Lived experiences. Many people balk at this notion of sharing the experiences you have had with other people with the purpose of advocating for people who are going through similar things. Anyone who has heard my story knows that my advocacy work began because I stopped being afraid to share my lived experiences with others. As a result of sharing my story with millions of people, I have actually helped to change lives. For example, someone in the media who interviewed me back in 2013 on the subject of marriage equality told me later that she changed her views on same-sex marriage after she heard my story. Just this year I found out that hearing my story offered one trans man the courage he needed to come out to his family and colleagues. Just think. If I had not told my story, two people would still be living lives which were not the best lives they could live.
I think our hesitation to share our stories is rooted in the fear which is facilitated by stigma. Marsha Linehan, psychologist extraordinaire and creator of Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT), said as much in Atlanta last year. Linehan, who has lived with Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) all of her life, stated that she was afraid to tell her story because she was worried people would not take her work seriously (DBT is the gold-standard treatment for BPD). It was only after people convinced her that telling her story would help those with BPD realize they too could have fully functioning and successful lives that Linehan began to tell her story. Indeed, when I heard it my reaction was the opposite of what she had expected. I felt her work had more credence because she, herself, understands BPD better than anyone else.
Stigma is what kept me from telling my story. I came out as transgender in 2013, after years of feeling worthless, unlovable, ugly, and like no one could ever understand what I was going through. I made a suicide attempt in 2011, and have struggled with thoughts of suicide associated with the intense social isolation I feel, as well as other risk factors I am exposed to on an hourly basis. I was unwilling to come out as transgender to myself or others until I began to hear about the lived experiences of other transgender folk who have transcended the ashes of stigma and live full and meaningful lives. Without their mentorship I probably would not be here today.
Sharing our lived experiences makes us incredibly vulnerable. In my story, I share many personal and devastating things. And every time I tell it I wonder if it will affect my career somewhere down the road. But I always remind myself that in sharing my lived experiences, I am offering hope the hundreds of thousands of transgender youth and adults who are struggling with identity and potentially thoughts of suicide. Moreover, I am helping those who are not transgender understand what it is like to have an identity crisis. Because when I share my story, the reactions of my transgender audience are: “she gets it.” The reactions of my cisgender (non-transgender) audience are: “oh, I never would have imagined that life could be like that.”
In his book, The Truth About Stories, Thomas King talks about how the sum total of our identity can be summed up in one word: story. Indeed, he says that “the truth about stories is that they are all that we are.” Our entire life is a story, and it is a story which is part of a larger ongoing narrative about why we are here and what we are supposed to do with the life that we have. Our customs and traditions are based on stories which have been passed down from generation to generation. As a result we are comfortable with receiving information in the form of a story. In sharing our lived experiences, we can reach audiences who would otherwise not be receptive to a bland shopping list of research.
In sharing our lived experiences, we invite others to pull up a chair, have a drink with us, and exchange our best stories. And in this exchange of stories, we invite others to consider walking in our shoes. And as King argues, once a story has been heard, it can never be unheard. Once someone is told your story, they are part of your story and they can never say “I never knew that.”
Won’t you consider sharing your story today?
We are working on compiling the lived experiences of transgender youth for a blog project we are working on. If you would like to have your story featured in this project, please email us at email@example.com.