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How William Martin broke free: a conversation about identity

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Randi B. Hagi
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William Martin, who grew up in Henry County and now lives in Harrisonburg, is part of the leadership team at the Friendly City Safe Space.

Amidst the current political focus on transgender kids, WMRA's Randi B. Hagi sat down with two adult community leaders and asked them to reflect on their gender journeys. Here's the first of those two conversations. Please note this story does include mentions of suicidal ideation.

Trans youth have become a political target. In the past year especially, conservative lawmakers across the country have proposed legislation concerning their treatment in public schools, rights to privacy concerning their parents, and access to gender-affirming healthcare. Here in Virginia, Gov. Glenn Youngkin's new model policies, currently under consideration by the Department of Education, would roll back the steps Gov. Ralph Northam took towards recognizing and respecting the identities of trans students.

But these kids don't just have to deal with questions of gender and society's scrutiny for a semester, or an academic year. They grow up. They live their lives with this as a part of their experience. So, with the hope of grounding and deepening this conversation, I spoke with two local adults who are trans about their gender identities – and how their early access, or lack thereof, to information and support affected them.

In this first interview, I sat down with 34-year old William Martin at the Friendly City Safe Space in Harrisonburg, an LGTBQ+ community center where he's on the leadership team. He's also a water treatment systems installer, and a speaker with Equality Virginia's Transgender Advocacy Speakers Bureau.

Martin grew up in Henry County, a rural county south of Roanoke that borders North Carolina. He identifies as a transgender man.

WILLIAM MARTIN: I kind of always knew that there was something different about me. … At some point in my childhood, very young childhood, I'm like 99% sure that I tried to tell my parents that I was a boy. But my Mom was very adamant that I was not. … She spent a lot of time telling me that I was a girl, like … "there's nothing you can do about it, so just get used to it."

So, growing up in the 90s, he tried to blend in as a tomboy. He wasn't exposed to any terminology about trans identities with which to articulate his feelings – his teachers barely even talked about gay people, and when his classmates did, it was often derogatory.

MARTIN: I started to slowly kind of come out as bi, and then as a lesbian, but going back and forth for many years. … The time period when I was in high school, people didn't come out unless they absolutely had to. You were super brave if you did. Very, super brave if you were out in high school, just because you would have problems with students, you would have problems with the teachers, you were very likely to have problems at home. … I was never physically beaten, but I was definitely ostracized.

I asked Martin what effect having to suppress his identity had on his mental health.

MARTIN: I had so much depression. I never attempted any type of suicide or anything, but I definitely did some of the self-harm that seems to happen in high school. … A lot of suicidal ideation. A lot of thoughts about it … and I didn't have any way to cope with that. I didn't see a therapist until much later. I just kind of learned to grin and bear it and push it away, and I didn't talk to my friends about it, I didn't talk to my parents about it – definitely not my parents.

He graduated high school in 2006 and attended Virginia Commonwealth University for a year, moved to the Shenandoah Valley for a while, and then returned to southwestern Virginia.

It wasn't until he saw a short film about gender roles that he started researching his own buried questions about identity. It's a video that was formative for a number of us in the queer community of a certain age – "Break Free," which model and actress Ruby Rose released in 2014. In it, Rose chops their hair short, rinses off the makeup covering their tattoos, and trades in a dress for a slick blazer.

[music from film]

Seeing this, at first, feminine-presenting person revel in masculinity –

MARTIN: That was the catalyst. I was like, "oh my gosh, what is this? Who is this? I need to find out everything I can about this."

He found trans men on social media who were sharing about their transitions.

MARTIN: And so I was following along, watching this transformation and – "oh my gosh, this is such joy."

There was another factor in the timing of Martin's self-discovery.

MARTIN: The time period when I started to explore my gender was right after my Mom died. And it was like something … something cracked open inside me, that made me feel the freedom to do that when I no longer had that last restraint. … Noone should have to wait for a parent to die to feel like they can finally be themselves. That is just the worst. Even, not even death, but to have to cut someone out of their life that's supposed to love them unconditionally – it's super painful.

He came out in 2015, and started hormone therapy the following year.

MARTIN: So I was 27, 28 when I was coming out and starting transition. So that's rather late. I definitely wish it could have been sooner. Looking back, I've felt like I wish I could have recognized the signs and recognized the things in myself.

Reflecting from adulthood now, as a married man with a whole community of friends around him, I asked what message Martin had for trans kids today.

MARTIN: Believe in yourself. Like, you know yourself better than anyone else can ever know you, and just to keep holding on. That's what I wish people had told me when I was young, that it will get better. Keep holding on. It's going to be okay. I know it doesn't feel like that right now – it's really terrifying, really scary, but you're not alone, and there are people out there who can help you, who are just like you. Yeah, it will get better.

Tune in tomorrow to hear my interview with trans activist and advocate Joanna Keller of Staunton.

If you or someone you love suicidal ideation, there are people you can call. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline number is 9-8-8.

Randi B. Hagi first joined the WMRA team in 2019 as a freelance reporter. Her writing and photography have been featured in The Harrisonburg Citizen, where she previously served as the assistant editor; as well as The Mennonite; Mennonite World Review; and Eastern Mennonite University's Crossroads magazine.
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