Her hands are restless on the sea-blue tablecloth, dancing over vinyl lobsters and ships from her phone to the cuffs of her black sweater, back to her phone, and then to pick at her nails. When she’s less anxious, Erica can afford herself a lean-back in the chair, although her hands dive into the pockets of her sweater — forever? — balled with nerves. And when she’s feeling better yet, Erica will sit up and rest her elbows on the table. When she’s not OK, her right hand stills on the surface and waits for Kathy’s left.
For as many meals she’s shared and as many tears she’s shed in this kitchen, it might as well be her own.
With her hand firmly in Kathy’s, Erica recounts her story from the beginning, including years spent in her father’s abusive home and moments left alone with his friend. It’s with a quiet desperation that they hold each other: Erica for the strength to continue, Kathy for the strength to endure a helplessness beyond what she’s already offering. Erica’s voice occasionally wavers, but it’s the older woman’s cheeks that sparkle with tears.
Ed leaves the screen door bouncing as he walks into the kitchen with a box of foot-long zucchini and cherub tomatoes. He drops the garden load on a couple of lobsters and moves on into the house.
"You know when you guys leave you’re taking some tomatoes," his words trail behind him.
It’s hard to know whether he’s truly oblivious to the air humid with emotion or if he has simply acclimatized.
Of the estimated 1.3 million people in living in Manitoba, more than half — nearly 705,000 — live in its capital city, Winnipeg. Brandon clings with pride to its title as the second-largest city in the province, but that sounds impressive only until you run the numbers. With a population of less than 50,000, it has just a fraction of the population Winnipeg does and even fewer services. Winnipeg is thought of as the province’s black hole, leaving scarce funding, professionals and amenities for those outside the vacuum.
For that reason, Kathy and her husband Ed have turned their home into a valuable resource, unbeknownst to those who are lucky enough not to need their service but unfortunate enough to not know them. The people who walk through their door seek information, counselling, medical aid and advice. Yet they come to Kathy and Ed because they are not willing to trade their dignity for such supports.
Where administration sits in an office building, a kitchen table awaits its next guests. Rather than a cooler of stale water and paper cone cups, warm bread and fresh borscht greet their guests. Where staff is sometimes too clinical and often judgmental, all this couple has to offer is their unconditional support. There aren’t dozens of informational pamphlets lining the home, but family photos on these walls — though they communicate the same reassurance: Don’t worry; it’s going to be OK. We can help you.
On the table underneath the east window sits a photo of the day they celebrated Ed’s retirement, and brothers Phil and Chris pose with graduation caps in the hallway. The deep freeze in the dining room corner can’t be used much because a handful of frames sit on its surface, documenting weddings and parties that warrant a family get-together now that the kids are grown.
"Chris is the one with the beard," Ed had pointed out earlier.
"The bearded wonder," his wife had chuckled.
But pictures alone don’t offer the truest version of this family’s story. In hardly any of them does Chris look younger than a high school graduate or university freshman. There’s one baby picture in the hallway of him as a young girl. Kathy says minutes prior to the snapshot he’d been crying in a pink crocheted dress and only stopped when he sat naked, save the diaper and a crooked ball cap.
Dozens more family photos sit in a Tupperware bin and a hatbox in the attic. What a quandary, Kathy said, sorting through the photos that would be OK to keep and the ones that only reminded Chris of his most uncomfortable years.
"You put one child away — you have to — and you welcome the new child," she shrugs.
Ten years ago, the couple’s two kids had planned a weekend in Alberta. Alone in the house, Kathy and Ed discussed the likelihood their daughter was gay and planned to talk to her after the trip. The little house tucked in Brandon’s side streets is as unassuming as its appearance; Kathy and Ed say no topic — drugs and sex included — was off-limits at their dinner table.
So that Saturday, each carried on with their day, which, whenever her kids were gone, meant Kathy headed to tidy their teenage rooms.
"Everything important in his life used to end up under his dresser," she explains. "We used to have a lot of problems because he didn’t want to go to gym classes, he didn’t want to go to girl guide camps and he didn’t want to do all these things — and all the permit slips wouldn’t be where they should be."
That day, Kathy didn’t find any of the usual permission forms or bras or Chris’s ID that she had come to expect, but a letter addressed to his friends.
"I came down to (Ed) and I said, ‘It’s more than being gay.’ And Ed goes, ‘What’s more than being gay?’ I said, ‘He’s transgender.’ And he goes, ‘I don’t think I know what that is.’ And I said, ‘I don’t think I do either.’"
When Chris came home, Kathy said, "‘I cleaned your room.’ And he said, ‘Ah.’ You know, I often kind of wonder if he just left it there on purpose."
Her words tumble into each other slightly, muffled by half the hand that cradles her chin. Though Kathy is speaking of the past, she uses words that belong to the present. Chris is her son, and that he was her daughter for the first 18 years of his life is insignificant. She doesn’t consider him transgender anymore; he’s just Chris.
But that weekend, 10 years ago, things weren’t so clear. Ed and Kathy couldn’t relate to what their child was experiencing so they turned to the Internet, and by doing so, became some of Brandon’s staunchest LGBTTQ* supporters.
Today, a search of what it means to be transgender yields as many helpful results as it does horrifying ones.
Between the definitions and the news articles and the peer forums are the numbers that say transgender individuals experience hate crime, suicide and depression at a higher rate than average.
For example, a study, in which the Trans PULSE Project Team polled transgender individuals in Ontario, found 34 per cent of its participants had been verbally threatened or harassed because of their gender identity. Another 20 per cent reported being physically or sexually assaulted.
Additionally, the researchers found that as the severity of attack increased, so did the likelihood victims would struggle with depression and suicide. Of the trans Ontarians who had been verbally harassed or threatened, 35 per cent seriously considered suicide while eight per cent attempted to take their life.
Those numbers grew to 56 per cent and 29 per cent, respectively, when the victim had been physically or sexually assaulted.
Ten years ago, Kathy and Ed became advocates when it was their child who faced the grim possibility of these numbers, but it’s the youth who have been rejected by their families, shunned by their communities and neglected by service providers who fuel their drive today.
Every desperate knock on the door, phone call choked by tears or strained parent meeting is as a reminder of what it means to be transgender in southwestern Manitoba.
Both Ed and Kathy are retirees — he from a job that saw people at their most regrettable, and she from the medical field — yet their calendar is the fullest it ever has been. A sort of open-doors policy exists in their household: When they’re needed, the pair is sought out. Sometimes, it’s teens who have been kicked out of their house, a bag of belongings thrown over one shoulder. Other times, it’s those in the midst of their transition who show up on the stoop, wondering: Is Kathy around to help with my hormone injection? Often, it’s a parent wrought with inability to reconcile their child’s gender identity. Instinctively, Kathy believes you’re either a parent or not — pick one — but almost every day she comes across a situation in which that simplicity has been challenged.
At any given point, Kathy and her husband are working with seven to 14 kids (both minors and unofficial adoptees) in addition to the fraction of parents willing to confront their own prejudice. The number rises and falls; there was a stint last year when two or three outcasts knocked on their door each night.
Kathy’s kitchen table tells no tales.
Erica is one of those individuals who see Kathy and Ed on a regular basis. She first met the couple through Chris’s social circle, but each now considers the other family. Erica's real name has been changed by The Brandon Sun to protect her identity within the community.
As a Grade 11 student living in Neepawa with her father, Erica sought help from the school’s guidance counsellor. Then a teenage male, she was in the process of understanding her emotions and experiences, and often wanted to present as the opposite gender.
Aware from a young age she wasn’t comfortable identifying as male, Erica had taken to growing out her nails and rimming each lid in heavy eyeliner. On trips to Brandon, she’d sneak into the women’s side of a department store to shoplift tank tops or skinny jeans, or go to La Senza and pretend to buy bras for a friend.
At home, her strongest insecurities had her cutting her wrists, or standing in front of the mirror with a serrated bread knife, its tip tracing the skin around her breasts. As if willing herself a different body, she’d tape her genitals down and out of sight.
"Why isn’t my body working the way it’s supposed to?" she remembers thinking.
It was her blurring of the gender binary that finally earned Erica the attention of her parents. Her dad warned her to stop.
"I told him no. That’s not how I’m going to do things," Erica recalls. "He grabbed me by the throat and threw me through the table."
After years of dismissal, her transgender identity appeared not the origin of her mistreatment, but fuel thrown on an ages-old blaze.
After confiding in the school professional, Erica was moved by Child and Family Services to her grandmother’s house in Brandon. Her mother had chosen to be all but non-existent during Erica’s earlier years, and stayed so when it was time to decide where Erica would live until she turned 18.
In this way she differs from some of the others who have found Kathy and Ed: Erica wasn’t kicked out, but flushed from the house she had a right to call home.
"At an early age, I had already started becoming really aware (of) how people were," Erica says. "Just because you’re, like, family, doesn’t necessarily mean that there’s a connection."
Whether or not she truly believes this now is hard to tell. Over the years Erica has continued to fight for a relationship with her biological relatives.
She keeps in closest contact with her half-sister with whom she grew up in Neepawa, but rarely sees other family members. Christmas this year was an exception, even if her mother’s disregard of her presence was anything but exceptional.
I’m used to it, Erica says. For the most part, any effort at reconnecting is fruitless.
On her father’s birthday, she left him a message on his work phone. He never returned the call.
This is what she calls the human experience; the growing ease of realizing some people won’t be in her future. Nonetheless, it’s heartbreaking.
The tablecloth whispers as Kathy’s hand slides across its surface to grab Erica’s wrist.
"All you can do is try, and keep trying," she consoles. "You can’t take responsibility for how they’re going to respond, and you can’t leave your heart out there to get bruised."
At any moment — any time Erica is ignored or insulted or burned in some other way — Kathy could tell the girl to give it up. Forget about this family who’s been anything but. Walk away. Don’t put yourself out there. We love you; is that not enough?
Yet she doesn’t.
Instead, Kathy travels across Manitoba to provide education on the importance of knowing and respecting what it means to be transgender. If she reaches only one person that day, she marks it a success; she’s stopped them from hurting someone else tomorrow.
She aims to speak with the institutions transgender individuals and their families are supposed to be able to trust but often can’t: the education system, medical services, government agencies. Her presentations consist of stories and family mementos, framed photos that demonstrate Chris is a regular guy with a beard. Sometimes she’ll pass around a school assignment: a poem he wrote in Grade 10 about committing suicide.
The teachers marked it and handed it back, she tells her audience, some of whom will be educators within a year. She and Ed failed to see the signs, but this was kid asking for help, Kathy says to them. Be that shoulder they can lean on.
A few years ago, Kathy approached the high schools with an offer to share her presentation. École secondaire Neelin High School welcomed her while Vincent Massey declined the offer.
Crocus Plains, where Chris graduated, also refused, Kathy says, telling her that the school had neither transgender students nor any problems with them.
In the 10 years since Chris’s graduation, the school has experienced changeover in both its staff and operation.
Chad Cobbe, the second-year principal of the 1,100 Crocus Plains students, says the school is fortunate to have two guidance counsellors, two social workers and a resource team available to students who need such resources. Staff are given opportunities to access LGBTTQ* resources from community collaborations, the school’s union, and the provincial teachers’ association, and the school’s GSA staff supervisors are working to arrange more partnerships, including a possible one with Kathy.
Yet, the school’s transformation into a transgender-friendly environment is a "work in progress" that Cobbe says is challenged by financial realities — like the expense of improving the school’s gender-neutral washroom locations.
"I think there’s many miles to go for all of us in terms of working with children who are dealing with these realities, so I 100 (per cent) support the work that is going on at Crocus, but I’m not about to say that (we’ve) got it covered," says Cobbe.
Additionally, he says the school has an active gay-straight alliance (which are known within the Brandon School Division as GSAs) that administration looks to for feedback on the perceived safety of the school grounds.
"In terms of bullying behaviour, I have not seen it directed in any greater amount towards students who are questioning or working through some level of their sexuality any more than it’s targeted towards anybody else," says Cobbe.
But Kathy keeps her memories from 10 years ago close and they inspire her every day now.
"Well you had one. You almost lost him. And you’ve got more," Kathy remembers replying to the principal who claimed the school had no transgender students. "I know you do, ’cause this is what we do. I know you do."
» Special to The Brandon Sun
This is Part I of the Sun's Choosing Family series, which offers a glimpse into the lives of three sets of individuals, all of whom are working to forge relationships that defy the same social pressures they face as members and allies of the transgender community. While one couple is left to fill roles abandoned by others, another exercises their right to share love how they please, and a third individual sacrifices part of the present for her future. At some point, each has seen their livelihood threatened by their connection to Brandon — but it is also these ties that have allowed them to find what they are looking for. This is the first of three parts. Part II will run on Monday.