Even though I didn’t always have the language for it, being trans was something that I always knew. –James Sheffield, Atlanta
James is a Georgia native who grew up in a small rural town and now lives and works in the Atlanta area. He is also a transgender man. James has only been out about his gender identity for six years, but he knew from a very young age that he was different from other kids. Assigned female at birth by the doctor, that designation never seemed to fit for James.
“My earliest memories as a child – from age 3 or so – are of arguing with my mother about clothing and haircuts,” he recalled. “I just remember crying and putting up a fight every time she would make me put on a dress.”
James said that he often fought with his parents about his gender presentation and their expectation that he should ‘act like a girl.’ One childhood memory he recalls involved his mother taking him to a hair salon for a haircut and insisting he have his hair curled.
“I was so upset by the experience that they had to turn my back to the mirror while they were cutting my hair,” he said. “When they finally swiveled me around, I bolted to the bathroom in tears. I was so humiliated that I locked myself in and refused to come out. I have no idea how long I was in there but the entire staff was at that door trying to get me out.”
The fighting went on for years, James said. “We would fight and fight until finally they would meet me half way. Maybe they would let me wear a pants suit, but there were always feminine ruffles involved. I didn’t like it, but it was better than a dress.”
Eventually, the fighting became tiresome and at around the age of thirteen or so, James said he felt like he had to give up. He started wearing his hair long just to get his parents off his back.
“I just thought I was going to have to live unhappily for the rest of my life.”
As a teenager, James didn’t know that there was language for what he was going through and feeling. Because others saw him as a girl, and since he knew he was attracted to girls, he assumed that meant he was a lesbian. But even that didn’t feel like the right label and he continued to feel out of place.
It wasn’t until James graduated high school and began taking women’s studies classes at the University of Georgia that he learned what the word “transgender” meant. It was like a light-bulb going off in his head. This new understanding – knowing that there was a word for what he was experiencing and that there were others out there just like him – was both refreshing and disheartening.
Even though James now had language for his identity, he thought coming out and living openly as a transgender man would never be a reality for him.
“It was something that I put in the back of my head and went, ‘It’s doesn’t matter that you know this about yourself, because it’s nothing you can ever do anything about.’
“I just thought I was going to have to live unhappily for the rest of my life.”
The fears of losing family and friends, being rejected by peers, and never being able to find a partner who could love him as a transgender man kept him stuck – prevented him from moving forward. Though James worked in the LGBT community, he still worried that coming out as transgender could cost him his job.
James lived his life in the closet for ten years, until he was about 30 years old. “I just couldn’t do it anymore,” he said. “I knew I had to make some sort of change – regardless of what it was going to cost me.”
“I just couldn’t do it anymore. I knew I had to make some sort of change – regardless of what it was going to cost me.”
In many respects, James considers himself one of the lucky ones.
Once he began the process of coming out to those closest to him, most of his family and friends proved to be very supportive of him living an authentic life. The youngest of three siblings, both his brother and sister supported him when he came out. James said his cousins, the ones he grew up side-by-side with, were also incredibly accepting.
“It’s a scenario where no one really understood it,” James said. “It wasn’t something they were familiar with, but that didn’t matter. They didn’t let that become a barrier.Everyone worked to use correct pronouns and to call me by my chosen name. They approached it as ‘we just want you to be happy and we’ll learn about this as we go.’”
His mother had passed away prior to James coming out, but he knew he had to find a way to explain his truth to his father. Despite their disagreements when he was a kid, James said his dad was also overwhelmingly supportive.
Born-and-raised in a small town in southern Georgia, James describes his dad’s upbringing as “sheltered.” So when he wrote his dad a letter coming out as transgender, he was nervous. “I knew it would be a lot for him to take in. I felt like writing a letter would allow me to give as many details as possible without interruption, while also giving him the space to digest what he was hearing in his own space. I didn’t know what to expect.”
Nine days later, he got a letter back in response:
Since then, his dad has remained steadfast in his support. In fact, when James had reconstructive chest surgery, his dad sat with James’s girlfriend in the waiting room throughout the entire procedure. When it was finished, his dad drove him home, and helped him into bed so that he could continue his recovery.
What was most touching about his dad’s support was his unconditional love and respect.
“My Dad’s immediate response to me coming out was to say: I trust you and your judgment. I don’t have to understand it in order for that to be true – to trust your judgment; to love you regardless; and to want to be a part of your life.
“My Dad and I have a great relationship,” James said.
Since 2010, James has lived openly as a transgender man in all areas of his life. He married his long-term girlfriend last fall, with his family and friends by his side. He works for The Health Initiative – a non-profit working to improve access to healthcare for the LGBTQ community – where there is a strong focus on providing transgender Georgians with access to health and wellness resources.
Now, James is speaking out in strong support of the passage of LGBT-inclusive non-discrimination laws and protections for his community.
To him, societal acceptance and legal protections are a matter of urgency. It’s about transgender individuals being able to find housing without being turned away; it’s about being able to compete in the work force without fear of being fired; and it’s about being able to go to the doctor’s office or a park or a public library without being ridiculed or harassed.
“Working in public health, the vast majority of trans people I encounter on a regular basis have no access to health insurance,” James said. “But what’s worse is, even if we get over the financial hurdle of accessing care, we then have to get over the hurdle of how we’re going to be treated at the doctor’s office. I don’t know a single trans person who doesn’t have a really bad story about an experience at a doctor’s office. Myself included.”
And James is not afraid to confront the critics head-on.
“In the same way that I don’t know a single trans person that hasn’t had a horrific experience at the doctor’s office, I don’t know a single trans person that doesn’t have a horrific story involving being harassed in a bathroom. What people don’t realize is that transgender individuals have been being harassed in restrooms – forever.”
While James hopes that non-discrimination laws would help deter unfair or malicious treatment, he acknowledges that they won’t always prevent someone from humiliating or harming a transgender person, just because of who they are. However, to him these laws and protections are critical to providing some form of recourse to address issues of unfair treatment and harm when they occur.
Ultimately, non-discrimination is about treating people fairly and with respect. And James – with the unconditional blessings, love and support of his family and coworkers – is proud to be fighting for a fairer more welcoming Georgia.SHARE THIS STORY