A Wonderful Variety- A Southern Souls Story Pride Edition


Rachel, 53- Atlanta, GA

Southern Souls is a story-telling series that offers a personal look into the lives of people around us, showing that all souls can relate to one another through our laughter and tears, successes and failures. For Pride Month, we aim to highlight stories by LGBTQ+ Southerners. Our goal is to show that there are a variety of experiences with being LGBTQ+ but especially being a member of this community in the South.

Editors note: I use the word queer in this article because I have seen and heard from other LGBTQ+ community members that it is an overall umbrella term for everyone in this community. Also the person that I interviewed for this article used the word queer for her community so I decided that the language was still appropriate. I do however understand that every LGBTQ+ person has a different relationship with the word queer and are entitled and valid in that opinion and experience.

In my freshman year of college I went to a panel about LGBTQ+ healthcare. The panel gathered sophomore Mercer Medical Students and local LGBTQ+ people so that they could talk about their experiences receiving healthcare as a queer person.

I went to the event to support my friend who was on the panel and that’s when I met Rachel.

We talked after the panel about growing up and not liking the color pink, only to have so many pink items as an adult. We also raved about our love of blouses with bat-like sleeves and how we both thought they were graceful and dramatic. I felt understood by her then. We seemed like very similar people and I thought that when I am an older woman, I want to be as at peace with myself as she is.

I decided I wanted to interview her for this series because she has such an impact on me whenever we meet. Once again, I was really excited to meet a queer adult who was so in love with the life they were leading. She seemed to have it all together and it was really beautiful to meet someone so comfortable with herself. We are both people who have had a lot of struggles in our life. We both know what its like to have a marginalized identity but we both are still dedicated to not letting that get us down while continuing to fight for a better world.

I face activist fatigue, the burnout many activist experience as a result of tackling large systemic issues, all the time; I asked her how she stays such a bright presence in the world when awful things have happened to her and continue to happen in the world.

She tells herself, “Don’t let the bastards get you down; learn to take whatever negativity thrown at me and turn it into positivity.”

Rachel’s father was in the military and she moved around often as a child but she spent most of her childhood in Florida.

She describes her and her siblings growing up as “free range children.” She told me that it was common for her and her siblings to be left to their own devices as children.

“It was not unusual for us after we got our chores done on a Saturday or summer day to just disappear and show back up at dark,” she told me. “My mother and I would wind up arguing about exactly what the definition of dark was. We lived very rural and you know, there weren’t streetlights, they weren’t like be home by the time the streetlights come on.”

Rachel is a woman who’s had a lot of unique experiences in her life. I asked her about things in her life that have shaped her as a person.

“You know, we’re such complex creatures. I admire people that can point to one event and say that this is the one thing that molded them into who they were. But I’ll see it, it’s more of a compendium of a collection of events might be who I am today. Which is why if anybody ever asked me about you know, what’s the one thing you would change it if you go back in time, I don’t know that I’d change a thing.”

She told me that she thinks that if one had changed, she might not be the person she is today.

“You know, like early on. I do remember going fishing at my grandfather’s farm in Texas in the afternoon with the lake and running away from home when I was nine, having to deal with a lot of physical and emotional abuse at that time right up to that…Every step of the way has proved to be something to my experience.”

Her favorite childhood memories include romping through the woods and through lakes, gazing at the moonlit sky through cypress tree beaches that are heavy with moss and laying in a hammock on a hot summer afternoon.

That time in her life also had a large impact on her coming out.

“My earliest memories of my own trans experience go back to around about eight. When I started coming out to different family members, I got a whole lot of ‘Gosh, now, there’s a lot that makes sense’.”

She remembered family members talking about her 4-year-old self, loving makeup and dresses.

She talked to me about how because she grew up in rural Florida, in the pre-internet world of the 70’s and 80’s. She had very few words for her experience nor good representation for trans women when she was growing up.

She said that this contributed to how closeted she was for a long time.

“So it’s something that you shut down and really didn’t know what it was because in that isolation you get a great ignorance to a lot of different things.”

“Seeing trans women on Jerry Springer or Sally Jessy Raphael, there was a connection but that’s not me. You know, the trans women that fight with a bunch of people and getting her wig ripped off, to expose her publicly and I think it just sort of caused me to drive things down even further.”

Rachel came out to her daughter in April of 2016.

“She knew more about being trans or being a person of trans experience. In just a few days of cruising the internet, then I had learned in my entire 48 years of life at that point,” she told me.

Rachel also told me about her feelings on the term ‘coming out’ as it applies to informing other people about one’s gender or sexuality.

“You’ll hear me say a lot, that I ‘went public.’ It’s part of me wanting to help change the narrative a little bit, change the wording that I use to represent myself. Because the only person that I really came out to was my spouse five years ago, and my child four years. Pretty much everything else is just going public with my transition.”

I heard this and thought it was a much more accurate term. When you come out that’s exactly what’s happening, you’re letting the public into your life and that’s a hefty weight.

Especially considering that Rachel was a Fire Chief in the City of Byron Fire Department at the time that she ‘went public’ with her story.

“You know, when you’re a semi public figure or public figure, you don’t have the opportunity to do this in a private space. You know, the first non-family members that you talk to generally makes the entire affair very public. And the narrative can get away from you and when that happens you have little control over it and the best thing you could do is try to steer things in an educated manner and try to educate people.” she told me.

What she’s learned from ‘going public’ and from her recent lawsuit for her illegal termination from the fire department, is to not read the comments. In my time on the internet I had learned the same thing. People often say horrible things behind a screen.

Rachel is someone who has undergone a lot of struggle in life.

“Having lost my job, lost my family lost everything and wound up homeless, relying on the generosity of friends for a roof over my head and food in my stomach, finally getting myself to a stable place. realizing just how much compassion there is in strangers that are willing to reach out and help you.”

I wanted to cry when she said this. When I was a senior in high school, I relied on other generosity to crowdfund my way into college and I also spent the next two years working with people to meet my other needs. Once again, Rachel and I understood something about each other.

Because we clearly have been on some similar paths, I asked her if there was any advice that she’d give to her younger self.

She once again emphasized “don’t let the bastards get you down,” which is the same advice she gives her daughter, but also that “it has to do with standing up for what is right and never backing down from that and always being yourself and not letting the negativity bring you down but taking it and building it into your experience to lift you up.”

She said that she was a much different person now than when we first met and that that’s how knowing anyone should be.

“The long gaps we have between seeing people that if there’s a gap of one or two or three years, we should see a different person than the first person we met and I think that I’m a much calmer and much stronger person than I was then.”

That made me think. I am a very different person than when I first met Rachel. It was really beautiful to think that we are one part of each other’s overall story now, because we have met.

I think that’s lovely.

While I was loving getting to reconnect with a friend, I did ask Rachel what she loved about being a queer trans person.

She mentioned the movie Robin Hood: Prince of Theives and how in that movie when one character asks Morgan Freeman’s character why his skin is black Freeman’s character says “Allah loves a wonderful variety”

She said to me, “Typically what do we associate with pride with being proud? It’s kind of a haughtiness. But as far as queer pride, I don’t see it that way. I see it as pride that’s more related to not being ashamed because I’m living my truth, being authentic and not having to pretend to be somebody else, not living a lie, being able to truly be honest in all things.”

Southern Souls is comprised of actual, in-person interviews conducted by Amyre Makupson or her contributing student writers. Some statements may not be in chronological order. Names and locations may be changed to respect the privacy of participants. The views and opinions expressed herein do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of Amyre Makupson or The Center for Collaborative Journalism at Mercer University.