Full text and summary of Paula Stone Williams’ talk titled “I’ve Lived as a Man & a Woman – Here’s What I Learned” at TEDxMileHigh conference.
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.
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.”
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.
When I got to Charlotte, she called me. She said, “Paula, what happened? You were as white as a sheet!” I told her and she said, “Yeah. Welcome to the world of women!” Now, the truth is I will not live long enough to lose my male privilege. I brought it with me when I transitioned. A lot of decades of being a man. But that doesn’t mean I don’t see my power diminishing.
Let me tell you another thing I’ve observed. Apparently, since I became a female, I have become stupid. Yeah, I guess it’s the loss of testosterone and the arrival of estrogen that has caused me to lose the brain cells necessary to be a fully functioning adult human. Either that or I’m as smart as I ever was, it’s just now I’m constantly being subjected to mansplaining.
So, I was in my local Denver bike shop and a young summer employee said, “Can I help?” And I said, “Yeah. Can the frame of an older Gary Fisher mountain bike start to flex and bend enough that it causes the rear break to rub?” He said, “Well, disk breaks need regular adjustments.” I said, “I know that, and in fact I do my reg break adjustments.” He said, “Oh, well, then your rotor’s bent.” I said, “Yeah, my rotor is not bent. I know a bent rotor.” With condescension, he said, “Well, what do you want me to do?” I said, “You could answer my question.”
At which point Kyle, the manager of the shop, stepped in. He’s such a sweetheart. He said, “I think you’re probably right. Let me ask you a question: Do you only get a chirp coming from that rear break when you’re pulling hard uphill?” I said, “Yes, exactly!” He said, “Yeah, that’s frame fatigue.” I wanted to fall at the feet of Kyle and call him blessed! Someone was taking me seriously! This happens all the time now. I have to go three or four rounds with someone before I get a direct answer!
And there’s a deeper issue: the more you’re treated as if you don’t know what you’re talking about, the more you begin to question whether or not you do in fact know what you’re talking about, right? I understand the woman’s tendency to doubt herself. Do you ever notice if a woman is in a meeting with a group of men, and she knows she’s right, she apologizes for it? She says, “I’m sorry, but I don’t think those numbers add up.” You know, you don’t have to apologize for being right.
Since I’m new to this gender, I asked my good friend Jen. I said, “What are women looking for in men?” She said, “Women are looking for men who will honor our uniqueness, who will realize our gifting is not lesser, it’s not weaker, it’s just different, it is in fact more comprehensive and it’s essential.”
Now, of course there are men who do honor women, lots of them, like my good friend and fellow pastor, Mark, who always draws out the best in me and then seems to take pleasure in watching me lead. We need more men like Mark, who are willing to honor and empower women. I know I’m going to keep bumping into additional differences on this journey, but let me leave you with this.
To the women, I offer my heartfelt thanks. I often feel like an interloper, a late arrival to the serious work of womanhood, but you show me grace and great mercy. I want you to know you are far more capable than you realize, you are more powerful than you know and you reflect the best parts of what it means to be fully human. And to you guys who are probably feeling more than a little bit uncomfortable right now – I do understand. I never thought I had privilege, but I did. And so do you.
What can you do? You can believe us when we tell you that we might, we might have equality, but we do not have equity. It is not a level playing field, it never has been. You can be a part of the solution by elevating us to equal footing. You uniquely have that power. And to all of us, do you know who I think about a lot? I think about my brown-skinned daughter, and my brown-skinned daughter-in-law. What do they know that I’m clueless about? What do any of us really know about the shoes in which we have never walked? It’s hard being a woman, it’s hard being a transgender woman.
As a man, I just didn’t know what I didn’t know. Would I do it all again? Of course I would, because the call toward authenticity is sacred, it’s holy, it’s for the greater good. For 45 years, my father was a fundamentalist pastor. My mother is even more conservative – When I came out as transgender, they rejected me. I thought I would never speak to them again.
Last January, I took a chance and called my dad on his birthday, and he took my call. We talked for about a half hour, and about a month later, I asked if I could come for a visit, and they said yes. And last spring, I had a delightfully redemptive three-hour visit with them. I’ve met with them twice since.
But that day, toward the end of the conversation, that first day, my father said a number of precious things. As I stood to go – he said – As I stood to go, he said, “Paula” – He called me Paula – He said, “Paula, I don’t understand this, but I am willing to try.” My father is 93 years old, and he’s willing to try. What more could I ask? I hugged him so tightly. One man willing to give up his power because he knew what he knew, that he loved his child, and he was willing to do whatever it takes to honor the journey of another. Thank you.
SUMMARY OF THIS TALK:
Paula Stone Williams’ talk, titled “I’ve Lived as a Man & a Woman – Here’s What I Learned,” is a powerful exploration of her personal journey as a transgender woman and the profound insights she has gained through this experience. In her 500-word summary, we will highlight the key takeaway points from her talk:
- Authenticity and Self-Discovery: Paula Stone Williams opens her talk by sharing her background as a successful white American male with a prestigious career in a religious nonprofit. She emphasizes the importance of authenticity and self-discovery, comparing it to realizing that your ladder of success has been leaning against the wrong wall.
- Transgender Identity: Paula knew from a young age that she was transgender. She describes her journey of self-discovery and the decision to come out as transgender, even though it led to the loss of all her jobs. She also highlights the legal challenges faced by transgender individuals working for religious organizations.
- Gender Identity: Paula discusses her experience as a transgender woman and addresses the question of whether she feels 100% like a woman. She emphasizes that each transgender person’s experience is unique, but she is learning a lot about what it means to be female and the differences between her former male identity and her current female identity.
- Gender Differences: Paula humorously points out some of the everyday gender differences she has encountered, such as the impracticality of women’s jeans pockets, the sizing of women’s clothing, and the unique challenges women face, like worrying about clothing dropping into the toilet.
- Sexuality: She highlights the differences in how she now experiences her sexuality, emphasizing a shift from a visual and body-centric experience to a more holistic and being-centered one.
- Male Privilege: Paula acknowledges the privileges she had as a well-educated white male and the societal advantages that come with it. She also discusses how she lost some of these privileges upon transitioning to a female identity.
- Mansplaining and Gender Bias: Paula shares examples of experiencing mansplaining and condescension as a woman, which she never encountered as a man. She reflects on how these experiences can lead to self-doubt and the importance of respecting women’s knowledge and expertise.
- Empowering Women: She emphasizes the need for men to honor and empower women, recognizing their unique qualities and contributions. Paula encourages men to be part of the solution in achieving gender equity.
- The Power of Understanding: Paula encourages empathy and understanding between genders, recognizing that we often don’t fully understand the experiences of those from different backgrounds or gender identities.
- Personal Reconciliation: Paula shares a heartwarming story about reconciling with her conservative parents after coming out as transgender. Her father’s willingness to try to understand and accept her identity serves as a touching example of the power of love and acceptance.
In her talk, Paula Stone Williams offers a deeply personal and insightful perspective on the complexities of gender identity, privilege, and the importance of empathy and equality. Her journey from a successful white male to a transgender woman provides a unique lens through which she views and shares these essential life lessons.
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