Sarah, 38, Talks Transitioning in Her Rural Pennsylvania Community #AMPLIFY

Students past and present, parents, and community members spoke out against his hateful rhetoric. It briefly went viral in the surrounding area and I received countless messages of support from strangers and friends alike until he deleted the post and backtracked his statements. Obviously, there are still many people who agree with his position in my area, and you’re never going to reach everyone, but I believe this shows the growing general acceptance and support for the LGBTQ community even in our rural areas.

Name: Sarah Cheatle

Age: 38

County of Residence: I’ve lived in McKean County for most of the past 12 years, and I was born and raised in adjoining Elk County. Additionally, I am attending classes during the summer at IUP in Indiana County. I’ve spent time living in Crawford, Warren and Centre Counties, but not since my transition.

Pronouns: She / Her

In January 2017. I was married, enjoyed my job, had a few close friends — in short, life was great, and even then, I was completely miserable. That’s when I knew I had to do something about it and seek gender therapy. I also knew that meant telling my then-wife everything. That was one of the hardest nights of my life, verbalizing things I never had before. As the months went on, we tried to work things out, but for various reasons, we eventually split. After telling her, the coming out process got easier each time, but rarely easy.

Next I told my family and closest friends. Everyone was supportive, although some were completely confused and unsure how to react. I knew though, that the most difficult hurdle would be my job. I teach in a rural public high school. For obvious reasons, we don’t have accurate statistics on the number of transgender educators in Pennsylvania or nationwide. On top of that, my area is as red as can be, and those stereotypes are quite often based in reality, so I had no idea how things would play out. News of my transition leaked well before I was ready to publicly come out, but that was ultimately for the best. Although it was an open secret in the community for months, I suddenly didn’t have to worry about what might happen when I told my administration. My union backed me completely, and the majority of my coworkers also expressed open support, even if, like my family, they weren’t sure what exactly that entailed.

(If I am allowed to self promote, my friend and I have a weekly podcast, The Parenthetical Society, on Google Play and iTunes. We dedicated an episode to my transition. Lots of information there that I didn’t have room to discuss here. Thanks.)

For a transgender person, the first day living “full-time” as your preferred gender can be life altering. So can the first day of PhD classes. Thanks to my friend’s advice, I did both in the same day, and I wouldn’t recommend that double dip to anybody else, but I somehow made it through to the other side. After grad classes ended, I returned home from Indiana and prepared for high school to start. Nobody knew how that first day would go. Luckily, it went more smoothly than I could have imagined. There were some odd looks, but I addressed the issue briefly in class, we moved forward, and that was that. My teaching career continued as it had for the previous 11 years.

Now, some five months later, I have legally changed my name and the majority of my documentation. I still have a few random items to update, but for all intents and purposes, I’m Sarah and always have been.

Describe your geographical community. McKean County is the epitome of rural, conservative America, and the stereotypes that exist are real, but with that said, I do feel that we are making progress. To share a personal example, as a teacher, I am inevitably in the public eye dealing with students on a daily basis. My transition potentially could have set off a firestorm of complaints to the school, but according to my principal, he only received one email from a concerned parent.

Furthermore, about a week ago, some six months after I transitioned at school, a parent started complaining on social media about me, saying I was “confusing the children”, equating being transgender with being a pedophile, etc., things that too many of us have heard too many times. The backlash, however, was swift and nearly total. Students past and present, parents, and community members spoke out against his hateful rhetoric. It briefly went viral in the surrounding area and I received countless messages of support from strangers and friends alike until he deleted the post and backtracked his statements. Obviously, there are still many people who agree with his position in my area, and you’re never going to reach everyone, but I believe this shows the growing general acceptance and support for the LGBTQ community even in our rural areas.

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Have you ever experienced discrimination based on your identity? Specifically, in a job setting, when applying for housing or while in public. Before my official transition at school, there were some instances that were a little touch and go, perhaps toeing the line of being discriminatory, but that has righted itself in time. Overall, though, I can honestly say things have been as good as I could hope for here. People are polite to me, I’m renting a house, I’m still employed at my school district, and as far as the summer at IUP went, my professors and classmates were amazing, especially considering how awkward I was those first few weeks.

Have you experienced microagressions based on your identity? Think everyday indignities & slights that you experience, but would not characterize as discrimination. Please describe in your own words. I guess I would say that as supportive as my coworkers are, I often feel like I’m in a weird isolated place. What I mean is that while the men still accept me in certain ways (for example, staying in the work fantasy football league was a given), there is a distance with some that didn’t exist before. On the other hand, while the women accept me in certain ways, I don’t necessarily feel like “one of the girls” either. I’m sure part of it is them knowing me for 11 years previously. It’s a weird contradiction — I tell people, “I’m still the same. Don’t treat me any differently,” but then I also do want to be treated a little differently just the same. I don’t want to speak for the trans population, but I’d suspect this is a somewhat common feeling.

What is your greatest hope for the LGBTQ community in Western Pennsylvania? Although it won’t solve all our problems, we need to continue voting out those who back discriminatory legislation in 2020 (and beyond). While I hope that means many will join me in voting for progressive Democrats, my Republican friends can do their part by working to take back their party from the extreme right-wing fringe.

What pieces of local or regional LGBTQ history would you like to preserve and why? My area doesn’t really have a local LGBTQ history. Only in recent years have we become more visible. I strongly suspect I’m the first (only?) openly transgender person that most in my community have interacted with. Likewise, I know many people now in open same-sex relationships and marriages, but that didn’t happen even ten years ago. I feel like we’re writing our history every day.

Thank you, Sarah.

Read the entire AMPLIFY LGBTQ Q&A archive. Submit your own Q&A using our online form. AMPLIFY LGBTQ is a series of blog posts designed to give a “signal boost” to the voices of our LGBTQ neighbors throughout Western Pennsylvania. These are glimpses in to the lived experiences of LGBTQ people in Western Pennsylvania as told in their own voices.

Originally published at https://www.pghlesbian.com on February 14, 2019.

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