In the early 1990s, I moved to Charlottesville to obtain psychiatric and psychopharmacological treatment. I lived in Charlottesville from 1991-1997, and it was an extremely difficult and very sad time in my life. However, the helpful and friendly staff at the U.Va. Womens’ Center, now renamed Maxine Platzer Lynn Women’s Center, helped to make a sad and difficult time as bearable and productive as possible.
I graduated from Johns Hopkins in 1990 in my mid-20s, and when it became apparent that I needed to get medical help, I had to decide where to go in order to obtain it. My decision was, in large part, based on geography. My impression of the state was based upon the areas of Northern Virginia reachable by the Washington Metrobus and Metrorail systems, such as Arlington and Farifax County. Because of my age and educational attainment, I felt that in a college town such as Charlottesville, my presence would not arouse suspicion, and there would be many recreational activities available in the area.
I was, at the time, a lifelong Northeasterner and it was difficult for me to adjust to an environment that was so Southern and dramatically different from anywhere I had been before. In addition, the student body was much more rowdy and party-going than anywhere I had encountered before. As a result, I initially chose to rent an apartment in an unsafe area far from Grounds to avoid the undergrad party scene. However, my biggest challenge was obtaining proper medical care for my illnesses and conditions, as well as, to some extent, coping with the demands of everyday life.
One of the parts during this terrible period of my life that I am actually proud of is how I turned this unfamiliar environment to my advantage. I used the social nature of Charlottesville life to develop a social side of me that was previously underdeveloped. However, my enhanced social development brought with it the need to devote more recourses and energy to a long-simmering issue in my life, which was almost certainly the root cause of all my other psychological issues.
I was assigned male at birth, although I actively and completely self-identify/identified as female. As my life had progressed, this became the most important aspect of my life, as well as a source of increasing tension between myself and my family. I changed therapists several times, searching for one who would be supportive of my gender identity and my plans to begin the initial phase of my transition, via estrogen replacement therapy.
I found my estrogen replacement therapy to be even more beneficial and soothing than I imagined it would be. I soon took further steps, such as legally changing my name and gender marker, volunteering in a chemistry professor’s laboratory, obtaining professional employment at the U.Va. Medical School and ultimately obtaining a prestigious research position in Los Angeles that featured significant international travel.
When I was officially employed by U.Va., I was eligible to join student groups dedicated to the promotion of women in STEM fields and STEM in general, and I did so, making some of my best friends during this otherwise awful period. I am still in contact with some of them today, reconnected via social media.
My parents strongly disapproved of my gender transition (an attitude that would continue for the next 25 years) and, seeking support, I approached the Womens’ Center, unsure of what their reaction to a transgendered woman would be. For example, when I told my parents that I had joined womens’ groups on Grounds and formed good friendships in the process, and that this had made my life much more bearable and happier, they made comments such as “They are secretly laughing at you!” and “Are they really boys too? Perhaps, that’s why!” Their disapproval made me fearful of how other people would view me.
In sharp contrast to the reaction of my biological family, the Women’s Center, particularly Dr. Claire Kaplan, who continues to be very supportive of me via social media up to the present day, was unbelievably supportive of my gender transition. I remain very thankful to them for their support of me during this critical time in my life. Who knows? Without their support, I may have succumbed to the powerful resistance and obstacles placed in my way, and further delayed my gender transition, or not transitioned at all, thus causing myself even more severe emotional pain and desperate unhappiness.
So I guess I owe the U.Va. Women’s Center a gigantic “thank you” during its 25th anniversary celebration!
Story by Amy Beth Prager
Photo by Chuck Moran