"I was a little nervous about doing this interview," Amy Garbati tells me. "I'm not living stealth, but I'm kind of semi-stealth. So this puts me out there a little more than before."
Garbati has been stepping out of the shadows recently to give a voice to the local transgender community. She is the current moderator for Charleston Area Transgender Support (CATS). The group has been functioning for more than a decade, but it's never made any efforts at community outreach. Now, Garbati is participating in panel discussions, working with other local LGBT groups to coordinate events, and taking part in this week's Pride events.
"Part of my goal is not just to operate the support group, but to put forward that positive face for the transgender community," she says.
Garbati's story is one that should help transgender or questioning people believe that a happy life is not out of reach. In October 2004, Garbati was still living as a man when her wife suggested she dress as a woman for Halloween. Garbati had cross-dressed on and off since childhood, but had buried it deep for over 15 years. She put on the woman's outfit and discovered that she had suppressed her own emotions for too long. "The feelings came rushing back with such tremendous power. It was really almost too much" she says. "When you talk about dressing up, that's one thing. But when you talk about changing your life, that's vastly different."
For the next year, Garbati continued living her life as a man, while also carrying on a secret life as a woman while interacting with people online. In late 2005, Garbati's wife found the evidence of the online personality and confronted her.
"She was upset to begin with because of the deceit," Garbati says. "She said it never bothered her, but it was me. It was just so overwhelming. She was able to help me come to terms with it and accept who I am."
The couple is still together and they've celebrated 28 years together. It was Garbati's spouse who first suggested that she transition in 2006. "That doesn't happen," Garbati says, before trailing off in astonishment. "It's just ..."
At the time, Garbati was prepared for a negative reaction at work and began searching for a job out of town. She finally decided that she would approach her boss, telling him, "This is what's going on in my life. Do you think this is something that can happen in this location or do I need to look for another job?
"There was no written policy at the time," Garbati adds. "The possibility was that I could have walked in there and gotten fired that day."
Instead, the management was receptive, and Garbati worked with them to draft a corporate policy regarding LGBT issues. The position was that every employee is judged on their performance. "I couldn't ask for any more," Garbati says.
And the announcement to the rest of the staff was overwhelmingly positive. Garbati received congratulatory e-mails and notes of encouragement. When she walked into the office for the first time a week later as Amy, people were stopping her and saying, "Hey Amy, welcome back."
Even her personal relationships have withstood the change. Prior to transitioning, Garbati sent an e-mail to her sister explaining what was happening. "I told her to e-mail me back, that I couldn't talk on the phone or see her in person." Her sister's response started, "My dearest brother/sister-to-be." Garbati chokes up as she recalls the message. "She said she'd always wanted a sister."
It has been such a positive experience that Garbati has taken this opportunity to speak out for the transgender community and lead CATS.
"CATS is a peer support group that exists to support all members of the transgender community. I think it's most critical for someone who is just coming to terms with it," she says of the group. "Someone who doesn't think they can live a successful life. I'm proof positive that you can." Meetings usually include eight to 15 attendees who span the spectrum of the transgender community, from cross-dressers and those just beginning their journey to those who have completed transition, both male to female and female to male.
Garbati is also reaching out to gay and lesbian organizations. The relationship between the two branches of the alternative lifestyle community has been tense in the past. An effort to expand employment nondiscrimination laws to include the LGBT community divided gay groups when the transgendered were dropped from the legislation in a ploy to get more votes.
But the incident seems to have been an awakening among both the LGB community and the T community that they're all in this together. "I think in a lot of ways we don't understand each other," Garbati says. "But we're too small of a demographic to split."
Meanwhile, Garbati is sharing her story one straight person at a time. At a breakfast table on a recent cruise, someone asked if Garbati and her wife were sisters. She explained their relationship and their journey.
"I get some shocked looks sometimes, but usually by the time we finish the conversation, I've opened some minds and broadened their beliefs about the transgendered community," she says. "The more minds I can change, the more hearts I open up, the more people learn and accept."