Connie Rice is hard-core distance cyclist who typically logs 5,000 to 7,000 miles a year.
She’s a military veteran who now works in technical sales for a large IT company. She’s a longtime volunteer in her Leesburg community. And Connie Rice happens to be a transgender woman.
The road has not always been easy for Rice, but she considers herself lucky to have a supportive family, workplace and community. And because of her position of relative security, she believes it’s her duty to speak out for others.
“If you’re in a place of privilege like I am, where you don’t have to suffer discrimination very often—I have a good job and support—it’s my duty to speak up for people who can’t,” said Rice, who has been invited to share the story of her journey from suppression to acceptance with religious and civic groups around Northern Virginia.
“I was outwardly born a boy but never believed that,” she said.
Rice began dressing as a female around the age of 10 and tried to come out to her parents as a 12-year-old but was rejected. Her parents’ denial brought about a period of depression and addiction as a teen. Her father pushed her to join the Marine Corps after high school, and she married a woman she met while taking college courses during her military service.
“I suppressed it, but it never really went away,” Rice said.
The couple had three sons over the years, and for decades Rice lived with a pattern of guilt—acquiring female clothing then purging her stash and then buying everything over again. She also used herbal pills and teas over the years in an attempt to lower her testosterone levels.
A thyroid cancer diagnosis in 2009 at age 50 was a turning point in her mind. With her hormone levels in flux after the removal of her thyroid, she began taking mail-order hormones without medical supervision. But it wasn’t until she suffered a breakdown around Christmas in 2010 that she realized the need to be honest with herself and her family. Following a trip to the emergency room, Rice was put under a doctor’s care. She received counseling for the first time and began supervised hormone replacement therapy.
“You spend your whole life laying out your life like tiles on a Scrabble board: family, friends, job, hobbies, sexuality,” she said. “When you start hormones, you stick your finger under the edge of the board and flip it in the air.”
And part of the upsetting of the Scrabble board involved coming out to her family, which caused initial turmoil but has now turned to acceptance.
Rice came out to her immediate family members (her wife and three sons, now 27, 23 and 17) individually, and all have been important sources of support. Acceptance from her wife has been key. “She has kept me alive several times,” Rice said.
Rice says her middle son, who initially had the most difficulty accepting the transition, has now become one of her staunchest allies, accompanying her to lobby members of Congress and state legislators on the issue of transgender rights.
“He jokes that he’d like to write a book called “Conversations I Never Expected to Have With My Father,’” Rice said with a laugh.
Rice considers herself fortunate in that coming out to coworkers at her previous job was also relatively smooth. At her current job, she has experienced the advantages of working at a large firm with a strong diversity program in place: she’s even featured in a company diversity video.
“Most larger companies have realized that whether you’re gay or lesbian or transsexual doesn’t matter. It’s just about whether you can do your job,” she said. “But that doesn’t mean that it’s universally supported. Individually you do still see discrimination in hiring and promotions.”
In the Leesburg community, Rice saw some confusion when she came out, but has mostly experienced support. Some neighbors and old friends have distanced themselves, she said, and she experienced some taunting from a neighborhood teen, but most of her long-term neighbors have been understanding.
“People don’t necessarily give you a hard time, they just walk away. I saw a little bit of that, but overall I’d say it’s been very positive,” she said. “Some of my most religious and conservative friends have actually been extremely supportive. Because a true conservative person—if you define it by somebody who believes in personal liberty and freedom—sees this as your issue and not theirs.”
For Rice, the journey has certainly not been an easy one—from the financial and emotional challenges of transitioning, to watching transgender friends lose jobs and losing a friend to suicide. But there have also been moments when she’s been able to find humor and joy. She and her family are in a place of peace and acceptance, and it’s from that place that she has begun her outreach efforts with a focus on common humanity.
“I’m not out there doing drag competitions or anything like that. I’m just a person living at home, and so are my friends,” she said. “I know transgender people at tech companies in the area and across the country. I know transgender people who are doctors and lawyers and scientists. We’re just people. Some of us are accomplished and some of us aren’t—just like everybody else.”
As a member of a speakers’ bureau organized by the advocacy group Equality Virginia, Rice shares her story with community groups with a focus on her own journey rather than going into too much technical detail. Rice recently addressed members of the Loudoun community at an Ashburn event organized by Equality Virginia and Together We Will Northern Virginia.
“There’s a dizzying array of acronyms and terms, and if you only have an hour, it’s hard to bring everybody up to speed on the LGBTA [lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and ally] universe. Generally, my goal would be to say the point is that it doesn’t matter—it’s just people trying to live their lives, trying to make a living and it doesn’t really affect you.”
Connie Rice is the featured speaker at a discussion entitled “Beyond Headlines: Getting to Know the Transgender Community” sponsored by Together We Will Northern Virginia and Equality Virginia, 7-9 p.m. Monday, April 10, at Rust Library, 380 Old Waterford Road NW, Leesburg. The event is free. For information, go to togetherwewillnova.org/speaker-series.