Finding your way as the T in the LGBT acronym can be scary, especially if you’re coming to it a little later in life.
Luckily, there’s an organization in our area to assist you no matter where along the journey you fall. Renaissance is a nonprofit organization that offers hands-on help, especially for those just coming to terms with gender issues or wanting some like-minded company. We spoke with the chapter president, Kristyn King, a sassy gal with a dry wit and warm heart.
PGN: Are you from the area?
KK: Yes, the suburbs of Philly, so I’m paying big bucks for a good school district and I have no kids!
PGN: Big family?
KK: I’m the oldest of four brothers, or the oldest sister, depending on how you look at it.
PGN: You grew up with a lot of testosterone around you.
KK: Unfortunately, yes. Except for me, I didn’t do sports; I preferred artsy stuff. I started photography at a very young age and still love it. It’s where I spend most of my money!
PGN: I saw some pictures of horses on your Facebook page. Are you an equestrian?
KK: I am, but I got into that at a later age. I had a heart attack and that was the best way to get exercise afterwards.
PGN: Sure, let the horse do all the work!
KK: I know! But the doctor also wanted me to do something to relieve stress so it had a dual purpose. I saw an ad for horseback-riding lessons in the Inquirer and thought, Why not? I’d paid for the ex-wife to do it before, so I figured I’d take a turn. Then I found out that to compete you have to wear these cute little boots and britches with a ruffled shirt that looked just like a girls’ outfit and I said, “Which way to the store?” I didn’t care about competing, I just wanted to dress up!
PGN: Do you jump?
KK: Yup. I used to do Eventing; it’s a combination of three different types of riding: dressage, cross-country and show-jumping. No one told me when I started that it was the most dangerous discipline of them all! I started out at a barn and it wasn’t until I got hooked that they started doing the death-defying crap! I half-leased an Appaloosa for years with someone until he couldn’t do a right-lead canter anymore, then I got a thoroughbred mare, which was insane. With the Appaloosa, I had to prod him to get up to a trot, but with the mare, you had to hold on for dear life as she found a second gear you didn’t know existed.
PGN: Someday I’ll tell you about the time a friend put me on a similar ride for a class. I later found out that his name was Diablo and that no rider had been able to stay on him in years.
KK: Oh my. Yeah, my mare would go so fast we’d have to make big loops in the course so we wouldn’t get time faults for being too fast.
PGN: That’s a first.
KK: I can’t ride anymore because they have me on blood thinners. My doctor said, “If you fall off and bleed where we can see it you’re fine, but if you fall on your head and bleed internally, that would be inconvenient.”
PGN: Have you thought about driving? Last time I was around horses was when my mother drove a cart at Devon. It was also probably the last time I wore a dress and I was miserable because my mother made us wear matching outfits! A long paisley dress with a floppy hat — a teenage lesbian’s nightmare.
KK: [Laughs] That was probably around the same time I was dying to wear a dress! We were overlapping. The best thing that ever happened to me was when Prince came out. He made it OK for dudes to wear high heels and frilly shirts. I remember when I was about 10 and trying to figure out what was wrong and why I felt different. Back then, you never heard a word for it; all I would hear about was gay as the only option. At that age, you don’t even know about sex. I knew so little about it, I assumed I had a sexual-orientation problem, not a gender issue. I hung out with some people from the LGB community, but didn’t know about the rest of the alphabet. Then when I figured it out, I was like, Damn, I think I know what it is … I’m transgender. I come from a family of men who are raging homophobes and racists to boot, so it wasn’t the best news to discover about myself.
PGN: What made you feel different?
KK: Standard stuff. While the boys were out running around, I preferred playing with the girls and identified more with them. I was the smallest kid in the class for 12 years, which was not great then though it’s helpful now! I can fit into women’s size 10 or 12 and size 9 shoes. The ’70s were great. You could wear bellbottom pants and find very feminine-styled clothes for men and it was considered stylish. Then the ’80s came and it was back to more gendered clothing. So I did what a lot of us do and I got married thinking it would fix me. But of course it didn’t, it just gave me access to a whole house full of clothes. Mom was kind of frumpy so there was nothing for me there, plus with my brothers hanging around, it wouldn’t have been a good idea; kids are bastards when they’re teenagers. After I married, I admitted my inclination to the wife and she said, “OK, as long as the clothes you buy me are cuter than yours, we’re good.” Believe it or not, the reason for the divorce had nothing to do with me being trans. During the marriage, I concentrated on clothes but after the divorce I was able to embrace myself fully. I got laser hair removal because I had a horrible amount of dark hair. I spent about $30,000 just on removing it from my body and then had to get electrolysis for the face. One of the things we do at Renaissance is to help people find safe resources for everything from hair removal to surgeons to therapists (we’ve been working with Dr. Michele Angelo for years; she’s world-renowned for her work with transgender issues). There are lists of places you can safely go shopping as a girl, restaurants that are cool with us, etc.
PGN: What’s your ethnicity?
KK: Scotch, Irish and German. I know, we’re not know for being hairy. But I grew up in an Italian neighborhood, and I think I inherited the hair by osmosis!
PGN: That’s funny. So, enlighten me because I’m probably using incorrect terminology: Did or do you consider yourself a cross-dresser?
KK: A lot of people on their way to being trans use that term as they’re experimenting. But generally, a cross-dresser is someone who enjoys dressing in women’s clothes but usually has no intention or desire to change gender, whereas a transexual is someone who — whether they change genders or not — their brain is female (or male) in contrast to the body they were born with. I consider myself transexual. I’m basically a girl who has to go to work as a boy to make my livelihood. For me it’s a happy medium: a blended gender where I’ve been comfortable for 30 years. I help run this support group to help people like me navigate the world as it works for each of us. We’ve had people who identify as cross-dressers, as transsexual; wherever you are in your journey, you’re welcome with us. We have people who are so scared at first that we have to go into the parking lot and knock on the car window to assure them it’s OK to come to the meeting. There are some who after a while decide to have the reassignment surgery and we never see them again and some who are comfortable where they are. It’s all good. We’re not here to keep members who don’t need us anymore. I have girls who come to the meetings with all their gear in the trunk of their car. They come, they change and have their three hours of girlhood and then change back into “male” garb and go home and not a soul outside the group knows about it. But if having that little outlet is what keeps them sane, from abusing drugs or alcohol or committing suicide, then we’ve done what we set out to do. Our meetings are in an office complex that’s totally empty at night, so you don’t have to worry about bumping into someone if you’re worried. We get about two to three newcomers each month, which means we’re still needed. The Internet is fine, but it doesn’t beat a person-to-person connection.
PGN: So what did it feel like, the freedom of being able to be yourself the first time you went out?
KK: [Laughs] You mean that scared-to-death feeling? Well, as soon as I got a job, I’d buy my own clothes and wear them when nobody was home. One of the first times out was later. I remember going to Nordstrom’s — as a guy — making my way to the make-up counter and stammering, “I want … um, um … ” and the girl stated, “What? Do you want a makeover? Are you really a girl inside?” I mumbled yes, and she said, “OK, sit down!” and proceeded to explain to me how the different things worked, from concealer to mascara. She was the greatest person. It was like a snowball. Once you get a taste of who you are and can be, it’s like an explosion. I learned how to do my make-up, I started wearing dresses and was able to pass. There was no more butchering it, not knowing what I was doing; it was a great relief. She started doing other trans people and ended up getting a bonus from Nordstrom’s for her work with the community. I was even an usher at her wedding three years ago!
PGN: Do the current politics concern you?
KK: Of course. I feel so bad for the trans people in the military. So many of them hid themselves for years while serving their country, then when President Obama and the military lifted the ban, they all came out only to find themselves on the verge of losing everything now. I don’t condone hiding — hell, I hid for 20 years and in some areas I’m still doing it — but sometimes you have to think safety first. They’re so exposed now.
PGN: Do you think this next generation is becoming more accepting despite 45?
KK: Oh, yes. I speak at colleges and schools and the kids are great. I have never had a problem except for one school where a kid said, “If my girlfriend was like you” he’d kill me, but the teacher promptly escorted him out of the room. I let them ask anything they want and if they ask something inappropriate we never chastise them, we just inform, because most of the kids are genuinely interested in understanding. Too often in the LGBT community we get offended instead of listening to and working with people.
PGN: What question do you get most often?
KK: They want to know who you date. I personally identify as a lesbian because my romantic attraction is to women, but it’s different for everyone.
PGN: Your group is for support. What are some of the social outlets for your members?
KK: Angela’s Laptop Lounge is great. Angela was one of the founders of Renaissance. It’s always the same night as our meeting. The meetings are from 7-10 p.m., and the party is from 10 p.m.-2 a.m. at Baxter’s in Malvern. The first Monday of each month we go to Tavern on Camac. They’ve been so supportive — once a month for seven years at no charge. For those afraid to come into the city, I even started a Big Sister program where we’ll meet you at the train station or wherever you park your car and escort you there. We also have a two-day party at The Raven every six weeks.
PGN: Do you play any instruments?
KK: I took drums when I was 10 but my father didn’t like the noise, so that ended quickly, but I recently started taking lessons again and I’ve been having a blast. My instructor says I’m almost at the point where I could join a really shitty garage band. One more thing to cross off my bucket list.
PGN: A rule you always disagreed with growing up?
KK: My parents were very racist and homophobic and they tried to teach me that this was how it’s always been and how it will always be, and my reaction was, “No, it isn’t! You can evolve and realize that you’re wrong about a lot of things. It’s how you learn.” But they weren’t having it. It was very hard growing up in that atmosphere. My father hated me for it and to this day he still doesn’t like my stance.
PGN: Best birthday?
KK: Ten years ago. I’d started my hair removal and I guess I’d mentioned to the clinician, Michelle, that I’d never had a birthday party. The day before my birthday I went in for a session and to my surprise she’d decorated the whole place and had gathered about 25 of my friends. She found people I didn’t know she knew about. It was the best time I ever had, to have 25-30 people there for me. I didn’t know I had that many who cared. It was incredible, even if I didn’t get any hair removed that night!
PGN: Finish the line, “Frankly my dear … ”
KK: I hope I made a difference in the world. I try to get up each day and make the place a little better than yesterday.
For more information about Renaissance, visit https://www.meetup.com/Renaissance-Greater-Philadelphia-Chapter/members/72241262/
http://www.ren.org/rafil/gpc/gpc.html. For more information about Angela’s Laptop Lounge, visit http://www.tgatl2.tv.