I had allergies and asthma as a kid, and in that time and place the only treatment was to scream at the victim to calm down and breathe normally. It’s a sensation you can’t understand unless you’ve felt it yourself. It feels like you’re dying and no one cares. In many ways, it reminds me of being transgender.
I grew up off a gravel road in a rural part of Mississippi with Southern Baptist parents. Looking around, you never saw an out gay or lesbian person, let alone someone who was transgender. The subject of “those” kinds of people were taboo, which meant that I lived in constant fear of being labeled insane and I was always careful to walk the thin tightrope of rebellion and compliance. Inside, I was heartbroken and angry. I couldn’t understand why I was being punished and forced to live like a girl, someone I wasn’t. I kept wondering, why isn’t anyone helping me?
When puberty came and delivered the ultimate betrayal by developing female secondary sex characteristics, I fell apart. When I was forced to live in a woman’s dorm, I had a mental breakdown. I withdrew from the world as much as possible, feeling a deep sense of shame and hopeless rage. I lived in a thick cloud of buzzing, painful gray static that held no hope for the future, just an unknown number of months before I cracked and committed suicide. It took sitting in my car with a gun barrel in my mouth to convince my parents to let me come home from school.
I finally met a psychologist who showed me a paragraph on transgender people. It was the first time in my life that I knew I wasn’t mentally ill, that other trans people existed and living longer might actually pay off. The process of transitioning in the 90s was hard but I was happy to comply if it got me a fair shake at being myself. I slowly began to build a life I wanted: friends, a girlfriend, a job, a more successful attempt at college.
When my father was diagnosed with leukemia and given two years to live, I knew there was no way my mother could help take care of him alone. While my father and I had a contentious relationship my entire life, not helping didn’t feel right. So I quit school and work and moved back in with my parents, back to Mississippi. The next couple of years my schedule was filled with routine: I would wake up early to pack freight trucks in the morning, rush home to take Dad to chemotherapy and then run to my restaurant job at night. I wanted so much more for myself, but taking care of my father when he was dying felt like the right thing to do.
That feeling stayed with me when I moved to Seattle after my father’s death. After years as a cook, I went back to school and became a respiratory therapist. It turned out to be a good fit. I think my experiences have made me more empathetic and a better therapist when my patients, like me years ago, can’t breathe and feel like they are dying.
I’ve been lucky enough to work with a team of colleagues who are compassionate, dedicated, and hilarious. Healthcare makes tight bonds among co-workers, so when I told them about the project, and opened up about being transgender, I was not surprised when they were their usual affectionate and supportive selves. My union, SEIU Local 1199, and my employer, Swedish Medical Center, have all echoed that support.
“Our patients don’t care whether Jason is transgender or not, they just want to know if he’s going to help them breathe more easily,” says Regina, one of my fellow respiratory therapists. “But I care because Jason is who he is: a great friend and co-worker.” I agree.