Through my work at Pride Foundation, I have had the opportunity to meet many wonderful people who are passionate, courageous, and determined to create a brighter future for the LGBTQ community.
Many of these people are involved in our work because of personal experiences and barriers they may have faced to being their true selves.
I met Tylene Carnell, who currently lives in Ellensburg, WA, about 10 years ago after she received a grant from Pride Foundation to begin V.O.I.C.E.S. (Visions Of Improving Communities through Education and Support) of Gender—an organization that is dedicated to providing support to transgender people and educating businesses and organizations in small rural areas.
Feeling blessed, fortunate, and supported, Tylene used this as an opportunity to give back to the community. She began volunteering with Pride Foundation and has recently accepted a position on our Board of Directors. She is “thrilled to be a part of such an amazing organization.”
But it hasn’t always been easy for Tylene.
“As with most male to female (M to F) transgender people, for as long as I can remember I knew I was a girl,” she reflected. “I wasn’t very good at hiding my efforts to find myself and was caught many times by my parents growing up—but no one ever wanted to talk about it. I spent the majority of my teen and young adult years keeping my secret hidden in a green suitcase, later a duffle bag, and spending my nights by myself, trying to find ways to be me, out of sight from others.”
During the day, and into adulthood, Tylene tried on multiple male identities, trying to find the right fit to the life that was expected to be lived. “I went through my Don Johnson phase, a Tommy Chong phase, a Willie Nelson, and John Wayne phase. I tried to emulate my dad and my uncles anticipating some sense of reality that would make life seem right,” she noted. “I hoped being a boyfriend, a fiancé, a husband, and a father would solidify my role in life and allow me to be someone my father could be proud of—good at my work, buying a home, and starting a family. I thought that would make the world right.”
About five years later, Tylene began to see the person she was becoming and became frightened of the idea of looking like that for the rest of her life. “I began sinking into a severe depression, becoming an alcoholic, addicted to fat burners and laxatives, and losing about 70 pounds in six months,” she said. “My wife told me to do what I need to do to be happy before the kids have to bury their Dad.”
“Why is it that choosing to live can sometimes be the hardest decision one may have to make?” Tylene paused to ask when sharing her story.
Tylene has a vivid memory of being 12 years old and watching Renee Richards play tennis on television in her little white tennis dress and tennis shoes, and the commentators saying she was once a man. “But who I saw was a woman,” she said.
It would be another twenty plus years before Tylene would actually meet, or even talk to someone who shared a common experience.
Tylene used to live in a small rural town in Eastern Oregon that only had about 330 people, and loved it there. “I have always valued the small town sense of community. However, as it would turn out, I would have to leave the life I loved to find a love for life,” Tylene said, which spurred her to move to Portland.
While in Portland, Tylene was fortunate to meet kind, welcoming, and supportive people who helped her—through the first few months of overcoming the terror she felt when going to public places; the emotional upheavals that came with leaving one life behind and starting another; logistics like finding and accessing a trusted doctor and therapist; and with her name and documents changes.
Tylene recalls being present at Portland City Hall when Portland adopted a new non-discrimination policy including gender identity and expression and remembers being there when a similar ordinance was presented to Multnomah County; “I remember thinking what a great thing that was, but I also remember thinking that if I walked across the street into another city or suburb of Portland my rights changed—so in reality my box just got bigger was all.”
Shortly after, Tylene packed her bags and moved to Ellensburg, finding herself focused on survival once again. After all, a therapist who lived there told Tylene, “Most people in my situation leave town.” The initial fears of going out in public returned, only this time she felt all alone, except for the roommate who moved there with her.
Because of these life experiences, Tylene focuses on providing supportive and encouraging opportunities for others to begin what may be the first step towards the rest of their life—she has opened her home on multiple occasions for others to “try life in a new pair of shoes”—and is advocating for consistent documentation policies from state to state. Being born in Idaho, Tylene mentioned that she is “…in a continued state of mixed identities given Idaho’s refusal to recognize me as female.”
Tylene has spoken multiple times in classrooms and public venues on transgender issues and has worked to advance transgender rights and equality in whatever ways she can. She has been the PFLAG chapter treasurer for the last 8 to 10 years and was the President of the GLBT group on campus during college.
“Myself, and many others, have received a unique opportunity to view the inequalities many experience throughout life. In what I call my previous life, I lived a very privileged life as a Caucasian, heterosexual, middle class male, and there was not much that I had to worry about,” she said. “As a transgender woman, starting over mid-life, I have had the opportunity to see life through a different set of eyes—a widely opened set of eyes that allow me to see more clearly the disparities and inequalities not only experienced by the transgender community, but by many other marginalized communities.”
Tylene’s current work is focused on reducing the stigma attached to those who have experienced mental illness in their lives, yet her “passion remains the transgender community.”
Farand is Pride Foundation’s Regional Development Organizer in Eastern Washington. Email Farand.