Skye Newkirk knows the questions you want to ask him.
But he’s not sure you’re ready to hear his answers.
“People act surprised when I start talking about genitalia. But that’s what they asked about,” says Newkirk, a Coupeville resident. “When they ask, ‘Have you had the surgery,’ what they’re really asking is, ‘Do you have a vagina or a penis?’ ”
Newkirk calls himself “an open book” when it comes to talking about being a transgender man.
He’s given presentations he calls “Transgender 101” to various groups around the state. He organizes and advocates for various gay, lesbian, bisexual, queer and trans communities and causes, including Langley’s annual Queer Pride Parade. He’s often asked to meet with teens to talk about the isolation, depression and confusion he experienced growing up in the Bible Belt of southwestern Missouri.
But there’s times when Newkirk just wants to be who he is — a 28-year-old married man with a house and a dog and a full-time job.
“I personally see myself as an advocate and educator,” says Newkirk who works for Island County Human Services as a behavioral health specialist. “But sometimes when I’m out to dinner, no, I don’t want to be an educator, I want to enjoy my dinner.”
Choice, a fascinating topic
This weekend, PFLAG chapters from Skagit and Whatcom counties are giving presentations in Freeland and Oak Harbor called “The Science of Gender &Orientation: Respect and Safety.” (PFLAG, started in 1980, stands for Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays.)
Funded with a grant from the PRIDE Foundation, about 800 people in more than a dozen locations have attended the talks, said Kathy Reim with PFLAG Skagit. Presenters include Randi Breuer, who works with teens and the homeless population in Mount Vernon and Linden Jordan, a retired Skagit Valley College instructor in psychology and human sexuality.
Jordan, who says he transitioned to his authentic self two years ago, will discuss sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression.
“Many people wonder about whether we choose our gender and/or our sexual orientation, so it’s a fascinating topic,” he said.
Reim and her husband, Robert, have advocated for gay rights for 15 years, culminating in witnessing their daughter marry her girlfriend in 2013.
“I now have a beautiful daughter-in-law,” she said. “Understanding and celebrating the diversity of our children is also a part of the presentation. So we have the science, the social aspect and parent perspective and it’s not often you have all three.”
Many topics will be covered, ranging from politics to pronouns. Basic guidelines on how to respect members of the LGBTQ+ community will also be addressed.
The talks are open to the public. Reim said she recommends anyone working in a supportive role, such as education, law enforcement, health care and social work to attend.
“What we’ve come to realize is that if people don’t really understand the science, it’s harder for them to see the need for compassion and kindness and to understand our political efforts,” Reim said.
Rev. Dennis Reynolds with Universalist Unitarian Church of Whidbey Island, said his Freeland congregation offered to host Saturday’s presentation because it’s a topic that needs more attention.
“I think it’s good information,” he said. “We are all striving to understand the reality of transgender identity. It has been quieted until recently. As we open up definitions, individuals can fully identify themselves.”
Sunday’s talk is hosted by St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Oak Harbor.
Whidbey, a mixed bag
While PFLAG’S chapter on Whidbey Island is small, it has helped many young lesbian and gay people struggling to be accepted by family and friends, Reynolds said.
He called Whidbey Island “a mixed bag” when it comes to accepting diverse sexuality and self-identity.
“The southern end is home of the Queer Pride Parade and then there are reports of bullying and harassment in the schools on the north end,” he said.
“There’s progress but more work needs to be done.”
An ongoing undercurrent of fear raised by Christian and Muslim religious leaders, recent activity by hate groups in other states and President Donald Trumps’ intention to ban transgender individuals from the military are all reminders the world is still a hostile place, organizers said.
With tattooed arms, full beard, various ear piercings, jeans and boots, Newkirk “passes.” It’s a term he doesn’t necessarily like but one that’s widely used to describe individuals who successfully blend in after transitioning from one gender to the other.
“It’s such a privilege to be able to ‘pass,’ ” he said. “I don’t like the word because it sounds like I’m trying to trick people. I’m not wearing a costume. It’s a privilege to be able to be seen as a man, as my authentic self.”
Newkirk said his co-workers “have been nothing but supportive.” Known for his efforts addressing Whidbey’s opioid addicts, Newkirk said many of his clients don’t know he’s trans, nor do they care.
But many trans people aren’t so lucky. Nationally and globally, they face poverty, homelessness, discrimination and violence at staggering rates.
According to GLAAD (Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation), in 2016, 27 transgender people were killed in the United States. So far this year, eight transgender women of color have been murdered. A 2015 survey by the National Center for Transgender Equality found 40 percent of trans individuals had attempted suicide in their lifetime, nearly nine times the national suicide rate.
Who will love me?
Some six years ago, when Newkirk decided to undergo steps to physically transition, undergo surgery to remove his breasts and start testosterone treatments, he couldn’t imagine his future. But he also knew he couldn’t stay in the past.
“My biggest fear was who’s going to love me? This wall of depression had built up around me. I needed to take steps to take care of myself.”
Three years ago, he legally changed his name and the gender marker on his driver’s license. Just three months ago, Newkirk married Caitlin Jones, his girlfriend of four years. They met in graduate school at the University of Washington and came to Whidbey when Jones accepted an Island County job as a school-based mental health counselor.
Like other Millennials, they created a wedding website, nixed a traditional wedding registry and espoused only recycled, upcycled and compostable/reusable items at their spiritual, legal and community ceremonies.
“We’re a young, married couple. That’s how we’re seen,” said Jones. “That’s what we are. Although I do have a weird aversion to saying ‘my husband.’ So he’s still ‘my partner.’”