Blair Durkee didn’t really feel like herself until she started going to graduate school. For many young people, leaving home and attending school for the first time can be a period of self-discovery – but for Blair, a transgender woman who transitioned from male to female after graduating from Bob Jones University in Greenville, South Carolina, the experience was perhaps more significant. It was when she first felt like she truly understood herself.
“My life experience was not being allowed to know who I am – much less be who I am,” Blair said. “There’s something deep-seated about not knowing who you are inside, especially when you’ve grown up your entire life being told who you are, who to be. It was kind of mind-blowing to think that I had never been able to live my own life without someone telling me who to be until I was 22 years old. When I graduated from college, I had not even an inkling that I was trans – intellectually, I had no suspicion at all. But over the course of a year, I went from total ignorance to actually coming out. And coming out to yourself, especially when you’re trans, is the biggest hurdle.”
My life experience was not being allowed to know who I am – much less be who I am. There’s something deep-seated about not knowing who you are inside. – Blair Durkee
That was four years ago. Now, Blair is in a PhD program at Clemson University in South Carolina, working toward a computer science degree with plans to eventually work for a software development company. She is happier. She has a close group of friends. She is on the leadership team of a regionally based activist network of transgender and queer people called the Gender Benders. Her family is increasingly coming to understand her transition.
“We mended a difficult relationship, and we are on good terms,” she said about her family members. “They call me by my correct name, but they usually call me by my old pronouns.” Blair knows that it’s somewhat of a tense relationship – but it’s getting better.
And yet, for all of the positive steps forward Blair has taken in her personal life, the state of South Carolina and the United States overall has moved more slowly on advancing basic protections for transgender people. In South Carolina, LGBT residents still don’t have explicit protections from discrimination in employment, housing, and public accommodations.
Blair explained that comprehensive, transgender-inclusive non-discrimination protections would dramatically improve the way people live in South Carolina.
“It would change the way you live,” she said. “The way things work now, you’re constantly hedging. Every time you want to look for a job or get a doctor’s appointment or hire a lawyer or find a place to live, you’re constantly having to check connections, check references, make sure they’re LGBT friendly, have a back-up plan. It almost seems like our normal way of life.”
But that can feel suffocating – and many times, the options simply aren’t there. “In rural areas, those LGBT friendly places often don’t exist,” she said. “You may have to drive for hours sometimes to find an LGBT-affirming doctor, lawyer or therapist. I know people who drive 8 to 10 hours to get their hormone prescription filled. They have to take a vacation to have their prescription filled. That’s crazy. If we had the protections we need, it’s basically like we get to participate in all of society and not just our underground network of LGBT-friendly places.”
If we had the protections we need, it’s basically like we get to participate in all of society and not just our underground network of LGBT-friendly places. – Blair Durkee
Blair illustrated some of the fear that stems from living in a state where LGBT people are not explicitly protected from discrimination by describing experiences with her landlord. Each year, tenants have to renew their contracts and get an ID on file, and for Blair, her mind instantly shot to what would happen if the landlord would not accept her new ID or her female gender identity.
Ultimately, it was fine – the landlord didn’t skip a beat, she said. “But legally they could have evicted me,” Blair explained. “You shouldn’t have to rely on good fortune to ensure you can keep the place where you live. It should be assured.”
She continued: “It’s not just that you’re facing discrimination; it’s that the discrimination comes when you’re at your most vulnerable point. You lose support from your family and then you get fired from your job all within the span of a few weeks, and it’s just devastating.”
“I feel like I’ve been very fortunate,” she said, referencing her lack of direct experience with life-altering discrimination. And yet, she knows that many other transgender people have faced direct discrimination – including some of her friends from college.
That’s why she knows that it’s time to update federal law prohibiting discrimination to include LGBT Americans: She knows that her state of South Carolina needs to continue taking positive steps forward – and she knows that ultimately, the entire country needs these protections so that the nation is a little more free.