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    Saturday, April 01, 2023

    Coming out: Two transgender men from Norwich and New London share their stories

    Kyle Murray, left, makes a point as he and Rev. Carolyn Patierno lead their workshop, "Whole, Holy, & Loved," during Piece of Mind, OutCT's inaugural LGBTQIA+ Mental Health and Wellness Symposium Friday, April 29, 2022 at Three River Community College in Norwich. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)
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    Benjamin Crowley says with a laugh that he has "a bad habit of doing things that stress me out for the long-term goal."

    Right now, that means the busyness of working full-time at the Chipotle in Norwich while pursuing a master's degree in psychology — with a specialization in gender and sexual fluidity — and serving on the board of OutCT.

    It's how he feels about the process of transitioning — as a transgender man — because it was "one of the most stressful times of my life," but worked out for the better.

    Professionally, his long-term goal had been to be a professor, but now he isn't sure.

    Crowley, 31, wants to open his own gender-affirming practice, because of the trauma he experienced transitioning. While he described his therapist as "very accepting and open-minded about learning new things," he had some "not-so-great experiences" with other providers.

    It took time, and a lot of trial and error, to get to this point. He spent his freshman and junior years of high school at Ledyard High School and wanted to be a veterinarian. He wanted to work with farm animals, but then he met farm animals and decided it wasn't for him. A horse bit his head.

    Crowley switched to Norwich Free Academy, where he said he "really blossomed." Between NFA and getting his bachelor's degree in women's studies at the University of Maine, Crowley went to Three Rivers Community College, where he first thought he wanted to be a social worker. But he ultimately switched from a plan of getting an associate's degree in human services to one in liberal arts and sciences.

    It was at Three Rivers that he took a world civilizations course that focused on non-European civilizations, so he learned about Africa before colonization. Crowley, who is Black, didn't know there were kingdoms, and he was angry and ashamed that was something he was just learning at age 25.

    "If I'm thinking about this wrong, what else am I thinking about wrong? And I was like, apparently a lot of things," Crowley said with a laugh. "But it was a nice self-healing journey."

    Happening around this time was his physical transition, which came on the heels of another journey: discovering his gender identity. While describing anything as a journey can be cliché, Crowley readily admits it was a journey indeed, as he came out not once but twice.

    The first time he came out was as bisexual early in high school, which turned out to be wrong.

    At NFA, he joined the Gay-Straight Alliance, and a guest speaker talked about being trans. Crowley had never heard that term before.

    "As they were talking about their experiences, I was like, that's me. That's my experience," he said. He thought about it, and it made a lot of things in his life made sense. He also recalled that when he got a haircut at age 6, people on the playground thought he was a boy and he just let them roll with it. Crowley came out again for the second time at age 17.

    This was around 2008, before transgender advocates like Laverne Cox and Janet Mock rose to prominence. But RuPaul's Drag Race came out in 2009, and Crowley would get offended when people would ask if he would go on the show.

    "I'm like, 'I'm not a drag queen; I'm transgender! It's very different,'" he said.

    Crowley said after graduating high school, he "stagnated" for a couple of years. He was working as a repack selector at a warehouse and was depressed about transitioning: He knew he wanted to medically transition, but it was expensive and information was limited.

    He changed his name in 2015, then started taking testosterone, and then had top surgery, a procedure to remove breast tissue.

    "Once I got my top surgery, I was like, 'I'm king of the world, I don't care about anything, I don't care what you think about me, I'm going to wear whatever I want,'" Crowley said. "It was like that euphoria moment. I finally got that physical euphoria moment of my body finally feels right."

    To Crowley, identifying as transmasculine is simply "to indicate that my pronouns are he/him, and for me, nothing else. That's it. My pronouns are he/his. A lot of people expect certain behaviors or actions or attitudes towards masculinity that I don't honestly have."

    Now, he feels the need to protect trans kids (and lightheartedly defines a "kid" as anyone younger than he). He is inspired by Tony Ferraiolo, director of the Youth & Families Program at Healthcare Advocates International in Stratford and an advocate for transgender youth.

    "Meeting him and seeing a trans elder succeed in life and do well inspired me to be like, 'That's going to be me,'" he said.

    Transitioning later in life

    Like Crowley, New London resident Kyle Murray first thought he was bisexual before coming out as transgender and started physically transitioning around the same time, starting testosterone in 2016. But he was at a different point in his life: his 50s rather than his 20s.

    Murray, 56, grew up in Waco, Texas and was raised southern Baptist, "so if you were even gay, that's a sin that's going to send you to hell, let alone being trans." He said he knew from about age 4 that he was a boy, without having a name for it.

    "Watching my dad put on his suits and shaving and things like that, I just thought that was so cool, and that's how I really belonged," he said.

    Murray studied vocal performance at Howard Payne University, a Baptist university in Texas.

    "I was a lyric soprano then. I'm a bass-baritone now," said Murray, who now sings in the choir at All Souls Unitarian Universalist Congregation in New London.

    But he started to deal with some mental health issues, and was dealing with his childhood trauma, and in his early 20s ended up in a psychiatric hospital. There he met a chaplain who was like no other chaplain he'd ever met. She eschewed a collar for Army fatigues and high-top Converse sneakers, and told Murray it was OK to be exactly who he was. He still speaks with her regularly.

    After living in Austin, Texas for a while, he moved to Connecticut in 1999, to join Second Step Players, a comedy troupe under the umbrella of Artreach that educates people about mental health issues. He joked that, "They used to say we were a cross between Saturday Night Live and One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest."

    After an eight-year marriage, a divorce and trauma therapy, Murray lost 140 pounds, and he said when the weight was shed, "It was like a veil came down, and that person that I had been hiding, as a trans man, was there." He started seeing a gender therapist at Community Health Center in 2015 and then began taking testosterone.

    "Not everybody decides to go through a physical transition; that was just my choice," Murray said. "I honor whatever the person's choice is."

    As he began to pass as a man, he noticed changes in how people interacted with him. Doctors stopped talking to him about his weight. If he got in an elevator with a group of women, they would get quiet. Murray also acknowledges that he can walk down the street at night and not be afraid.

    He said after he got his name legally changed, someone who had been a friend started harassing and threatening him, and he had to stay with friends in Groton for a little while.

    He found support in other places, too. He recalled that when he went to Rev. Carolyn Patierno and Rev. Caitlin O'Brien at All Souls to tell them he was a man, their response was, "You're going through a transition, but we're going to go through that transition with you."

    Murray's goal is to become a minister, but he previously thought he was called to be a chaplain, and he was in the chaplaincy training program at Lawrence & Memorial Hospital from 2017 to 2018. Murray said he was worried about coming out to his class because a couple people were more conservative, but the reaction of the one who was the most conservative was, "How do we protect Kyle?"

    Murray, who is now studying psychology at Mitchell College, said with a laugh that he's glad he lives in Connecticut.

    "But I think it's important for me to not get complacent, and to not leave the people in the South behind either, and just say, 'Oh well, I'm good,'" Murray said. He's been talking to his chaplain friend from Texas about how to partner with organizations in the South who are advocating for equality and advocating for trans folks to be seen, heard, embraced, safe.

    "That's important to me," he said.


    Benjamin Crowley makes a point during his workshop, "Still Standing," at Piece of Mind, OuTCT's inaugural LGBTQIA+ Mental Health and Wellness Symposium Friday, April 29, 2022 at Three River Community College in Norwich. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)
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