Students past and present, parents, and community members spoke out against his hateful rhetoric. It briefly went viral in the surrounding area and I received countless messages of support from strangers and friends alike until he deleted the post and backtracked his statements. Obviously, there are still many people who agree with his position in my area, and you’re never going to reach everyone, but I believe this shows the growing general acceptance and support for the LGBTQ community even in our rural areas.
Name: Sarah Cheatle
County of Residence: I’ve lived in McKean County for most of the past 12 years, and I was born and raised in adjoining Elk County. Additionally, I am attending classes during the summer at IUP in Indiana County. I’ve spent time living in Crawford, Warren and Centre Counties, but not since my transition.
Pronouns: She / Her
How do you describe your identity? Transgender female
Please describe your coming out experience. Where did you find support? What challenges did you face? Coming out is not necessarily a singular event. Sometimes it takes decades. Gender dysphoria manifests itself in various ways on an individual basis. For me, I can remember events or thoughts that I had back to the age of 8 that probably should have been flashing neon “trans” signs. My personal symptoms consisted mostly of cripplingly low self-esteem, a general hatred of my body, social awkwardness and a vague “dark cloud” hanging over my life. You can deny and repress the feelings of dysphoria for years, but eventually, they come back, and usually they come back stronger than ever.
In January 2017. I was married, enjoyed my job, had a few close friends — in short, life was great, and even then, I was completely miserable. That’s when I knew I had to do something about it and seek gender therapy. I also knew that meant telling my then-wife everything. That was one of the hardest nights of my life, verbalizing things I never had before. As the months went on, we tried to work things out, but for various reasons, we eventually split. After telling her, the coming out process got easier each time, but rarely easy.
Next I told my family and closest friends. Everyone was supportive, although some were completely confused and unsure how to react. I knew though, that the most difficult hurdle would be my job. I teach in a rural public high school. For obvious reasons, we don’t have accurate statistics on the number of transgender educators in Pennsylvania or nationwide. On top of that, my area is as red as can be, and those stereotypes are quite often based in reality, so I had no idea how things would play out. News of my transition leaked well before I was ready to publicly come out, but that was ultimately for the best. Although it was an open secret in the community for months, I suddenly didn’t have to worry about what might happen when I told my administration. My union backed me completely, and the majority of my coworkers also expressed open support, even if, like my family, they weren’t sure what exactly that entailed.
(If I am allowed to self promote, my friend and I have a weekly podcast, The Parenthetical Society, on Google Play and iTunes. We dedicated an episode to my transition. Lots of information there that I didn’t have room to discuss here. Thanks.)
How would you describe yourself NOW in terms of “being out”? Although I had only been on hormones for about eight months, and it is an inexact process, as many can attest (I’ve only recently gotten my testosterone and estrogen levels where they should be), I informed my principal in late May that I’d be returning after summer break as Ms. Cheatle, not Mr. As fate would have it, I was starting a summertime PhD program in English Literature at IUP immediately after my teaching year ended. A close friend and coworker was also starting the program, and she convinced me to attend as Sarah that first day. Her reasoning was that it’d be easier to start fresh from day one, as I didn’t know the other students or professors.
For a transgender person, the first day living “full-time” as your preferred gender can be life altering. So can the first day of PhD classes. Thanks to my friend’s advice, I did both in the same day, and I wouldn’t recommend that double dip to anybody else, but I somehow made it through to the other side. After grad classes ended, I returned home from Indiana and prepared for high school to start. Nobody knew how that first day would go. Luckily, it went more smoothly than I could have imagined. There were some odd looks, but I addressed the issue briefly in class, we moved forward, and that was that. My teaching career continued as it had for the previous 11 years.
Now, some five months later, I have legally changed my name and the majority of my documentation. I still have a few random items to update, but for all intents and purposes, I’m Sarah and always have been.
Tell me about the first LGBTQ person whom you met. What impact did they have on your life? That’s tough to answer, as I don’t remember many (or any, really) adults being out while I was growing up, but the ’90s were a different time, and I lived in a rural area. I definitely had a number of closeted classmates during high school (most of whom came out shortly after leaving for college), though. I’m embarrassed to say that many of my friends were of the “jock bro” variety at the time, so I tagged along in harassing our classmates, probably because I was unable to deal with my own issues. There was one person in particular that I spent years feeling guilty about, but I reconnected with him at our 20th class reunion a few months ago. He assured me that he had no negative memories of me from high school, so I guess I’ve been absolved, at least a little.
Past or present, favorite LGBTQ character or creator in television, film or literature? Please tell us why. For obvious reasons, Freddie Mercury is timeless. Scott Thompson and the Kids in the Hall are great. I was a big fan of Against Me! even before Laura Jane Grace transitioned, but she’s a huge influence through her music and visibility. As I said, I am working on my PhD, and my intention is to focus my dissertation on gender studies, particularly transgender studies. To that end, I love the work that Julia Serano has done. I think her books (Whipping Girl, Excluded, and Outspoken) are some the best examples of modern cultural studies out there and well worth the read.
How do you stay informed about LGBTQ issues? I get my information online almost exclusively. I don’t have any specific sites that I follow as such, but I frequent various subs on Reddit, and my friend Caitlyn, who is *the* person to know in the Erie trans community, shares useful articles on social media daily.
Describe your geographical community. McKean County is the epitome of rural, conservative America, and the stereotypes that exist are real, but with that said, I do feel that we are making progress. To share a personal example, as a teacher, I am inevitably in the public eye dealing with students on a daily basis. My transition potentially could have set off a firestorm of complaints to the school, but according to my principal, he only received one email from a concerned parent.
Furthermore, about a week ago, some six months after I transitioned at school, a parent started complaining on social media about me, saying I was “confusing the children”, equating being transgender with being a pedophile, etc., things that too many of us have heard too many times. The backlash, however, was swift and nearly total. Students past and present, parents, and community members spoke out against his hateful rhetoric. It briefly went viral in the surrounding area and I received countless messages of support from strangers and friends alike until he deleted the post and backtracked his statements. Obviously, there are still many people who agree with his position in my area, and you’re never going to reach everyone, but I believe this shows the growing general acceptance and support for the LGBTQ community even in our rural areas.
Describe your local or regional LGBTQ community. There really isn’t one to speak of. We exist as a small network of individuals, but community groups are still few, far between and generally lacking in participants. There’s a growing LGBTQ community across the state line in nearby Olean, NY, but it’s still getting itself off the ground.
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Have you ever experienced discrimination based on your identity? Specifically, in a job setting, when applying for housing or while in public. Before my official transition at school, there were some instances that were a little touch and go, perhaps toeing the line of being discriminatory, but that has righted itself in time. Overall, though, I can honestly say things have been as good as I could hope for here. People are polite to me, I’m renting a house, I’m still employed at my school district, and as far as the summer at IUP went, my professors and classmates were amazing, especially considering how awkward I was those first few weeks.
Have you experienced microagressions based on your identity? Think everyday indignities & slights that you experience, but would not characterize as discrimination. Please describe in your own words. I guess I would say that as supportive as my coworkers are, I often feel like I’m in a weird isolated place. What I mean is that while the men still accept me in certain ways (for example, staying in the work fantasy football league was a given), there is a distance with some that didn’t exist before. On the other hand, while the women accept me in certain ways, I don’t necessarily feel like “one of the girls” either. I’m sure part of it is them knowing me for 11 years previously. It’s a weird contradiction — I tell people, “I’m still the same. Don’t treat me any differently,” but then I also do want to be treated a little differently just the same. I don’t want to speak for the trans population, but I’d suspect this is a somewhat common feeling.
Tell us about your access to health care in Western PA. Has it been LGBTQ competent (or not?) Transgender health care in particular for my area seems to be non-existent. I travel to Erie (2 hours each way) for therapy and doctor’s appointments. I have friends who have had to go to Pittsburgh or Buffalo as well. At no point did I consider going to local doctors or therapists, mainly because its seems such a foreign topic to this area. I am lucky to have health insurance that covers therapy and medications, as well as a reliable vehicle to make that regular trip, but others aren’t as fortunate. The care that I’ve received in Erie has been top notch, but it certainly makes things very difficult being so far away.
Are there issues impacting your LGBTQ neighbors that aren’t visible or part of the local dialogue? While it might be not considered direly important, one thing that comes to mind immediately is dating, which is difficult for anybody, but made worse when you’re LGBTQ and living in a small town. Dating as a woman presents a number of challenges and concerns that simply never occurred to me while dating as a man. Add to that the element of being transgender, which is another layer of difficulty. You have to avoid people who are bigoted and potentially violent on one end of the spectrum, but also those who are fetishizing you on the other end. It all seems, quite frankly, exhausting, and I’ve pretty much come to terms with the fact that I might be single for a very long time.
What would you like to see elected officials do to improve life for LGBTQ Pennsylvanians? The biggest thing would be to pass statewide legislation prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity. While certain counties have enacted said legislation, there is no statewide policy to my knowledge. A huge personal fear of mine in coming out was losing my teaching job. I had a strong union to rely on, but many others do not have such a luxury.
Please share a lived experience, anecdote or fact about life as an LGBTQ person in your community. One thing that many people don’t completely know about or understand is the cost of transitioning. It can be an extremely expensive process. I am fortunate that my hormones and therapy are covered by insurance, but I wouldn’t say it’s great. There are a host of procedures that transgender people might choose to undergo in order to aid their physical or mental well being. These include, but are not limited to: laser hair removal / electrolysis, breast augmentation / reduction, hair transplants / medical wigs, facial feminization surgery, voice therapy / surgery and “bottom” surgery (GRS/SRS). These can easily run into the tens of thousands of dollars, but unfortunately, in most states (aside from MA and several west coast states), they are considered “cosmetic” and not generally covered. For instance, my insurance company does in fact cover GRS/SRS, but that is the only procedure of those listed that it covers. Beyond the medical, changing one’s identity can be both a hassle and financially draining. For my name change alone, I had to run the announcement in two local papers ($150), pay a local filing fee ($110), and pay my attorney to navigate the system of paperwork (I got a “friends and family” discount, and it was still about $400). Now, add in the costs for changing my car registration ($53), amending my birth certificate ($20), updating my passport ($145) as well as various other notarized forms, and I rapidly approached $1,000. While I made it work, that cost certainly stung, and for many others, that amount of money is simply not feasible in any way. Additionally, I had to buy a new wardrobe, and even bargain shopping, that adds up, particularly as your body morphs and shifts while hormones do their thing.
Beyond discrimination, what other barriers create challenges for your LGBTQ neighbors? I think I answered this somewhat in the last question, but I also think the general lack of knowledge about reputable information sources is a huge challenge today. There are countless half-truths (or lies) about the LGBTQ population spread throughout various news sites, Youtube videos and online memes (the soundbite of our era), and convincing others that, “No, that’s not even close to being accurate,,” is often very difficult, especially when very few tend to check for source reliability and validity.
What LGBTQ friendly resources are available for your neighbors? Transfamily of NWPA is a great resource if you’re in the extended Erie area. I often refer to my friend, Caitlyn Strohmeyer, as “the face” of the Erie trans community, and the work she puts in is invaluable. I, and so many others, wouldn’t be where we are today without her assistance. Her help is not limited to transgender people; if you are anywhere on the LGBTQ spectrum and need help, she’d be my first contact. Additionally, I know that it’s outside the scope of the website, but for those of us in north central PA, the Cattaraugus County Pride Coalition exists in Olean, NY and is starting to grow. I just became aware of them recently, but they’re doing lots of great things also.
What is your greatest fear for the LGBTQ community in Western Pennsylvania? I guess my greatest fear is that the bigotry and hatred being spewed by our current administration grows and spreads. The President’s rhetoric made open hostility and discrimination once again acceptable, and as a society, we need to collectively take a stand against that.
What is your greatest hope for the LGBTQ community in Western Pennsylvania? Although it won’t solve all our problems, we need to continue voting out those who back discriminatory legislation in 2020 (and beyond). While I hope that means many will join me in voting for progressive Democrats, my Republican friends can do their part by working to take back their party from the extreme right-wing fringe.
What pieces of local or regional LGBTQ history would you like to preserve and why? My area doesn’t really have a local LGBTQ history. Only in recent years have we become more visible. I strongly suspect I’m the first (only?) openly transgender person that most in my community have interacted with. Likewise, I know many people now in open same-sex relationships and marriages, but that didn’t happen even ten years ago. I feel like we’re writing our history every day.
What can allies do to support your LGBTQ community? Treat us like everybody else. Just because I’m trans doesn’t mean I’m some kind of specimen. If you have questions, ask them, but do it respectfully; asking what’s “down there” is a big don’t. Read a book if you want to become informed. Stand up against bigots. Talk to us. Show basic human empathy. Communication is what will change the world.
How can gay men and lesbians support the bisexual, transgender and queer members of our community? I’m going to be honest and say that being in a small area and transitioning later in life, I’m a little outside “the scene”, but I’m aware that conflicts often exist between various parts of the LGBTQ community. Refer to my last response. We’re all human beings with our own problems and baggage that we’re dealing with, but we’re all in this together. Like I tell my students all the time, you don’t know what somebody’s dealing with outside of here, so just be nice to another.
What motivated you to take part in this project? I think it’s important for people to hear our stories because it humanizes us. It puts a face to something that can be different and even a little scary to some people. I’ve said repeatedly throughout my transition that it’s easier to hate an idea than a person, and I still believe that’s true. I guess lastly, I want to be an advocate, a voice for the LGBTQ community in this area. I work with LGBTQ students every day, some closeted and others not. We need this world to be better for them. There are so many more people out there that are unable to be visible for whatever reason. I was in that position for decades, and I don’t want anyone else to have to live through what I did. If I can let one person know they’re not alone, then I guess I accomplished something great.
Finally, what question should I have asked? Please also share your answer. I think that the questionnaire was pretty thorough. Thank you for giving me the opportunity to respond.
Thank you, Sarah.
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AMPLIFY LGBTQ is a series of blog posts designed to give a “signal boost” to the voices of our LGBTQ neighbors throughout Western Pennsylvania. These are glimpses in to the lived experiences of LGBTQ people in Western Pennsylvania as told in their own voices.