Mary Costner sat at the Starbucks on Cox Road, twirling her hair with her finger and sipping her drink.
“Trying to be your true self is hard,” she said.
Costner knows about the difficulties of being oneself. Originally from Shelby, the Gastonia resident remembers growing up and trying on her mother’s makeup. She went to Disney movies and pretended to be the princess.
All of this seems pretty commonplace for a young girl, but Costner felt she had to hide it because she was assigned male at birth.
Costner first realized something was different when she was 4 years old, when she would sneak into her mother’s makeup. She recalled going shopping with her mother and being drawn toward the girls’ clothes, but having to hide this so her mother wouldn’t know. Despite the fact she knew she was a girl, the world seemed to believe she was a boy, and she instinctively knew she needed to hide the truth.
Her brother pushed her toward masculine sports and activities, which she went along with even though she hated them. She was ecstatic when she received a Kid Sister doll — an 80′s toy craze — rather than a My Buddy doll one Christmas.
Her doll, which she slept with every night, and her drawings helped get her through, she said. Costner described drawing princesses, fairies and herself in the margins of her notebooks.
She also wrote short stories about the person she felt like to help alleviate the pain of not being able to show herself outwardly. This continued throughout college, where she knew it would be more acceptable to be herself, but still remained hidden out of fear it would get back to her family in the area.
Costner hid for 35 painful years.
Everything came to a head last year when one of Costner’s family members fell ill and was in the hospital for two weeks. She watched the family member’s house and spent the entire two weeks in a dress she had purchased.
“It was very freeing,” Costner said. “I felt genuinely happy.”
Costner then knew she needed to come out about who she really was. The whole process is difficult, strenuous and still ongoing.
The first person she talked to was the pastor of her Lutheran church in Shelby. Costner felt nervous at first, but instead found unending support with the pastor. She pointed Costner to Agape Church in Gastonia, which was closer to her home in Gastonia and is a church specifically for those of the LGBT community.
From there she knew she needed to tell her family. She spoke first with her brother and his wife. She suspected her brother, a psychologist, knew after he found her looking up gender dysphoria — the distress surrounding one’s assigned sex at birth — in his copy of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.
Finally Costner sat down with her mother, telling her she has a daughter rather than a son.
“It’s really amazing how quick my mom became accepting of me,” she said.
Next Costner had to come out to those at the Schiele Museum, where she volunteers with the animals they have. Costner then came out to the rest of the members of her church and also on Facebook, inspiring some hateful comments, but for the most part people were loving and understanding, she said.
She has since started hormone treatments and while there have been some physical changes, Costner said the biggest change people have seen in her has been mental.
Before she came out, she slumped her shoulders and rarely made eye contact. She had little confidence and shied away from attention.
“I would just try to blend into the shadows,” she said. “I didn’t feel like myself and I just wanted to disappear.”
Friends now remark about how much more confident she seems. She looks in the mirror and smiles at herself. Costner said she’s more willing to look people in the eyes.
Harassment and judgment
It’s not all easier now that she is out as transgender. Costner has experienced harassment, most of it has been online and nothing physical has happened to her. While she said Gastonia has been welcoming for the most part, she still stays clear of any crowded areas and faces ignorance about transgender people in her day to day life.
For example, she’s heard people whisper about her while she’s at the grocery store — a task she usually completes with a friend, just in case an incident occurs. She had one person call her disgusting and another tell their child how “gross” she is.
Others will intentionally call her by birth name if they know it, or they will call her a man. Such actions confuse her.
“This has nothing to do with you, so why are you even worried about it,” she said, shrugging her shoulders. “Also, what’s the point? It’s not going to change who I am. It just makes you look like a jerk.”
She never responds to the harassment, fearing that would escalate a situation. It’s the same reason she has for not going into crowded areas, not walking anywhere at night and driving only on well-lit, busy streets. If she does have car trouble on a dark back road, she wouldn’t be able to knock on a stranger’s door and ask for help like most people.
She often hears people try to use the Bible or their faith to defend their comments toward Costner.
As a Christian, these claims hurt Costner. She pointed out that a huge portion of the LGBT community are Christians and there are more verses about loving one another than there are about the LGBT community.
“You’re not supposed to use the Bible to figure out other people’s lives,” she said. “You’re supposed to use it to figure out your life.”
She’s also had her fair share of bathroom debates when North Carolina passed HB2, requiring people to use the bathroom corresponding with the gender on their birth certificate. For her, she doesn’t see what the big deal is. Nearly everyone has used the bathroom with a transgender person and just not realized it, she said.
Despite these challenges, Costner has been happy with her experiences in the area since coming out.
“From my experience, generally Gaston County is a very accepting place,” she said.
Despite her positive experiences in the last year, Costner still has bad days. Some days it can be tough being transgender in a conservative area.
“I don’t get why there are people out there who think this is a phase or all the other crazy things,” she said. “There’s so much you put in money-wise or emotionally. No one would choose this just to do it on a whim.”
Money is a huge obstacle keeping Costner from moving forward with her transition. She said her next step would involve legally changing her name on her driver’s license and other legal documents. Currently, she keeps her driver’s license in a part of her wallet where she never has to see the picture or name on it.
However, this process alone costs $120, Costner said.
From there, Costner would like to get her gender affirming surgery done, which can cost anywhere from $18,000 to $20,000. Some estimates even go as high as $100,000. Costner said being able to have her surgery would be a huge step in having less people harass her for how she looks.
She’s also hoping people continue to learn and talk with transgender people. She mentioned a film screening of “Gender Revolution: A Journey with Katie Couric” at the Gastonia main library on May 30 at 5:30 p.m.
Parents, Family and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG) and Gaston County’s Department of Health and Human Services will partner to show the film. The goal is to spread awareness of what transgender people are really like, according to Kayla Earley, the Health Education Coordinator at the Department of Health and Human Services.
“It’s not as scary when you know about it, so I think it will create more compassion in the community when we know what these terms mean,” Earley said.
Costner agreed with Earley, and encouraged people to get to know someone who is transgender before judging them.
“Once you get to know a person as a person, it’s a lot harder to see them as an issue or an enemy,” she said.