A couple weeks ago, I visited Wyoming. Yes, that Wyoming, the state that every GLBT person should be able to pinpoint on a map with eyes closed. The Wyoming that killed Matthew Shepard. I’ve been there before, and every time I go, I think about the insipid hatred that left Matthew tied to a fence to die in the cold, just because he was a young gay kid. This time, as I drove from Cheyenne through Laramie (where Matthew attended college) and then west, being passed by cowboy hat-wearing men in pickups, and past mountains with sweeping vistas where you can see for fifty miles, I wondered whether things had changed.
I was in Wyoming for a reunion with my adoptive family, owing to my best friend, someone I’ve nicknamed, “Thap.” We’ve known each other for more than forty years, since the first day of eighth grade. I was just one of the boys back then, on the football team where Thap played quarterback and I was a front line guard. His family got to know lovable me, and soon I was included in their lives.
The Thap family is one of those old-fashioned white American success stories. Thap’s father and uncle grew up on a farm in Iowa. Neither attended college, but both understood that hard work and calculated risk taking could pay off. Both became extremely successful—financially and with their families. This would be remarkable on its own, but the real story here is how this family—maybe 50 people in all—reflects just how America is changing. I’m not big on labeling people, but for this article I will, just to make a point.
We had people from Wyoming, Colorado, Iowa, and Minnesota. As we sat chomping burgers and brats, I counted a married lesbian couple with three kids, one of whom is African American. Thap’s sister—one of the lesbians— converted to Islam twenty years ago and changed her name to “Jamila.” Now, she’s a Unitarian minister. Then there was a white son with an African American wife, and their exceedingly cute and energetic two year old daughter. A second son was married to a beautiful Asian woman, and in a few months, they’ll have a baby. One more son was dating another Asian, a woman who reminded me of my own daughters, both Korean adoptees.
And then there was me, Ellen the transgender. Most of these people knew me as a boy, and so there were missed pronouns—“him” instead of “her,” “he” in lieu of “she”—but they always kept trying to get it right. I was the first (and I’m sure only) transgender person they have ever known, but they were respectful and inclusive. There wasn’t a single odd look or off-sided giggle the entire time I was there. I’ve even formed a special bond with Thap’s 19 year old daughter, who reminded me that a couple years ago, I had given her advice on how to kiss
(“make sure you pull on his ear as you lean in for the kiss”).
As if I know anything about kissing.
For me, always worrying whether I fit in or questioning if I’m welcome, it was wonderful. I owe it all to Thap, who never wavered as I took my crazy gender journey. Imagine watching your best buddy—your teammate, drinking pal, and camping partner—change from boy to girl, and always supporting him—err, her. There were many times I doubted myself, but Thap always believed in the real me, saying, “Hang in there Ellie, you can do it, you’ll get there.”
The secret to our friendship is pretty simple—we don’t judge each other. Instead, we see the other person for who they are, and love them for it, regardless of our faults. It sounds so simple, but of course, it’s damn difficult. So, as I drove away from the family reunion, back through rural Wyoming and again past Laramie, I thought of Matthew once more. I wondered if Wyoming still deserves the reputation as a place of LGBT intolerance. More importantly, I had some faith and hope that our country, this place called America, finally was becoming a place where everyone is welcome, where “family,” isn’t defined with the word, “homogenous.”
Or another word: “straight.”