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Carla Lewis never decided to come out as transgender.
For all intents and purposes, Carla’s former male self died on June 24, 1999. Born in Arkansas and originally named Justin, Carla was a married father of two when her wife of nine years met a man on the Internet, took the children and stopped at Carla’s company on her way out of town to tell everyone that Carla was gay and liked to dress up in women’s clothing.
“I knew my life was over,” says Carla, now 43. “So I dissolved 240 sleeping pills into Kool-Aid, and I drank it.”
Carla is not alone. According to the National Transgender Discrimination Survey released in 2011 by the National Center for Transgender Equality and the National LGBTQ Task Force, a staggering 41 percent of respondents report attempting suicide compared to 1.6 percent of the general population, with rates rising for those who lost a job due to bias (55 percent), were harassed or bullied in school (51 percent), had low household income, or were the victim of physical assault (61 percent) or sexual assault (64 percent).
“Sometimes it comes down to transition or take your life,” Carla says. “Forty-one percent of the respondents said they have attempted suicide, but there is no way of knowing how many attempted suicide and were successful.
“When people say it’s selfish to contemplate suicide, I think, ‘It’s the most selfless thing (transgender people) think they can do,’” Carla adds. “All the pain trans people feel is what we put on them, the expectations they can’t meet. They don’t do that to themselves. We do that to them.”
Just a week before her suicide attempt, Carla had been sitting at Manley Baptist Church in Morristown with her family, reflecting on her job as a software engineer, her house with the large pool and the life she had created for herself.
“I thought, ‘Things are so great, I’m almost afraid to lose everything,’” Carla remembers.
And lose everything she did. While she was recovering in the hospital, a Hamblen County Sheriff’s deputy came to tell her that her house had been broken into and anything her wife had left that had any value was gone.
“I had no car, and I only had the clothes they had brought me to the hospital, and I had lost 65 pounds,” Carla explains. “I had no house, no personal belongings and nowhere to stay.”
Even her bank account was depleted, as her wife had been withdrawing money from it as soon as Carla’s paychecks were direct deposited.
Carla emerged from the hospital broken and broke. Looking back, she credits the Internet with helping connect her with other transgender people.
“Up until that time, the knowledge that there were other people like me was not there,” Carla explains. “I’d never heard the term ‘drag queen’ or ‘transsexual.’ Growing up, I thought I was the only person who felt this way.”
Through her online research, Carla found a support group meeting at Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church in Knoxville. She walked into the support group for the first time on Sept. 17, 1999.
“I had never met other trans people before,” Carla notes. “They were all in various stages of transition.”
The guest speaker that night was Jaime Combs, who had had sex reassignment surgery the month before. Carla and Jaime became friends and have been together as a couple since 2003, married since 2013.
Before the Internet put the world at her fingertips, Carla had tried to explore her gender identity with people she trusted over the years. At 12, she confided with her youth minister on a mission trip.
“He told me it was a phase, that I’d grow out of it, and that if I prayed real hard, God would make me into the man He wanted me to be,” Carla remembers.
At 16, she confided in her best friend, a man who remains her friend to this day.
“He said, ‘We’ve always been friends, and we’ll always be friends,’” Carla notes.
She even told her future wife when they started dating each other when Carla was 17.
“We didn’t know what that meant back then, so I told her I would do my best to make sure it’d never become an issue,” Carla says.
The last time she confided in someone, however, would be the time that came back to haunt her. Enlisted in the Air Force, Carla saw a counselor on base about her gender identity issues. When the entry was discovered during an extensive background check required for her high security clearance, however, Carla was discharged.
“They tried to court martial me for being gay, but they couldn’t, so my discharge papers say that I’ve got mental disorders,” Carla explains. “In the eyes of the military, being transgender is a blackmailable offense. The fear is that if you were not out, you could be blackmailed into giving away government secrets.”
Carla’s discharge from the Air Force 18 months into her enlistment raised some eyebrows with her family. Carla’s wife outed her then as transgender, though Carla’s family “summarily ignored it.”
“They mentioned to me a couple of times that I just needed to pray,” Carla says. “A lot of transgender people know the Bible better than the people who are spouting religion at them simply because they are looking for justification of their existence or redemption. You are raised believing who you are is wrong.”
As for those who use religion to attack transgender people, Carla pays them no attention.
“My God is extremely diverse and doesn’t limit creation to black and white and red and male and female and 1s and 0s,” she says. “For people to try to put everyone in a box, that just shows, I think, that their God is very small.”
Once Carla was able to go back to work after her suicide attempt, the taunting started, and it was merciless. When Carla started living as a female a year after her wife had outed her, it got worse.
“They had put a sign on the men’s room door and marked out ‘Justin’ and put ‘Carla,’ and they had an old beat-up box of tampons in there that said, ‘For Carla’s use only,’” Carla remembers. “When people would walk by, they’d say awful statements.”
Carla put up with it until September 2000, when she left to work full time for a computer service company she had started the previous March.
“Having my own business here in Maryville, I could live however I wanted and could fire my clients if I needed to, but I never had to,” Carla explains.
For the first three years of her transition, Carla lived in fear that someone would find out she was transgender. Then one day, she found Equality Knoxville, a local organization that was just forming to advance and protect the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people and their families in the Knoxville area.
“We met some wonderful people, and I thought, ‘Maybe I could help change the perception of transgender people,’” Carla remembers.
Carla and Jaime were part of the group that helped start Knoxville Pridefest 10 years ago. They also have been a tremendous resource to their friend Rebecca Lucas, who founded the Maryville chapter of PFLAG (Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays) in 2010.
“In this area, they’re pioneers,” Lucas says. “They’ve been around a long time, and I can’t tell you how many they’ve helped and supported, how many people I’ve channeled to them in five years of PFLAG.”
Carla and Jaime put transgender people in touch with resources they need. By far the hardest help to find, they say, is medical.
“The medical profession is full of people who are just too frightened (to take on trans patients),” Jaime says.
In addition to helping the transgender community, Carla tries to educate non-transgender people about what it means to be transgender. It is proven by science, she says, that all humans start out female and that the brain and the body can develop at different rates, which makes it possible for a person with a female-structured brain to be born with male genitals and vice versa.
“But spouting science to a culture that doesn’t believe in science doesn’t work, so I try to justify my existence to them through my humanity,” Carla says. “I’m a person, and what I do doesn’t affect you.”
Carla says that she feels an even greater responsibility to speak up for the transgender community because others may not be able to.
“The transgender community is a small group, but the incident of violence against us is high,” she explains. “I’m fortunate that I don’t necessarily stick out, but for others who have more trouble ‘passing,’ I feel I have to speak up. People who aren’t blessed with the ability to pass as the other gender have it so much harder with housing, employment, school.
“We aren’t nationally organized like lesbians and gays, so we are an easy target to oppress and legislate against,” Carla adds. “And as our visibility is increasing, attacks are increasing as well. It’s not just violent attacks either — it’s religious organizations, political organizations and political candidates attacking us as well.”
Tennessee, for example, has a hate crimes law that protects sexual orientation, but does not protect gender identity. Though introduced every year since 2006, the legislation to protect transgender people never gains traction, she says.
“And in the next year we will see another flood of religious freedom bills that will allow discrimination against trans people,” Carla adds, noting proposed legislation prohibits transgender people from using the restroom of the gender they present as.
This is an injustice Jaime already has experienced. When she was attending cosmetology school at 25, she had to be escorted to the rest room, which she remembers as “humiliating.”
“People transition to the point where they feel comfortable and happy,” Carla explains. “Surgery is not always the end goal. There are many reasons someone may not choose surgery: health, age, finances. (Surgery) reduces people to what’s between their legs.”
Yet in Tennessee, one must provide documentation of sex reassignment surgery before he or she can change the gender on his or her driver’s license, she notes.
“If I were a missing person, they’d be looking for a 180-pound white man,” Carla says. “Do you think they’d find me?”
The only time this technicality came in handy was in 2013, when Carla and Jaime decided to marry while on a trip to Las Vegas with Jaime’s parents. Although same-sex marriage was not yet legal in Nevada, Carla told the clerk when they went to get their marriage license, “That’s OK because I’m biologically male.”
Tennessee also is the only state that has a law against changing gender on a birth certificate, which can create complications like those Jaime faced in her recent attempt to obtain a passport. The name and gender on her birth certificate do not match the name and gender on her driver’s license and Social Security card.
“I transitioned 18 years ago, but the doctor who performed my surgery is now dead, so I had to go find a gynecologist to vouch for my surgery,” Jaime explains.
“It’s not fair for us to (have to) disclose our medical history for normal things like getting a driver’s license,” Carla adds.
For those who want to help fight for equal rights for all citizens, there are a number of ways to get involved. Equality Knoxville no longer exists, but Carla suggests contacting the Tennessee Equality Project.
“There is a TEP representative in your county or your division, and TEP can always use your voice or your resources to change Tennessee for the better,” she says. “Further, I know, because I’m an executive board member, that TEP is fully inclusive and will not bargain away transgender rights.”
Another grassroots organization, Tennessee Transgender Political Coalition, has a similar goal as TEP, but with a special emphasis on transgender rights, Carla adds.
“Their resources and reach are much more limited, but the effort they put forth is immeasurable,” she notes.
Those who do not want to join groups can make a difference simply by speaking up on behalf of transgender people when they see things such as legislation that would allow discrimination, Carla stresses.
“When you see things like this, let your representative know that you’re not down with that,” Carla urges.
June 24 marked 16 years since Justin died and Carla was born, and things are good these days.
Carla was reunited with her children in 2004 and 2005, when they came to live with her and Jaime. Her daughter still lives with them as she finishes school.
“When they first moved back, we were Aunt Carla and Aunt Jaime, a lesbian couple, (to their friends),” explains Carla, whose children are 25 and 24. “Now they are fierce advocates. We celebrate Father’s Day, and I am proud to be their father. I don’t wish I was their mother.”
Carla still works as a software engineer, now in Nashville, and Jaime sold her salon in Maryville this spring so that she could join Carla in Middle Tennessee. They maintain a home in Blount County and frequently visit friends and family here, including Carla’s son and three grandchildren.
“The act of transitioning is very different for everybody, so trying to cram the trans story into one story is very short-sighted,” Carla cautions. “It’s hard to be a mouthpiece for an entire community.”
But for Carla, transitioning from male to female was a decision that brought her back to life.
“After becoming my true self, I had more confidence than before,” she explains. “I feel like I robbed the world of my talent and my voice when I was too afraid to be myself.”
Facts about the transgender community
Transgender is a term for people whose gender identity, expression or behavior is different from those typically associated with their assigned sex at birth. Transgender is a broad term and is good for non-transgender people to use. “Trans” is shorthand for transgender.
A transgender woman identifies as a woman while a transgender man identifies as a man. It is how they identify that is important, Carla stresses, whether or not they have had sex reassignment surgery.
The correct term is transgender, not transgendered. “You wouldn’t say ‘gayed,’” Carla notes. Always use transgender as an adjective, not a noun.
Getting people to understand the difference between sexual orientation and gender identity is a huge hurdle, Carla adds. One way to remember the distinction is to think of a “gender-bread man.” Gender identity would correlate with the brain, as it refers to a person’s internal sense of being male or female, while sexual orientation would correlate with the heart, as it describes a person’s attraction to members of the same sex and/or a different sex, usually defined as lesbian, gay, bisexual, heterosexual or asexual.
The American Medical Association and the American Psychiatric Association agree that the best option for transgender people is transitioning. “This is not a mental disorder,” Carla stresses. “Trans people suffer (mental issues) because of the repercussions from their families.”
— Lesli Bales-Sherrod