By Jan Mercker & Danielle Nadler
Connie Rice is ready for boring. Much of her life has felt like a tug-of-war, both emotionally and physically. She was born a boy, but a feeling that she really was female has pulled at her since she was a kid.
She recalled the day as a young man stumbling upon photos of transgender women in a magazine. “I saw these pictures and thought, ‘Oh, you can do that? How do I do that?’”
In 2009, at 50 years old, she said she was tired of hiding her true identity.
Now, as she’s settled into her new lifestyle, she’s quickly become one of Loudoun’s most visible LGBT advocates. 2017 has been a whirlwind for Rice, who’s emerging as a respected national voice for transgender equality. She’s spoken in support of LGBT protections at local School Board meetings and to state and national lawmakers. But with her public profile on the rise, Rice’s anchor is her tight-knit family, helping her get through challenges with humor and compassion.
“I do my activism because I can do it. I’m in a good enough situation that I can do it, and somebody has to,” Rice said. “But mostly I work and I’m with family or my boyfriend or I ride my bike and that’s it. … I really live a normal, kind of mundane, suburban life.”
Rice is a self-described techno-geek, parent of three sons, former U.S. Marine, cancer survivor, cycling enthusiast and a technical sales specialist at IBM. “And, yes, I’m transgender. Transgender is just one aspect of my life,” she said, sipping coffee at the kitchen table of her Leesburg home. “Many people would see that as the defining thing, but I don’t. It’s just one thing.”
With support from her family and employer, she has cultivated the confidence to find her voice on the national stage. But it hasn’t always been easy. Less than a decade ago, Rice’s world was in turmoil as she began her transition, and there has been plenty of pain along the way, rejection from loved ones, harassment, and moments when she nearly ended her life. But just recently, a long sought-after sense of normalcy has set in.
Born in 1959, Rice has identified as female since childhood: “I was outwardly born a boy but never believed that,” she said.
At age 10, she’d secretly put on girls’ clothes that her parents were storing in the attic. She tried to come out to her parents as a 12-year-old but was rejected. She didn’t understand what she was feeling, and certainly didn’t have a word for it. “The language wasn’t there, but I just told them I’m doing this. … They said, ‘don’t do this.’”
Her parents’ denial brought about a period of depression and addiction as a teen. At 17 years old, she turned to alcohol and drugs to numb the pain. “I was up in my room drinking when my father came up and said, ‘come on, I’m driving you down to the Marine recruiter,’” she said.
Rice served four years as an avionics technician in the U.S. Marine Corps, married her wife, Birgit, and had three sons, all while struggling with and concealing her identity for decades. “I stopped smoking cigarettes and pot. I stopped drinking. But I still had the underlying issue,” she said. “I struggled for years in secret.”
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.
For Rice, a thyroid cancer diagnosis in 2009 was a turning point, and she began the first steps of her transition, starting with bootleg hormones and laser hair removal. But without mental health care to go along with this life-changing decision, she suffered a breakdown during the early phase of her transition.
She started researching the costly procedures she would need to physically become a woman, and she learned that insurance under her previous employer wouldn’t cover much of it.
“I was literally sitting in the basement crying because I knew it was going to be tens of thousands of dollars. And my wife came down and said ‘do it,’” Rice said. “So we spent the money.”
This month marks five years since she changed her name and had her first surgery, at $30,000. That was followed by three other surgeries in 2013 and 2014.
“It wiped out my finances,” Rice said. “At one point, when I had spent all this money and I was looking at spending more, I pretty much spent every day at work thinking about which conference room would be the best one to kill myself in. It was only when friends of mine played this ‘what am I thankful for’ game in November that helped drag me out of it.”
After she decided to start living as a woman, and give in to everything that came along with it, she knew the path wouldn’t be easy. Early in her transition, she remembers pulling into a rest stop during a long drive through Maryland.
“When I came out of the ladies’ room, a truck driver was waiting for me and just followed me around yelling at me. So I didn’t get anything to eat, I just went back to the car, shaking,” Rice said. “We’ve all had incidents like that.”
She credits her family and a network of friends for pulling her over the emotional hurdles she’s encountered on her way to living as a woman. During and after Rice’s transition, she and Birgit decided to stay married to raise their children and to maintain a household and support network. There have been plenty of obstacles along the way, and the dynamic is unconventional, but it works. As a straight woman, Rice dates men, and her boyfriend, Ken, is often part of family functions. But the family makes its way through new territory with a sense of openness, love and an obligatory sense of humor.
“A lot of it was Birgit,” Rice said. “If she wasn’t the extraordinary person that she is, it wouldn’t have turned out as well. … She set the tone, and even if they don’t realize it, the kids took their cue from her in a lot of ways.”
The warm but reserved Birgit declined to be interviewed for this piece, but two of Rice’s smart, funny sons talked about Rice’s gender transition at their Leesburg home.
Rice’s youngest son, 18-year-old Patrick, is a senior at Tuscarora High School. Her middle son, 24-year-old Ryan, recently moved back to Loudoun after earning a business degree at a college in central Virginia.
“It forced [our family] to be open and straightforward about that issue, and it kind of bled into other stuff and made us be open and straightforward about other things just because it was the way that we conducted ourselves after that,” Ryan said, laughing when he recalled telling his girlfriend, Madi, about Connie on an early date.
“On the way home, I was like, ‘Hey look, this is the deal at home, and [Madi] was just like ‘Oh, the way you started off talking, I thought it was going to be something bad.’ She never missed a step.”
Rice’s relationship with each of her three sons is warm and loving. Each of her sons are Eagle Scouts, and the shelves in their home are decorated with pinewood derby cars from years past and dozens of arrowheads and other stone tools the family has collected as part of Rice’s latest hobby.
Patrick, who was a tween when Connie began her transition, has a typical Generation Z nonchalance about LGBT issues and said it’s not really a thing at school. But last summer, when Patrick attended the Boys State residential leadership program at Radford University, he had a chance to educate some of his fellow participants during a discussion of LGBT issues.
“It was interesting because a lot of people didn’t know anything about trans people,” Patrick said. “A couple of the people who were clearly from areas where they wouldn’t see people like that came up to me and were like, ‘That’s really interesting—you’ve kind of changed my view on that.’”
For Ryan, who was the first brother to learn about Connie’s identity when he was still in his teens, the journey hasn’t always been easy. But overall, he said, it’s strengthened the family dynamic.
“For a little while it was kind of tough because I didn’t have anybody outside the situation to talk to about it. … It took a little while to figure out where our relationship was going to land after,” Ryan said. “But these days, I think we’re more open with each other than we were before about most aspects of our lives—but especially about emotional aspects and mental health struggles. It’s much easier to talk now because it doesn’t feel like anybody’s hiding anything.”
Asked recently what her life would have been like had her parents validated her initial feelings and supported her living as a girl and later a woman, Rice hesitates to entertain the thought. “For one thing, I wouldn’t have my kids, and I wouldn’t have my wife. Though our relationship is radically different, it’s still great,” Rice said. “So I wouldn’t trade any of my family for that.”
With Rice fully transitioned and living as a woman and in a secure environment at work, things are on an even keel.
“Now life is settled into normal,” she said.
And with that sense of security in place, she has started speaking out, and has quickly become a respected voice in the Northern Virginia transgender community. Rice’s first real foray into activism started last spring with the national uproar over North Carolina’s anti-transgender “bathroom bill.” She got involved with the Equality Virginia advocacy group and joined their speakers’ bureau, educating members of churches and civic groups on LGBT issues.
In August, the former Marine felt compelled to speak out against President Donald J. Trump’s executive order banning transgender service members in the U.S. military. She agreed to be interviewed by a DC television station, even though it meant digging up memories of her previous identity. The process, she said, was painful but necessary to get her message across when the station asked to run a photo of her as a young man in a Marine uniform.
“I didn’t like that I had to use a 40-year-old picture of this person who doesn’t exist anymore,” she said. “But I understand why a TV station would want that because they want it to be sensational.”
She has also been featured in diversity videos for IBM and helped the company develop training programs for helping employees support transgender colleagues when they transition. “I’m really proud of them for that,” she said.
In October, she was a featured speaker at the national conference for Out & Equal Workplace Advocates, a national nonprofit focused on achieving workplace equality for LGBT individuals. And she was recently named to Out magazine’s “Out 100” list of LGBT leaders and luminaries and was honored at the magazine’s Nov. 9 New York gala.
When she’s not making headlines, Rice is just like most Loudouners—living her life in her quiet Leesburg neighborhood, doing her job, riding her bike, going on dates with her boyfriend and spending time with her family. But Rice has made it clear that she owes her life to the support of friends and family, and she’ll continue speaking out because of a sense of gratitude and obligation.
“In many ways, I don’t consider myself to be that great of an advocate. I just tell my story,” she said. “I know so many people who do so much more than me. But I tell my story because I can.”