distant future—this book will be valuable because beautiful depictions of beautiful families are always inspiring but won’t be needed in the same ways that they are now. I try to envision a world where every person can come into their own understandings of their authentic selves without fear of what that revelation might do to their relationships and their ability to navigate the world with safety and joy.
For now, I urge you to look into the eyes of these magnificent human beings and read their words. Breathe in the love and wisdom they are offering you. Know in your heart the truth that all people are created equal and that all people are worthy of being celebrated. Period. No exceptions. Then go out and make that fact guide all your actions.
Peggy Gillespie (she/her), MA, CSW, is the cofounder and director of Family Diversity Projects,and editor of all of the organization’s exhibits and books, including Love Makes a Family: Portraits of LGBT People and Their Families (www.familydiversityprojects. org).
Ben and Bedaura Haseen
Medical student, transgender health care activist, researcher
I’m twenty-five years old, and I think I’m the only Bangladeshi American Muslim transgender medical student in the United States. I was born with my identical twin sister, Bedaura, in the city of Dhaka in Bangladesh, and our younger brother came along a few years later. My sister had a learning disability growing up and because of limited resources in Bangladesh, she couldn’t continue her schooling. My parents really wanted Bedaura to go to elementary school, so they decided to immigrate to America.
When we moved to the United States, we lived for four years in Queens, New York, in a neighborhood where there was a lot of gun violence. After someone was shot right below our apartment window, my mom had had enough. When I was around nine, my parents packed their bags and we moved to Georgia. My mom has never felt comfortable working in the United States because of the language barrier so she stays home. I think her English is great, honestly, but she feels very nervous talking to people in the outside world. My dad was a taxi driver in New York City, and in Georgia he drives for Uber. Our family has lived very simply in blue-collar neighborhoods throughout our entire lives.
Around the time we moved to Georgia, I started having crushes on girls. I was assigned female at birth, and I wasn’t interested in boys like all my other friends were. When I was around ten years old, I learned what it meant to be a homosexual and to my dismay I started to think that maybe I was a lesbian. I had a great deal of internalized homophobia because my Muslim faith and the culture I was raised in told me that I shouldn’t accept gay people.
While I was growing up, I always dreamt that I was a boy and never felt comfortable wearing girls’ clothing. When I got my first menstrual cycle, it was psychologically traumatic. I know that most girls don’t enjoy having a period at first, but for me, it felt like I was dying on the inside. I never put two and two together until, many years later in college, I figured out that I had been experiencing gender dysphoria for a long time.
In my last year of middle school, I realized I had to stop escaping from my feelings and acknowledge my attraction to girls. I started coming out as a lesbian to my closest friends and all of them took my news well. They all said that although it was surprising, they accepted me for who I am. When I came out to Bedaura, she said, “I love you for who you are, and that’s it.”
Unfortunately, Georgia in the early 2000s was not the most accepting place for queer youth, and as more people in school heard about my sexual orientation, I started getting bullied a lot, verbally and physically. I was still closeted with my parents, and my life at school continued to get worse to the point that I was suicidal.
I knew I couldn’t talk to my family, and even my friends didn’t really understand what I was going through. I was close to one counselor in high school, but I didn’t know if she liked LGBTQ+ kids. I took a chance because I was so desperate and knocked on her door. I was crying and I told her everything that I was going through, and thankfully she was incredibly kind and accepting. She became my guardian angel! I’m incredibly grateful to her. Finding that one person saved my life.
At sixteen, I was volunteering at a local public library and one day a little girl around six suddenly came up to me and just stood there. Without warning, she smacked me on the middle of my chest and yelled, “Why do you have breasts?” It was kind of hilarious. This child was rude to me and hit me, but for some reason, I was oddly appreciative of her. I felt like it was the first time anyone had ever given me a gender-affirming gesture.
Around that time, my mom went through my phone one morning, and she found out that I was talking romantically to another girl and confronted me about it. I was in such a low place in my life that I just gave up and told her I thought I was a lesbian. My mom didn’t take it well and basically told me I had to go back in the closet or else! She even mentioned conversion therapy, which really scared me because I had heard a lot of scary stories about that. I ended up going back in the closet, and I was miserable again for another two years.
Finally, when I turned eighteen and went away to college, so much freedom came into my life. I began to explore myself and relationships, and that’s when I first started to build my queer community. I had my first long-term relationship with a woman, and as I got more and more comfortable in my skin as a lesbian, I began to realize that it wasn’t just my sexual orientation that was different, but also my gender identity. I discussed my gender questions with my then-girlfriend, and she was super accepting. She told me, “If you are trans, I’m going to support you all the way.” Even though our relationship as a couple ended, I’m incredibly grateful for her understanding and kindness during that pivotal time in my life. She pushed me to go see a therapist, get a gender dysphoria diagnosis, and start hormone replacement therapy.
When I started my medical transition, my mom started to notice my physical changes. Six months into my transition, I sat down to talk with her. She said, “When you were growing up, you were always such a miserable kid. You never smiled in photos. You would cry almost every day. Now I see you are smiling. You are happy. You have so much to live for and you have so much passion in you.” My mom realized that I was a much, much happier person being who I truly was. She said she was sorry for what she had put me through when I first came out as a lesbian. (And my mom almost never apologizes for anything!)
I thought my dad was going to be the harder one to crack because he’s a very traditionally masculine man in a lot of ways. But when I came out to him as trans, he said, “Well, it’s weird, but I will learn to adjust.” My brother and sister have always been very supportive. They’ve really been my backbone, and they helped me have the courage to come out to my parents. Of course, it was hard for my sister to rewire herself to think she has a twin brother instead of a twin sister. She had taken it much easier when I had first come out as lesbian. Bedaura and I looked exactly alike up until we were about thirteen, and then we started looking a little different. Of course, people assume we are fraternal twins now.
At this point, my whole family here in America has accepted me, which makes me feel so hopeful. And surprisingly, my family in Bangladesh accepted me even faster than my family here. As people get more and more exposure to what it really means to be a trans person, most people realize that we are not a threat.
While I was in college, I was also doing a lot of research trying to figure out what I wanted to do with my life. I got a job working in a research study at Grady Hospital, the largest trauma hospital here in Atlanta, interviewing men who had lived through traumatic pasts. One of the men I was interviewing told me about his early sexual trauma and then he said something that changed my life. He told me, “You’re the first man I’ve ever felt comfortable sharing so much of myself with. I really hope you become a physician.” His statement was the catalyst that led me to pursue medicine as a career.
Around the same time, Bedaura was diagnosed with lupus and was in the hospital for about a month. She had some good doctors, but she also had some terrible doctors who were incredibly mean to my parents because they were immigrants and didn’t speak perfect English. The experience of seeing these doctors talk down to my mom and dad made me feel like I had a responsibility to become a good physician who would make all people comfortable.
I chose to go to Morehouse School of Medicine here in Atlanta and during my first year of medical school, I began my medical transition. I’m in my third year now, so I’m almost three years into my transition and I live fully as a trans man. My entire medical school class has witnessed my transition up close, and since then, I’ve been doing a lot of advocacy work about being a trans man of color in the medical system, both as a provider and as a patient.
I’ve had so many trans immigrants message me on social media and say things like, “I’ve never felt validated by someone in the medical field until I found your social media profile and saw the work that you are doing.” I’ve started a YouTube channel where I talk about being a trans man and discuss the importance of easy access to medical knowledge for all trans and nonbinary people. I’ve also been able to connect through Twitter to a bunch of trans medical students around the country who are doing the work of changing medical curricula. Right now, I’m working on a podcast about making trans health care knowledge accessible to all med students. We are collectively working together to make medicine more inclusive.
I’ve given talks about transgender health needs at Emory University School of Medicine, where I received the huge honor of leading grand rounds—something that’s almost never done by a medical student. Usually, grand rounds are led by a physician who is an expert in one field, and they teach other physicians in other fields about their work. I was also invited to the South Asian American Policy and Research Institute to talk about the health disparities of being South Asian and transgender in the American medical system. I recently got asked to be a reviewer on an LGBTQ+ health article for The Lancet. It is one of the most recognizable scientific health journals in the world! I’m finally being recognized for my expertise in this field.
When I was growing up, I didn’t have anyone to look up to and I definitely did not know any trans doctors, so it is my goal to continue to be visible regardless of what I’m going through at what time in my life so that other people can know that this is possible and something that they can strive for.
Most of my classmates have been super supportive. Many of them immediately started using my correct pronouns, but there have been a small handful of students who have said awful things behind my back. One student told another classmate that I’m just a girl pretending to be a boy. I confronted him and told him he can’t say those kinds of things, especially as a future physician. He took it well and apologized. In fact, he felt incredibly guilty, and I think he took the criticism to heart.
I don’t usually tell my patients that I’m trans, but I wear two pins on my white coat—one is the trans flag pin and the other has my he/him pronouns. If the patient is queer, they immediately open up to me. If a patient doesn’t know what the pins mean and doesn’t mention them, we just go on with the exam. I haven’t yet felt the need to come out to any of my patients, but I imagine I’ll do that at some point in my career. One queer woman came into a vaccination clinic looking incredibly nervous because she was afraid of shots, but her fearful expression turned into a smile and her eyes brightened up when she noticed my pins. It was great that this patient felt better knowing I was queer friendly.
For the last two years, I have been invited by the Health Careers Opportunity Program Academy at Morehouse School of Medicine for Black and brown disadvantaged future medical students to teach body diverse and gender inclusive applied anatomy! Teaching is one of my passions and I love the opportunity to show off being Professor Ben! And the best news, I just passed my last licensing exam for medical school! Dr. Ben Haseen coming soon in 2023!!!
On a personal level, after my first long-term relationship ended, I wanted to find community. I was the only trans person I knew, and I was also the only trans Muslim South Asian person I knew about. When I searched online for “transgender Muslim Americans,” the name Feroza Syed showed up. I found out that she also lived in Atlanta and was an activist—what a small world! I immediately went to a talk that she was doing about bisexual health, and as soon as I showed up at the event, Feroza and I locked eyes. It was almost like a fairy tale. We were the only two South Asian people in the room, and I just looked at her and she looked at me and we smiled. After the event, Feroza introduced me to many other LGBTQ+ Muslims. That’s how I reconnected with my religion and my ethnic community.
Working with Feroza to do community building with queer LGBTQ+ Muslims and South Asians has really reignited my passion for being an out and proud trans South Asian American Muslim! As I’ve started to come out within the more traditional Muslim community, people are getting to see me as the person I am, rather than seeing me as a sinner. I believe that they are slowly coming around.
Because of my online advocacy work, I get a lot of death threats and I’ve had terrible things said to me. I’ve even been called a child molester because I’m trans. And as a brown Muslim trans man, I worry about my safety, especially at airports. TSA always goes through my bags more carefully, and when I go through the scanning machine and the TSA folks don’t see male body parts, they often start asking me a lot of questions.
There is so much violence directed at trans women of color, especially Black trans women. One of my neighbors, a transgender Latina woman who lived two miles away from me, was murdered recently right outside her apartment. I want to help in some way to make the world safer for BIPOC trans people.
My advice to younger trans and nonbinary kids is to find your people. Those people don’t have to be physically present to be there for you. There are so many wonderful groups available now. There’s one group called Desi Rainbow Parents that is an inclusive LGBTQ+ group for South Asian kids. There are even a lot of very good children’s television shows that are trans inclusive, like She-Ra and the Princesses of Power. I’ve watched all the episodes, even though they were made for children! She-Ra has positive trans and nonbinary characters, which is amazing to see. When I was ten years old, where was She-Ra?
I will continue to fight for the rights of trans kids everywhere and I will always have their backs. When I was growing up, I didn’t have anyone to look up to and I didn’t know any trans doctors, so it’s my goal to continue to be visible regardless of what I’m going through in my life. When people ask me what I want out of my life, I have a simple answer. I want to be remembered by my patients when I’m no longer here. I want them to say, “Ben was a kind doctor and he cared about me.”
College registrar’s assistant
My identical twin sister is now my twin brother, Ben. He is five minutes older than me. When Ben and I were little and throughout elementary school, we wore matching clothes all the time. We used to play together with Barbies but at the same time, Ben wanted short hair and to wear jeans, not dresses. My mom was good with him and let him cut his hair short and wear the clothes he preferred. Our classmates and teachers didn’t have any trouble telling us apart because Ben was always the gifted student on the honor roll, and he dressed like a boy. Ben was kind of an ideal kid. I was in the shadows and most people only knew me because they knew Ben. I always had to compete with Ben, but now I’m so grateful because the competition helped me push myself to succeed in school.
Not many Muslim scholars speak about transgender people. I know in Bangladesh there are a lot of transgender people, and they are accepted. When Ben came out, everyone in our family here and in Bangladesh accepted him. My dad’s family is from a small village where they don’t even have electricity and they accepted Ben! What I do know and believe is that everyone should be happy about what God gave them. I truly accept that idea. Right now, it’s hard for me to drive because of my slow reaction time from my health problems and I could be unhappy because all my friends are driving. Instead, I say, “This is what God gave me. Maybe there’s a good reason for me not to be driving.”
Ben is always busy with his medical school, and we don’t talk much when we are apart, but when we get together, we have a great time. Sometimes we go hiking or dine out or go to museums together. I’m happy for the work Ben is doing right now, especially his advocacy work. I have faith that he is helping a lot of people already and I am positive that he will be a great doctor in the future.
Ben has an immense amount of positive heart, often more heart than someone who is praying all day. For example, if you compare a Muslim woman who wears the hijab but doesn’t fulfill the five pillars of Islam—which include charity and submission to God—to a woman who doesn’t wear the hijab but does fulfill the five pillars, you can see that being a loving person is the most important thing in life.
In my final year of college, I came out to my best friends that my twin sister had transitioned and become my brother, a trans man. One friend who also follows Ben on social media said, “There’s nothing wrong with that. I still love you and if you need anything, just call me.” In fact, all my friends thought it was cool and they are all very supportive of Ben.
I don’t miss having my twin sister because when Ben transitioned, I didn’t lose my sibling. I didn’t lose Ben! When we were both girls our parents were more protective of us when we went out just because we were both girls. Now I can go out more freely. When we were both girls, day trips were fine, but now I can plan an overnight trip because Ben will be with me.
The thing I admire most about Ben is that he seems like a tough person on the surface, but underneath it all he is really kind. If he gets mad at me, the next day he’ll buy me a box of chocolates. He’s got one of the softest hearts I know, but you really must know him to know that.
When Ben came out, my mom was nervous because there are hate crimes all over the United States, even in liberal states. Now that Ben is doing advocacy work, Mom will say, “Why is Ben trying to be so public like Bill Gates?” Other than that, my mom is less concerned with Ben being transgender, but she’s concerned that he has distanced himself from the Muslim faith. I try to comfort her, as there is a verse in the Quran that says that whenever God wants someone to have faith, they will have faith. God probably wanted me to have faith, so I accepted Islam fully. Maybe it will take Ben more time. God doesn’t just give faith to you—you must work for it.
When Ben first came out to our mom, I was right there. Ben called and told her, and Mom cried and asked him a lot of questions because she was curious. She said, “What is happening with my daughter?” Then Mom and Ben decided they were going to tell my dad on the weekend when Ben was coming home for dinner. My mom tried her hardest to keep the news in, but she just couldn’t and she was crying when she called my dad to tell him about Ben. My dad was a very strict father, so I was nervous about how he would react. Instead of being upset, to my surprise, my dad was laughing and happy. He called Ben, and they had a good conversation. There has been no conflict between my dad and Ben about him being trans. My dad then called all his relatives in Bangladesh and started telling them, and they were all accepting.
Love and support are the most important things anybody can have; it’s important for everyone to love their trans family members. In India there are a lot of trans people who are looked up to as they embody the two spirits of female and male joined together. As far as my relationship with Ben, God taught us how to love all people. It’s not for me to judge anyone. The only person in the universe who can judge is our creator.
I love Ben as my brother just as he is. Being trans has never changed our love and never will. We will always be twins.
Jozeppi Angelo Morelli and Chris Mohn
Jozeppi Angelo Morelli
Retired state police investigator, activist, public speaker
I’m a retired New York State police investigator and federal agent, and I was a first responder at the World Trade Center disaster on 9/11. I currently live in what I call rural white America, in Sedona, Arizona, which is on the sacred soil of the Yavapai-Apache nation and the Hopi tribe.
I was raised as a girl with white privilege by white adoptive parents in a traditional Italian Catholic home in New Jersey. On May 25, 2021, I underwent genderaffirming surgery at the age of fifty-four. I had always felt awkward in my body as a kid, but I thought it might be because I was a transracial adoptee. I gravitated more to traditionally male sports rather than the sports that girls were allowed to play back then. I focused on being the best athlete I could be and spent very little time connecting with other classmates except in sports venues.
I knew in sixth grade that I liked girls, but I didn’t have words for those feelings. Only boy/girl relationships were talked about in my school. It wasn’t until college in the late ’80s when a female friend handed me the book That’s Not What I Meant! by Deborah Tannen that I began to understand myself. Most of all, I recognized how much I thought like a man. I still had no language or idea what transgender was, so I concluded that maybe I was a lesbian. I had hidden relationships with women and fake relationships with men to satisfy my family.
I lived as a lesbian for years, but I always felt more like a man than a woman. However, I didn’t give my gender or sexuality much thought because I was so focused on my job. Now I know that I had built a wall of distractions to avoid facing the truth about my gender identity.
I studied criminal justice and psychology in college so I could follow in the footsteps of my law enforcement family. I was offered a job as a state police investigator in the early ’90s and I took it. New York City, here I come! In the 1990s I was assigned to a federal task force at the World Trade Center. On the morning of September 11, 2001, I stopped near the Brooklyn Bridge to pick up bagels to bring to work and received a call telling me that a plane had hit the World Trade Center and that there were two others missing in flight.
I immediately ran to my uncle’s office at the Kings County District Attorney’s Office to get him out of Brooklyn. His office overlooked the Manhattan skyline, and we saw the second plane hit the second tower. Everything seemed surreal, as though time was happening in slow motion. After that, I was directed to help get a fire truck in Brooklyn to go directly to the World Trade Center. I stayed in Brooklyn, attempting to guide fleeing people and their vehicles to safety. The fire truck went over the bridge and never returned. All the firefighters on that truck died that day. I drove over the bridge, witnessing horrific sights as the twin towers collapsed. It is a day and time that still haunts me even twenty years later.
I was disconnected from myself after September 11th, and certainly felt that no one who hadn’t been there could relate to me. Grief and despair were always present, not only for the lives lost, but also because I felt that no one would know the truth of what really happened. It is interesting to me how suppression of the truth has shaped this country in so many ways, especially for marginalized communities. My Catholic faith, my upbringing, and my job all taught me that silence is the best practice. It has been a challenging journey to unlearn some of that.
It wasn’t until 2009 when I met an awesome Black trans woman at work that I even began to comprehend that I might be trans too. She talked to me about gender dysphoria—the distress felt due to the mismatch between someone’s personal sense of their gender and the gender assigned to them at birth—and told me her personal story.
That definition does not begin to describe the soul-searching, gut-wrenching, turbulent, compartmentalizing process that many gender nonconforming people go through, including myself. For me and many others, it was a time of not knowing, then wondering, and finally accepting the reality that you were not born into the right body for who you know yourself to be. You think and fear you are going to be rejected, lose your job, your partner, your family, your God, your friends, and your life as you know it. You go to a place of heaviness and grief until you have the courage to confront it and risk losing it all.
I wasn’t ready yet to take that leap, so I chose again to live in silence. I’d been wearing men’s clothes for twelve years and engaged in relationships with women playing a traditional male role, but I diminished the importance of gender identity. I asked myself repeatedly, “What’s in an identity?” Obviously there is a lot, because suppressing my authentic self was soul-crushing!
In late 2011, I finally started taking steps toward claiming my real identity as a trans man. I legally changed my name to Joey and started asking people to call me Joey. (It was only after my gender-affirming surgery that I legally changed my full name to Jozeppi Angelo). I also started reading up on testosterone. I discussed my feelings about transitioning to male with my doctor, but not with anyone else. At that point my health was deteriorating, most likely because of exposure to chemicals on 9/11. I had difficulty breathing, liver disorders, and bad migraines. I was afraid I might die, as had some of my 9/11 colleagues, before I had the chance to be me.
I was so nervous, but also excited, when I finally had the courage to take testosterone. Unfortunately, I had to stop taking it rather quickly due to my 9/11 health issues. I was devastated and decided to just go through the motions of living. My health continued to take all my energy. I had a few mini strokes and was diagnosed with polycythemia. Feeling unwell was the norm for me, and doctor appointments filled my calendar.
During this same period, I was beginning to question the relationship between the police and marginalized communities. I felt particularly uncomfortable in my professional role. I was dating mostly women of color. The Trayvon Martin case turned our squad room into an “us versus them” atmosphere. I stood without hesitation with my Black and brown colleagues. There was no doubt that white supremacy existed in my workplace and that some of my fellow police officers expressed these racist beliefs openly at work. This shook me to the core. The continuing deaths of my Black and brown siblings at the hands of my law enforcement siblings and my growing awareness of the murders of trans women, particularly Black trans women, left me feeling confused, emotionally detached, and overwhelmed.
During this time, I was encouraged by a friend to attend a Revolutionary Love conference at the Middle Collegiate Church in the East Village of Manhattan. I was told that this conference connected the concepts of love and justice in many different areas of life and that it would give me a deeper understanding of intersectionality among marginalized communities. Attending this conference changed my life! I listened intently to the many speakers who expressed their passion for equality and justice, and I was very intrigued by Middle Collegiate Church’s multicultural diversity. I loved the energy I felt in this church, and the ministers were fully committed to justice work. I became an actively involved member of the church.
I now call the senior minister, Rev. Dr. Jacqui Lewis, my big sister. She is a strong Black woman who has a heart as big as this world, and she has compassion and wisdom to match. Rev. Jacqui encourages me to use my voice to speak out about gender issues and creates a safe space for me to share my story. It is she and other strong, unconditionally loving, and God-centered women who have helped me be the man and activist I am today.
One Sunday night I sat in a pew under one of the beautiful stained-glass windows, a place I often gravitated to. I looked up and written on the window was the date June 6, which happened to be my Nana’s birthday. She had been my best friend and died at the age of ninety-two shortly after 9/11, which had added to my feelings of emptiness and sorrow. Sitting in the pew that night, I knew that this church had called to me and that I finally had found a place of peace inside myself. When Middle burned down in 2020, I sobbed. In that building, I had learned about and felt unconditional love and truly understood that this trans man has a seat at God’s table.
I retired from law enforcement due to my deteriorating health and three years later, I made the decision to move to Sedona, Arizona, because Western medicine wasn’t working for me. I knew that my Middle Collegiate Church family would always be with me even after I moved.
When I arrived in Sedona, my lymphatic system was shutting down and I had tumors in all parts of my body. I began working with my naturopath practitioner and went through a two-year, grueling, roller-coaster healing journey incorporating a plant-based Indigenous diet and detox methods with ayurvedic practices. Early on in this journey I recognized that my own healing required me to connect to my gender identity. My mantra became, “Honor the body I’m in, and love and be the man I’ve always been inside.”
I spent my first year in Sedona focused entirely on my physical health, trying to stay alive and heal from my 9/11-related diseases. I didn’t connect with many people during this period and when I began to, it was challenging. I was often misgendered, sometimes purposefully. I would repeatedly request that others use he/him pronouns to describe me, and I spent a lot of time and energy educating people about using correct pronouns even in my LGBTQIA2S+ community. I didn’t realize how hard it would be for me or other trans people to be accepted and affirmed there.
It was my connections with my Indigenous identity and communities that sustained me during this time. For years, aware from adoption records that I was partly Indigenous, I had sporadically learned about history and connected with other Indigenous people. Living in Sedona, near them, I could immerse myself in that part of my identity. I learned, listened, and leaned into my Indigenous spirit, honored to be guided by several Indigenous elders. They all supported me through the growth of my Spirit Walk, toward acceptance and adoption into the Hopi family. Grandmother Roanna Jackson adopted me into her family, the Hopi Sand Clan, in 2021.
My Hopi siblings gave me the name Flower Rock, which is a threetier boulder that guards the First Mesa of Hopi Land. Mysteriously, flowers bloom from this rock every spring. Valencia, my Hopi sister, says, “Only a bulldozer can move Flower Rock, just like Joey.” Grandmother Roanna gave me the name Snake Warrior. Snake medicine is powerful, primal, healing, and transformational. My Hopi family sees, welcomes, and accepts who I am. We have never talked about my transition. We continue to share deep heart experiences and conversations.
As my health continued to improve, after a year in Sedona, I became involved with our local LGBTQIA2S+ organization. We held a transgender summit for the whole state of Arizona. I was the emcee at this sold-out event! During this summit I became vividly aware of the intersectionality of race, sexual orientation, and gender identity. I was also reminded of the lack of understanding and support for the BIPOC community, who experience most of the violence, housing and job discrimination, and homelessness.
Misgendering, microaggressions, and macroaggressions toward me and other gender nonconforming folks continued. For example, one gay white man often remarked that my voice wasn’t deep enough. He would sit in his office at work and talk openly to others about me. Another gay white man repeatedly called me “she” whenever he was talking about me to other people. I continued to request that these men use my correct pronouns and respect my trans male identity, but they never did. The only person in Sedona I shared these experiences with was my therapist. The emotional damage was taking a toll on my body and my heart.
I never imagined experiencing harassment from white gay men in their sixties. However, I’ve since learned from personal experience and from other trans people that the cisgender lesbian, gay, and bisexual community does not always understand or affirm the trans, nonbinary, and gender nonconforming community, a division that needs to end. In the past few months, I’ve realized that Sedona is not a welcoming community. It has been the continued presence of my friends, Indigenous family, and faith community that has kept my spirits up.
We are currently experiencing anti-transgender legislation all around the country. The propaganda pushed by legislators, religious leaders, and parents is not based on facts and is blatant discrimination. My personal hope lies in our youth. I’ve witnessed some amazingly courageous trans and nonbinary youth activists and I’ve asked them to join me in using our voices together to undo damaging anti-trans legislation. Young folks are speaking up and taking their protests to the streets, to courtrooms, and to social media, where they are creating queer-positive peer groups and online communities. They are determined to disrupt the stifling environment that so many transgender and nonbinary youth are living in today.
When I started my healing journey, I blamed my bad health completely on the 9/11 toxins. That was only partly true. My healing process taught me that 9/11 was just a part of the iceberg within me. I had buried truths about the emotional, mental, and physical abuse I had experienced as a child from a sibling and the impact my parents’ inaction had on me. Choosing to be silent, building walls, and suppressing all these truths for decades almost cost me my life. If I could say anything to my younger self, it would be, “Breathe. You will be safe and in control of your life when you get older.”
I haven’t said much about my immediate family or relationships because I’ve always kept my private life private due to my job and because of the lack of acceptance from my family. My relationship with my mother was always challenging and complicated. In recent years, despite my frequent requests, she refused to call me Joey. However, just before she passed, she gave me a great gift. I flew east to see her right before her death. When I sat down at her bedside, she was sleeping. I touched her and said “Annunziata, che fai,” Italian for “Nancy, what are you doing?” I had always greeted my mother this way on the phone because then she knew it was me.
Surprisingly, she opened her eyes and said, “Hey, Joey.” And then she closed her eyes. Those were the last words she spoke to me. I sat quietly by her side filled with emotion, holding her hand. Her caregiver was shocked. “Oh, my gosh. Your mother told me that she would never call you Joey.” I felt deeply touched that my mom had finally recognized me as the man I am today. Her son, Joey.
My family today is my chosen family. I have Pastor Jacqui Lewis from Middle Collegiate Church and Chris Nelson Mohn, a special friend whom I met before I transitioned. I have also coparented a few multicultural children in different stages of their lives. I recently had the honor to officiate at my chosen daughter’s wedding. I also have my Hopi Indian family in Arizona whom I honor by supporting them financially and helping their children strive for a better future and education.
I met Chris Mohn in 2013 on the Living Legacy Pilgrimage, a trip to famous civil rights sites. She and I sat at the same table the first night. Every day for the next weeks, we processed what we were witnessing and how it was impacting us. We also began to share our personal lives and continued to communicate after the trip. Chris and her partner visited me in Brooklyn, listened to my law enforcement stories, went with me to Washington, DC, for the National Peace Officer Memorial week, and visited me in Sedona twice to witness my life with my Indigenous community and to support my transition. I visited Chris in Massachusetts right after my mother’s death in New Jersey. Chris is and will always be a part of my chosen family.
As for me, at long last I’ve become the man I always knew I was. I feel like a man. I am a man. All is finally well and whole with my soul. I live by the philosophy that everyone, including myself, wants to be seen, heard, loved, and affirmed. If I can do anything to facilitate that kind of life for any trans or nonbinary person of any age, I will. I hope those of you reading my words will join me in the challenge and joy of creating compassionate, safe places that honor diversity and equality, places where no human must live in the margins of society.
Retired teacher, parent, Unitarian Universalist
I met Joey before his transition when we both went on the Living Legacy Pilgrimage. This tour was founded by the Unitarian Universalist minister Gordon Gibson, to meet the people, hear the stories, and visit the sites that changed the world in the Civil Rights movement. Not only were Joey and I re-energized in our commitment to racial justice, but we also became friends.
Since then, I have witnessed his journey to accept and become his true self, a queer man, and a passionate advocate for the trans community, locally and nationally. However, that is only part of his story. His professional life as a (now retired) law enforcement officer and his Two-Spirit Hopi family life, for example, are also significant, sometimes conflicting and challenging, parts of his identity. He is committed to bringing people with different understandings about these identities together to hear, see, accept one another, to bridge divides, and to work together for justice for all.
As a Unitarian Universalist, one of my Sources of wisdom and the one that is most important to me is “Words and deeds of prophetic people which challenge us to confront powers and structures of evil with justice, compassion, and the transforming power of love.” Joey and many of my adolescent students in the LGBTQ+ community are such “prophetic people” for me because of the way they live their lives. Their stories of survival, authenticity, courage, creativity, and persistence inspire me to be present for truth telling, companion the “othered,” and dig deep for my own authenticity, courage, creativity, and persistence for myself and in the service of others.
Foreword by Jazz and Jeanette Jennings, Preface by Brian Bond, Ex. Director, PFLAG National
AUTHENTIC SELVES is also a powerful traveling photo-text exhibit that you can bring to your schools (K-12), libraries, universities, houses of worship, museums, and workplaces. For more information about bringing the exhibit to your community, visit Family Diversity Project’s website: www.familydiversityprojects.org
Celebrating Trans and Nonbinary People and Their Families
Interviews by Peggy Gillespie
Photographs by Robin Rayne, Jill Meyers, and others
Alex Kapitan, consultant In collaboration with PFLAG National, The Transgender Legal Defense & Education Fund, and Family Diversity Projects
Based on an exhibit originally created by Jack Pierson with Peggy Gillespie and Gigi Kaeser for Family Diversity Projects.
“Love—the beauty of it, the joy of it and even the pain of it—is the most incredible gift to give and receive as a human being.”
This book celebrates trans and nonbinary people and their families. The journey of self-discovery for the participants and for you, the readers, continues. Whether you are trans and/or nonbinary, questioning your identity, have trans and nonbinary loved ones, or perhaps all of the above, please remember always that you are not alone. In every moment of your lives there are opportunities to strengthen your pride and acceptance of all people, including yourselves.
Dear readers, I am wishing strength and loving kindness to all of you. Please take good care of each other and your beautiful authentic selves. Here below are some resources for support, deeper learning, and advocacy.
Resources for Exploring Identity
Gender Identity Workbook for Teens: Practical Exercises to Navigate Your Exploration, Support Your Journey, and Celebrate Who You Are by Andrew Maxwell Triska (2021)
The Queer and Transgender Resilience Workbook: Skills for Navigating Sexual Orientation and Gender Expression by Anneliese A. Singh (2018)
Seeing Gender: An Illustrated Guide to Identity and Expression by Iris Gottlieb (2019)
You and Your Gender Identity: A Guide to Discovery by Dara Hoffman-Fox (2017)
Resources for Family Members and Allies
The Gender Creative Child: Pathways for Nurturing and Supporting Children Who Live Outside Gender Boxes by Diane Ehrensaft (2016)
The Reflective Workbook for Partners of Transgender People: Your Transition as Your Partner Transitions by D. M. Maynard (2019)
Trans Allyship Workbook: Building Skills to Support Trans People in Our Lives by Davey Schlasko (2017)
The Transgender Child: A Handbook for Parents and Professionals Supporting Transgender and Nonbinary Children by Stephanie Brill and Rachel Pepper (rev. and updated ed., 2022)
The Transgender Teen: A Handbook for Parents and Professionals Supporting Transgender and Non-Binary Teens by Stephanie Brill and Lisa Kenney (2016)
Organizations to Follow, Support, and Learn From
There are many worthy organizations, from large national networks to small regional ones, that are doing vital work to support transgender and nonbinary people and their families. The following selection represents just a few good sources for up-to-date information, resources, and advocacy opportunities. Be sure to look into advocacy groups, support networks, and trans-led organizations in your local area to access resources tailored to your region.
Equality Federation (equalityfederation.org): an organization that does grassroots state-based organizing across the United States to advance pro-LGBTQ policies and defeat anti-LGBTQ legislation, including anti-trans bills
Family Equality (familyequality.org): an organization that works to resource and advocate for families with LGBTQ parents and/or children through community building, media projects, and legal advocacy
GenderCool (gendercool.org): an organization that shares positive stories of trans and nonbinary young people and works to dispel myths about trans and nonbinary youth through speaking engagements and inclusivity consultation Gender Spectrum (genderspectrum.org): one of the leading US organizations offering training and support for educators and other professionals, with the goal of creating gender-sensitive and inclusive environments for all children and teens
Genders & Sexualities Alliance Network (gsanetwork.org): a national US network of GSAs that supports youth-led LGBTQ groups and trains queer, trans, and allied youth leaders to advocate for safer schools and communities
Global Action for Trans Equality (gate.ngo): an international advocacy organization working toward justice and equality for trans, gender diverse, and intersex communities
GLSEN (glsen.org): the longest-running US network of students, families, and educators working to create affirming school environments for LGBTQ students through resources, research, and policy work
PFLAG (pflag.org): the first and largest US organization dedicated to supporting, educating, and advocating for LGBTQ+ families, particularly parents and other family members of LGBTQ+ people, with hundreds of local chapters across the country
Transgender Law Center (transgenderlawcenter.org): the largest trans-led organization in the United States, working toward trans liberation through advocacy, litigation, organizing, and movement building, rooted in racial justice
Transgender Legal Defense & Education Fund (transgenderlegal. org): an organization working to end discrimination and achieve equality for trans people in the US through public education, test-case litigation, direct legal services, and public policy efforts
Trans Lifeline (translifeline.org): a trans-led organization that connects trans people to the community, support, and resources they need to survive and thrive, including microgrants and a peer support hotline
Trans Youth Equality Foundation (transyouthequality. org): an organization that supports trans, nonbinary, and gender nonconforming young people through support groups, retreats, and other resources
The Trevor Project (thetrevorproject.org): the world’s largest suicide prevention and mental health organization for young LGBTQ+ people, offering youth crisis support, legal advocacy, research, and educator training