By Joan Schweighardt
Bloomers Blazing is a regular feature at BLOOM, presenting interviews with (and stories about) people who found their life’s passion after the age of 40.
Breaking new ground is never easy, particularly for someone who is naturally shy, someone who—as an adoptee from Korea—spent her early years wanting little more than to fit in. But as Ashlee Page is quickly learning, it can be extremely rewarding, especially when you realize the path you’re paving will be useful to others seeking change.
Ashlee’s story is Part Two in a three-part series featuring transgender bloomers. Click here to read Part One.
Joan Schweighardt: When did you suspect that you might be in the wrong body?
Ashlee Page: I realized as a preteen that I had a strong feminine side, and I became more and more certain over time.
JS: Was this a concern you could discuss with others?
AP: I grew up in a small rural community in upstate New York in the 80s. My Polish-American father and Dutch-American mother had adopted me from Korea when I was a toddler. I was the only Asian in an otherwise all white setting. I was quiet and shy. I had a few friends, but there were also a few kids who made fun of me. There was no way I was going to discuss my gender identity issues with anyone.
JS: Did you plan to leave home as soon as you got out of high school?
AP: My family had a business in town, a bakery. At different points in time, my grandparents, aunts and uncles all worked there. Eventually my parents became the sole proprietors, and the expectation was that I would work there too and eventually take over when my parents retired.
My parents weren’t very happy when they found out I wanted to go to college out of the area.
JS: Did you go off to college?
AP: Yes, but I wanted to satisfy everyone, so I planned to study during the week and come home on weekends to work in the bakery. Working in a bakery means getting started in the wee hours of the morning, when other people my age were just going to sleep. It wasn’t easy to juggle the bakery and school.
But the school I went to was Stony Brook, on Long Island, and it was as different from where I grew up as a place could be. I discovered for the first time that there were many other Asian people living in New York. One of my roommates was a fellow Korean, born in the U.S. to Korean parents. He took me to Manhattan at his parents’ restaurant, where I tasted Korean food for the first time. I began to think of myself as a person with roots. All of a sudden I wasn’t an outsider anymore—ethnically at least.
JS: Did you meet other people in the LGBTQ community too?
AP: I felt it was enough to try to fit in as the person I appeared to be, a young man adopted from Korea. I was still telling myself that thinking of myself as a woman wasn’t normal. I had struggled all my life with fitting in. I didn’t know how to not engage in that struggle. I didn’t want to make things worse.
JS: When did you finally come to terms with these issues and begin your transition?
AP: After graduating from college I took a job with an insurance company in Ballston Spa, New York. Not long after I relocated to Connecticut where I met Holly. She was Korean too, also adopted, in her case by an Italian family. She had grown up in a rural part of Connecticut. She didn’t know anything about her culture either. We had everything in common, and we got married. It wasn’t until 2014, when I couldn’t stand it any longer, that I came out to her.
Even then I didn’t imagine I would make a full transition. But we were close and I wanted to let her know that I needed to live a more authentic life. You go through life thinking you can escape the fact that you are transgender but you never really do.
JS: Did your transition include sexual reassignment surgery?
AP: It’s still ahead of me, scheduled for September of this year. I didn’t do it sooner because most doctors want you to live as your true self for at least a year. Also, there is a long waiting list for the top doctors doing this kind of surgery.
JS: Has it become easier for you now that you’ve gone this far?
AP: It’s easier in that I’ve made a decision about how I want live my life. But there are times when I am aware that the world is judging me. There’s so much more info about people transitioning, more awareness, but while people are not as shocked as they might have been thirty years ago, they are still shocked. Each person’s story is unique, but one is not easier than another.
JS: Do you have any regrets to date?
AP: I don’t have any regrets about what I’m doing, but the one person I could have handled things differently with is Holly. I don’t know that I was as understanding of what it was like to be on the receiving end of what I had to tell her. We’re great friends to this day, but that doesn’t mean it was easy for her. And she feels judged too, because of who I turned out to be.
JS: Do you discuss your feelings about the path you’ve chosen with friends?
AP: My trans friends and I discuss it a lot. We are all at different points in our transitions, and those who are further along are able to offer guidance to those just starting out. Another thing we discuss is the dating scene. It can be problematic for transgender people. I was out several months ago at a bar and a guy came up to me and offered to buy me a drink, and we started to chat. He said, “You have really deep voice. You must be heavy smoker.” I said, “I don’t smoke but I am transgender.” People don’t know off hand. The guy still hung out for a while but he made it clear he wasn’t interested.
It’s a balancing act and I face it all the time. I joke to friends, “I want to tell people just to get it behind me, but I don’t want it tattooed on my forehead.” Then again, I don’t want to mislead anyone.
I was on a flight for company business recently and I saw one of my old managers. My first instinct was to get out of my seat and say hello, but you can’t just do that. Since he knew me last as a guy, it would have required an explanation that would have been impossible to deliver while standing in the aisle on a plane.
Social media is good and bad in this way. It has helped me reconnect with some people who heard through the grapevine about my transition. I’ve been fortunate not to have encountered anyone from my past on social media (or anywhere, really) who has had anything cruel to say. Others I know have not been so lucky.
JS: What’s been the hardest part of the challenges you’ve encountered?
AP: The hardest part is how lonely it is, even with a lot of friends. You feel there is something inside you that is always going to be missing. I like to go out and have fun but not all the time. I want to relax and spend time with someone. When the day is over, there’s emptiness.
I don’t know if that’s being trans or just not being in a relationship. I got married in 2005, when I was 33. As of this writing I’m 46. I think meeting someone would be difficult anyway, but being trans makes it exponentially harder.
JS: What’s the best part, besides the obvious fact that you are living a more authentic life?
AP: I look back now at everything I’ve been through and I feel very courageous. I had so many challenges to get through to get where I am. I came out at work on October 11, 2016, on National Coming Out day. Last June, for Pride Month, one of our pride-group co-leaders asked me if I would do a video, live but recorded. I agreed to do it. I’m not the first person in our company to transition, but I am the first person to speak openly about it. The video is educational, but it also helps other people at work to better understand me.
I got a lot of great feedback as a result of the video, from my peers right up to an executive VP. People have come up to me saying, “I have a son…” or “I have a daughter…” I have enjoyed helping these people to understand. I have a friend in our Phoenix office who came out in February. I haven’t actually met her yet. HR gave her my information and sent her my video. Now we’re in contact and I’ve been helping her through various difficulties she’s encountered in coming out.
Bottom line, I’m making a difference, for myself and for others.
Joan Schweighardt is the author of The Last Wife of Attila the Hun, The Accidental Art Thief and other novels. Her newest novel, Before We Died, will be published in September.
homepage photo credit: Allison Rose