Into the light

SARANAC LAKE – Kelly Metzgar spent most of her life hiding her true identity. Now she wants to spend the rest of it making sure other people don’t make the same mistake.

The Saranac Lake resident was born a boy, but “for all my life, I’ve always thought I should have been a girl,” she told the Enterprise in an interview this week.

After decades of deception, shame and a depression that brought her to the brink of suicide, Metzgar has slowly made the transition to living publicly as a woman, coming out to her family, friends and co-workers in the last two years.

She’s not stopping there. Metzgar is now an advocate for transgender rights here in the Tri-Lakes and across the state, giving talks, sharing her story and working to create safe havens for, and foster acceptance of, gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people. She’s pushed legislators to pass anti-discrimination laws, got the local hospital to provide services for transgender people and started a youth group for LGBT kids in the area.

“This transition is no longer about me,” Metzgar said.

Shame

Metzgar grew up in northwest Pennsylvania as the oldest of four children, two of whom, including Metzgar, were adopted. She said some of her earliest memories are of sneaking into her mother’s bedroom and trying on her clothes.

“When I was old enough to be in the house by myself and she went shopping, it was like glory,” Metzgar said. “I could put on her things and feel good.”

One time when she was in third or fourth grade, however, Metzgar got caught. The happiness she felt turned to confusion and shame.

“My parents said, ‘That’s a bad thing to do. That’s not the right thing to do. A boy wearing girls clothes is not acceptable,'” Metzgar said. “I remember feeling very ashamed. That sticks with you.”

From that point forward, Metzgar said she knew she had to hide what she was doing. If she wore one of her mother’s dresses, she had to put it back exactly as she found it. During visits to an aunt’s house, she’d sneak into a female cousin’s room and try on her clothes.

As she got into junior high and high school, Metzgar said she got a little more adventurous, “trying on nylons and heels and all those fun things a teenage girl would do in those rare moments when you were home alone.” She said she was always more comfortable around girls, but she never shared her secret with anyone, even her closest friends.

“There was no one to talk to,” Metzgar said. “There were no counselors. We didn’t even have the word transgender. You were gay or lesbian or hetero(sexual). Those were your choices. I knew I wasn’t gay. I always liked girls.”

Secrets

After graduating high school in 1977, Metzgar went on to college, first at Gannon University in Erie, Pennsylvania, and later at Jamestown Community College, just over the border in New York.

Throughout those college years, Metzgar says she continued to hide her cross-dressing from friends and roommates, “always making sure nobody finds your stash of clothes.” Things got more complicated when she had a long-term girlfriend.

“We were together for four or five years,” she said. “Everyone expected we would get married, but I couldn’t tell her. I loved this girl, but I had this big secret.”

In December 1983, Metzgar got a computer programming job at North Country Community College in Saranac Lake. She used it as a way to end things with her girlfriend.

“It was my way of running away,” she said. “To this day, I regret that. I was afraid to tell her. I was afraid of what her reaction would be.”

After moving to Saranac Lake, Metzgar eventually got married. She and her wife had two kids, but the marriage ended after just three years. Metzgar said she never told her wife her secret, and she didn’t want to go into detail about what ended the marriage.

First time out

A few years later, Metzgar was dating a woman who found out about her cross-dressing.

“I didn’t hide things very well, and she discovered it,” Metzgar said. “Then one night in February, she said, ‘You better get ready. We’re going out.’ I said, ‘What do you mean? I’ve never been out before (as a woman).’ She either wanted to shock me or scare me; I don’t know what.”

There was only one problem.

“She said, ‘You’re going to need a name,” Metzgar said. “Literally without thinking, the first and only name that came out was Kelly. It just fit.”

Metzgar, wearing a wig, and her girlfriend went to the Dancing Bears Lounge at the Lake Placid Hilton. They had a few drinks and listened to some music. At one point, two men walked up and asked them to dance. Metzgar said she panicked.

“Then I said to myself, ‘If you’re going to be out in public as female, that would be something a woman would do.’ So I played along. We had a dance or two. They were very polite, but it was scary. For a first outing, it was like, ‘OK. We did it.'”

That relationship ended, but over the years Metzgar went out with friends as a woman more and more, which she said helped build her self-confidence. However, she was still leading a double life.

“I’d go to work as male, and on the weekends, I’d be female,” she said. “It was a balance, and for a long time I could take that balance.”

Turning point

Things started to change about five years ago. After getting married a second time, Metzgar was in the middle of a costly and messy divorce. That, coupled with the years of living in hiding and the loss of a close friend, sent her into a deep depression.

“In that time, I was suicidal,” she said. “I had two plans made up. I had the means and the ability to carry them out. This was going to happen.”

She never attempted suicide, but Metzgar admitted to doing “a dry run.” She said she eventually climbed out of her depression with the help of good friends, concerned family, and a picture.

The picture, which Metzgar has framed and keeps in her home, is of a person standing in front of several different paths and asking, “How shall I live my life?” Metzgar said her choices included continuing on a path toward suicide, continuing to live in hiding or transitioning to the life she wanted to live, as a woman.

“As I started that climb out of depression, there was only one way I was going to be able to live and be happy, and that was to transition,” she said. “When I made that mental switch, the depression eased, because now I had a plan and now I had a purpose.

“In spring of 2012, I started letting my hair grow out. I got my first set of pierced ears. In August of that year I started hormone therapy. My mood stabilized. I became happier, and the stress seemed to fall away.”

Opening up

The following spring, Metzgar decided it was time to tell her family. She started with her younger sister Sarah who, like Metzgar, was adopted.

“She said, ‘I’m so happy for you. Why did you keep this from me for so long? Do you know all the fun we could have had all these years?'” Metzgar said. “All that fear went away. She accepted me.”

Her father died in 2007, but Metzgar eventually worked up the courage to tell her mom, over the phone, in late March of last year.

“I couldn’t hold it in anymore,” Metzgar said. “I told her about me being transgendered and how I’ve always felt I should have been a girl. That’s when she started opening up, saying, ‘When you were a child …’ and I got a lot of history of things I used to do.”

Metzgar said her mother initially “had issues” accepting the change and asked to see her son when she came home. That lasted until June of last year, when Metzgar said her mother met with her parish priest, who told her to find a way to reconcile with her child.

“She told me that when I came back to Erie for her 86th birthday, that she wanted Kelly to come,” Metzgar said. “When I got to my sister’s house that July, mom came over, looked at me head to foot, taking it all in, and she gave me a big hug.

“From then on, she’s addressed me as Kelly. She’s accepted me as her daughter, and that’s huge, to have the love and support of my family, and especially of my mom.”

At work, around town

Now there was only one place left for Metzgar to come out. Since 2006, Metzgar had been working full-time in the information technology department at St. Joseph’s Addiction Treatment and Recovery Centers.

At the end of last summer, she gave her supervisor three months notice that she planned to come to work as a woman. She had already legally changed her name to Kelly Leigh Metzgar, her last name being the one she was given at birth, before she was adopted.

“I’ve been out at work now for quite a while,” she said. “The first day (Nov. 3), a lot of people gave me little gifts and things, but what meant the most was St. Joseph’s gave me a nameplate with my name on it. That was so affirming. It’s been wonderful ever since.”

Metzgar said she’s had similar reactions from other people around town. She said it’s rare for such a rural community to be so LGBT friendly and accepting.

“What I hear all the time is, ‘Congratulations. We’re glad you’re happy,” she said. “People have said how much happier I’ve been, and it’s true. To be able to live finally as myself, after 55 years of hiding and lying, to let people actually get to know me – how could you not be happy? I just wish I could have done it sooner.”

But the transition hasn’t been without heartache. Metzgar says she’s lost close friends along the way.

Also, Metzgar is still concerned enough about public reprisal against her and her adult children that she urged the Enterprise not to use her old, male name in this article. The Enterprise complied.

“Use of prior names in the transgender community is a very sticky issue,” she said. “We are leaving all that in the past to move forward into the future as our true selves.”

Advocacy

While she regrets not coming out sooner, Metzgar is not so sure she could have done so before.

“I don’t think we could have done it in another decade,” she said. “This is the trans movement now. There are so many people coming out as trans. There are more shows on television than ever. Caitlyn Jenner has a good show. Once you get beyond the family and the clothes and the makeup, they’re actually targeting important conversations about family acceptance, the suicide rates, the assaults – issues pertinent to the trans community.”

Those are the conversations Metzgar has been sparking in her own community and across the state. She’s been a presenter at conferences on LGBT issues, and at colleges and universities. She’s talked with members of church groups and civic groups.

She’s also lobbied in Albany and written numerous Guest Commentaries and letters to the Enterprise editor, calling for passage of the Gender Expression Non-Discrimination Act, which would outlaw discrimination in New York based on gender identity or expression. Without it, Metzgar said, “You can be fired from your job because you’re transgendered. You can be thrown out of your apartment or housing. You can be denied medical care.”

The state Assembly has passed GENDA eight times, but the Senate has yet to bring it to the floor for a vote. Metzgar said she’s frustrated, in particular with what she says is Sen. Betty Little’s “non-committal” stance on the legislation.

“The Senate had time to pass legislation to allow your dog to sit with you at a restaurant,” Metzgar said. “They had time to debate and approve that the wood frog is to be the state amphibian. They can’t even bring people’s basic human rights to the floor for discussion and passage.”

Local push

Locally, Metzgar penned an Enterprise Guest Commentary last year about the challenges transgender people face in getting health care in the region. That led to a meeting with officials at Adirondack Health.

“(Adirondack Health President and CEO) Chandler Ralph invited me up for a chat,” she said. “She was very concerned and very sincere, and that led to a whole chain of events taking place. They hired a new family doctor for the Tupper Lake facility, Dr. Kristen Frank-Dixon. She agreed to take this on, and now we finally have a doctor, which is huge. We now have someone who can monitor for us, prescribe for us and watch our health care needs.”

More recently, Metzgar helped organize a January presentation at the Saranac Lake Free Library on bullying, harassment and the Dignity for All Students Act. That was followed in February by a community discussion on creating resources for LGBT youth, parents, families and friends, which led to creation of a local LGBT youth group that’s open to all Tri-Lakes middle and high school students. About 5 to 10 students have attended each session so far.

While there are LGBT groups in New York’s big cities, and near college and university campuses, “there is nothing in the North Country,” Metzgar said.

“I knew we needed to start something for our young people, so they could have something we never did,” she said. “The kids who aren’t sure of who they are or why they are. They should have somewhere safe to come, not be bullied, not be harassed, and just hang out and be themselves.

“My next project is to start a parents support group,” Metzgar said. “We need education for our parents. So many parents are unaccepting of their gender-variant children. My goal is no kid should ever have to go through this, whether it’s race, ethnicity, orientation or identity.”