The essence of strength, courage, and wisdom
by Keith R. Green
While she admits that transitioning from male to female wasn’t as difficult for her as it is for many other transpersons, Lois Bates is certain that the transition from “advocate to victim,” as she says, has been the hardest pill she’s ever had to swallow.
She knew early on that she was different, more than just gay. She was unable to put a finger on exactly what it was at the time, seeing that there was no official “language” available to help steer her in the right direction. And, had she shared what she felt with the wrong person in those days, she could have easily found herself institutionalized among the severely mentally unstable.
Being different didn’t bother her, though. She takes pride in having always possessed the unique ability to celebrate difference in herself as well as in others. It helps that she’s got thick skin as well, so she’s never been concerned about what anyone else thinks or says about her. She is who she is, period—a characteristic of her personality that she believes may have developed as a result of having the unconditional love and support of her parents.
Though they were also unable to articulate exactly what was going on with their youngest child, their primary concern was for her self-preservation. They wanted her to be able to support herself, regardless of the discordance that she felt relating to her gender orientation. With that in mind, Lois made a conscious choice to delay her physical transformation until such a time when she could be the person who she knew in her heart and mind she was born to be, and live a normal, productive life in that form.
Meanwhile, and with the ultimate goal of creating a space within which she could comfortably begin this transition, Lois enlisted in the U.S. Navy as a young man.
This was before the Clinton administration’s policy of “Don’t ask, don’t tell.” She was forthcoming with the recruiter about her sexual and gender orientation, though she is sure that he was more interested in meeting his quota than assessing what her experience would be like in such an environment. Thus, she found herself in route to the Persian Gulf in service of her country.
Ironically, despite an isolated incident where she punched an officer for calling her a faggot, Lois lists her tenure in the military as one of the most memorable periods of her life. And, for the record, she admits that finding others who were like her—gay, transgender, or otherwise—was not as difficult of a task as she imagined it would be.
Upon returning home from the Navy she enrolled in school to become a licensed cosmetologist, still identifying as a male but now freer to give a more feminine appearance. She also held positions at the United States Post Office and as an armed security guard, in preparation for life as a full-time, no-nonsense, independent woman.
Growing up in a household where both of her parents had more than one career, Lois later decided to return to school for business administration. It was there that she learned that her ability to do a job and do it well could outshine any distractions that her gender discordance might create. This lesson, she says with certainty, has carried her through to this point in her life, opening doors that she never imagined possible for transgender persons.
Just as she thought the “right” time to fully transition was approaching, life threw a wrench into Lois’ plans. At the tender age of 26 she was diagnosed with end stage renal failure. She was told by several healthcare professionals that she would be denied access to a kidney transplant if she revealed her intent to someday transition from male to female. The apprehension was that she’d begin hormone therapy upon receiving a donated kidney, which could cause her body to reject it.
With her parents’ emphasis on self-preservation reverberating through her heart and mind, Lois toyed with the idea of keeping her true gender identity a secret until after her transplant was complete, delaying her transition yet again. Not willing to give up her dreams of transitioning, but also not wanting to jeopardize her health in any way, she began to consider and research the use of natural hormones. She learned that they would be far less toxic and taxing on her body. So, with great caution and under the strict supervision of her healthcare team, Lois took the initial steps toward her transition while still in the process of waiting on a new kidney.
Following a successful transplant, the time had finally come for Lois to live the life that she’d always believed she should. And, for the very first time, she went to find work as a woman.
She obtained a position in the human resources department of a not-for-profit organization that provided specialized training for industrial corporations, while also working part-time as a salon assistant. It was in the salon that she met local Chicago trans-advocate Raven Bonté. She recruited Lois to conduct a workshop on résumé writing at a support group for transwomen that she was facilitating. Lois agreed, marking her segue into transgender social support services. Feeling good about having a platform to assist other people who were like her, Lois soon made the transition from volunteer to full-time employee, eventually landing the position of Program Director for the Minority Outreach Intervention Project (MOIP), then the premier black LGBT organization in Chicago.
During her work with MOIP, however, Lois was forced to face the fact that while she was finally able to live in the truth of her gender orientation, there was a part of herself that she was not quite ready to grapple with. Shortly after her transplant, she learned that she was diabetic, a condition that she was managing well, for the most part. However, even though she frequently encouraged and supported others to be tested for HIV and be treated if found to be positive, Lois herself was unaware of her own status.
There was a part of her, she says, that didn’t want to know. And another part that already did. With support from some of the same transwomen she had once provided support to, Lois agreed to take the test. The result was as she expected it to be.
Testing positive didn’t stop her, though, but actually propelled her even further into the work of advocating for greater access to quality social and medical services for transpersons. Following her diagnosis, Lois became involved with numerous community advocacy groups, including the HIV Prevention Planning Group and the Chicago Area Ryan White Services Planning Council. Then, in an effort to expand her reach to transpersons and to further her development as a helping professional, Lois accepted a position as Manager of Transgender Services at Howard Brown Health Center. She was also appointed Secretary of the Windy City Black Pride committee (Chicago’s black LGBT pride organization), making her the first transperson to hold office on a black LGBT pride committee anywhere in the country.
It was during this incredibly progressive period of her life, however, that her roles unexpectedly began to shift.
One sunny afternoon last summer, she was talking on her cell phone while waiting to have her oil changed at a gas station on Chicago’s impoverished West Side. A man walking past mistakenly thought that her conversation was directed at him. While assuring him that it was not, Lois believes that the guy suspected that she was not a physically born female. As a result, he attacked her.
He was much bigger than she, and she was wearing high heels. She fell hard to the ground when he hit her, bruising her knee pretty badly. In spite of her fall, she was able to reach for the blade that she kept in her purse in case a situation arrived where she would happen to need it. She never really expected to use it.
He hit her again and then she cut him. At that point he ran away, leaving her with a deep cut on her face and a twisted wrist. In shock, she drove herself to the hospital.
It wasn’t the first time she’d ever been in an altercation as a result of transphobia. It was, however, the first time it had happened while she was alone. Aside from the physical scars, the incident has left her with a bruised spirit that, still to this day, she is working hard to mend.
And as if that wasn’t enough, approximately a week after the incident, Lois received news that her donated kidney had failed and that she would need to begin dialysis soon. In retrospect she admits that she slipped into a severe state of depression at that time. On top of the stress associated with her involvement with Windy City Pride (which was extremely chaotic at the time, to say the least) and being the victim of a brutal hate crime, learning that her kidney had failed was the final straw.
Despite overwhelming support and encouragement from her mother and from the LGBT community, Lois opted not to pursue charges against her assailant. Not only did she feel that she just didn’t have the energy to go through with the process, considering her current health challenges, she also wasn’t sure if she wanted to live in the spotlight that would come with being a poster child for violence against transpersons. After all, her HIV status, kidney trouble, and diagnosis as diabetic were not public knowledge. Therefore, coming out as a victim of assault could potentially open the door to out her about many things that, until this point, she was dealing with in private.
While in preparation to be added to the list to receive another kidney transplant, however, Lois had what she describes as a wonderful epiphany. She realizes now that the self-preservation her parents spoke of is bigger than just being able to support oneself so that you can live your life as you please. Self-preservation also involves having all of the elements of your life—physical, mental, spiritual, professional, etc.—work together to create a more cohesive and fulfilling life experience. Lois admits that for the greater part of her life things have been working, thank God, but they have not been working together.
Today, she is in a different place. Her health is stable, though not perfect. She’s never had to take medication for HIV and, ironically, the challenges she was having relating to her diabetes have subsided. Agreeing to be a part of this very special issue of Positively Aware is her first major step at bringing all of the elements of her life together. It’s the first time that she’s publicly spoken out about the assault, or having renal failure, or diabetes, or about being HIV-positive. She has also begun to more aggressively incorporate a more holistic approach to her work with transgender people.
She wants it to be clear that she doesn’t regret any of her life experiences or choices that she’s made until now, because they’ve all helped to make her the proud transwoman she is today. What she hopes that people will get from her story, especially other transwomen, is that all of the components of your life must work together in order for you to live your very best life.
The other thing that she wants people to understand is that transition is a lifelong journey and that, for transpersons, the physical part of it is just one piece to the puzzle. Life is filled with transition. Therefore, approaching it holistically and with self-preservation in mind is the best advice that Lois can offer to anyone.