The Rev. Brett Webb-Mitchell: Born This Way

"I'm Sam Peterson. And I'm incredibly handsome," said Sam as we sat an chatted over a cup of coffee at Chapel Hill's Foster's Market.

I first met Sam - salt and pepper hair (cut short), black-rimmed glasses, ready smile - last year at his Carrboro ArtsCenter gala, "Chest Fest," in which he was raising money in order to have a top surgery. Musicians, visual artists and performing artists contributed their time and talent in not only supporting Sam, but also letting the wider Chapel Hill-Carrboro community know about the issues facing the diverse transgender community in this area and beyond.

Sam's surgery was but one more link in his journey in his being and becoming the person he was created to be: a man. Even though he was born in a female body, deep within he knew with every fiber of his being that he was masculine.

Sam's journey stretches out over a lifetime. While American society has a narrower way of understanding what it means to be male or a "manly man," or female, nature has other creative ideas, presenting us with incredibly diverse ways of being in this world.

Indeed, the term "transgender" is itself an umbrella term for a wide assortment of ways of being in this world: there are those who are moving from being male to female; female to male; as well as those who feel most comfortable in a combination of ways of being in this world.

And the issues facing people who are transgender are different than those who are straight, lesbian, bisexual, or like me, gay. As Sam reminded me in discussing transgender identities, being "transgender is a lens by which I can re-examine all the shibboleths in this world, not just gender" or sexual orientation.

Being transgender is a journey, reflecting the very fluidity of sexuality and our understanding of gender. Being transgender has provided him a platform by which he can more fully appreciate what it means to be not only human, but also more connected to the world in which we live. It was through his hormonal transition that he came to a vastly new and different perspective and appreciation for how we are all connected with each other as we explore our unique way of being in this world.

What I discovered in meeting Sam at "Chest Fest" is how many people who are transgender live in the kudzu-entwined and Tarheel culture of Chapel Hill/Carrboro. While it is stereotypical to link San Francisco with gays, and Seattle/Portland with lesbians, what makes Chapel Hill/Carrboro a safe community for transgender folk?

"I've met some of the kindest, most interesting people here, who embrace the diversity of ways of being in this world," Sam told me. "There are incredibly good support groups at UNC for transgender folks (where he met his partner, Danny). People are generous with their time and with their heart for those on this journey. And the health care in this area is some of the best in the world," which especially matters to a person making certain transitions physically and biologically.

"There is a kind of elasticity I find in this community, where people are able to be stretched in their understanding of sexuality and gender," Sam continued. "I don't find it a place where people are dehumanized or treated as the 'other' simply because they question if they are 'male' or 'female.' People here accept those who are exploring the multiple ways we can be and live in this world."

At the end of our conversation, putting away our cups and glasses, we hugged each other, smiled, and went our ways. Sam is more than "incredibly handsome." He is a pioneer who, in his own way, is adding his story of change and hope to the rising chorus of other transgender people who dare to be the people they are created to be.

[Used with permission of the author. Originally published in theChapel Hill News, June 29, 2011]