For academic advisor Shawn Wallace, deciding whether or not to correct someone on the phone can be a difficult choice to make.
Since Wallace was born female but now identifies as a man, being mistaken as female over the phone is a frequent occurrence and leaves Wallace wondering if it’s a mistake worth correcting.
“You just sort of have to make a choice in that moment,” he said. “They’re not attempting to be hurtful towards me. They have no idea and I don’t want to shame anybody, because I know it was a mistake.”
Wallace, who is now 43, said he began identifying as transgender around age 27, despite having spent the majority of his earlier years identifying as lesbian. Wallace said he made a promise to himself in the beginning of his journey to do his best for those coming up behind him by remaining upfront and honest about who he is.
“There were people before me that kind of helped clear the path, and I think it’s important that we keep doing that,” Wallace said. “It takes some of the fear and the confusion and the questions out of it if we’re just living as normal people. We’re just everyday people.”
Although awareness about the LGBT community has increased in recent years, Wallace said he still believes there are “miles to go.”
Chris Wenzel, a close friend of Wallace, described Wallace as one of the bravest people she knows.
“Shawn is continually one of the bravest, most open people you’ll ever meet,” Wenzel said. “Nothing is really ever off the table as long as you’re being respectful. He’ll tell you anything you want to know.”
After several years as a lesbian, Wallace said it didn’t feel quite right, as he wasn’t relating with people in the community. For Wallace, the transgender community was not on his radar during high school and college. He said it wasn’t until he began working with a therapist that he realized he was transgender.
“Just the second she said it, a lightbulb came on and I knew that was exactly it,” Wallace said. “I don’t feel like I’m a woman; I feel like I’m a man in this body that I have, so what are you going to do with it? After having that conversation, I had to sit with it for a little bit and figure out what it meant and what I wanted to do with it.”
Wallace said that although he lost friends after coming out, he still received widespread support.
“I’ve been actually pretty lucky to have the support that I have,” he said. “Most people were able to make that transition with me.”
However, Wallace said some of his family had mixed emotions about his coming out.
“I had come out to them as a lesbian as a teenager, and while they weren’t crazy about it, they kind of just went with it,” he said. “They still kind of struggle with understanding what it really is about but overall are supportive.”
Wallace said the reaction he received from his mother wasn’t at all what he expected.
“My mom surprised me at first because when I came out as lesbian, she really did not handle that well at all, so I was really terrified to tell her this,” Wallace said. “Amazingly, though, that conversation went really well. She said, ‘That actually makes more sense to me,’ and that just really took me by surprise.”
Wallace, who began his career in the School of Journalism as membership coordinator for the Society of American Business Editors and Writers, started work as an academic advisor for the school in 2006.
He said it was during his time as membership coordinator that he began taking his first steps in the transition process by having others address him as Shawn.
Later, during his time as an academic advisor, Wallace said he began taking bigger steps towards his transition.
During a week off on vacation, Wallace said, he sent an email to his coworkers explaining his situation and asking to be referred to with male pronouns.
“Everybody was all really supportive, from the administration all the way down to the staff I work with,” Wallace said.
He said that when he first began his transition to transgender, otherwise simple tasks became major everyday obstacles, such as choosing the appropriate restroom.
“It was actually a big deal,” Wallace said. “I had to start deciding like, ‘Do I pass enough as a male to go into the men’s room?’ but honestly it also became, ‘Do I pass enough to go into the women’s room?’ There was a period of time where that was really difficult and uncomfortable and I didn’t really always have good experiences with that.”
Wallace said another problem he didn’t expect was experiencing the other side of male privilege.
Although Wallace said this was never a problem that occurred in the workplace, he occasionally faced it around the community.
“Once I was passing more regularly as a male, it was really uncomfortable to experience watching getting preference over women in just very slight, subtle ways,” Wallace said. “Just kind of experiencing that was really uncomfortable, because it’s never something I’ve been OK with and I don’t think that should be something that happens. But it really was kind of a strange thing to occur — that suddenly I was on the other side of that.”
Christi Duran, a coworker and friend of Wallace, said he now seems “much more confident and comfortable with himself.”
Wallace said the entire process took some time to get used to because some people saw him as male, while others still looked at him as female.
“It’s just kind of uncomfortable at first because you’re just sort of in that middle place,” Wallace said. “I think it took me awhile to get comfortable with the identity and really owning it and not being shy about it. That takes some time, but I feel like I’ve made some really big strides with that and I feel a lot more confident with it now than when I first started my process.”