Madeline Cowdell knew that she was in the wrong body from the age of 5. Knew she was meant to be a girl. Knew she was a girl, inside. Even if others couldn’t see it.
Raised in Canada with dual citizenship, Cowdell, the assistant news director for Lansing-based TV station WSYM Fox 47, was attending a French immersion Catholic school for kindergarten as a boy when the revelation hit her. It happened when the nuns lined up the students for a washroom break before mass.
“I remember standing in line and thinking I was in the wrong line,” she said, a wistful look in her eyes. “All of my friends, the girls, were standing across the hall from me and going to a different bathroom. I remember just feeling some confusion about that.”
The confusion would continue as she grew older, confined to a body she did not feel at home in. She tried to be a dutiful son to a Catholic father and a Mormon mother. She bonded with the former over sports. “We’d watch hockey, of course, because we’re Canadian. But there was also football and soccer.”
She also followed in the footsteps of both parents and got into the sport curling. “It’s a very unique sport,” said Cowdell. “I love it because it makes you think. … People think, oh, you just throw rocks down the ice but there’s a whole strategy involved. It’s like chess.”
But no matter what she did, she did not feel that she fit in. As a teenager, her mother sent her to a Mormon therapist who only confused things for her further. “I was told that, ‘People don’t understand what it’s like to be trans, so just come out as gay and see if that works for you.’”
And it did. For a while, at least.
“I had boyfriends,” she said. “I would go to the clubs and hang out with the guys … but still it didn’t feel quite right.”
Cowdell said the experience felt “way better than anything I was experiencing at church. But, still, the puzzle pieces were not quite fitting yet.” She moved to the U.S. and worked in a few states, including California and New York. She eventually married a woman. But no matter what she did, happiness was elusive.
She was in the closet, literally, when her wife found her on the brink of suicide. “The irony of the closet was certainly not lost on me,” she said. “We had a long talk about how depressed and just dead inside I was.”
Cowdell’s wife encouraged her to find a therapist, and it was only then that she started to take transitioning seriously. And then something special happened when she took the first official steps to transform herself at last.
“I just knew,” she said. “I knew within 10 days of starting hormone therapy that the clarity was there. [It was] like, ‘Yes, this is who I’m meant to be. This is who I am.’”
But feeling comfortable in your own skin and feeling comfortable out and among others are two different things. Not to mention the discomfort she felt in her family’s home. “My father … had a very hard time,” she said. “We’re in the process of mending our relationship, and it’s going well.”
The process continues slowly but surely, she said.
“As I’m more confident in myself, and being more comfortable around my family, I’m finding myself rebuilding those connections and finding the essence of home,” Cowdell said. “I’m still not sure what’s the right amount of information to give out before it gets too awkward. My father, I think, is still trying to get used to having a daughter in the house rather than just one of the boys. But we’re finding our way.”
Introducing Michigan Maddie
These days, Cowdell is finding her way in many respects. She said she feels more comfortable with herself than ever before. “I think my story starts when I came to Michigan,” she said. “I keep calling myself Michigan Maddie because I just feel like I’ve been given this opportunity for rebirth, the opportunity of regrowth and to be able to live my life.”
Though getting there has been a long and winding road, she’s learned a lot along the way.
“Something that’s really gotten me through this journey, and that I have discovered as Michigan Maddie, is self-care. Self-care is just tremendously important. I’ve been working on it with my therapist as a recovering workaholic.”
The key, she said, “is taking moments for yourself. It provides so much clarity.”
The journey of transitioning is different from what people imagine. “I do a lot of meditation. I listen to music. I go out and drive, take a lot of road trips. I feel like I’m my best self in the car when I’m away from distractions and just being with myself in nature.”
Recently, Cowdell drove to Traverse City to take in the fall foliage. She stopped to grab a bite and, before she knew it, found herself in some random bar, where she quickly made new friends and soaked up the music.
“I’m dancing with all these people and I’m like, ‘Who is this? Maddie doesn’t do these things,’” she said. “We had so much fun that they invited me back the next night. And, so, I went back a second time, and I was like, ‘This is who I am.’”
Cowdell said she’s as surprised as anyone to discover what a free spirit she is. She’s learned to “just go with it, have fun and don’t take yourself too seriously. I’ve never, ever been like that in my life but it’s always who I wanted to be.”
Now settled into the Great Lakes State, Cowdell loves her challenging job as assistant news director at WYSM.
“I’ve always wanted to be a journalist,” she said, pointing out that her initial ambition was to become a meteorologist. “I was a weather nerd.”
Her first job after graduating from Loyalist College in Belleville, Ontario, was as an associate producer at a small station in the area. From there, she went on to become a supervising producer for a morning show in Ottawa, until she began to feel burned out. “I was falling out of love with the business. My lifelong dream was to work on television. So, I wanted to find a new way to spark that excitement again.”
A friend encouraged her to relocate to Michigan. She said, ‘You’re gonna love it,’ and I’m like, ‘Detroit?’” Despite the fact that all she really knew about Michigan was the route from the Ambassador Bridge down to Ohio via I-75, Cowdell began looking for work in the state. She originally applied for a producer position with WXYZ in Detroit. Instead, they offered her the more prestigious job of assistant news director for their sister station in Lansing.
“Having someone like Madeline Cowdell in a leadership position as an assistant news director at a TV station like WSYM is such a total win,” said Dina L. Walters, a former news producer and reporter who worked for various outlets in Michigan. “Her unique perspective spawns coverage that moves beyond typical LGBTQ+ reporting.”
Walters said that perspective allows Cowdell to use her insight and experience to authentically produce stories about her community. “It also allows her an empathy to look at the situations of others and help them to also share their stories effectively,” Walters adds.
As a communications and marketing consultant and trans woman, Walters said she also appreciates that there’s an editor who doesn’t need to be taught queer culture when considering pitches for news stories. “She knows more about how transpersons truly are than all the sensitivity training and seminars one could ever possibly attend. Her success is an outstanding example from which others can learn.”
Outside of the station, Michigan Maddie keeps busy building her new life. In addition to curling, she is a proud member of a Mini Cooper car club and loves long drives around the state listening to music. She’s now a woman who throws caution to the wind and dances with strangers.
“I put a lot of effort into building up who I am,” she said. “Finally, I’m seeing the benefits. I’ve built this wonderful life for myself as myself. … I feel like I’ve finally made it, you know? I’ve got a job and a house, and I’m just doing normal things that I never thought were possible due to years of depression and anxiety.”
Yes, Michigan Maddie has come a long way. Today, she’s boldly optimistic about the future. Cowdell said she hopes her example can serve to inspire other trans women, particularly trans youth.
“The biggest message I can tell them is don’t give up,” she said. “You’ll find your sense of community. You know who you are.”