Cheryl Mills/ Feature Profile
For Ashley Oakley, telling her wife that she wanted to become a woman turned out to be the easiest part of the whole process of transitioning.
Oakley was born male, given the name of Sean, and slapped with the role of “boy” and then “man.” But this never felt quite right to her. Starting around age 7, she began borrowing her sister’s clothing and sneaking into them in front of the bathroom mirror in her family’s rural Georgia home. Raised in a Southern society that values clear gender roles, Oakley repeatedly tried to suppress the sense that she was supposed to be a girl. She met Kim during a time when she had decided to put all thoughts of transitioning aside for good. The couple married and now has two children. They were on the verge of divorce when Oakley decided that she had nothing left to lose by being honest, for the first time ever, with Kim about her gender dysphoria.
“Her reaction kind of floored me,” Oakley said. “She looked at me and said, ‘I fell in love with you, not a gender.’”
Before meeting Kim, Oakley lived a double life. She would attend parties as a male at the Jam Room, a place where a group of her male friends would hang out to play music, then get into her car and change into women’s clothing and drive. She explained that many transgender individuals go through stages, beginning with dressing up, alone at home and terrified of being caught. She said she would spend hours doing her hair and makeup and getting her clothes just right, and then she would immediately take everything off. Then it progressed to staying in the clothes for a period of time, still sitting alone at home. Then the driving came in.
“I felt normal when I would drive,” she said, “like I wasn’t putting on an act. The first time I went out in public, I had to, because I was running out of gas. It was terrifying.”
She was 17.
“That’s what really controlled my decisions. Fear. Fear of reactions, fear of violence. Whatever I wanted to do, I’d do the opposite, because I was afraid anything I did would tip somebody off. I felt like what I was feeling was wrong, it was sick, there was something wrong with it. That I’d be in trouble if anybody found out,” Oakley explained.
When she finally met Kim, there was an instant emotional connection between them and Oakley did what is called a “purge.” She gathered all of her female clothing and makeup and tossed them in a dumpster. She said she thought she had been cured. They married, and Oakley continued to suppress her feminine feelings and became hyper-masculine. This eventually took a toll on the marriage, because even though Kim didn’t realize it at the time, it was Oakley’s femininity which initially attracted her.
Oakley said, “Who I appeared to be got farther and farther away from who I was, and I became angry and violent. I was very aggressive and it was like at any second, I could explode. I became very suicidal and it got to the point where I knew exactly where I was going, and what the end result was going to be. Kim and I were going to get divorced, and I was going to kill myself. It’s just the way things were going to be. I didn’t see any other outcome.”
“At the time, I didn’t feel like it was keeping a secret, so long as there was no physical manifestation of the feelings. I really truly believed when I told her that morning, well, our marriage is over regardless. That maybe this could save something of a relationship. Maybe save my life,” she said.
It turned out to be the right decision, with exactly the outcome Oakley had hoped for. With Kim’s support and their marriage intact, Oakley began living full-time as a female. Their children are adjusting to the new normal for the family. Leah, age 6, and Chris, age 4, call her “Maddy.” Oakley has been on hormone treatments for almost a year. She has lost much of the weight she gained during the extended depression she said was brought on by suppressing her true self. While some friends and some family members have not been supportive, Oakley is happy to be lifted by those who are. She counts her mother-in-law, Renee, as one of her greatest supporters. Her co-workers are behind her, as well.
“I couldn’t believe how well everybody at work accepted it,” Oakley said. She works as a display chef at a buffet-style restaurant. When she came out as Ashley, her manager simply had a new name tag made up for her. She wears it proudly.
Oakley has also found support within the transgender community. She attends the annual Southern Comfort Conference in Atlanta; the conference provides information on legal issues for the trans community, seminars with medical professionals, and general support through social events. The 2013 conference had over 5,000 attendees. Oakley is serving on the planning committee for 2014. She is also planning her own presentation on “Transitioning in the Family Environment.”
Even with all of the support, Oakley said, “Nothing has been easy.” Hormone treatment has caused her to lose much of her physical strength. She has lost an inch and a half of her height. She must get regular blood tests to check her liver and kidney functions. Kim, while supportive, still struggles with the idea of the final sex reassignment surgery. Oakley must carry papers from her therapist and doctor to avoid legal issues when using public restrooms.
But what of those suicidal thoughts which plagued her most of her life? Oakley smiled and said, “No more thoughts. None.”