TG Activist — Rachel Crandall

| Sep 8, 2014
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By Kristina Mayhem

Rachel Crandall

Rachel Crandall

On November 7, 1959 a girl was born who would experience the injustice that anyone wrapped in the wrong exterior encounters. The injustice was living in a world that does not accept transgenderism. The girl’s name was Rachel Crandall and from her early memories her inside and outside did not match. On the inside her thoughts and feelings were female, but on the outside she was a boy. It was a secret she kept it buried inside, fearing what people would think.

Fifteen years ago, she was still living a life of denial, not making peace with her division between body and soul. “When you aren’t who you really are, it’s like being rolled in an ocean wave,” Rachel says. “You want to rise to the surface, but you can’t come up for air.”

After she finally took those brave first steps to become the woman she is, she devoted her life to helping others like herself. She is a social worker, founder, and executive director of Transgender Michigan, the area’s foremost transgender resource and support organization.

Gender identity is something most take for granted, yet for those with gender dysphoria, life can be strange, hard, and confusing. Rachel’s challenges started early and were fiercely persistent. The girl born in 1959 was wrapped in blue, saddled with expectations of masculinity, and grew up in one of the most neglected and misunderstood groups in society. Her challenges would be difficult enough for any adult; for a child it was nearly impossible.

There are repercussions for gender non-conformity and Rachel learned early that she couldn’t be sugar, spice, and everything nice. She learned that boys dress and behave in certain ways and girls in another. The larger society said one thing, but her heart said something else, and it was a difficult thing to get her mind around. It was only after she became an adult that she found the courage to be herself. Even then, she wondered how a change would affect those around her. Finally, like a puzzle in which the final pieces snap into place, she realized that being female was the only choice she had.

For many it was a surprising revelation, and they questioned why she would make a change. Rachel explains that it wasn’t a change at all, but merely a confirmation of who she was. “Suppressing yourself is hard, and I’m not trying to be something I’m not” Rachel says. “I want to be me, which is what anyone wants — to be their honest true self. I think people can understand that.”

Rachel was raised in a typical working-class family in Southfield Michigan. Her father was a CPA and her mother a homemaker. She had a normal childhood and has fond memories of birthdays, holidays, and the like. Some of her earliest memories, however, are not understanding why people called her a boy. She remembers her parents using male pronouns to describe her, and it didn’t make sense. She told her parents she was a girl and they said it was the worst thing she could say. She learned to keep it a closely guarded secret.

Rachel at her birthday party, which she turned into a fundraising event.

Rachel at her birthday party, which she turned into a fundraising event.

She doesn’t blame her parents, knowing the fund of information was smaller then, but wishes her transition happened sooner. “There wasn’t much transgender awareness in the 1960s” Rachel says. Instead there was a strong gender binary, a dichotomy in which gender is classified into two opposite, distinct, and disconnected forms. Information about trans people was suppressed, parents were not aware of biological causes, and a child’s transgender behavior was seen as an act of rebellion. Parents see their children as extensions of themselves and many had strong reactions. Most children were forced into conformity.

People now see that for some their sense of themselves is not congruent with the gender they were assigned at birth. Rachel says transgender is a benign variation like left-handedness or right-handedness that’s an essential part of who she is. “Instead of polar opposites, people are starting to see that the confines of gender are in many ways arbitrary.” Medical professionals now determine if a child is transgender and choose the best course of treatment. “If a child is bullied that’s a social problem and not an individual one” Rachel says. Being transgender made Rachel feel fragile and insecure, and she experienced feelings of hopelessness and doom.

She coped with her situation by retreating into her thoughts, fantasizing about being a girl, and praying every night for her wish to come true. With each year of school, however, her feelings didn’t change. She didn’t like being segregated in with boys and being with girls seemed natural and right. It was a childhood shrouded in secrecy, fear, and self-condemnation. Her teenage years were even more complicated, as puberty set in and her voice began to change. She dreaded having to shave, and being forced into boy’s activities in high school intensified her feelings.

She attended Southfield High School and every day felt betrayed by her body. She remembers walking the halls wishing she was a girl. “Gender differences in high school are very pronounced” Rachel says. “I would look at a football player and a cheerleader and identify with the latter.” She experienced gender envy, in which observing girls intensified feelings of who she wanted to be. Even more, she was missing out on a girl’s passage into adulthood. Other girls were experimenting with make-up, getting a bra, doing their hair, and she wasn’t doing any of that.

Trying to make sense of her situation, she went to libraries looking for answers. She found literature on the subject, and read about transsexuals such as Renee Richards and Christine Jorgensen. She realized this is what she was, but still vowed to keep it a secret. She pursued female roles after high school, pouring her energies into her studies, and obtained her Master’s degree in social work from Michigan State University. She focused on her career, became a licensed social worker, and enjoyed being in a predominately female profession.

Despite her feelings she was still playing the male role. The extent to which someone reveals their gender variance is different for each person. Many transwomen pursue masculine roles in life and keep their female side hidden away. Some carry themselves in a masculine way and live a life of denial, not giving indications of being female. Rachel had an easy-going, friendly manner that could be considered feminine, but she wasn’t willowy or girlish in an overt way. A casual observer would say there wasn’t much indication, but people who know her say there were clues.

She was described as a sweet, charming person, who liked women and looked forward to marriage. When she was twenty-three she fell in love with a woman who she married. “What you are attracted to and what you identify with don’t always follow a heterosexual orientation” Rachel says. She married in 1982, bought a home in Okemos, and settled into a happy married life. She worked as a therapist at Owasso Memorial Hospital and her wife was a radio producer. Rachel was a dutiful spouse, but on the inside a woman was always there. She crossdressed secretly at home, and sometimes ventured out as a woman in public. She found a transgender organization called Crossroads and went to a meeting.

For many trans people meeting others is a tipping point to change. A lifetime is spent in hiding and suddenly you discover a world of possibilities. She took an important first step by meeting others “en femme,” which meant being completely in her target gender, and it was euphoria. “You recognize a tidal wave and you stop trying to hold it back” Rachel says. “A pinprick leads to an explosion.” She started wearing light make-up and sometimes an androgynous piece of clothing to work, and she let her hair grow more. It was not much, but it was enough for her employer to raise an eyebrow, and she lost her job. When she told her wife what was happening their marriage came to an end.

20110404transgender01Trans people spend their lives coming to terms with themselves, and when they finally do, it is because they have finally accepted themselves. What they are not prepared for, however, is the lack of acceptance from others. Rachel told close friends and lost them as friends, and many of her relatives had similar reactions. Her parents were upset, showed little support, and called her behavior “awful.” They said it would mean a world of disappointment, and in many ways they were right. Rachel began living as a woman and it destroyed her life. Within months her money, home, and all her possessions were gone. The only place she found support was Crossroads, an organization that did much, but was not enough.

Rachel was in the transitioning part of transsexualism, which is perhaps the most difficult part of all. It is the critical time when a transgender person makes the complete change in gender. It’s a period of adjustment that means getting by with less. Rachel faced legal challenges such as divorce and name change; medical challenges such as hormones and surgery; psychological challenges such as counseling; and financial challenges as well.

Despite her experience as a social worker, resources were limited and she was mostly on her own. She eventually found the right therapist, found physicians for hormones and surgery, and got legal help for her name change. She found these resources by herself and advises others to use caution when doing the same. There are many therapists who will see a transgender client, but many secretly harbor resentment, which can be traumatic.

“Trans people are a marginalized and misunderstood population who present challenges for any counselor,” Rachel says. She says trans people struggle with a deeply personal matter not shared by most in society. “It’s a therapist’s priority to help clients by being objective and not let biases interfere with their judgment.” The high degree of stigma makes it imperative that trans people have access to competent, respectful services. In addition to being a therapist, Rachel was also a social worker who specialized in systems work, which is connecting people with the right service providers. It was something that gender variant people desperately need and she was up for the challenge.

Not giving up in face of losing everything shows how important Rachel’s gender confirmation was. Transgender people compare transitioning to a butterfly emerging from a cocoon. Rachel spread her wings and started living as a woman and was not going back. Her inner feminine feelings were being realized each day and for the first time she felt happy and complete. She was more convinced than ever she made the right decision and that God had finally answered her prayers. She could now look in the mirror and be pleased with the person looking back. She felt like an angel, spreading her wings in heavenly sunlight. For nearly every transsexual the experience is the same. Her choice created happiness, but the reactions of others meant a world of hurt.

In the great crises of life, when to be or not to be is the question. Rachel was going through both a divorce and termination from her job, and the combination was so devastating that all she could do was cry. “Is there a word that transcends abysmal?” she cried out. Her life had been going smoothly; she loved her job; she loved her wife; and now she lost everything. Her crying continued for days, her personal life and professional career in ruins, a feeling of helplessness stampeding through her, with no end in sight.

It was the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, and her mind plummeted to depths she never knew existed. She decided there was no point in going on or even existing. She decided to end her life and she put together a plan. Her thoughts were spinning out of control when she blacked out for what seems like an eternity. She awoke feeling exhausted, pulled herself together, and started to take control. “You either meet life’s challenges head-on, or you turn and wither away,” Rachel says. She had already ran the gamut; she knew what needed to be done; and there was fire in her eyes. She studied the landscape and concluded that taking action was the right thing to do.

She would do everything in her power to promote transgender self-worth and to marshal the powers of social legitimation. She started by volunteering for Crossroads, facilitating their first-timers support group. She then started another transgender group at Michigan State University. In these groups she observed how trans people internalize disempowering attitudes and beliefs, and how underserved this population was. She took an inventory of everything that needed to be done.

“For trans people it is difficult just going out in public,” Rachel says. Being almost anywhere can cause transphobia, the irrational fear of those who break or blur stereotypical gender roles. Transgender people find themselves in the center of a bullseye and the air becomes thick with menace. They walk a tightrope everywhere, knowing they will experience negativity, mockery, and violence, and just being their true self triggers these things. They spend years in hiding, fearful of what people will think, struggling with indecision and poor self-esteem. Many feel the need to end their life, feeling like no one understands or cares. There is hardly any support anywhere.

Rachel explains that Transgender people are small in comparison to the larger ‘cisgender’ majority. “Cisgenders are people whose self-identity conforms with their biological gender.” Most people are comfortable with their assigned gender roles, and it takes a powerful act of imagination to understand what trans people are feeling. Cisgenders react negatively because it is unfamiliar to them, Rachel explains. They have difficulty recognizing the humanity of another person when they can’t recognize their gender, and it evokes a primordial fear. People need to understand that if you prick us we bleed and if you tickle us we laugh. We are ordinary people just like everyone else.

Rachel says one of the biggest misconceptions about gender variance is that it’s about sex when it’s really about identity. Helping others understand this goes a long way in helping our cause. Her list of transgender oppression reads like a litany. Trans people are ostracized by family and friends, forced from their jobs, evicted from housing, given substandard professional care, suffer violence and abuse, are ridiculed by the media, and preached against by religious organizations. These things make them more likely to engage in risky or harmful behaviors and have trouble with the law.

This was in addition to the transgender community having an identity crisis of its own. There are many differences that look similar to an outside observer, but the needs of transgendered people are different. Trans people can be straight or gay, married or single, and come from all walks of life. Some transition early in life and some later, and some choose to never transition. Drag queens are men who dress as women for entertainment purposes and are also transgender. Trans people described organizations as moving from a small closet to a larger one and many felt their needs were being ignored.

Rachel’s goal was to not just bring trans people together, but to bring together everyone in the LGTB rainbow. The similarities between these groups and social justice was clear, and she wanted an inclusive organization with a permanent location and good resources, and a strong system of networking. She started by making information pamphlets that included a Transgender Michigan calendar, and she set up information tables at public events. She also started the Transgender Michigan website, which increased information delivery dramatically.

This was all happening at a time when the ‘T’ was still missing in the LGBT rainbow. It’s hard to imagine otherwise, but fifteen years ago titles and mission statements did not include transgender. Moreover, trans people were not included in anti-discrimination legislation. Transgender was considered extreme, and gays and lesbians could be as biased as anyone else. “We are still behind,” Rachel says, “but the arc of history is moving toward greater acceptance and tolerance. If we stick together then we all benefit.”

What was unique about Transgender Michigan is that Rachel’s status as a licensed social worker gave a level of professionalism that was previously missing. At one time services associated with transgender were considered sexual and perverse. The people who ran these organizations were good people, but many were still in the closet, and lacked a certain credibility. Rachel already had a good reputation in the social services community, and now an experienced professional stood proudly in their ranks.

As Transgender Michigan came into place, Rachel created larger events, the first being the Transgender Michigan Pride in the Park Picnic. Rachel wanted a casual group in which people could relax and socialize. It started out small, but has grown into an all-day event with vendors and over one-hundred and fifty people. It was originally a part of Lansing’s Pride festivities, but now takes place in Ferndale. “It gives a tremendous boost to attend something like this” Rachel says. “Having a place where people can just be themselves and find acceptance makes a world of difference in their lives.”

Next on the agenda was Transgender Michigan’s telephone help line, a valuable resource that offers support and guidance when people need it most. Calls come from all over the country, usually from trans people telling their story for the first time who are interested in meeting others like themselves. Teachers call who have a transgender student and therapists call when they want to confer with a knowledgeable therapist. Parents call when they want to know more about their transgender child. Rachel advises callers to learn everything they can and talk to the transgender person more. Callers should know that Rachel is a licensed therapist and confidentiality is a priority.

The next event was the Transgender Community Forum, a lively auditorium-style event with guest speakers and a question and answer session. Routine daily living procedures are difficult for people who cross boundaries of their birth-assigned genders. Trans people lack the support that other members of society get, and this provides a refreshing change as activists, professionals, and community leaders provide an oasis of information and support. Rachel says people come here to actively shape their lives rather than passively adjusting to external demands. “Trans people see important people as allies in the goals they seek and it makes them feel worthy and self-accepting.”

Rachel started the Transgender Health Fair in 2010 to promote easier access to secure, competent, respectfully provided medical services. Transgender health includes physical interventions such as wearing a corset or binding one’s breasts, to medical interventions such as hormones and surgery. New medical paradigms are available for transgender health needs, as traditionally many have been unable to get medical care without going outside the law. The event brings trans people together with the professionals who help them, and includes therapists, doctors, electrologists, and pharmacists, in addition to clothes, wig, and jewelry retailers.

tdovlogoTransgender Michigan’s most exciting event is the Transgender Day of Visibility, which started on March 26, 2009. Rachel was inspired by the Transgender Day of Remembrance to have something different, and she uncorked a well-spring of enthusiasm and support. This event features speakers, entertainers, and poets and has grown into an international holiday celebrated all over the world. This year it started with Rachel enthusiastically screaming into the microphone “We are worldwide now!” Her passion is shared by all in attendance, as cheers and standing ovations dominates the proceedings and ends with Rachel leading a chant of “We can do it! We can do it!”

Other events include the Transgender Development Forum and the Transgender Day of Empowerment. The former helps trans people to pass, which is to appear as their target gender with as few difficulties as possible. When someone is visually perceived as transgender it can trigger violence and discrimination. Passing minimizes problems and having others confirm a transperson’s gender with correct pronouns is an affirmation of their gender journey. Workshops and seminars on self-esteem, voice, and presentation maximize these goals. The Transgender Day of Empowerment presents educational lectures, workshops, group discussions, and business and organizational displays that offer information, support, and hope. Topics include safety, health insurance, transgender youth, safe sex, job discrimination, and religion.

Rachel at the opening of the new office.

Rachel at the opening of the new office.

Transgender Michigan reached two more milestones with a Board of Directors in 1997 and Articles of Incorporation in 1999, but their place in the LGBT community received greater recognition in 2010 when they opened an office on the second floor of Affirmations Community Pride Building. Located in Downtown Ferndale, this is a modern three story community center with many amenities. It was a dream come true for Transgender Michigan founders, commemorated with an open house attended by community supporters and Transgender Michigan members.

The Affirmations Community Pride Building is where Rachel can be found. She works as a Helpline Clinical Specialist, facilitates support groups, and does individual counseling. She is a gracious host and is there for everyone. Her work has made her an authority, and she teaches a class for the National Association of Social Workers called Counseling Techniques with Transgender Clients. In 2000 she became Faculty Adjunct in the Michigan State University School of Social Work. She’s also a sought after speaker and consultant for corporations and government. She’s received numerous awards including the State Bar of Michigan Liberty Bell Award and the LGTB Greater Lansing Prism Award.

These achievements are even more remarkable given how transgender once led to incarceration or being put on a sex offender list. Rachel says that with each passing day and every victory the momentum continues towards change. She says that recent developments in biotechnology, genetic engineering, and reproduction are creating a world in which gender is radically different, and transgender issues offer a window into our future. Transgender Michigan is now taking on the bigger challenge of battling discrimination in all its forms: work, housing, education, and professional care.

Rachel says in Michigan it’s still legal to fire an employee for being transgender, and people who work hard and play by the rules should be judged on the same terms: credentials, experience, education, and performance. She says anti-discrimination protections are sound policy that helps everyone feel less anxiety about their workplace environments, and helps employees reap the benefits of happier and more qualified applicant pools. “We can then build the most equitable workplace for tranpeople and indeed all people.”

As a consultant Rachel has advised employers about the challenges that workers and their employers face. She feels trans people are an underused resource of talent, creativity, energy, and determination, and legislation is needed to stop discrimination that prevents their participation in the workforce. She says there are some city-wide ordinances, but none state-wide and it’s time for Lansing to change.

She says policies are also needed to stop housing discrimination. Finding adequate and safe shelter is difficult and trans people suffer higher rates of homelessness. One-in-five have been turned down housing and one-in-ten have been evicted. She says ordinances are needed to make renters more welcoming and reduce harm. In addition, homeless shelters in Michigan reject trans people and some have signs saying “No transvestites.” Transgender youth find the streets safer than anywhere else and many turn to sex work. A taskforce is already underway and a Detroit area shelter is in the works.

Susan Crocker

Susan Crocker

Rachel credits much of Transgender Michigan’s accomplishments to her partner, Susan Crocker. As Operations Director, Susan does everything from maintaining the website to paying the bills. Also a transwoman, Rachel met Susan at a Crossroads meeting during Rachel’s transition and they eventually became a couple. Their relationship became stronger in 2013 when they affirmed their vows in a Union Ceremony at the Transgender Michigan Pride in the Park Picnic.

Susan hails from Pottsville, Pennsylvania and is no stranger to oppression. She retired early as an Army civilian engineer, as being transgender meant almost certain termination. Susan reminisces about Transgender Michigan’s beginnings. “It was crazy in the early days” she laughs. “We were cut loose from sanity and thrashing about at random, like excited dogs pursuing too many rabbits.” Despite this, they were quicker studies than they thought. Susan says they soldiered on from crisis to crisis, and found validation for their decisions. Together they knit the loose threads of the transgender community into a single tapestry.

Rachel says the momentum for change is huge and the golden age is still before us. “People are coming to know us and stand with us.” The rest of the world is beginning to see us as active, adjusted, and successful participants in their lives. Susan and Rachel both spoke at the Pride Rally for Transgender Rights, which occurred this summer at Ferndale Pride 2014. Susan referred to two recent accomplishments, the Medicare decision to lift a ban on transgender operations, and Time Magazine’s cover photo of Transgender model Laverne Cox. “It’s an exciting time to be transgender!” Rachel shouted out.

Rachel shared her vision of someday trans people being themselves without being sequestered off to the side. People will think nothing of it — like universal suffrage or women in the workplace. “To have this flower blooming, and you have to hide it in the closet. No, you want to see the beauty” Rachel says. She says the core imperatives of humanistic theory is to grow, become, and realize one’s full human potential. The girl born in 1959 has done just that, and has helped others do the same. Noble in wisdom, infinite in faculties, and in action how like an angel, Rachel’s accomplishments have been of imagination, hard work, talent, and in every sense a masterpiece.

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Category: Transgender Body & Soul, Transgender Opinion


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