It took nearly half a century for Birch Parlee to be herself.
Christened at birth in 1965 as Bernard Thomas, the first-born son of an evangelical minister, she spoke candidly with the Spotlight about her path.
“In about Grade 3 or 4, about the time I really became aware that boys and girls were different, I wanted to be a girl. I started to imitate girls and it didn’t take me long to find out that wasn’t cool…A lot of bullying and teasing followed me throughout my school years,” she said.
“There was a sense of misalignment that I didn’t have any language to understand. I saw it as something fundamentally wrong with me.”
Pressured to conform to family expectations and social norms, she was a church worship leader for 15 years.
“I buried it. I pushed it down. I lived a lie.”
She grew a full beard and went so far as to pursue “manly” occupations, was a commercial fisher for 15 years, and later a farmworker and truck driver.
Two marriages ended in divorce “and a lot of heartache…They both needed a man and I cannot be one. I think that would be the way to boil it down.”
Birch is one of approximately 132,000 transgender people living across our nation, according to Statistics Canada.
While encouraging curiosity, she waves off the need for politically correct language.
“I don’t get my panties in a bunch about that.”
Birch began coming out publicly about three years ago, shortly after moving to the community with her partner Saskia.
“A quite elderly woman in this town, who was attending a function at the library, walked up to me afterwards and said ‘hello.’ She asked me if I considered myself a woman or a man in a dress. For me, that wasn’t offensive. It was an opportunity for me to tell a bit of my story.”
It was Saskia who created a space where Birch could be honest.
“Saskia was someone who loved me in a way that I felt safe and I could be honest with her. Once I was honest with her, out of those conversations, I finally was able to admit it to myself. I no longer felt there was something wrong with me. I am just different.”
The relationship was already mostly devoid of gender roles and stereotypes. “The only thing that was different was that I was able to let go of pretending in any way of being a man, or trying.”
Recently Birch changed her name and her legal gender and the two were married in August 2020.
“I am legally a woman and we are legally a lesbian couple, but she doesn’t really like labels.”
Birch receives a hormone therapy of estrogen and progesterone and noted many transgender people regard questions about surgery “as nobody else’s business.”
She said: “In the initial phase, I couldn’t even comprehend it and I was perhaps in judgment of people who did it. In the beginning, I believed that it is what’s inside that matters. The problem is outside is perpetually undermining your sense of inside and I think trans people do become a little bit obsessed with their appearance. It is an attempt to bring your inside and your outside into alignment.”
Birch described the acceptance of the Princeton community “as almost unbelievably positive in many, many ways.” Still, she added, “there are certain places I don’t go, where I don’t feel quite safe.”
And she remarked with consternation on a recent Spotlight story about an altercation at a local bar allegedly incited by slurs against a transgender patron.
For the most part, Birch’s family, including two children, step-children and siblings, are supportive.
“My father tries,” she said, “but it’s hard.”
When asked what advice she would give her younger self, she does not hesitate.
“Don’t be afraid. Don’t hide. Find a way to be yourself. It’s a journey…People assume that I made a choice to be trans and people really need to understand it isn’t something you choose. It’s something you are and the choice is whether or not you accept it.”
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