By KJ Philp, November 2016 Issue. Meet the rest of the Class of 2016 here.
Echo first introduced you to Stephanie Sherwood in June 2014, following her coming out to, transitioning on and retirement from the Mesa Police Department.
“Most people don’t really have a good idea of what it means to be trans,” Sherwood explained to Echo as both her reason for not waiting until retirement to transition and for sharing her story with us. “Unless people start being open about it, things aren’t going to change.”
And she did just that.
Echo: How has your life changed since we last spoke?
Sherwood: In the past two years I have begun a new career, experienced a relationship as a woman, met family members for the first time since my transition, become involved in Trans Spectrum of Arizona (TSAZ) and made several new friends.
I started attending support group meetings with Trans Spectrum of Arizona (TSAZ) around the time of the last article and after a while, I decided that I wanted to get more involved in the community and try to give back some of the support that I had received from the group. I became a facilitator of the feminine-identified support group, a position I still hold. I still really enjoy the group meetings and have built strong relationships with many people who I have met through these groups. Some feel more like family than friends. I joined the board as the vice president last year because I wanted to help TSAZ continue to support others, as it had helped me. I took over the role of president in February when the former president stepped down.
I retired after 25 years with the Mesa Police Department and planned on starting a new career. I have a Geological Sciences degree and had hoped to obtain employment in that field; however, I was not able to get hired anywhere. Whether it was my age, my lack of experience in the field, being transgender, or something else, I found that I had to look elsewhere. I taught science for a period of time and then went to work for American Airlines, where I have been employed for 1.5 years. American Airlines is a very accepting company and the employees have been fantastic.
Last year I visited England and saw many members of my family for the first time since my transition. I spent a week visiting family and they even held a family reunion. I hadn’t seen most of them in 10 years so it was great catching up. Everyone was really accepting.
Echo: Was there a specific moment in time when you realized that you had to share your story?
Sherwood: As I stated in the previous article, I had originally wanted to wait until I retired before I transitioned; however, my feelings changed. A friend at the police department was openly gay and I felt that it wasn’t fair that he was able to live authentically, but I had to hide who I was. I felt that there wouldn’t be acceptance toward transgender police officers until someone was willing to transition on the job. My transition at the police department went relatively well; however, there was still so much negativity about transgender people in Arizona politics and in the media. I wanted people to know that there was a transgender police officer working in Mesa, and that transgender people are not the predators or deviants that we are portrayed by many people. My goal was to let people know that transgender people are everywhere, working and living among everyone else in the community.
Echo: Congrats on your new the role as president of TSAZ. How did that come about?
Sherwood: I started attending support group meetings with TSAZ around the time of the last article. I decided that I wanted to get more involved in the community and try to give back some of the support that I had received from the group. I became a facilitator of the feminine identified support group, a position I still hold. I still really enjoy the group meetings and I have built strong relationships with many people who I have met through these groups. Some feel more like family than friends. I joined the board as the vice president because I wanted to help TSAZ grow and continue to support others, as it had helped me. I took over the role of president in February … I felt that it was an opportunity for me to grow as a person, and to help the organization continue to move forward. It is very important to me that TSAZ thrives in our community because I feel that the support we provide to the transgender community, both to trans people and their families, changes people’s lives for the better. I have had many members tell me that the support they received has helped them immensely.
Echo: TSAZ’s mission statement is “To Empower each other to cultivate a safe and welcoming community for trans* and gender non-conforming individuals and allies. TSAZ will be seeking out new resources and partnerships in the Greater Phoenix community.” What part of that is the most meaningful to you and why?
Sherwood: I think that it is all meaningful. Having a safe and welcoming community is very important for those who are trans and gender non-conforming. It can be very confusing, scary, and overwhelming to open up and tell people you love that you are transgender, just as it can be the same if you find out that a person you love is transgender. But it is also important that we recognize that we are just one part of the community and build partnerships with other community organizations. Community partnerships build strength.
I was in a long term relationship with Jesse Nyland, who I had met at a PFLAG meeting. He introduced me to TSAZ and is also very active in the community. He is a group facilitator and previously served in the board. We recently ended the relationship but are still close friends.
Echo: In what ways has being involved with TSAZ changed your life?
Sherwood: … As I became a part of the organization, I felt a strong sense of family. The members of TSAZ have empowered me to be a better person. So many times, I have seen people who were at first full of fear and confusion, receive the support from our members and go on to be the ones providing support for others. The meetings energize me. I have met so many wonderful people and some have become my closest friends.
Echo: You previously told Echo that your train of thought was, “if I came out, the next person would have an easier time.” Has that been your mantra as you’ve become more involved with the local transgender community?
Sherwood: Yes. Most people now say that they know someone who is gay, and the acceptance of gays and lesbians has improved significantly over that past decade due in part to people being able to relate being gay to someone they know. It is a lot more difficult to hate a group when you personally know members of that group. I think that transgender people have not reached that point yet, in large part because so many people can’t relate to what it means to be transgender. Their only frame of reference is what they see through the media or what they hear from politicians. The only way that we can change that is to be visible, and let people see that we are no different than everyone else. Seeing Caitlyn Jenner on TV will get people talking about the issue, but knowing a coworker, a neighbor, a family member, or a friend is what will help us reach true acceptance.
Echo: You hail from England, moved to California at 14, and landed in Arizona in 1988, but was there a defining moment when you knew that this was YOUR home/community?
Sherwood: I was married for 24 years and raised my two sons here. I also served for 25 years on the Mesa Police Department. Over the years, Arizona has become my home, but once I transitioned I really felt that I was involved in the community. I spend a lot of time volunteering alongside many fantastic people, and have met many more along the way. During this time, I have built several strong friendships. Community, to me, means the tight bonds we build with others that help us grow individually, and as a collective, to make society a better place for all.
Echo: Do you think the world has a better overall awareness of the trans community today than they did when that issue of Echo came out? In what ways?
Sherwood: Absolutely. I transitioned a year before the article and just in that time there was an increase in awareness. Lavern Cox had made the cover of Time Magazine and there were other stories in the media about transgender people. Since the article there has been a dramatic shift in recognition of transgender people. Some good and some bad. Caitlyn Jenner coming out as transgender made it a household name, but there have been other significant events. President Obama discussed transgender for the first time in a State of the Union, the ban on Transgender people serving in the military was lifted, the Department of Education and Department of Justice issued a directive on Title IX for the treatment of transgender children in schools and Sara McBride spoke at the Democratic National Convention. Unfortunately, with the positive attention, there has also been negativity towards transgender people, including North Carolina’s HB 2, and several states, including Arizona, suing the federal government over the Title IX directive.
Echo: As a U.S. Army veteran (thank you for your service), what did the Pentagon lifting the ban on transgender service members June 30 mean to you?
Sherwood: I have met several transgender people who have served in the military, many in combat positions. These people served their country with honor, protecting others’ freedoms, all while not being able to be free to be themselves. Some even received dishonorable discharges just because it was discovered that they are transgender, or gay. There have been transgender people serving bravely in the military probably as long as we have had a military. They just had to hide their true self. This lift of the ban allows members to continue to serve, but now with the same freedoms that they provide to others.
Echo: Since you’ve been in your new role, can you fill readers in on what’s changed within the organization?
Sherwood: When I became president we were meeting at the Phoenix Pride center. Our membership was increasing and we had reached a point where we had outgrown the meeting space. We moved to First Church 1407 N. 2nd St, Phoenix in April and have continued to grow in numbers. Our membership in our Significant Others, Friends, Family and Supporters (SOFFAS) group, became so large that we have now it split in into two groups, one for romantic partners and the other for parents. Not too long after, we had to split our transgender feminine group into two groups so that the numbers didn’t prohibit members from being able to share. We have just negotiated with the church to have space on Tuesday evenings. This will allow us to host a transgender support group in the evening, for those not able to attend on Saturdays. We hope to start a support group for Transgender people who have children and plan on holding other events. We went into Pride last year with almost nothing in our bank account but have been working hard to build the organization through active volunteers, and financial support. The Trans Spectrum board members and other volunteers have worked tirelessly in recent months to make this happen.
Echo: Last summer, following Caitlyn Jenner’s coming out via Vanity Fair, you had the opportunity to share the TSAZ resource guide with local media outlets – what was that experience like?
Sherwood: The credit should go to others in TSAZ. Namely Jesse Nyland and Kendra Tonan-Lizzarago who worked tirelessly in updating the guide and formatting it to make it easily accessible to the community. Many transgender people are very concerned about finding services and businesses that they can comfortably go to, without the worry of being mistreated or having the need to explain to people about being transgender. We not only have medical and behavioral health services, but also other business that support our community. This not only provides our community with a safe place to do business, but it provides businesses with a large untapped customer base. We welcome providers and business to be a part of our guide.
Echo: What is something you would like our readers to know about TSAZ?
Sherwood: Sherri Shimansky, our treasurer, was involved with creating support groups for transgender individuals, their loved ones and their allies in 2011. The support groups grew and TSAZ was founded in early 2014. Through the years it has grown into an organization that provides support for many transgender people and allies. We currently have support groups for feminine identified, masculine identified, SOFFAS, and a 3rd Space group for those whose gender identity doesn’t fit the gender binary. Our meetings are free to attend and we operate solely on donations and sponsorships. We hold social events, such as our Halloween Masquerade Ball and movie nights, we have speakers who provide education on trans issues to the public, and we provide the transgender resource guide. We host several secret Facebook pages to provide support to our members, as well as a public page. We will also be organizing the Transgender Day of Remembrance again this November to memorialize transgender people who have been murdered during the last year.
Echo: What goals to you have for the organization’s future?
Sherwood: We are actually about to meet as a board to discuss strategic planning for the future of TSAZ. Our support groups are our main focus and it is important that we recognize the needs of our community and are able to meet those needs as we grow. In addition to the outreach and education that we provide, we want to grow as a responsible organization within the community, working with other organizations toward the goal of support and acceptance of transgender people.
Echo: You mentioned depression and stress-induced health problems in your original article, has coming out/passing helped in those areas?
Sherwood: I don’t consider myself passing and don’t try to hide that I’m trans, although in day-to-day life I just go about my business like everyone else. I generally don’t bring up that I am trans in everyday life, but I am fully open to discussing it with anyone who asks. I feel that education and understanding are key to acceptance. Hiding who I was required a lot of energy and left me with a lot of shame and guilt. This took its toll on my health. I am now very happy being me. I am able to live my life as my authentic self and allow others to know the real me. I have gained a lot of confidence now that I no longer have to hide who I am, and this translates into other areas of my life.
Echo: If you could go back in time and tell Anthony (we don’t have to use your birth name, “your old self” is an option), what would you say and why?
Sherwood: I would tell my old self that everything will be OK. Don’t be ashamed because people love you for who you are.
Echo: What would you consider your greatest feat?
Sherwood: Publicly, I think transitioning while working at the Mesa Police Department is up there, but I think that staying close with my family and building very strong friendships is probably the most important aspect of my life since transitioning.
Echo: Do you consider yourself a role model? Why/why not?
Sherwood: I would like to think that I am a good role model to my sons, but I hadn’t really thought of myself as a role model to other people. It is important to me to help others through facilitating support groups, being a member of the board, and through public speaking to educate others on transgender issues. If this inspires others, then all the better.
Echo: If you could summarize your efforts and experiences in 2016, what would you say?
Sherwood: We have had some challenges with TSAZ during the past year, but we have overcome these obstacles and built a solid foundation. We are now poised to move TSAZ forward, thanks mostly to the dedicated volunteers and board members. On a personal level, my career at American Airlines is going well, and I have become very close with several friends. My relationship with my boyfriend recently ended but I have confidence in myself now, that I didn’t have in the past.
Echo: Where do you see yourself five years from now?
Sherwood: The past two years my life has changed more than I could possibly imagine, mostly for the better. Hopefully I will still be active in the community, but maybe there won’t be a need for transgender support groups in five years. Maybe we will have the same acceptance as everyone else. Wouldn’t that be nice?