When Loudoun County resident Connie Rice, 57, was in elementary school, she knew something was wrong. Although assigned male at birth, and known to her family as a boy, Rice enjoyed wearing and sleeping in women’s clothes.
Rice attempted to come out to her family when she was 12 and started dressing in girl’s clothing full time. It was 1971, hers was an Irish Catholic family, and it did not go well.
It would take Rice nearly 40 more years until she fully transitioned to who she is today.
Rice told her story to an audience gathered at Leesburg’s Rust Library on April 10, as part of a speaking series sponsored by Together We Can.
In addition to working for IBM, being a parent to three children and an avid bike rider, Rice is also a transgender activist and speaker for Equality Virginia. She gives talks, lobbies government officials and attends conferences across the country, hoping to educate and improve trans rights.
From the outset, visibility was a challenge for Rice, and she had to battle with herself, her family and others.
“I am here because 16 percent of people in the United States say they have seen a ghost, but only 14 percent say they know someone who’s transgender. I think that we need to be more visible than ghosts,” Rice said.
When Rice tried to live full time as a girl her parents threw away all her female clothes. It drove her into depression from trying to suppress who she was.
“I started drinking, smoking dope and cigarettes all in the same week, Rice said. “I decided to check out.”
“I am here because 16 percent of people in the United States say they have seen a ghost, but only 14 percent say they know someone who’s transgender. I think that we need to be more visible than ghosts.”
After years of alcohol abuse, her father took her to enlist in the Marine Corp. Boot camp served as a detox for Rice. While she continued to try to suppress her trans identity, the desire to dress as a woman refused to go away.
“One of the ways we define being transgender is that the desire to live in your gender is insistent, persistent and consistent. No matter how much you fight it, it’s there,” Rice said.
While she was deployed in Washington state, she shaved her legs a couple times — an experience Rice called frightening. Then, when unit members beat a sailor for being gay, Rice was too afraid to shave her legs again.
Rice continued to abuse drugs and alcohol for a few more years and then decided to go to rehab. She felt it was a good opportunity to get away from friends and into a neutral environment.
“I knew the gender thing was a big issue but I still didn’t know what to do about it. I didn’t know what you could do about it,” Rice said.
Shortly thereafter, her friends took her to an adult book store where Rice was exposed to trans individuals for the first time through porn that featured trans women.
“Not that I was interested in that so much, it’s just that I saw the covers of these books and saw the women on it and was like, wait a second, you can do that? You can become that? Because I didn’t really know you could. So I kept that in the back of my mind,” Rice said.
As she got out of the service, she met a woman and they got married. Dressing as a woman became an issue and her wife didn’t want any part of it. Rice then started years of “purging” — she would dress as a woman, then become overwhelmed with guilt and throw all of her wigs, shoes, clothes and make up away. Then a few months later, she would buy it all again and repeat the cycle, she said.
Rice said it was a wake up call when she was diagnosed with thyroid cancer in 2009. After undergoing treatment, Rice said she got laser hair removal all over her body and obtained hormones from a Thai pharmacy without a prescription and by guessing a dosage.
After being on hormones for 10 months without a doctor or having told friends or family, Rice suffered a mental breakdown. She felt suicidal and became non-verbal. Ultimately she connected with therapists to whom she told “40 years of craziness,” Rice said. She revealed everything, began attending a trans support group and found a regular therapist.
Rice said her wife and children have been generally supportive, those each has been different. One of her sons first had a difficult time accepting Rice, but he is now her biggest advocate and sometimes accompanies her to lobby on Capitol Hill. None of her sisters talk to her, but her brothers have maintained the relationship.
“It doesn’t always fall like you think it would,” Rice said.
Rice began hormone replacement therapy (HRT) under the care of a doctor.
“I was a teenage girl in my early 50’s,” Rice said. “I was also a teenage girl with an American Express card. I was recently going through my closet and was looking at some of the stuff I bought then and was like, ‘Oh my God, what was I thinking?’ Short skirts, insane high heels. I gave them all to Goodwill.”
“I went from keeping everything bottled up to keeping nothing secret.”
After months of HRT, the estrogen and testosterone blockers began to take effect and Rice said she felt like she saw colors differently, and smelled and tasted things differently. But most importantly, she no longer kept her feelings bottled up.
“I went from keeping everything bottled up to keeping nothing secret,” she said.
Rice then decided she wanted to fully, physically transition. She checked her insurance policy and found that some procedures that would be covered for other people were explicitly not covered for trans individuals.
“If you lost your breasts, say to cancer, you could do a breast reconstruction (covered by insurance), but not if it was because you were transgender,” she said.
Based on friend’s experiences, Rice knew transitioning would cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. She tried her best not to add up the costs of her own transition because she found it too depressing. The idea of using money for surgeries to transition also brought back a lot of guilt.
“I was sitting in my basement in the dark, sobbing, thinking ‘How could I do this to my family? How could I spend all this money?’ I mean, if I spend the money, that means it’s not there for a new car, it’s not there for a vacation, it’s not there for tuition, it’s not there for a lot of things,” Rice said. “My wife came downstairs, sat next to me and just said, ‘Do it. It’s destroying you, you gotta do it. We have the money. Do it.”
Trans people are required to live a full year as their preferred gender before any doctor will consider doing surgery, Rice said. In December 2012, she changed her first name to Connie and during her off days between Christmas and early January 2013, Rice had her first set of surgeries to reconstruct her face and sculpt her chest. She went back to work as Connie for the first time.
“If you ever want to know about plastic surgeons, ask a trans girl,” Rice said.
Rice had to relearn how to dress and act, which felt awkward at first. She said she had to learn things like not to make eye contact with men on the street unless she was interested in them — something she had never had to think about before. Rice also took voice lessons to make her voice more feminine.
She continued her transition through the spring and fall with more body sculpting and scalp reductions to cover bald spots. In the fall of 2013, the finances started getting to her again and she went through a period of depression. She credits a friend who posted one thing she was thankful for every day of November on Facebook for snapping her out of it.
As Rice continued through her physical transition, she realized that since the technology company she was with at the time is a California-based company, it was obliged to cover transgender-related procedures under state law. She filed a complaint and the company agreed to add transgender care to their insurance policy if she dropped it. Rice agreed.
Now Rice is with IBM, which has been supportive of her from the very beginning. Under IBM’s policy, the company helps pay for certain procedures like trachea shaving, gender reassignment surgery, breast reconstruction and hormones with a cap of $70,000 to $75,000.
Companies like Amazon, Microsoft and Johnson and Johnson are seen as the best, Rice said, and cover all transition-related procedures.
Birth of an Activist
Rice finished her physical transition January 2014.
“That’s when I moved to a different bedroom in my house. My wife is not lesbian but we’re still married, we’re still best friends. She’s literally kept me alive, so many times,” Rice said.
A few months later, Rice began to date. Her first date after transitioning she calls “the 30 second date,” because the man showed up, hurled insults at her and left. Rice once again became severely depressed.
“Dating is hard for anyone but as a post-op trans woman, it’s really hard,” she said. “You can find happiness though. I’ve seen combinations of couples that I don’t think most people think of. I know a couple who’s getting married who are both post-op. I know a couple who’s together who are never planning to get surgery.”
“Look, I’m just a girl with a history.”
When she was ready, Rice tried dating again. Her dating profile was purposefully upfront where in the first line, she described herself as a post-op transsexual woman.
“I said, ‘If you don’t know what that means, look it up. Don’t email me if you’re looking for a fetish, one night stand,’ a list of things, and then I just said ‘Look, I’m just a girl with a history.’ And I went on one date with that profile, a couple follow up dates and I’ve been with him two and a half years,” Rice said. “I think I’m a good girlfriend. I mean, I know about football and cars and guns and stuff.”
“So that’s pretty much my life now. I work selling stuff, I am an advocate. IBM made a diversity movie and I’m in it. I helped them with their training.”
She and her son frequent Capitol Hill and talk to members of Congress and staff about trans rights. Votes usually fall on party lines, but she plans to keep trying to educate people. Rice is also involved with the National Center for Trans Equality (NCTE), which is the major lobbying organization for trans people, she said.
Issues like access to healthcare for hormones and transition procedures, protection against housing and employment discrimination, mental health and rights of trans people while incarcerated are some of the top priorities for Rice and trans-rights lobbyists.
“There are friends of mine who just don’t pass. Maybe they waited too late or just didn’t have the money … I know girls who came out, got fired and haven’t worked again. In years,” Rice said. “Nobody that I know takes this on lightly and then we’re not out there attacking people.”
Rice said she’s had to limit her newsfeed because the news about trans people can be depressing. According to an NCTE survey, half of trans people have thought about or attempted suicide. There is a high murder and assault rate against trans women, particularly trans women of color, Rice said. When it comes to jail, sometimes trans women are put in men’s prisons. Rice shared a story of a Latina trans woman sent to a men’s prison where she was repeatedly sexually assaulted. Stories like these are not uncommon, she said.
The most well known form of discrimination against trans individuals come in the form of “bathroom bills,” which attempt to legislate which bathrooms people can used based on their sex characteristics. There are no bathroom bill equivalents in Virginia, Rice said, as the proposed bill died in committee. Virginia Sen. Jennifer Wexton (D-33) proposed a bill protecting LGBTQ individuals from housing discrimination but the bill was defeated, Rice said.
This year all pro-LGBTQ laws died and all anti-LGBTQ laws, with the exception of the bathroom bill, passed both houses of the Virginia General Assembly and were vetoed by Gov. Terry McAuliffe, she said.
“The bathroom bills are perplexing to me,” Rice said. “There are no cases of transgender people attacking people in bathrooms. There’s just no evidence that we’re a problem. In fact, by making a trans girl use the men’s room at a bar or something, you’re putting her in danger. I know people who have been beat up and assaulted.”
Rice said in the short term, Virginia is a relatively safe state for trans people, but nationally, it’s up in the air. Gavin Grimm, a Virginia Gloucester County Student, has challenged a discriminatory bathroom policy adopted by the Gloucester County School Board. Grimm’s case was set to be seen before the U.S. Supreme Court, but once President Donald Trump was sworn in, and the Department of Education transgender directive used by the prosecution was rescinded, the Supreme Court kicked the case back to lower courts.
On another front, the nominee for Secretary of the Army, Tennessee State Sen. Mark Green, has called transgender people diseased which is also concerning, Rice said.
“I know transgender soldiers and that’s what they’re looking at. It’s disheartening,” she said.
Rice said she’s much happier now.
“All I wanna do is work, hang out with my family and ride my bike,” she said. It’s a better life, and she has no plans to stop being an activist.