Julie Small is a mother of two. She attends Montana State University. She was born on the Crow Agency, served in the Air Force and is a Christian.
She is also a transgender person.
On a chilly morning as rain clouds hung overhead, Small sat cross-legged on a bench outside her family’s home in Bozeman. Her 6-year-old son leaned out the door and shouted for help with his videogame.
“I’m talking,” she replied in a calm, quiet tone of a mother practicing patience.
At her refusal to help, Small’s son came outside, climbed into her lap and started batting at the ties that hung from the neckline of her blouse.
Small said she wants people to understand one thing about her family: It is no different than anyone else’s.
“Really, I want people to know that I’m not some monster. I live my life morally. I am a Christian. I have kids. I’m not going to sit there and try to hurt people.”
Small is just one of the members of the transgender community who spoke in favor of Bozeman passing a non-discrimination ordinance. Adopted in June, the law goes into effect this week, prohibiting discrimination on the basis of actual or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity or expression.
Hundreds of people spoke publicly about the NDO during City Commission meetings during the last few months. Some opponents labeled transgender people as men who decided one day to dress like women. It’s not that simple.
They are mothers, college students, members of churches, volunteers, sons, daughters, friends and people who we see every day, just living their lives.
Small, who is now 37, presented herself as a male most of her life. In March 2013, she began transitioning from the male to female gender roles.
“That’s when I started realizing who I was,” she said.
Small did not believe in divorce, but that is how her 17-year marriage ended. It was at that time she recalled a flood of painful childhood memories. She was seeing a counselor, and it was in that setting that she realized the tremendous weight she had always felt from not knowing her true self.
“I felt that I was hiding kind of in a costume. It’s a mask that I wore,” Small said. “I always knew I was different, I just didn’t understand why.”
“I was very confused. I used to cross-dress. My feelings for who I was attracted to were cloudy. I thought that maybe I was bi(sexual) or gay. So just a lot of ‘who am I’ questions through my life.”
Small was one of seven children. She has six sisters. When she came out, she was worried how her family would respond.
Small wrote her father a letter. While she was afraid she would lose him, the opposite happened.
“We’re actually closer now than we ever have been,” she said.
When she first told her children, her daughter, who is now 9 years old, simply asked if the change would hurt anyone. Small told her it would not. That was that.
“They questioned it at first and realized I’m different now, but they still love me. They call me mommy,” Small said.
Since she began living as a woman, Small feels happy, elated, invincible.
“When you are finally happy with who you are, so many things open. It basically clears your heart,” she said.
“When I look back on my life, I don’t see a little boy. When I look back on my life, I see a little girl that didn’t fit in, looked the same as her cousins, but didn’t fit in and had to grow into a little boy and then became a man who became who she really was.”
Like Small, Niki Buettner did not start to feel like herself until a couple years ago when she started presenting herself as a female.
Buettner was born a male physically. That is the life she led for most of her life.
“That’s what society expected of me, so I fell in line, I suppose,” she said.
Buettner grew up in Billings. She ran cross country. She had friends who were boys but could never really relate to them. When she was 10, Buettner started trying on her sister’s clothes. It was something she kept a secret for almost a decade, knowing that it was not the “proper” thing to do.
“I was terrified of being found out,” she said.
For most of her life, Buettner, who is now 24, didn’t know what it was to be transgender. It wasn’t until she started reading online forums that she learned there were other people out there like her.
She changed her name about a year ago and started a gradual transition to living as a female.
A 2012 graduate of MSU, Buettner now works in the school’s film and photo department. She attends a support group on campus for transgender people.
While she describes feeling alienated most of her life while living as a male, Buettner now enjoys the social aspect of hanging out with a group of girls. She also smiles when she says she likes the clothes better, too.
After about a year of hormone therapy, Buettner was able to look back and realize she had been depressed most of her life.
“I didn’t have any strong emotions most of my life, just kind of a flat feeling,” she said. “I feel much better with estrogen in my body.”
“The idea of continuing to live with the physical traits and just being seen as a man was just very depressing and gave me no hope. It was kind of like my last hope for something better in the future.”
Buettner told her parents the same way Small told her father, in a letter. It was about a page long and explained why she had been depressed as a child.
When Buettner’s parents got back to her, they had some questions: Are you sure you need to do this? What does it entail? She explained, and they accepted her as their daughter.
“The first few times I saw my parents after coming out, they realized how much more relaxed I was,” she said. “I have nothing to hide anymore. It’s a huge relief.”
Being transgender is not a choice, as some people have asserted at City Commission meetings, Buettner said.
“It was a choice so far that I could choose to continue to be depressed and possibly kill myself or I could try this and see how it works out. So it’s not so much of a choice really.”
Now, Buettner feels completely different than she did most of her life.
“I can actually feel happiness. Smiling is actually genuine now,” she said. “I have nothing to hide anymore. It’s a huge relief.”
Shawn Francis, 22, remembers watching a TV show when he 7 or 8 years old about twins who were both born male. After one of the boys suffered a botched circumcision, the parents decided to raise the child as a girl.
“When I heard it, I was convinced that’s what happened to me,” Francis said. “I remember just afterwards crying out of relief because I knew what was wrong.”
Francis was born female physically and tried to fit the roles that were expected. But, for her, it never made sense.
As a child, Francis would wrestle with a cousin and ask for “boy toys” for Christmas. One birthday, Francis got a doll as a gift and remembers biking around the neighborhood with it.
“I felt I had a responsibility to be the person (my family) wanted me to be,” he said.
The activities he did enjoy were hunting and fishing with his dad.
“That’s where I actually felt really comfortable, and I was really happy doing stuff with my dad,” he said.
Francis, who is Catholic, attended Carroll College in Helena for chemistry and physics. He was raised in a conservative family. As a young adult, Francis had a hard time dealing with being attracted to women.
While he felt he was battling his religion when he tried to be a lesbian, he did not feel the same struggle when he made the decision to live his life as a man.
“I don’t believe God made a mistake, but I really do believe he intended me to be Shawn.”
Francis describes living a life that never felt right when he tried to fit those female gender roles. He was depressed, had no hope for the future and didn’t take care of himself. These feelings came to a head during his junior year of college.
“I was so frustrated with where I was at, and I knew something had to change and that something was me, because I couldn’t take another year being who I was trying to be.”
While Francis knew he had to change, it was not easy.
“Part of the reason it was difficult to decide to transition was because I knew my family would have such a hard time with it,” Francis said. “I wish that they knew that if there was a way for me to be who I am and not hurt them, if there was any way I could carry on being who I was, I would have for them.”
Francis was right. His family did not take it well. He describes their relationship now as “strained.”
While he knows his family loves him and he loves them, he understands where they are coming from because it was with those same ideals that he was raised.
“They’re grieving the loss of their daughter and all the dreams they had for me as their daughter,” he said.
His friends were more accepting. For his 21st birthday, they gave him a card for a 1-year-old boy because it marked the first birthday he celebrated as Shawn.
Francis knows that while the road to becoming his true self has not been easy, when it came down to it, it was never really a choice.
“Someone said it’s not so much about becoming who you are, but it’s more about stripping away everything that you’re not. For me it was two-fold. It was stripping away everything that I am not as well as, through that process, becoming who I am.”
Fresh off a weekend in Butte spent with friends, Francis smiles and laughs as he describes himself as a “nerd.” He is a science geek, reads a lot and can juggle.
Working as a security guard now, he is now considering a program that will train him to dispose of landmines and other explosive remnants of war.
Most importantly, Francis has hope for his future.
“I’m better for the world, and I’m better for the people I care about being who I am now,” he said.
All three believe the NDO in Bozeman is a hopeful step.
Francis said he experienced discrimination first-hand when he tried to rent an apartment in Bozeman and the landlord asked why the Human Rights Campaign equality sign was his Facebook profile picture. After Francis explained, the landlord said the arrangement would not work.
Small, who is also the president of TMSU, the transgender club at MSU, said while she has found Bozeman to be a welcoming community, she has heard comments from other women that she is “sick” and received strange looks in the bathroom.
While the “bathroom issue” was brought up by several opponents of the NDO, Small said using the men’s room as a male-to-female transgender person is not an option.
“If I were to go into a boys’ bathroom, I would have a legitimate fear of my life about what might happen,” she said.
“Trans women are more afraid of getting injured than anybody else is,” she said.
While they don’t believe the NDO will eradicate all discrimination, it does give them hope that there will be less discrimination and that it will raise awareness of the transgender community.
“To anybody that has questions, ask. We’re not that different than anybody else. Ask about who we are, not about how we’re made,” Small said.
Erin Schattauer can be reached at 582-2628 or email@example.com. She’s on Twitter at @erinschattauer.