By Amy Lynn Smith
Amy and Cindy Hunter of Kalamazoo have one of the greatest love stories of all time.
They’d known each other for nearly 18 years — as friends through the people they were married to — before they reconnected in 2003, both divorced from their previous spouses. It took less than three months for them to realize they were the ones who should have been married all along, and they tied the knot on June 27, 2003.
Since that day, their love has only grown deeper, even after a major revelation three years into their marriage. In fact, the truth ultimately strengthened their relationship.
Amy confessed a secret she’d kept from everyone — and had even tried unsuccessfully to hide from herself: For her entire life, including when she married Cindy, she had been living uncomfortably as the male she’d been assigned at birth. But deep in her heart, Amy knew herself to be a woman.
“I loved Cindy too much to live my distorted existence anymore,” Amy says. “Ever since I’d tried to tell my mother the truth at age 4 and was beaten for it, I’d kept my authentic self a secret, and it wasn’t fair to anyone who came into contact with me. I knew if I didn’t tell Cindy the truth and live authentically, I’d descend into hell. Once that realization was made, I had the first peace of mind I’d ever remembered feeling.”
Cindy admits the news was a surprise, especially since she didn’t know anything about transgender people at the time, and that she felt a little cheated. After all, she’d fallen in love with a man she would never see again once Amy began transitioning. But after some soul-searching, Cindy had an epiphany, too.
“I understood that Amy wasn’t in a position to tell me before we were married — she needed to be in a stable relationship before she could be in a place to think about it, identify it and move forward,” Cindy says. “She spent her whole life trying to suppress those feelings.”
While living as male, Amy was married twice before Cindy, with both relationships ending badly, she says, because she couldn’t live authentically. After each relationship ended, she descended into alcoholism as a way to hide from the pain of not being able to express who she really was. After she and Cindy got engaged, Amy began drinking again, out of fear and in a futile attempt to run away from the truth. But out of her love for Cindy, Amy got sober — and has stayed that way — and was finally able to confront her truth.
“I realized it was inordinately arrogant on my part not to let Cindy make a decision about how she felt about me and our relationship with full light of the facts,” Amy says. “I loved her too much to try to live distorted anymore. And it may sound corny, but it was out of my love for Cindy that I was able to confront exactly who I was.”
Amy says that Cindy’s willingness to simply listen and understand the depth of what they felt for each other was what was most important. “I’m not sure what I would have done if she’d said she had to walk away,” Amy says. “I honestly feel like her willingness to see past gender and sexuality and all of that saved my life.”
From the beginning, Cindy knew she wasn’t in a position to make a quick decision about their relationship. The couple attended counseling to learn more about what they would go through together and to sort through their feelings. Ultimately, Cindy listened to her heart.
“I really had to stop and think, ‘How do I feel about this person?'” Cindy says. “But Amy was still the same person, and I wanted to go through her experience with her. We stay together because we love each other — that hasn’t changed.”
Cindy was often asked about her sexual orientation after the couple told their friends and family about Amy’s transition. They’d both lived as heterosexuals until then, and they realized they didn’t need to define their sexual orientation.
“I don’t consider myself a lesbian,” says Cindy, who is now 58 and works as director of music at First Presbyterian Church of Kalamazoo. “I’m attracted to Amy the same way I was before, but we decided we didn’t need to place ourselves in a category.”
After her transition, Amy admitted to herself that she’d been attracted to both men and women in the past — but now only has eyes for Cindy, whom she has remained legally married to. “For me, there’s an intimacy that comes with a deep love for somebody that transcends sexuality,” she says.
In many ways, the journey Amy and Cindy went on together — learning what being transgender and being your authentic self really means — fueled a desire on Amy’s part to help others gain the same level of understanding.
Although there’s an increasing awareness of transgender people in Michigan and the rest of the country, it’s not always positive. Discrimination against LGBT people still exists — especially in states like Michigan, which doesn’t have nondiscrimination protections for LGBT people in the Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act. Transgender people are even more likely to face discrimination than gay, lesbian and bisexual people.
High rates of violence against transgender women of color are particularly troubling, as are the recent rash of “bathroom bills” being introduced and passed in states nationwide. These bills claim to be about protecting women in restrooms from men masquerading as women — which is how the bills’ proponents incorrectly characterize transgender people — but they are nothing but a blatant effort to spread misinformation and fear.
“This proliferation of the ‘men in women’s bathrooms’ trope has always been used against inclusive nondiscrimination efforts,” says Amy, 55, who heads up the ACLU of Michigan’s Transgender Advocacy Project (TAP). “It’s been refined and honed to a fever pitch since marriage equality. Educating people, and raising the comfort level of the public and policy makers, is how we go forward as a community.”
One central aspect of TAP is helping to elevate the voices of transgender people, to increase familiarity and empathy among others who simply may have never met a transgender person — like many of Cindy’s friends and co-workers after Amy transitioned.
“Amy may have been the first transgender person any of those people had a conversation with,” Cindy says. “It makes a difference when you have a conversation with someone. You realize they are not any different from the rest of us.”
That’s the level of understanding Amy hopes to achieve through TAP and her related activism, especially after the painful struggles she faced for so many years.
“Not long after I started the transition process, I told Cindy in tears, ‘I don’t want anyone else to have to go through 40 years of not being able to be who they are, like I did,’ and she said, ‘Now I understand,'” Amy says. “That has motivated me ever since. The only way to end the marginalization of transgender people is to confidently and authentically insert our voices where we can make a difference, and to reach out our hands and pull others along with us.”