1 – Laila Ireland

Trans Woman // Married to Logan Ireland // Colorado Springs, CO // Retired Army Veteran, advocate and activist representing over 15,000 U.S. transgender troops

How old were you when you came out?

“When I was a kid, as far back as I can remember, I never identified as a boy, or male. Being the oldest of 4 children, 2 boys and 2 girls, I wasn’t setting precedent with that. There were 3 things I wanted to be when I grew up was: a nurse (because my mom was a nurse), in the military (because my dad was in the military), and Miss America. And when I was a little boy, I couldn’t be a girl…”

“Being raised in an Asian/Pacific Islander, half-Hispanic, Military, Catholic family, I was not afforded that opportunity to really express myself. And so I kind of hid that, and suppressed that until I got to my last year in high school where I dated my, then, girlfriend’s brother behind her back…”

“…I decided that I wanted to join the military. Up until then, I had pretended to like girls, and date them. It was a trying time for me because I knew that this was not what I wanted … and I also didn’t know what terminology was fitting for me… So I joined the military, came back and once I came back from school and was getting ready to get into my unit, we got orders to deploy. That was in 2004, and once I got back home my parents didn’t know that I was deploying yet, but they knew it was a possibility. I had already known for a while, and so I waited 2 weeks before I was actually getting on the plane to deploy to Iraq to tell them I was deploying. The following week, the week before I was getting on the plane, I decided to sit down with my mom, and have lunch with her and let her know “This is who I am”. I wasn’t telling her because I wanted her to accept me or tolerate me as who I wanted to be. It was more or less that I wanted her to know who I was just in case I did not come home. At that time the war had just broken out and a lot of people were not coming back. I identified as Gay at that time and I told her…  that was kind of just like “I’m washing my hands of you” … It was a really tough time for me. Going home that day, my things were out on the lawn… it wasn’t a thing you’d hear about Military, Catholic, Hispanic, Asian/Pacific Islander families.” 

“I went about 7/8 months into my deployment without speaking to my family. And that crushed me more, than actually telling my family that I was gay. It took for someone to die in my unit, who I was supposed to be on that mission with that day, for them to realize that “we need to talk this out”. And so, after 72 hours of not being able to communicate with my family after we lost that soldier, I was able to call my family back home, and the only thing that [my mom] said was, ‘ I’m glad you’re safe. We will talk about all of this when you come home.’”

“That was about 2005 when I came home from deployment… I had my own place. It was just this thing for me, I was trying to be on my own, and I was still struggling with identifying as a gay male, when I didn’t really feel like I was a gay male. I felt like I was a woman.”

“It took [my family] 5 years to come around to me being gay. It took a while… And they were tolerating the idea of me having a boyfriend, and all that stuff. There were little things along the way that showed me my family was trying to come around to the idea.”

“Then in 2013 my father got sick and I ended up having to go home on an emergency leave from San Antonio.  He was in the hospital for a while, and I had made the conscious decision of moving back home to take care of my dad to help my mom. At that time I had already been a year on estrogen for my transition, and so I had to tell my family, before I moved back to Hawaii, that “there’s gonna be some changes”. And it was like my 2nd coming out to them, and it was just really horrible … but it didn’t take as long as it did the first time [for them to come around]. So when I moved home, there was a lot of clashing, our opinions were just not matching, there was no harmony in the home.”

“On my birthday in 2014, I had just gotten home from work, and my dad came up to my room, knocked on my door, and he said, ‘It’s your birthday, we’re going to take you out to dinner. You can dress however you want to.’ And so I was like, ‘I’m being audited … you guys are pranking me …’ And so I asked, ‘Are you sure?’ ‘Yeah you can wear whatever you wanna wear.’ And I could tell in his voice that there was some hesitation in saying that, like it wasn’t his idea. So I got my makeup on, I curled whatever hair I had, put a sundress on and we went to Outback Steakhouse. When we came home, that was a surprise for me, because my dad said, “We have another surprise for you, I want you to sit on the sofa.” So I sat on the sofa, my sister and my nieces were there with my parents, and they brought a cake to me. They brought the cake to me and the back side of it was facing me, and they sang Happy Birthday, and I blew my candles out. Then my dad said to turn the cake around, and on the cake it said “Happy Birthday, Laila” That was the first time that my family used the name that I chose for myself. It was a moment of clarity, like everything that was on my chest had lifted off. In that moment I understood that they were really trying … they were doing this for me. I had to realize that in this transition, it wasn’t just about me, it was with everyone that surrounded me so I had to be patient.” 

“And now, 5 years later, my parents are my best friends, they’re my rock, my biggest cheerleaders. They have a great testimonial to talk about with other parents who are having a hard time accepting their own children. My dad now asks, “What makeup did you buy today?” These are things that we never talked about [before], but they’re so comfortable in that now, that I am able to go to them about absolutely anything. So I’m very blessed in that. It’s been a journey.”

With the infinite possibilities of gender identity and self expression, when did you know something was different?

“There wasn’t really any resources or anything to help me understand what my journey was. Telling myself that I was girl and not a boy in my toddler years, to my adolescent and teenage years, then saying, “Oh my gosh, I’m supposed to like girls, but I like boys… this isn’t a thing!” Then understanding that being gay was a thing in my early adulthood, and yet not really clinging to that identity, because even though I liked men, I did not see myself as a male … I think being part of the community, or having met other people who identify, or have gone through the same journey, has really helped me understand who I am as a person.”

“In 2012 when I was in San Antonio, I had a group of friends who came over and one friend said, ‘You are not a boy. You are a SISTER!’ And I didn’t understand when they were telling me, and I said, ‘No I’m not, I’m gay.’ Other people saw this and I said, ‘Sh*t… what am I doing wrong?’ [This friend’s] name was Tiger – he’s African American, he has a husband, they’re happily married (4 yrs). We got ready to go out one night and he said,  ‘You need to dress as yourself!’ I said, ‘What do you mean?’ ‘You’re gonna put this on, and we’re gonna go out!’ …and I was so terrified of the experience. Just the thought of it. So I went and got read, and he told me, ‘Don’t worry… I’m gonna be right by your side the entire time.’ Tiger has been one of my best friends in my entire life… that has been able to create this space for me to really express who I was, to really come into my own and understand that ‘Hey! It’s okay! It’s going to happen eventually, you just have to ride out the bad parts about it.’ And now I am the person that I am today. Because without him, I don’t think I’d be where I’m at now.”

First celebrity crush?

“New Kids On The Block… Donny Walberg.  My mom would always tell me stories about when she grew up, and did the whole “boy band” thing, and I remember watching NKOTB and thinking, “Oh my gosh! He’s so handsome!” But I kept it to myself because it wasn’t something I couldn’t say out loud. The last time I had said something to that effect, I got a whooping. Never again!”

On what frustrates her within the community…

“I think the one thing that we face in the LGBTQ+ community is the lack of understanding the spectrum. Not just the lesbian spectrum – butch lesbians, lipstick lesbians, and everything in between. There’s butch gays, and there’s femme gays, and everything else in between, just like that, trans people are the same … We already face oppression and discrimination from outside our community – within our community we face even more. [There are some] people that aren’t willing to educate themselves, and better understand that this is this, and this is this, and this is this … none of it is solid. It’s not definite. It’s always changing. And you see a lot of it in the media now, which is really good because we’re having these conversations. There’s still those groups of people who lack the eagerness to want to learn about it. All it boils down to is education. We need to be able to sit at the round table all together and have the conversation within our own community, because we’re facing all the oppression, discrimination, and bigotry from the outside. We need to ban together and unite, and teach “them” … we’re all fighting for the same thing. Just to be equal, just to be seen, just to live our lives as our authentic selves. And not every journey is the same. Being patient and understanding, I think that’s what we lack. The lack of eagerness to learn from one another. The patience to learn about one another, and really being able to communicate just that.”

One thing that you would tell the younger version of yourself? Or, piece of advice for anyone who feels they can’t come out, or don’t have a community to be a part of?

“… People are going to tell you that you will never make it in life, and I guarantee that if you continue to be yourself, and keep smiling, even though things are horrible … you will come out on top, and everybody’s gonna look at you like, “Wow, you’ve done something with yourself!” …even the bullies [from grade school] will tell you later on in life, that you’ve really done something with yourself, and they’re really proud of you. There’s always going to be someone along the way that’s going to want to help you, LET THEM. Don’t be stubborn, and think you can do it all on your own, because at some point in your life you’re going to need those people.”

“…we are all the same, even though we might be going through something different, and our journeys will be obviously different, we’re still all the same. We love, and laugh, and cry, and hurt all the same.”

Advice for anyone out there who feels like they can’t come out, don’t have a community to be a part of?

“Part of it is doing the work yourself. You have to be able to go out and find these places. The same template has been followed from even before my time in the 50’s, in the 60’s, in the 70’s, where they have these gay clubs, and it was way out of town, and they went and found these places … because that’s where their “people” were.”

“… part of it is doing the journey on your own, and finding those places and those people. Not every place is going to be good. Not every person is going to be helpful. But these are the experiences that build you up, and it’s really up to you at the end of the day to really embrace and capture your own happiness, your own authenticity, your own life. If you’re constantly living in fear, or you’re allowing other people to dictate how your path is going to be, then you’re going to live a miserable life. You have to find that strength. If no one else does it, then who’s going to? You have your own self to do it for.”

On choosing her name…

“I have a cousin named Leila, much older than me, and she spells it L-E-I-L-A, and I spell mine L-A-I-L-A. When I was a kid, I always looked up to my cousin, we would always hang out with her, and she was just so beautiful, so poised … she was the epitome of what I wanted to be. In about 2nd or 3rd grade I would doodle in my notepad – L-A-I-L-A, but I never really connected the fact that I was writing it because I wanted to be like my cousin. Then throughout my life it became this thing … ‘Oh, what’s your name?’ and I would secretly say Laila’, but I would tell them my birth name.”

“Finally when it came time for me to change my name, on the core document it says, ‘What do you want to change your name to?’ and I said, ‘LAILA!’ … in that moment I remember writing and doodling on my notepad [as a child]. I came to the realization that I had been calling myself ‘Laila’ all this time … my cousin was the first one I called and told her, ‘I’m changing my name to Laila, it’s L-A-I-L-A!’ She said she was so happy for me, and I explained why I chose that name. She said, ‘That’s so scary that you doodled that, because I remember you writing on my chalkboard ‘Leila’ and ‘Laila’’”

“So I chose my name because of my cousin, and obviously the name that I was given at birth did NOT match with what I wanted to present as, so I am one of those that needed to change my name. It was not working for me, but I’m happy that I was able to live as my former self and go through those experiences, and be who I am now. Although I’m the same person, those two names are two different people.”

What in your life are you most proud? 

“I am most proud of surviving after 30, as a trans woman of color. In my journey there have been moments where I was looking at a permanent solution for a temporary problem, because of the environment I was living in, or because of the people I was surrounded by. As I look back on all my accomplishments that I’ve done in life – my military career, my family, coming out, the work that I do now – I’m very grateful that I’ve had this opportunity and the platform to really share this journey with everyone. I have a philosophy of going in to places when I speak, if a room is filled with 100 people and I only change one heart and mind, then I have done my work. So I have to remember that I didn’t choose to take the “easy way out”, or the less favorable solution. I’m glad that I kept pushing through … and now as a grown woman, I can say that. I want people to understand that although I am a trans woman of color, and that is a big part of me, it’s not the only part that determines how the rest of me is. I have so many different layers to me, that it doesn’t have to do with being trans, it doesn’t just have to be about being an Asian American, Pacific Islander, or Hispanic person, or in the military … I have all these layers, and that’s what makes me, me.  I’m proud to be able to say that today, because I’ve had friends that aren’t here anymore, because they  just couldn’t deal with it.”

What’s something you’re really good at?

“There’s A LOT! Singing, cooking, planning parties. Interior decorating, leading people. I have a natural ability to be a leader, I’m always taking initiative.”

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