I’ve Lived as a Man & a Woman – Here’s What I Learned: Paula Stone Williams at TEDxMileHigh (Transcript)

I was the CEO of a large religious nonprofit, the host of a national television show. I preached in mega churches. I was a successful, well-educated, white American male. The poet and mystic Thomas Merton said, “It’s a difficult thing to climb to the top of the ladder of success only to realize when you get there that your ladder has been leaning against the wrong wall.”

I knew from the time I was three or four years of age I was transgender. In my naivety, I thought I got to choose. I thought a gender fairy would arrive and say, “Okay, the time has come!” But alas, no gender fairy arrived, so I just lived my life. I didn’t hate being a boy. I just knew I wasn’t one. I went to college, got married, had kids, built a career, but the call toward authenticity has all the subtlety of a smoke alarm. And eventually decisions have to be made.

So I came out as transgender and I lost all of my jobs. I had never had a bad review, and I lost every single job. In 21 states, you can’t be fired for being transgender, but in all 50, you can be fired if you’re transgender and you work for a religious corporation. Good to know! It’s not easy being a transgender woman.

People sometimes ask, “Do you feel 100% like a woman?” And I say, “Well, if you’ve talked to one transgender person, you’ve talked to exactly one transgender person. I can’t speak for anybody else.” I feel 100% like a transgender woman. There are things a cisgender woman knows I will never know. That said, I am learning a lot about what it means to be a female, and I am learning a lot about my former gender. I have the unique experience of having lived life on both sides – and I’m here to tell you: the differences are massive.

So, I’ll start with the small stuff – like the pockets on women’s jeans. What! I can’t put a phone in there. Paper clip, maybe. Or the sizing of women’s clothing. Do the numbers mean anything? What is a double zero? And ladies, I doubt you’ve thought about this, but do you know there is never a time in the life of a male that he has to worry about whether or not an article of his clothing is accidentally going to drop into the toilet? Not a long sweater, not a belt, nothing. Never even a passing thought.

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Now, I get my hair cut about half as often as I used to, but it costs tens times as much. So, I can go on vacation or I can get my hair cut. I cannot do both. I keep bumping into gender differences everywhere I go! Sometimes literally. I’m walking down the hallway and I just bump into it. There’s nothing in the way, and I just bump into it. I think, “What’s that about?” And I know it’s going to leave a bruise because now that my skin is thinner I have bruises absolutely everywhere. How I experience my sexuality is profoundly different. It’s less visual and more holistic; less of a body experience and more of a being experience. I cannot count the number of times I’ve said to Cathy, my former wife, “I am so, so sorry!” I just didn’t know what I didn’t know.

There is no way a well-educated white male can understand how much the culture is tilted in his favor. There’s no way he can understand it because it’s all he’s ever known, and all he ever will know. And conversely, there’s no way that a woman can understand the full import of that because being a female is all she’s ever known. She might have an inkling that she’s working twice as hard for half as much, but she has no idea how much harder it is for her than it is for the guy in the Brooks Brothers jacket in the office across the hall. I know! I was that guy! And I thought I was one of the good guys, sensitive to women, egalitarian.

Then came the first time I ever flew as a female. Now, I’ve flown over 2.3 million miles with American Airlines. I know my way around an airplane. And American was great through my transition, but that does not mean their passengers were. The first time I flew as Paula, I was going from Denver to Charlotte, and I got on the plane and there was stuff in my seat. So, I picked it up to put my stuff down, and a guy said, “That’s my stuff.” I said, “Okay, but it’s in my seat. So, I’ll just hold it for you until you find your seat, and then I’ll give it to you.” He said, “Lady, that is my seat!” I said, “Actually, it’s not. It’s my seat.” “1D, 1D. But I’ll be glad to hold your stuff until you find your seat.” He said, “What do I have to tell you? That is my seat!” I said, “Yeah, it’s not.”

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At which point the guy behind me said, “Lady, would you take your effing argument elsewhere so I can get in the airplane?” I was absolutely stunned! I had never been treated like that as a male. I would have said, “I believe that’s my seat,” and the guy immediately would have looked at his boarding pass and said, “Oh, I’m sorry.” I know that because it happened all the time!

The flight attendant took our boarding passes. She said to the guy, “Sir, you’re in 1C. She’s in 1D.” I put his stuff down in 1C, he said not one single word, and of course you know who was next to me in 1F. Mister “would you take your effing argument elsewhere.” So, my friend Karen, who works for American, came on the plane to give the pilot his paperwork. She left and waved goodbye.

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