Leslieville Lives; Stories from the ‘Ville – Rachel Clark
Meet Rachel. I first came across her a few years back when I was on the I Am A Leslievillian FB page, and saw 2 posts she’d written. One was about Loblaws, and a few days later, one about Bees. Laugh out loud funny. I wondered who this witty woman was who I’d never seen on that page before or since. Not long after, I posted on the page myself, asking for computer help and she messaged me. We had a nice exchange online, but she was way overqualified for what I needed. After that, I’d see her occasionally across Queen St. We were practically neighbours so no surprise there, but I hadn’t spoken to her in person until one day when she was waiting for a streetcar, which was a long time in coming, I stopped to say ‘hi’. We got to know each other a little, over a long conversation.
Rachel is a transgender woman. Trans – and its variant tra-, is from Latin, meaning ‘to come across’. She was born in upstate New York in a small farming community of 1500. The eldest of 5, she was only 3 years old when she realized she had some body parts that were not what she expected them to be. While watching her mom apply make-up, she asked if she could teach her how to use it. ‘Oh no, you’re a boy,’ was her mom’s response. From that day, and for the next 40+ years, she was held prisoner in her body. “I became a good actress. I’d lie on the phone saying I was watching Rambo, when I was really watching Pretty in Pink, or express myself at Hallowe’en.” Growing up trans in 1960s Smalltown USA, was not only taboo, but when she tried to talk to her family about it in her teens, she was either not believed or sent to a doctor, who prescribed drugs for her ‘condition’. “It was also the times. Trans people were thought of as perverts and deviants. There was nothing available to individuals or their families to deal with the transition. My parents thought it was a social ‘curse’ and thought I would be ostracized. It wasn’t their fault, it was society’s.”
She went through school quietly and was more or less a loner who lived a lie 24 hours a day. She was bullied and beaten, ashamed and confused. Rachel escaped the torment by reading books, learning and excelling in school. She had any university of choice available to her, but her family wasn’t financially able to support her post-secondary education. She had to get away so enlisted in the Marine Corps at 17, spending 1 year in active duty and 3 in the reserves. The upside? By the time she finished she was a certified tank mechanic and had a degree in Journalism. It was the era of Bush Sr. and the economy was in recession. The Marine Corps wouldn’t let her return as she’d done her 4 years, so she enlisted in the Navy and became a submariner, working on Navigational Electronic Systems and resigning herself to never living the life she was meant to. “I went through the 7 stages of grief, the last being acceptance – that my life was stolen from me”.
For the next 15 years she worked in IT with different companies all over the US. “I drank a lot. I dated women but I couldn’t be myself so relationships never worked. At that point I didn’t care about living or dying.”
At 30 years old, she was transferred to New York City and worked in the music industry in IT. She joined a rock band, Supercollider, as a bass guitarist. “At least I could grow my hair long, wear nail polish and earrings and no one would look at me sideways. There was some relief in the physical expression. ” In 2003 she moved to Toronto with work and kept up the lie. For the next decade, she began self-medicating with booze and partying, the emotional stress eventually manifesting in serious health issues. “My kidneys were failing, my liver was sick, my hair was falling out. I went to Toronto General – the Psychopharmacology Unit – where they diagnosed me as Bipolar. They started me on 50mgs of Seroquel upping the final doses to 450mgs. I was a zombie. The doctors ignored me/the gender mismatch. In 2010!”.
During this period she couldn’t see a future and attempted suicide. “I’d lost friends, family and I wasn’t even able to get work in a field where I was a pioneer and expert, those companies using my patents (Big Data). It was obvious I wasn’t used to presenting myself as a woman and no one would hire me.” *Below, Rachel’s talk on her awakening at the Metropolitan Community Church on Simpson Ave. September, 2014
“Over 40% of trans people try (many successfully) to commit suicide. All the doors are closed. It’s just one more brick on the pile and you get crushed. One of the worst neighbourhoods I’ve experienced transphobia is The Beaches. The irony of that is after my suicide attempt, the therapist that helped me find my life again lived there. She convinced me nothing was wrong with me, I just had to come out.”
I asked her if Toronto is generally easier to live in than some cities in the US. “Yes, but marginally. Lots of work to do here still. Even in Leslieville, a neighbourhood of artists and hip people, I’ve had insults hurled at me walking down the street. No neighbourhood/city is immune. Having said that, although we’ve only been in Caledon a few months, no one has ever said anything negative/insulted me. They just don’t seem to care, which is a nice change.”
In 2014, Rachel began her Masters in Theology at U of T, studying to become an ordained minister. “Part of the reason was the voice and the touch of the hand that prevented me from drowning in my suicide attempt, but it was also to debunk anti-gay and trans religious arguments. I have 6 classes left,” she smiles. Rachel met her current partner, Carol-Anne, a Minister, at U of T and they’ve been together since.
Has your family accepted you now? “My dad died not knowing. I didn’t tell my mom. She found out about the transition through the grapevine. She was taken aback, but I was afraid for them. She’s not a bad person, just ill-equipped.”
Rachel received her Canadian citizenship in 2016 and is an outspoken activist for the LGBTQ community. She was the first trans person to throw the pitch at the opening of Pride Blue Jays game in 2016. “It was a great pitch! I didn’t throw it to anyone, but Marco Estrada was the catcher so that was good enough for me,” she laughs.
She’s currently the President of the Queer Liberals, and has previously worked as Secretary of the Board of Directors for Pride Toronto, Chair of the Amnesty International LGBTI Action Circle, and Education and Training Facilitator for the 519 Community Centre. She’s employed by TD Bank Group, where she is a technology strategist, and states unapologetically that they are the most affirming employer. “I love it there. Their motto is ‘You should be able to come to work as yourself'”. She also sits on several LGBT advisory panels and has appeared on CBC Radio One Metro Morning, The Current, the Vice documentary “On Hold”, has been profiled on CP24, Global, and CTV, and was featured in Toronto Life Magazine. She recently moved from Leslieville to Caledon with her partner Carol-Anne.
All photos (besides main and bottom) provided by Rachel Clark & Friends