For Lisa Anderson-Thornton, just being herself cost her a family, a church and most of her friends.
She is a transgender woman, meaning she was born genetically male but lives and presents herself as a woman because that is her mental image of herself. Although she spent most of her life presenting herself as a man, Anderson-Thornton has felt female since she was 5 and has struggled with her gender identity her entire life.
She began her physical transition -- changing her clothing and taking female hormones to match her view of what her body should look like -- in 2006. That started after serious injuries forced her to retire from her job as an Oregon State Police officer in 2004, when she decided she wanted to live as a woman.
It was a decision that ended her marriage and ostracized her from the Walla Walla church she’d been heavily involved in for years.
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“The congregation was told I was possessed by the devil,” she said.
Most of her friends stopped speaking to her and, living in a small town, she felt as if she had few places to turn.
Seven years later, Anderson-Thornton is doing much better today. She’s involved in support groups such as Walla Walla’s Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays chapter and has found new fellowship at the First Congregational Church of Walla Walla -- United Church of Christ.
For the past year she’s also had a boyfriend, Will Lambert, a transgender man. Both have legally changed their names and genders on official documents. Together, they hope to create a safe space for other transgender people in the area by speaking about their experiences of being transgender in rural America.
“If we go to a big city, people don’t even look at us twice. Here, we’re an anomaly,” Anderson-Thornton said.
Lambert, who began his physical transition about a year ago, said he didn’t lose as much as Anderson-Thornton in the process. He attributed this to changes in cultural attitudes toward transgender people over the past few years, as well as having a supportive brother.
“We’re extremely tight. Nothing’s ever going to separate us,” he said of his brother.
Still, he said transitioning in a rural community was difficult. Whether it’s because of people in Walla Walla having more conservative beliefs or a lack of exposure to other transgender people, Anderson-Thornton and Lambert say they feel they stick out more here than they would in a larger city.
National research on issues facing rural lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students has found that transgender youths in rural areas often face more discrimination than their urban counterparts.
A study last year by the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network noted that many teachers and adults refuse to use correct pronouns for transgender youths, referring to them by their birth sex, rather than the gender they identify as.
The struggle to reconcile individual gender identity with social expectations about genetically assigned sex causes stress and anxiety for many transgender people. It’s often made worse by feelings of isolation or rejection from friends and family.
A recent National Transgender Discrimination Survey by the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force and the National Center for Transgender Equality found that 41 percent of transgender people self-reported attempting suicide. That compares to 1.6 percent for the general population.
In this context, having a supportive community is important for transgender people. Anderson-Thornton has an open-door policy at her home and welcomes young people who are struggling with their gender identity and haven’t found support at home or school. If they need a safe place to stay, they can stay with her.
Lambert has found support from other family members and through Triple Point, Walla Walla’s group for young lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.
Cofounder Heather Rodriguez said Triple Point, affiliated with Children’s Home Society of Washington, is working to improve resources available for transgender youths, who often have very different needs than their lesbian, gay or bisexual counterparts.
Currently, the organization is compiling a list of medical providers, counselors and other professionals who are transgender-friendly.
Even at Triple Point, though, transgender youths are relatively uncommon. Rodriguez estimated it has served only two since it opened in 2007. With such a small community available, transgender people in Walla Walla have to rely on each other for support.
Lambert met Anderson-Thornton through a Triple Point counselor who suggested she would be a good person to talk to about the process of transitioning. After a few get-togethers to chat about their common experiences, Anderson-Thornton asked him out on a real date and they’ve been together ever since.
Like Anderson-Thornton, Lambert said he knew from a very young age that he identified as a boy. He remembered playing with other children in second grade and thinking he belonged with the other boys.
“In my mind, I wasn’t thinking ’transgender.’ I didn’t even know what that word was,” he said. “I just knew I was a boy.”
He and Anderson-Thornton said many people don’t understand the differences between sexual orientation (which they defined as “who you like”) and gender identity (“who you are”). Although they are both transgender, both are straight.
Yet, while transgender people face many of the same discrimination and social and family ostracism issues lesbians, gays and bisexuals do, gender identity is separate from sexual orientation.
Both said they’ve been given strange looks while walking into the restroom. For a while, Anderson-Thornton carried a letter from her counselor explaining she was a transgender woman to avoid confrontations with strangers.
And the former Oregon State Police officer still fears going some places by herself since her transition. Transgender people, especially women, face high levels of violence. All 13 of the transgender people murdered in the U.S. in 2012 were women.
“Every (transgender) girl I know in Southeastern Washington carries a gun,” Anderson-Thornton said. “You walk into the wrong bar at the wrong time, it could get ugly.”
Despite facing discrimination, she said she has had many moments of joy since transitioning. This year, she’s serving as a mentor to three other women. She also attends classes at Esprit, a conference for transgender people in the Pacific Northwest, goes shopping and has fun with other transgender women.
First-time Espirit attendees go through a graduation ceremony.
“It’s a very, very emotional process,” said Anderson-Thornton, already looking forward to this year’s conference, which starts May 12.
Lambert attributes discrimination against transgender people mostly to a lack of knowledge.
“Fear of the unknown is pretty much what I boil it down to,” he said.
Like Anderson-Thornton, he hopes to combat fear through education. Both were interviewed for a documentary being produced by a student at the University of Texas-El Paso. The film discusses the experiences of transgender people.
They also spoke Monday on a panel about transgender culture at the Blue Mountain Community College Arts and Culture Festival.
Aside from their educational efforts, they frequent the Milton-Freewater Elks Lodge to try to stay involved in the community.
“We’re like anybody else,” said Anderson-Thornton, glancing at Lambert before continuing. “We want to be treated ...”
Lambert stepped in to complete her thought: “... Normally.”