Driving up a steep dirt road in Hornell, New York, appears a small, rickety cabin. It sits surrounded by open fields and an evergreen tree farm. A “beware of dogs” sign is posted on the house, but all four dogs wag their tails and bark with excitement when guests arrive.
The sound of an oxygen machine rattles inside the door, as Tabitha, a 42-year-old U.S. Army veteran, suctions her stepfather’s tracheotomy wound at the dinner table.
Tabitha remains calm, delicately and intricately changing her stepfather’s dressing. This is a well-versed routine.
“What’s that one for?” Thurlene, Tabitha’s mother, asks. “That’s the painkiller,” Tabitha explains as she finishes sorting out her stepdad’s pills for the week.
J.R. recently had a tracheotomy to remove a cancerous tumor in his throat.
Thurlene just retired, moving back home after J.R.’s health declined to a point where too much responsibility fell on Tabitha’s shoulders. “I just didn't have to worry so much that something might happen and he'd be by himself here,” Thurlene reflects on Tabitha’s care of J.R. Thurlene is thankful for everything Tabitha has done for her husband and herself, so she could keep working and providing her share financially.
The two of them — Thurlene and J.R. — have guided Tabitha’s choices for much of their daughter’s life. They have also complicated them.
Tabitha wasn’t always known as Tabitha. Her birth name was Raymond.
Tabitha is transgender and lived a different life for a very long time — a hard life that wasn’t true to who she really is
After her biological father died when she was 12-years-old, Tabitha and her sister were uprooted to live with their mom, younger brother, J.R., and his three kids. Adapting to J.R. as her new father figure just months after her biological father’s passing made their relationship tenuous at first.
J.R. was a truck driver, and “he was always gone,” Tabitha reflects. “He was what would have been called the breadwinner. He was busting his butt. But, of course, I didn't see it as that.”
When J.R. was home, Tabitha learned to bond with him over mechanics, which eased some of their tensions. There was always work to be done around the house, and Tabitha was continuously eager to please J.R. She was always the first willing to help or learn a new skill.
“I kind of fell in love with that” Tabitha said, “Before I was 14 I was already rebuilding engines.” Over time, J.R. and Tabitha gained a mutual respect for each other
Still, Tabitha was beginning to feel unsettled with herself. “I was jealous of my sister,” Tabitha reveals, “but I didn't know why.” Without the vocabulary or the resources to understand her feelings, Tabitha spent much of her childhood feeling confused and as if she was the only one feeling this way.
She didn’t reveal her thoughts to anyone, as she felt that whatever was going on was something that was wrong with her. She did her best to ignore these feelings and keep busy around the house.
Before she knew it, her life path mirrored his in more ways than one.
J.R., who was a sniper in the U.S. Marine Corps, followed in his father and grandfather's footsteps and served his country. With Tabitha’s interest in mechanics, she decided to enlist in the military as well. She joined the Army, feeling a sense of duty and respect to her family.
“I already knew the sense of family, of honor, of hard work,” Tabitha says, “I just felt that I owed it to 'em, you know. I owed it to my family and kind of follow suit.”
The Army revealed much more to Tabitha than respect and family honor. She continued to struggle with her identity, with the hyper-masculine environment causing more confusion, and festering thoughts about who she really was bubbling to the surface.
“I guess there was the fear that if you spent too much time with somebody, you want to know more about them,” Tabitha says. “And I wasn't willing to share that. I just wanted to be left alone. Do my job, and just let time go by.”
Like many soldiers, Tabitha enjoyed her weekends, often relaxing off base with a few friends. Those short weekends away were Tabitha’s only reprieve.
Once she stepped back on base, she was suddenly Ray.
At the time of her army service, she hadn’t begun the process of becoming Tabitha. The military environment seemed to strengthen her disassociation with her male identity and her insecurities continued to be unanswered.
“Emo, is that makeup on your face?” she recalls her Sergeant’s imposing question one Monday morning after a weekend away. “It shouldn’t be,” Tabitha quickly countered.
Internal barriers led Tabitha to feel very isolated and heightened her depression, perhaps making her more vulnerable to those in her unit.
“I was assaulted on two different occasions,” she says. “And of course, they perceived me as male. And what male in their right mind is going to tell someone they were just raped or sexually assaulted?”
“After that, there was, all of a sudden, no safe place.” Tabitha says, shaking her head, recalling her emotions.
She made arrangements to be honorably discharged from the military.
“As much as I wanted this to be a career, how do you act normal after something like that?” she asks.
After the military, Tabitha moved to New York City where she had her name legally changed from Ray to Tabitha, and she began living her life fully as a female. Staying at a homeless shelter for veterans was intimidating and uncomfortable at first.
“The whole place had like 232 beds, only like 2 dozen of ‘em were for women” Tabitha recalls. “I was the first transgender veteran they ever had coming through there. The first three days things were a little tense.”
Although things were uncomfortable at first, Tabitha wanted a new start. Eventually, things settled.
“I was helping girls pick out clothes, helping ‘em with their hair, you know sharing makeup tips, so I go from being the pariah to one of the girls, and it was amazing,” she recalls.
But Ray is not completely gone.
Living as herself seemed to come easier in a place where she knew nobody. The anonymity of New York City allowed Tabitha to feel comfortable enough to write her parents a letter telling them she was transgender.
That was more than six years ago.
Though Tabitha lives with Thurlene and J.R., her life is still misunderstood by her parents, who still treat her as their son.
“[The Letter] just said he wanted to be called Tabitha and … had a bunch of stuff in it, and I probably got it someplace in there if I go look,” Thurlene comments nonchalantly.
Tabitha finally was happy, and felt a part of something bigger, volunteering and becoming more involved in LGBTQ+ advocacy and Veterans Affairs support groups. But, she quickly realized she couldn’t afford to live in New York City forever, and she missed her country roots.
“We told him it's open,” Thurlene says. “If you want to save money for rent and stuff, you can move up here and not worry it.”
Thurlene was happy to open the house to Tabitha, as her and J.R. were both still on the road driving tractor trailers. “Just take care of the house,” she requested.
With them on the road, Tabitha felt comfortable being herself at home, but as soon as her parents came home, she immediately reverted herself to the son they have always known.
“He doesn't really dress up that we've seen so you kind of wonder about it a little bit,” Thurlene expresses. “But we've never really discussed it…it never comes up either, and it's not one of those things that just pops out.”
Although Tabitha lives her life as Ray during the day, she allows Tabitha to come to life at night, when she has enough energy. “Pretty much if I can hear him [J.R.] snoring I know he’s good for the night. So I'll skip into the bathroom.”
She digs around in her room for her makeup, dusts cobwebs off her high heels and allows a few moments to just be herself and unwind. Tabitha prevents herself from being too comfortable in her identity, always having an escape plan, with makeup remover and a change of clothes nearby in case J.R. calls her in the middle of this.
“You know with his disability, I can't leave him waiting,” Tabatha says.
Her time as Tabitha isn’t nearly enough for her, but it allows her to continue to have hope that one day, she can wake up and live her life fully as Tabitha.
“I have to acknowledge to myself that, ‘Okay I've got to bring it to an end,’” she said. “I’ve got to put all this stuff away. You know, I've got to go to sleep and tomorrow is another day where Ray exists again.”
As Tabitha passes J.R. his dinner with her pink manicured nails, small talk revolves around which chores need to be completed tomorrow and upcoming doctor appointments. Mail sits on the table next to J.R.’s plate addressed to Tabitha, but still, nothing is said or mentioned about Tabitha’s identity.
“I don't know what to fear because I don't know what he's going through,” J.R. admits, getting choked up. “It's hard but he don't talk to us.”
“I'm sure I won't know until I'm there yet,” Tabitha says, “But I know that the common thing with anybody is the fear of the unknown and not knowing is why I don't say it. It’s a perpetual cycle. You would think I'd be able to break that but…” she continues, her voice trailing off.
Tabitha remains in an idle state with her progress. She fears her parents will never accept her and continues to delay the hard conversations that need to be had in order to work towards a better future for herself.
She lets herself get caught up in pleasing her parents with monotonous chores and superficial actions that stray from discussing the greater topic at hand. Lack of discussion has left Tabitha fearful and unsure of her parents' true feelings about her identity, allowing unrealities and fears to take over in her head.
“I am not brave enough for that. Obviously, I’m not moving forward very much except in the linear concept of time, each day that passes,” Tabitha says with a sigh. “I know I got work to do on myself but there’s some things- this being one of them that I just can’t do alone,” Tabitha drones.
“I love him no matter what he does,” J.R. reflects sympathetically. “I would be fine with it. Yeah. Because that would be what he wanted. I just wish him the best in his life.
“They’re pushing the whole thing — like I said before — they are pushing it down your throat you have to accept it. I feel I’ve accepted it for a long time. But I don’t need it in my face every day,” Thurlene says.
Thurlene admits framing her opinion based upon what she see on TV, “But, we aren’t going to kick him out for it either.”
Although they don’t know how to address the issue, Tabitha’s parents have acknowledged that they would deal with whatever he — not she — decides to do.
“I'll admit, I don’t understand it a bit, though,” J.R. confesses.
Thurlene shrugs her shoulders. “You know I don't think it’d really bother me too much but he hasn't really done it,” she says. “I know he's got some prescriptions in the bathroom for hormones and stuff. I don't know if he takes them or not.”
For Thurlene and J.R., Tabitha’s lack of forward action and discussion on the issue allows them to feel as though Tabitha’s transgender identity is only temporary or uncertain. Thurlene shares her worry about Tabitha moving forward with her identity, saying that it would be “a mistake down the road a ways.”
All this time later, out of habit and hesitation, her parents continue to refer to Tabitha as their son, and her given birth name, Ray. “Even Dad — he says ‘I’m always gonna love you. You’re always going to be my son,’” Tabitha recalls. “That’s just it. I don’t want to be anyone's son.”
Tabitha puts on loose-fitting female jeans and a camouflage Army sweatshirt. She heads downstairs to pour J.R. a cup of coffee, before her own. As she heads out the door to tend to the chickens, she hears the words, ‘Hey, Ray.”
She stops for a moment before she responds.