One journey to and through the community Part 3 of 4

By Guest Blogger Gretchen Rachel Hammond

Gretchen Rachel Hammond is a senior staff writer for the Chicago-based LGBTQ publication the Windy City Times and the 2015 recipient of the prestigious Lisagor Award.  Hammond has also written novels like The Last Circle.  

The Exchange Company had a motto which they expected each of its participants to live by: “Not right, not wrong, just different.”

It was something my fellow exchange students and I repeated endlessly upon our initial arrival at New York’s JFK international airport. I came to the U.S. with three suitcases—two packed lightly with male clothes and one stuffed with the various female items I had secretly gathered in nervous visits to thrift shops. I always considered that suitcase the most important, because it contained peace.

So it was at JFK that I discovered even a luggage cart came at a price and that the most pristine dollar bill would still be rejected by its infernal metal guardian.

In our hotel room that evening, my fellow students and I observed that American television was an exercise in trying to discern the actual program from the commercials. We watched, flabbergasted as one channel showed a sweaty, gruesome looking fellow in a bad tie, screaming about “Jeeeezus” until he was hoarse and curing people of various ailments by hitting them on the head. It wasn’t so much the ragingly insane man who worried us; it was the 40,000 plus people in the stadium who actually believed him. 

When it was announced that the whole event was taking place in Louisville Kentucky, just across the bridge from New Albany, I gulped in fear. I had made little secret of the fact that I was no fan of organized religion.

In England that had been no problem. Here, I wondered whether being burned at the stake was probably still carried out South of the Ohio River. My fellow students, all on their way to Los Angeles, New York and Miami, advised me to keep quiet about religion and, if asked, just say that I was a member of the Church of England.

“Are you religious?” was one of the first questions the Mormon family with whom I was placed, asked me. While choking on a spoonful of tasteless All-American grits and attempting to gulp it down with a glass of a vile, purple substance named Kool Aid (it was either that or cold tea) I replied, nervously “I am a member of the Church of England.”

“What’s that?”

“Oh,” I shrugged with a charming smile. “That’s just the church that Henry VIII made himself head of in order to get a divorce from his wife.”

Things were never quite the same between us after that. Despite the efforts of the family to convert me to Mormonism with the help of a pair of High School boys wearing black suits and an eerie, distant expression, I was still no closer to myself.

When I ventured into the cafeteria on my first day of school, I received my first real dose of American life that was not mentioned even in the small print of the country’s well-marketed American dream.

All the white kids were gathered in the center of the room. The Black kids were around the periphery. No one attempted to cross those lines.

Yet, unlike England, my own skin tone seemed to be ignored in favor of my accent. Once I finally understood why it was never advisable to ask a teacher for a spare rubber or a passing stranger if they had a fag I could bum, it all seemed plain sailing.

It was during this year in which I discovered, that a school was not just about reading, writing, arithmetic or Latin vocabulary. No teacher would lay a cane, gym shoe or a finger upon you. Quite the contrary, thanks to a man named David Longest, I learned that a teacher could be a most nurturing ally, and that they did, in fact, passionately care about your future and your dreams.

I found more friends and lovers than I had ever thought possible. It was so simple. All one had to do, in response to the questions like “You’re from England? Wow! I have a cousin from England, do you know her?” or “Do you, like, know Princess Di?” was to reply in a nonchalant, deliberately, elevated accent:

“Why yes. Everyone in England are best mates and we hang out together all the time.”

And you were either in bed or inseparable before you had time to take another sip of beer flavored water.

Yet, despite all this, I was still no closer to being me.

I was determined to stay in America after my exchange concluded and, for the next 20 years, I sought myself everywhere from Louisville to Boston, Indianapolis, the ever elusive Los Angeles and finally Chicago. Throughout my travels, the extra suitcase was always with me.

I thought I could define me by becoming an actor. No such luck.

I tried marrying, twice, and had a son during each. My differences led to heartbreaking divorces in both cases.

I am still close to Fred, the son from my first marriage and love him beyond all adequate description.

Alex, the son from my second, was taken away from me by my fanatically Evangelical ex. Because the Indiana family courts believed that crossdressing was some kind of “perversion”, I could only see him during supervised visits reserved for those considered to be a danger to their child. Those visits cost money I simply could not afford. Alex was subsequently adopted. I haven’t seen him since he was four months old. I wonder today if he even knows about me and what I would say if I ever met him.

 It was during and after my second marriage that I twice attempted suicide. I remember standing on the sidewalk of Washington Street on the East Side of Indianapolis and waiting for a bus to come along. I took one last deep breath and prepared to step in front of it. It was the sudden image of Fred in my mind which stopped me.

Far from America solving my problem, it instead brought the whole thing into sharper focus: I wasn’t right, something about me was wrong and I would forever be different.

I had reached the bottom of my own, personal abyss. When that happens, you have two choices: let it swallow you up or somehow find a way to climb up and out.

It was during that escape that I ended up in Chicago and in the care of Mark Johns whom I spoke of earlier.  

It happened by accident. After years of attempting my hand at performing in and fundraising for impoverished Midwestern theatres, I happened upon a job with an Educational Foundation which provided teachers with their own version of the Academy Awards. With it came, for the first time in my American life, health insurance and on a warm, Saturday morning in July 2007, I walked timidly into Mark’s Evanston office, with very little hope that he could do anything for me. It was during our first few sessions, when I described everything I had gone through as a child, my feelings betrayed only in the secrecy of my bedroom and my life as an adult that he suggested a word and an accompanying diagnosis.

I’d heard that word before in a different format bandied about with either hilarity or absolute disdain over the years, but didn’t quite know what it meant, nor did I ever think it possible that it applied to me.

Transgender forever and finally changed my life.

The next steps took a lot of swallowing down my fear and eventually fury at the unsolicited stares and comments I received walking down the street.

Then came the unsolicited help of an angel on my shoulder by the name of Mike Koldyke (the self-made millionaire who had started the Educational Foundation with whom I was employed) and four lengthy and painful operations, one of which resulted in a massive complication which left a five inch scar down my left leg.

After so many years of searching, despite the scars left by everything I went through in order to do so, I finally found my answer.

“My name is Gretchen Rachel Hammond and I am a transgender woman.”

After announcing that to Mark’s class, I figured I could do some good in the world. If only to help train a few budding psychologists and therapists on what to do if a transgender individual walked into their offices looking for answers.

Hence the second moment of personal acceptance.