After nearly 50 years, this transgender woman finally let the world see who she’s always known herself to be.
This is part of a story series about the lives of transgender people. Read the introduction here.
Arizona Welsh was three years old when she first realized that she was much more like the women in her life than the men, even though she was assigned male gender at birth. But she didn’t have the words for it — literally.
Welsh was born deaf, along with vision loss, so it took until she was five years old for Welsh to learn the terms “boy” and “girl.”
I was nearly five when I first learned those words. I realized then that what I was inside was called being a girl. However, I was told by the adults in my life that I was a boy, and already being an overachiever and hating to be told I was wrong, I conformed to saying that I was a boy, only because I looked like the boys — especially between the legs — and I didn’t have enough language then to express that I was a girl and why to back that up. My confusion at this lasted for 40 years.
Welsh’s parents were educators at the Lutheran church, so she was raised in a sheltered environment. Her parents let her play with dolls until she was about 14 years old, but once Welsh developed language skills they shamed her when they caught her trying on her sister’s clothes.
She also has a vivid memory of something that happened when she was seven years old.
“It was an incident involving masking tape all over a certain private part and a very pissed-off father with a pair of scissors working frantically to get it off so I could pee,” she says. “I always knew that I wasn’t supposed to have a penis.”
Because of her parents’ faith, Welsh grew up knowing of nothing beyond the gender binary — male and female — and never even heard the word “heterosexual” until she was in high school. When she first learned about homosexuality around the same time, Welsh was told it was a sin and there was “something wrong” with gay people.
Eventually, Welsh stopped saying anything about identifying as female.
I was 12 and I mentioned a dream I had about being a boy for 12 years, and then being a girl and a woman forever after that to my parents. They exchanged a certain look between them and I caught that, so I asked, ‘What?!’ In unison, they quickly said, ‘Nothing.’ I wasn’t fooled.
I knew then I had to work hard to appear passing for a boy, so I learned by watching my father, grandfathers, my uncle, my male friends, and other men and boys, even television and movies. None of that ever felt natural to me, but I did it to survive until I could figure it out.
As it happens, Welsh didn’t figure it out until she was nearly 46 years old. During that time, she completed school, overcoming her hearing loss and vision limitations caused by her mother having rubella during pregnancy. She attended programs for the deaf through 12th grade, including one designed to mainstream students, and went on to college. Welsh says she passed as a deaf person until she turned 40, because her vision loss was still considered relatively mild although it always presented challenges. But her vision has deteriorated over time and Welsh is now deaf-blind.
At age 40, Welsh says her hypersensitivity to light went into overdrive and she has to wear dark sunglasses much of the time. But with the help of vision aids, she is able to use a computer and other screened devices — magnifying everything so it’s readable — and she lip-reads and uses American Sign Language (ASL). She also uses a variety of technologies and services for tasks such as making phone calls to hearing people.
Welsh can no longer drive, but she’s worked as an Information Technology (IT) specialist for the federal government for nearly 29 years. She takes pride in remaining independent and working in a job where she says she’s well-valued by her managers and co-workers.
That didn’t change after Welsh revealed her authentic self and began presenting as female. She was 45 years old when she first learned the word “transgender” and what it meant. After researching it, Welsh began talking about it with the therapist she was seeing as she went through a divorce with her now ex-wife.
It became clear exactly who I was: I am a woman who was born a girl, assigned male at birth. A close friend of mine had gotten divorced earlier that year and her words — ‘I have four more years left in my forties to be truly happy again’ — on speaking of her divorce rang true for me as well. I came right out to my family and friends in December 2011.
Welsh started her transition immediately. Because she needed to legally change her name before she could come out at work, she dressed androgynously there but presented as female everywhere else. In May 2013, one month after her legal name change, Welsh came out at work and has lived as female ever since.
“With a couple of minor bumps, it was a very smooth transition,” she says. “I’ve continued seeing my therapist about my transition and my divorce, which was final in November 2014. All this time, I’ve had an awesome support system in my friends.”
Welsh points out that the two minor bumps were specific to bathroom access. In one case, she stopped visiting the place where she’d faced issues. The second bump was resolved thanks to education.
“In public, though, I always have someone go with me unless I know it is a safe place where I’m assured of no discrimination, such as Target,” she says.
Although she’s had the backing of many friends, Welsh says most of her family has “disinvited” her from their lives. She maintains contact with a few family members, but at a distance.
They don’t want to acknowledge my gender identity. My sister won’t use my name, my niece’s husband addressed me as ‘A. W.’ on the envelope of their Christmas card last year. So essentially, in the last five years they’ve all become just strangers to whom I happen to be related. I forgave them long ago, because it’s the best way of letting go. But I know my trust in them cannot ever come back again.
Welsh has lost some friendships, too, including one man she considered her best friend for 41 years.
“He is a die-hard Republican and even though he claims he respects transgender people, his words and actions said otherwise and goes against everything that I am,” she says.
But Welsh is thankful for the friends who have stood by her — including those who see the positive difference transitioning has made for her.
The friends that knew me before all say I now look much happier, and that I am being more my true self. Almost all of my friends have showered me with a lot of support, and for that I am truly grateful.
At age 50, Welsh considers herself a “work in progress physically” as she hasn’t completed all of her sex reassignment surgery because it’s not covered by her health insurance.
Still, Welsh says she is “quite happy” with her life. Since childhood, she’s overcome the challenges presented by living with vision and hearing impairment, so she’s taken the more recent challenges that come with transitioning in stride.
I think my entire life has made me well-prepared to handle my coming out as transgender, and learning how to stand up for myself and my trans sisters and yes, brothers, too, for they are largely invisible to everybody else and shouldn’t have to be.
Because everyone’s challenges are unique — whether someone is transgender, deaf or blind — Welsh can only speak of her own challenges and accomplishments, she says. But there’s one thing she believes everyone has in common.
“We are all human beings,” she says, “and we are all worthy of the same respect and dignity as everyone else.”
Read all the stories in this series HERE.
[Photo courtesy of Arizona Welsh.]