Life is full of challenges. Some don’t require much effort while others seem like ominous, impossible circumstances that linger quite some time, until we figure them out… if we figure them out.

My biggest challenge in life has been growing up as a transgender woman in a world that doesn’t understand what “transgender” means. It’s been a series of challenges really, all stemming from being transgender (or perceived “different”) in today’s cultural and social climate.

I’d like to share my personal experiences and challenges as a transgender woman and lessons learned along the way. The experiences are unique to me, but the lessons are universal. Knowledge is power and I’m all about empowering people. I’m really gonna rock this world, and so are you! What I mean is that I’m going to make it a much healthier, happier, more inclusive, more supportive, and more productive place than ever! But I can’t do that alone. I’ll need your help. All boats are lifted by a rising tide, and we ALL have much to gain by coming together, collaborating, sharing, learning, lifting each other up and supporting each other along the way.

Sharing is a powerful and transformative force. Through sharing, we learn so much more about the infinite diversity in humanity and more about ourselves in the process. People fear what they don’t understand and often attack what they fear. In an enlightened and educated world, there will be nothing left to fear and nothing to get in the way of rising to our own greatness as individuals and building incredible communities together.

We live in a culture of social norms, traditions, expectations, judgment and consequences for non-conformity. Social policing takes many forms and ranges from (almost) benign comments about someone’s musical interests or hair style to more serious judgements based on race, religion, political leanings and gender, to name a few.

Gender norms and expectations have been the cause of much friction and drama over the years. Almost everything is gendered, from colors to activities to social roles. Looking back at how things were in the 1950’s, 19th century and other points in history, we’ve certainly come a long way in regard to many gender-based issues. Sometimes I feel like we’re still stuck in the 1950’s. It’s time we move forward.

As a child of the 70’s and 80’s, I was raised and socialized as a “boy” because of my reproductive anatomy. My life’s path and option (yes, singular – option) was dictated by society because of what’s between my legs.

For about 99.5% of the population, gender assignment based on biological sex is a pretty good fit. For the rest of us that method doesn’t work. My first conscious memories of being raised as the wrong gender was at the age of 3. In the early 1970’s every social cue around indicated serious danger if I expressed how I felt about my gender. So I kept my mouth shut, buried it down deep and tried to learn how to be the “man” society expected of me.

I may have looked like a “man”, but never knew how to “be a man”. I never felt like one. The best I could do is attempt to emulate masculine behavior by observing and mimicking what I saw in other men. It was a stressful and exhausting endeavor that lasted decades and never worked particularly well. People saw through my facade and I was frequently picked on, disparaged, humiliated and beat up for not being masculine or manly enough.

According to a 2011 study, the suicide attempt rate for transgender people is about 41%. More recent studies show it to be over 60%. I attempted suicide multiple times, the last of which resulted in a four month stay in a psychiatric hospital in New Canaan, Connecticut. I didn’t want to die. I just wanted to be allowed to be my authentic self. Even though my biological sex is male, I knew in my heart of hearts that my gender identity has always been that of a woman.

For a time, I tried to accept myself as a “crossdressing man”. Crossdressers are men who identify as men. They’re usually straight, often get married, have families and are generally happy living their lives as men while secretly (or maybe not secretly) crossdressing. Crossdressing provides emotional comfort for some and erotic fulfillment for others. Crossdressers often refer to their feminine-self as their “alter ego”. As for me, the alter ego was very clearly the man-facade, not my feminine, authentic self. My man-facade was a carefully practiced, rehearsed and executed survival tactic. It helped me to fit in, more or less. The increasing pain of living life as a lie, constantly faking who I am, was taking a toll. I was alive; I had a pulse, but this wasn’t living at all. I was miserable, frustrated, angry, had a quick temper and foul mouth, and hated the world… because I hated myself.

In 2013, after much research, soul searching and an overwhelming need to understand myself, I attended a transgender support group in Syracuse, NY. For the first time in my life, I found myself in the company of people who really “got me”, and I got them. I consciously acknowledged that I’m not a crossdressing man, but rather a transgender woman. It was immediately clear that in order to relieve my pain, I could either get off the bus (end my life) or start taking measures to transition and live life authentically as a woman. Transitioning was a terrifying prospect and I felt life was worth living, so it began.

It’s one thing to wear makeup and dress the part, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to requirements for successfully transitioning and truly feeling like myself. My body is all wrong and has been since birth. Going through the wrong (male) puberty 3 decades ago terribly deformed and disfigured my body. Consequently, I have gender dysphoria, a profound, distressing feeling experienced by many transgender individuals as a result of biological sex, gender assigned at birth and physical body not being congruent with gender identity (the psychological understanding of oneself in regard to gender).

Many transgender people who come out (of the closet) to friends, family and colleagues often face rejection. I’ve heard countless personal stories about trans people being rejected by their families and friends and sometimes losing their jobs. According to a 2011 study, 90% of transgender workers report some form of harassment or mistreatment in the workplace.

The financial cost of full physical transition is astronomical. A middle-age person like myself going from male to female can expect to pay about $100,000 for medical treatments, procedures and surgeries, depending. Hormone replacement therapy (HRT) is required for life. Most medical insurance policies do not cover many, if any of these procedures.

Unlike Kaitlyn Jenner (formerly known as Bruce Jenner), I don’t have access to the great financial wealth necessary to cover the cost of physical transition. To date, I’ve spent several thousand dollars of my hard earned money on electrolysis treatments to permanently remove facial hair (and it’s still not complete). The process is expensive and painful and I can’t afford to just do it all at once. There’s still many other procedures I require such as face feminization surgery (FFS), tracheal shave (reduce Adam’s apple), liposuction of love handles area, breast augmentation and gender reassignment surgery (genitile reconstruction). All of these procedures and expenses (except for the last) could have been entirely avoided had I been put on the correct hormone therapy prior to, or not too far into puberty. And I never would have looked like a “man in makeup” to the rest of the world either, because my body would have developed like any other woman (with the exception of one hidden part) so I would have looked very much like society’s idea of a “woman” and had no problem fitting in socially.

Here I am today, three years into my transition, and I still look very “transgender”, meaning that to most people, I don’t appear entirely female, or may look more like a “man in makeup”. Don’t get me wrong – I look pretty damn good, all things considered. But I don’t look like a cisgender woman (someone who was born with a vagina and assigned “female” at birth) to most people who see me closer than 15 meters or so in person.

This poses a frequent challenge – not appearing to be society’s idea (or ideal) of a woman. When out and about, I get stared at… a lot. There are generally two types of people who cause rubbernecking when just out running errands or grocery shopping: celebrities, and people who look very different than the “norm”. I generally fall into the latter category. Sometimes I receive really beautiful compliments by total strangers, and it fills me with joy and gratitude! Often I catch people rubbernecking, thumping their friend on the arm, occasionally pointing and laughing with delight as if they’ve just found “Waldo”.

Sometimes it goes beyond stares and I’ll get looks of disgust, hatred and/or a disparaging name called out. People used to laugh at me very frequently when I first started venturing in public in 2009 (back when I was still thinking of myself as a crossdresser rather than a trans woman). Thankfully that’s far less common these days.

It was very hurtful getting laughed at and disparaged just for trying to be who I am and having the courage to step out into the world as such. What changed? Why don’t people laugh at me as often? Part of it may be that I’ve refined and improved my feminine appearance a little over the years. But I think the main reason is a big shift in personal attitude.

When I was very insecure about my appearance, I think it showed. I tried to look confident, but never felt it inside and people laughed at me every single time I was in a public place. It was very hurtful and sometimes I’d be too embarrassed or afraid to venture out for long periods of time (or only do so presenting in a masculine form).

Many times I considered just giving up and putting an end to this miserable, agonizing existence. I thought, “No one wants people like me around. They think I’m confused. They think I’m mentally ill. They’re uncomfortable around me. I’m the butt of their jokes. They think I’m a freak…” And perhaps I was right. Maybe people were thinking those things about me, but I am not defined by the thoughts of others.

The only person who gets to define who I am is me. That’s a universal reality, by the way – you are not defined by the thoughts or opinions of others.

Life’s challenges can be the cause of incredible pain and duress and make us want to run away and hide. They can also become powerful forces that deepen our understanding of ourselves and humanity as a whole. Challenges and adversity can awaken us, supercharge our lives and propel us forward like rocket fuel!

So I don’t pass (as female) in the eyes of many people. So I look “different”. So the hell what? I decided to own it rather than fear it. I look different AND I still rock! I look different AND I still look amazing! Maybe I don’t look entirely “female” to others, but I look entirely like me and there’s nothing wrong with who I am. I’m a work-in-progress living in a world of people who are also each works-in-progress themselves. Seriously – do you know anyone who’s actually just done, period, they’ve achieved everything and become all they need and desire to be? Perhaps sometimes in our mind, we think of others as “perfect” or so much better than ourselves, but that’s just a little trick our thoughts play on us; a subjective assessment passing through our (usually distorted) perceptual filters as influenced by society and a number of things.

I’m at the point today where I honestly don’t care what people think of me. You wanna laugh at me? Go ahead. I don’t care. I’d rather you stare, point and laugh at me than some other transgender woman who may be less equipped to deal with it. I can take it. I don’t like it, but I understand how the psychology of fear and discomfort (of that which falls outside “social norms”) affects people. I understand that if you laugh at me, you’re the one with the issue, not me. If you have misconceptions about me because of the way I look – again, your problem, not mine. I’m not defined by anyone’s opinions, laughter, dislike, disgust, or whatever else people may think of me.

One of my favorite authors, the late Dr. Wayne Dyer, said it so well: “When you judge another you do not define them, you define yourself.” That’s powerful knowledge. That’s empowering knowledge. Remember that the next time someone passes judgment on you. And if you can, take the high road – just wish them well and be thankful you’re not them. Also remember that the next time you catch yourself passing judgment on someone else. But try not to beat yourself up over it – just take the opportunity to learn from it and try to do better next time.

I don’t want to look like a “man in makeup”, but for right now, today, I can’t afford the corrective surgical procedures that may help remedy that. I look the best I can, given what I have to work with, and rock the looks I like best, and make no apologies for it. Like I said – I honestly don’t care what anyone thinks of me and I think it shows. I think when people can tell you genuinely don’t care what they think of you, they (mostly) don’t bother even trying to socially police you or get under your skin or laugh or whatever. They know it will be a wasted effort.

Another transition started in 2013: my career. I was never really happy in any job I held to date. Determined to make a positive difference in the world, I got involved in outreach work as a public speaker. Connecting and sharing with people is something I’m very passionate about. Letting people get to know me as a human being, ask questions, and taking the mystery out of “what it means to be transgender” helps replace fear and misconception with fact, understanding and empathy.

Today I get paid well to facilitate educational (and entertaining!) workshops, and deliver inspirational, uplifting talks. How’s that for turning life’s challenging adversities into rewarding career opportunities? The work isn’t as frequent as I’d like and it’s a very modest income for now, but I’m slowly finding more opportunities, networking and filled with gratitude for each and every experience and lesson along the way!

Let’s pull the camera back a little. You don’t have to be transgender or any other letter of the LGBTQ to experience hardship, difficulty, social policing and demands for conformity. Perhaps your challenges in life differ than mine, and the same can be said for anyone. We’re each unique. And we also have so many things in common. I would argue that as human beings we have so much more in common than we do differences. I like to look at “differences” as opportunities – opportunities to learn more about one another, ourselves and humanity.

What are some of the challenges in your life? What are some ways that you’ve persevered, met life’s challenges head-on and become a smarter, stronger person for it? What are some challenges you’re still struggling with? What kind of social policing do you receive, and how does it make you feel? If you could go back in time and offer your 10-year-old self advice, what would it be?

You’re invited to be part of this conversation because it’s all about humanity. As divine human beings, we’re all in this together. So let’s work together, share and find ways to grow, become stronger, smarter and better people for the challenges (and opportunities) that life offers us. I’d love to hear from you!