Jacqui Leaonna Turner and Kara Marie Ramsey at their home in Plymouth. BTL Photo: Andrew Potter

A Turbulent Road Leads Home

Transition and How It Led to Love

BY KATE OPALEWSKI

When Kara Marie Ramsey finally embraced herself and came out as transgender in September 2013, she asked herself, "Who's ever going to love me for me? Who's ever going to want to share and be a part of my life for the rest of my life?"

Still struggling with her gender dysphoria --- the feeling of being at odds with the gender one is assigned at birth --- she thought to herself, "There's not going to be anybody. They're all going to see me as this freak show or there's going to be other transgender people out there with their plates full dealing with skeletons in their own closet.

Will I ever find someone on the same level as me where we're simpatico? You know, we connect not just emotionally, but spiritually and physically. Someone I can relate to. I basically just wrote it off."

Until she met Jacqui Leaonna Turner in a local support group for transgender people.

"This beautiful, angelic soul walked into the room," Ramsey said. And just like that, she realized there is the possibility of love out there for transgender couples and "all is not doomed."

There relationship was a true gift considering their heartbreaking challenges on a path neither Ramsey nor Turner expected to lead to one another.

She is Kara

Growing up, Ramsey didn't relate to her male playmates. And while she never expressed herself or vocalized her feelings, if Ramsey had the choice between catching a frog and stuffing it in her pocket -- as her little boy friends often did -- or sitting down for a tea party with the girls, she secretly chose the latter.

"Cognitively, I didn't have the understanding at such a young age to make sense of what was happening. I knew something was wrong when I would look in the mirror and what I saw did not reflect how I felt on the inside," she said.

"Being a child of the '60s and with very little information available about transgender people and Hollywood playing up the whole cross-dressing thing in sitcoms and comedies ... it was all a big 'haha' type of thing. I never saw it as being funny or comical, so I learned to repress all of those feelings in a world that was unaccepting and unwelcoming of someone who was born transgender."

Ramsey's effeminate ways as a child led to bullying, decades of being misunderstood, and severe depression.

"I was 8 when I discovered alcohol and started getting drunk to escape my perception of reality, which was a living hell and it progressively got worse as I got older" she said. "I transitioned to drugs by the age of 12 and by the time I was 24 was drinking fifths of Scotch every day and doing almost every drug except heroin."

Fortunately, Ramsey wound up in a drug and alcohol treatment center and has remained drug-free for the last 30 years. Now, Ramsey said she is able to drink socially again without a problem.

But her gender dysphoria remains an issue. Over the years, she was admitted to mental institutions three different times and was diagnosed with bipolar and borderline personality disorders.

Following multiple suicide attempts, mental health professionals medicated Ramsey to the point where she felt "zombie-like or catatonic." She survived 14 rounds of electroconvulsive, or shock, therapy, which erased periods of time from her memory that she will never get back.

"When they suggested it, I just wanted to die at that point, so whatever," she said. "I wanted help and I just wanted to stop hurting inside. The emotional pain was so severe that I agreed to this, but it didn't work."

While on disability as a result of her medical issues, Ramsey went back to Specs Howard School of Media Arts in Southfield in 2010 to earn a second degree in graphic design. Her first degree in 1994 is in video broadcasting.

Ramsey was searching online for graphic design jobs when she randomly came across the story of reality TV star and transgender girl Jazz Jennings - a documentary she identified with immediately.

"I was up 24/7 researching anything and everything I could learn about being transgender. The deeper I dug, the more dots started connecting themselves," she said. "Because obviously after 50 years I had accumulated 50 million and one questions as to why I felt certain ways during certain times about certain things. And they started answering themselves and I'm going, 'Whoa, wait a minute, really? This explains it, finally.'"

That was in August 2013. A year later, she legally changed her name and began hormone replacement therapy.

"I started seeing more and more Kara coming out. I was learning to apply makeup and grow longer hair," she said.

There was still one problem between her legs, so when she could in March 2016 -- a day before her 53rd birthday -- Ramsey had sex reassignment surgery.

She has tried to maintain a relationship with her family although it's a dysfunctional one.

"They don't understand nor do they want to," she said, adding that her sister, who was always "my rock" growing up, has now disowned her.

"But I've been so deeply blessed since Jacqui's come into my life. Her family has embraced me as one of their own."

Jacqui is Her

Having a supportive family was "pretty shocking" for Turner when she came out a little over a year ago.

"I didn't want to disappoint anyone or have anybody even think those were the kind of thoughts or feelings I was having. I was terrified," she said.

Growing up in a contemporary Catholic household and serving as an altar boy, Turner did her best to live by the book with her loyal rescue dog, Ginger, by her side. Except for when she painted her nails, pierced her ears and played dress-up with the girls.

Without knowing exactly what it means to be transgender, Turner said she felt "uncomfortable" discussing her feelings with her therapist at the time.

"She would ask me how I cope. Well, I didn't want to tell her I turned to women's clothes. That I would put make up on and hide in the closet where nobody knew about me in order to feel calm. Of course the shame comes with that. I'm not supposed to do that stuff so I'd masculinize myself even further. It was a constant battle," she said until she began hormone replacement therapy in 2015 at the age of 36.

It was suggested by another therapist who Turner finally opened up to. That same therapist was the first person to tell Turner she is transgender.

"Not a 'she-male' or a transvestite. Someone who feels this way because they were born in the wrong body," said Turner, who visited a cross-dressing group at one point and realized, "I don't feel the same as these other girls. I don't belong here. I'm like, 'Oh my God, my therapist is right. This can't be happening.'"

Turner admits that years of denying her truth led to her suicide attempt following a messy divorce, losing her job and falling into a deep depression.

But someone saved her.

"My daughter helped me discover who I am and I owe her my life for that," she said about one of her two children who began displaying signs of being transgender as early as the age of 3.

An incident on the playground forever changed Turner.

"I saw the commotion and headed over to them. I heard her yelling at three boys who were picking on her because she was wearing a dress. She told them to stop treating her this way. That she's a girl, not a boy. She said, 'You will respect me and call me a girl.' She was 5. It just hit me. My daughter can stand up to these bullies in the world and express who she is and she's completely fine with it. I'm dad. I'm supposed to be doing those things and protecting her," said Turner who finally decided to transition.

"Transitioning is my choice, not because I want attention, but because hiding this any longer would have taken me to my grave," said Turner.

She came out to her children in March 2015.

"My therapist encouraged me to be open about it and not hide this from them," she said, adding that her original plan was to wait until they turned 18 or until they got married before opening up to them.

"But I knew that wasn't fair to any of us. As I was becoming more myself, it was getting harder and harder not to be myself, so one weekend I told them, 'Daddy's got something he wants to tell you.' At first my son was kind of sad because he didn't want me to be a girl, but I told him that daddy has always been a girl, but daddy has always presented himself as a guy and daddy doesn't feel comfortable that way. Daddy is still the same person. Daddy pulls engines out of cars and fixes cars, but daddy does it as a girl and will look like a girl and still be able to do those things like play football in the front yard and jump on the trampoline," she explained and they have since embraced her.

Now, it seems Turner's children have the best of both worlds.

"No matter how much you try to explain who you are or share your story, there are people who will just never understand," said Turner. This includes some of her coworkers in a male-dominated industry. She works at a local collision and body shop where her boss outed her for "safety reasons."

Despite this, Turner said she knows now more than ever that "showing the world who I am" is what she needs to do.

Reflecting True Gender

Leaving sweet messages on sticky notes for each other on the bathroom mirror every day helps to remind them to love themselves for who they are, but it's not easy.

"I grew up in a male body. There are so many features about myself that I wish I could change" said Turner. "However, I am more comfortable now even though I pick these features up that I see of him that I don't like -- big hands, broad shoulders -- I feel like other people see that and I question myself a lot of the time. For me, having the wrong parts really messes with me sometimes and I'll start crying. It's a constant reminder. It's not right. It's not who I am. I am ready to finally match my body up to how I feel."

Turner plans to have SRS surgery in July or August this year through the University of Michigan Health System Comprehensive Gender Services Program where Ramsey had her procedure.

"I feel extremely blessed to have Kara by my side during the process," said Turner. "She'll be able to take care of me. I know not many trans women get to have this experience."

Ramsey said although SRS is now recognized and covered by most major insurance companies, the healthcare system does not seem to favor this "cosmetic" or "elective" operation.

"But it is literally life-saving. We are trying to educate people -- those who don't quite understand or get it -- to see things differently," said Ramsey.

This includes educating their transgender sisters who believe having this surgery means everything will be fine afterward and that gender dysphoria will magically disappear.

"Unfortunately, no. Yes, having the surgery is a huge help, but it's a process to break away from that way of thinking about yourself," said Turner.

Finding Love in a Hopeless Place

What began as a friendship during a time when Ramsey and Turner made peace with the idea they might have to go it alone has blossomed into true love.

The lesbian transgender couple from Plymouth felt "instantly connected" and knew in their heart of hearts that they would be together forever.

Recently engaged, they are planning for a winter wedding this year after Turner recovers from her surgery.

"I want her to be able to have the same opportunity to finally live in her truth as a female from a legal standpoint and have that be reflected on our marriage license," said Ramsey.

Turner sums it up best: "There are times that I wish I was born cis female, but I'm happy I was born trans because I found my love and my soulmate. It took being trans in order to do that."


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