Amanda Ryan has come a long way from dressing as a woman only in the privacy of her own home for 35 years.
When we brunch together at the Elgin St Diner, she arrives looking lovely, her blouse, eyes and hair playing with shades of gold and green. Our waiter, a working man, flirts with us for tips. We joke about what’s in it for him.
“Do you think he’ll get a better tip if he calls me beautiful?” I ask.
“He will if he calls me beautiful,” Amanda says. “He’s already working well. He’s called me ‘Ma’am.'”
At 53, Amanda is president of Gender Mosaic, Ottawa’s longest running transgender support group. She’s just come from a Shopper’s Drug Mart make-up counter, where she has helped a new member choose cosmetics for her first time out at the group’s monthly social that night. Later that afternoon, Amanda will help her get ready.
She says that about five years ago, when she was coming out, the support of a trans group was key.
“I got involved in a group because I needed someone to tell me who I was,” she says.
“I had typed ‘transgender’ into a search engine and the computer exploded with information.” There she found Lynn Lefebvre’s “Lynn’s Place” website. And in person, at the now defunct Wall Street Diner on Bank St, she met with Michelle-René of the local trans group Gender Metaphor. Michelle-René provided information and suggestions for a counsellor, with whose help Amanda says, she learned to understand that “being transgendered wasn’t weird, that I wasn’t a freak.”
And so, with some assistance, her closet doors started to come down.
“When I decided I was getting out, I was getting out. Maybe it was because of the age I was at,” she says.
Nibbling on her meal, she describes how “being trans was the straw that broke the camel’s back” of the marriage she’d been in. Her two children, a young woman and a young man, are now slowly coming to know and accept her feminine side. Her larger circle of family and friends, she says very thankfully, has been “incredibly supportive.”
With this boost, she notes, “I’ve been determined to deal with being trans as opposed to being frustrated by it. I’ve decided that I’m going to be out. I’m going to find out what this is all about.”
It’s a journey she recognizes that the larger society must also take if transgender people are going to be more fully accepted. And so Amanda, and Gender Mosaic, makes public education a priority.
“As soon as we open the door, the questions start, because people don’t understand it. And when you allow someone to ask questions, all of a sudden, the questions come.”
Amanda says that being at ease with herself has helped others grow in comfort with her. She is warm, articulate and easy to engage with. One can see how, in numerous single conversations or media interviews over time, she could help increase the level of understanding of a group of people so badly misunderstood in our current society.
This is a poignant challenge, given the present lack of acceptance, the negative projections and violence transgender people live with, both from the larger community and from within themselves as individuals.
“I have five friends now,” says Amanda, “that I consider very good friends, who have attempted suicide. And when you think about those people, you just realize how desperate this is. It’s not just a frivolous wanting-to-put-clothes-on situation. It’s real.
“We just want to be treated like normal, everyday average people when we’re out expressing this side of ourselves.”