Nov. 13-19 is national Transgender Awareness Week, and in a Community Voices opinion piece, Adam Spickler, a Cabrillo College trustee and one of only four openly transgender people to hold elected office in all of California, shares their coming-out story. Adam wishes when they were growing up in the 1980s and 1990s that they had transgender role models.
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I’ve come out twice in my life — as gay in 1996 and as transgender in 2010.
Neither was easy. While I’ve shared aspects of my story publicly in the past, I’m sharing here because Nov. 13-19 is national Transgender Awareness Week, and I think telling our trans stories is empowering and can lead to greater understanding, connection and empathy for people whose gender identity lies outside traditional gender norms. It can also empower advocacy. In 2018, I became the first male, openly transgender person to hold elected office in California. I am still only one of four out transgender elected officials in our state.
TRANSGENDER AWARENESS WEEK
There are several important events taking place locally during Transgender Awareness Week that support our trans and nonbinary community members. Some are a direct response to the sharp rise in expressions of hate and growing intolerance we are seeing in the news, in our schools and in civic discourse.
Santa Cruz County United for Safe and Inclusive Communities, Santa Cruz County’s Rainbow Defense Coalition, Pajaro Valley Pride, TransFamilies, Watsonville Film Festival, Cabrillo College and the Diversity Center have formed partnerships to put on Transgender Awareness Week events including film screenings, a rainbow defense training, a name and gender marker change workshop and several Transgender Day of Remembrance vigils.
To learn more about and to attend any of these events, please visit:Community Calendar — The Diversity Center.
When I was struggling with my identity in the 1980s and 1990s, I didn’t have any trans or nonbinary role models to look to. The language society used to describe us was steeped in mental illness terminology, and I had no idea it was possible to be both gay and transgender. I had so many obstacles to contend with, I didn’t allow myself to address my gender until I was nearly 40. I often wonder, if I’d had role models, appropriate language and gender-affirming support as a young person, how different my 20s and 30s would have been.
Now, I’m glad to help raise awareness about the experiences of transgender and gender-nonbinary people, especially considering the record-high volume of anti-transgender legislation introduced in states across the U.S. and even in California. This uptick represents a coordinated and political attack on nonbinary and transgender people, especially youth. Raising awareness is a critical tool to combat this.
So is sharing our stories.
As a kid, I was kind of a “tomboy” — a generational term for those of us born female, but who looked like or acted in a more traditional boy’s role. With short hair and an affinity for building things, I was sometimes considered one of the boys by the other kids at school.
One of my first memories of gender was at age 4. I was building with a new group of boys who I thought were the coolest kids at day care. We were constructing something major when the teacher suddenly called me by name from across the room. Mine was, of course, a girl’s name back then.
I hadn’t realized the boys didn’t know I was a girl. “Wait, what? You’re a girl? Gross! Get out of here!” they all shouted at me. “Girls don’t play blocks with us! Go away!”
I remember that incident so clearly all these years later.
Mostly, I recall feeling simultaneously caught in the spotlight and completely invisible in the same moment; I was rejected for being myself — not girl enough, not a boy, and to be honest, I didn’t really want to be either. That’s quite a lot for a 4-year-old to handle.
I just wanted to be me, a kid devoid of a binary gender and all its rules. But there was no language back then for any of this. No one had conversations with kids about gender in 1974. It would be several more decades before I felt safe enough to honestly explore, let alone come out as, transgender.
I began reconciling my sexuality in my 20s. I didn’t fully understand back then that sexual orientation and gender identity are not the same thing — that my identity was about how I feel internally about my gender, and my orientation was about who I find attractive regardless of gender. I’d hoped that facing my sexuality would make it easier to stay in denial about my gender. That eventually turned out not to be possible. But, at age 26, I came out as a lesbian.
This was liberating on the one hand, as I was finally giving myself permission to accept being “different.” But like that 4-year-old who got “outed” in front of my friends, I feared rejection. It took all the courage I could muster to tell my Jewish family I was gay. Ironically, when I finally did, they were open — and more concerned that I wasn’t dating someone Jewish than upset that I was a lesbian.
Coming to terms with my gender identity was harder and my fears of rejection were unfortunately realized. My mother never really accepted my transition; she still called me by my old name until her passing in 2021. And it took six years for my sister to even speak to me after I told her I was transgender.
Reconciling my gender was also harder in part because I knew my health insurance would not cover the medical or surgical aspects of my transition. Fortunately, I could afford the out-of-pocket costs for hormone treatments. But I had to wait four years into my transition for chest reconstruction surgery — a procedure allowing me to align my body with my gender identity.
What made that possible was in 2013, California’s then-insurance commissioner, Dave Jones, and Brent Barnhart, then-director for the California Department of Managed Health Care, each issued separate letters to all insurance companies that did business in California “reminding” them of their obligations under the Insurance Gender Nondiscrimination Act (IGNA). The act prohibits health plans from denying coverage based on gender, which explicitly includes gender identity and expression. When I heard about the letters, I started the process of finding a surgeon in my network who would be comfortable enough to both perform my surgery and to request my insurance company provide the coverage.
When my surgeon initially filed with Blue Shield to cover my chest reconstruction surgery, the request was denied.
Fueled by a sense of injustice, I appealed that denial, making a strong case between the mental health field’s definition of “gender dysphoria” and the law as described in IGNA. I attached the two state letters to my appeal. It took nearly six months, but I won and my surgery was fully covered.
I also introduced a local surgeon to male chest reconstruction surgery, which was a specialty desperately needed in our area. But most significantly, I turned my appeal letter into a template through Planned Parenthood’s Transgender Health program and was able to share it with other trans people in need of assistance to appeal their insurance coverage denials.
Now at age 53, 13 years after transitioning, I am truly glad for all the experiences I’ve had, as they’ve shaped the person I am today. Just this past summer I had a really wonderful full-circle moment with my stepmom. She called me out of the blue to tell me she’d been recalling an old memory of me and could remember everything about it – except for my “old” name.
“Adam, I couldn’t believe it, it took me 10 minutes to remember what name we all used to call you! It hit me, I simply see you as Adam now, that old name is just a relic of who you were, and even though in many ways you are still you, that name, that isn’t you anymore.”
I hope during National Transgender Awareness Week others will share their stories, and that allies will help hold us up. I can only imagine how different my life would have been if these kinds of resources were available when I needed them.
Adam Spickler was elected as a Cabrillo College trustee in 2018 and reelected by a wide margin in 2022. Adam serves as the 2023 Cabrillo College Governing Board chair and is also the first openly transgender man elected to public office in California. Professionally, Adam is a senior analyst and public information officer for the County of Santa Cruz’s Human Services Department, where they have worked since 2013. Prior to this, Adam was a senior district staff member for two state lawmakers. This piece is dedicated to the memory of Glen Schaller.