She finds it curious but fittinghow the light that sneaks through the shutters guarding her bedroom windows creeps across the dresses and blouses hanging inside a closet without a door, as the sun sets behind her newly purchased house on a tract of land “in the middle of nowhere” between Raleigh and Durham.
For Grace Young, seeing the colors come to life as the sunlight hits the fabric is catharticand symbolic of her reluctant, ongoing journey out of the shadows.
“My other closet, William’s closet, is in the guest room,” she says. “It’s the most depressing room in the house, doesn’t even have a window. I didn’t really plan it that way, but fuck if it isn’t perfect, right?”
When you sit across a table from her, or walk through the rooms she has meticulously furnished with rustic farmhouse décor, you would never know Grace was born Williamthat the long, vibrant hair pouring out from under a trendy trucker hat isn’t hers, and that she hasn’t yet undergone the many surgeries she feels she needs to complete her transition.
“Go ahead and say it,” she prods. “You can’t believe I don’t already have boobs. Let’s just say I bought these ladies online. Isn’t that crazy? They look great, right?”
Truth be told, everything about Grace is beautiful. Her hip-hugging designer jeans sit perfectly atop a pair of stilettos. She wears makeup but doesn’t overdo it. You can tell she’s carefully crafted her look, but that she’s done so with a certain ease.
“I try to go for the Katie Holmes vibe,” she says. “You know, without the whole Scientology drama.”
Grace snickers, and then quickly points out that even the way she laughs is feminine. “There is nothing about me that doesn’t scream ‘I’m a woman,’ right? Well, except for the whole I-was-born-with-a-penis thing.”
Perhaps that’s why, on the rare occasion when she feels comfortable going out on the town as a woman, she is bombarded with free drinks, subtle phone number slips, and compliments from women who have no idea she wears a suit and tie to the officeor that only a handful of people know who she really is.
“There is no way to put into words how depressing that can be,” Grace says. “A part of you feels like you’re on top of the world. I am finally being me and people are accepting it. But let’s be honest. If they really knew what was under all thisI mean, this is still North Carolina. I’m readyI have been ready for a long timebut I don’t think this place is ready yet.”
There was a time when Sunday mornings meant the world to a little boy coming to terms with his true identity.
Grace remembers the smell of the handmade biscuits her mother would stack in a towel-lined basket next to a bowl of apple butter, and how her father, who worked the land for a living, always seemed at peace as he read a newspaper by the fireplace.
“If you had taken a snapshot of breakfast time, there was something so America about all of it,” Grace says. “Back then, I’m sure my parents thought they were living the dream, you know?”
But one particular Sunday, everything changed when that wide-eyed little boy ran his fingers over the dresses hanging in his mother’s closet, as he had every weekend for as long as he could remember.
“My mother always took a bath before church, and I developed this ritual of touching her dresses when I knew she wouldn’t be there to catch me. They were so beautiful,” Grace says. “One day she caught me doing it, and I told her I wanted a dress of my own, and she laughed at me. I was pretty crushed. But I didn’t let her see me cry.”
That was the first time Grace felt the need to hide something from her parents. She’s been hiding ever since.
“Sundays as a kid weren’t the same after that. And as I grew older and realized that who I amwhat I amis something I should embrace, Sunday just became this reminder that if the religious right had its way, I’d be in an institution or something,” she says. “If my body would let me, I’d sleep that whole fucking day away. That’s part of what kills me about this HB 2 fiasco. The government has given more parents the OK to make their kids feel afraid and ashamed to be who they are. It’s pretty heartbreaking because I’ve been there, and, let me tell you, it sucks to know that your father suspects you’re not quite the little boy he dreamed you would be.”
There was no home for Grace in the North Carolina town she grew up in, not really. Sure, she had a bed to sleep in at night and home-cooked meals on the table, but as early as six or seven years old, she felt alone. She remembers the day her father forbade her to play with her mother’s extensive doll collection, supposedly because they were antiques.
“I could already read between the lines,” Grace says. “Antiques was code for girly. If we had a football, I’m sure that, right then and there, he would’ve forced it into my hands. That was a really hard night.” So she locked her true identity away and remained William, a “scrawny, sensitive, awkward” kid who was a target for bullies.
“I caught a lot of shit because I didn’t care about sports or girls or going to dances,” Grace says. “But I constructed this image of being so incredibly quiet and shy so people wouldn’t suspect anything beyond, ‘This kid is weird.’”
While she remains convinced that her parents thought she was gay, she finds it hard to believe her classmates felt the same way.
“Where I come from, especially back then, you get your ass kicked for being gay,” she says. “And I never got my ass kicked.”
It wasn’t all bad. Grace found that a limited social life came with advantages, none more important than an ability to immerse herself in her schoolwork.
“I kicked ass on the SATs,” she says. “And if it weren’t for that, I would have never gotten into Duke.”
Grace takes a deep breath and looks down at her right index finger.
“I remember the day my acceptance letter came. I was so anxious that I sliced the hell out of this finger on the envelope. It stung so bad,” she says. “To this day, I have never cried as hard as I did when I found out I got in. My parents probably thought I was crazy, but I remember feeling like this huge weight had been lifted off my shoulders.”
Grace thought of Duke as a fairly progressive place and hoped she would meet others like heror least, others tolerant of those like her.
“Honestly, it wasn’t perfect, but it allowed me to meet the few close friends who really know what I’m all about,” she says. “Thanks to Duke, I actually have some people who I can invite to dinner at my house and not worry that they’ll see my bedroom and freak.”
Grace lights a cigarette before talking about HB 2. She blows a few smoke rings and looks down at the burning cherry, as if entranced by the glow.
“Sorry. I want to make sure I address this thing without getting too angry,” she says. “I find that people actually listen when you’re logical. And I’ll admit, I need to focus a little bit so I don’t start ranting and raving.”
Many North Carolinians remember March 24 as the day after Governor McCrory signed HB 2, the Public Facilities Privacy & Security Acta measure that, among other things, banned individuals from using bathrooms in public buildings that do not correspond to their biological sex.
But Grace will forever liken it to the day her father told her she couldn’t play with dolls, or that Sunday morning when her mother laughed at her for requesting a dress of her own.
“I was taking a smoke break at work and my boss comes outside,” Grace begins. “He decides, for some reason, that it’s OK to start talking shit about gays and trans people. He’s praising McCrory for keeping kids safeyou know, all that bullshitand I can’t get defensive because I’m so conditioned to be guarded. It’s like I feel like I can’t speak my mind because somebody might start putting the pieces together.”
In a rare display of emotion, a tear rolls down her face.
“Wow. That’s embarrassing. I’m so sorry,” she says. “Sometimes, I just feel hopelesslike I have no courage. But if this comes out, it would kill my parents. People just don’t understand what a struggle this is. And I’m not asking for sympathy, but most days I’m just lost. How am I supposed to find myself in a state where it goes viral every time a business owner stands with people like me? Acceptance is the fucking anomaly.”
Just before we conclude our interview, Grace lights another cigarette and pours herself some wine.
“Want to see something really depressing?” she asks, before quickly finishing a tall glass of merlot and taking a long draw off the Camel in her hand. “Let’s take a walk.”
She starts down a narrow hallway, stilettos pinging against the white oak flooring she had installed, and stops in front of the guest room door, letting out a candid sigh before inviting me to enter.
“You asked me what it was like to be closeted. Well, here’s William’s room,” she says. “This about sums it up.”
This is the only place in Grace’s house with a carpet. From the linen on the bed to the general lack of furniture, it’s clearly been neglected. There are dress shirts and pants hanging in the closets and a handful of ties strewn on the beda far cry from what she characterizes as the “obsessive organization” of her bedroom.
“I come in here to do two things: get dressed for work and get undressed as soon as I get home,” she says. “If I do decide to complete my transition in North Carolina, I have plans for this room. I’ll leave it at that.”
As we make our way to the front door, Grace feels compelled to make one more case against the type of discrimination that has been so prominent recently, from HB 2 to the massacre at Orlando’s Pulse nightclub. But before she vents, she notes that somewhere, in a small North Carolina town, a little boy waits, anticipating the moment when his mother is too preoccupied to catch him running his fingers along the dresses she will choose from before church on Sunday morning.
“I guarantee you that there are kids out there who are like I was,” Grace says. “Will their experience be exactly the same as mine? No. But they are out there. And they are probably a little confused and a little scared.”
She would ask you to forget, for a moment, the millions of dollars North Carolina’s discriminatory bathroom law has cost the stateto ignore the fact that the 2017 NBA All-Star Game will no longer be held in Charlotte and that artists from Bruce Springsteen to Ringo Starr have opted out of performing here.
“All that stuff sucks, but I kind of wish that we were focusing more on the human element than money,” Grace says. “I mean, if keeping that stuff in the news helps us get rid of McCrory and the Republicans responsible for all of this, I’m all for it, but this is hurting people in ways that go far beyond missing your favorite band. That is really what I hope sharing my story will remind your readers. We, as a community, have a chance to pull people out of a personal hell and start a much-needed healing process. For the life of me, I just don’t understand this almost sadistic desire to inflict unnecessary pain on a group of people who are just trying to live their fucking lives.”
This article appeared in print with the headline “Saving Grace”