QUEENSBURY | Teri Wilhelm spends her days painting, playing guitar or walking her dogs.
Some days, she tutors at SUNY Adirondack; others, she writes or works on a challenging math problem. She listens to WAMC’s roundtable discussions and watches the “Rachel Maddow Show.”
In the evenings, she sits down with a cup of hot chocolate and her longtime wife to watch TV. On weekends, she grocery-shops, plays with a band and, on Sundays, cooks a big dinner.
What’s remarkable isn’t how she spends her days, but how she got to be the woman she is today.
Terry Wilhelm grew up in Ulster Heights, one of nine children. Everyone knew him as one of the Wilhelm boys.
But looking back, Teri, 58, remembers knowing from a very young age she was different from the other boys in her neighborhood and, especially, from her six brothers.
Terry was artistic — “born with a pencil in my hand” — and musical, something his parents discouraged.
“They wouldn’t let me play an instrument,” she said. “I had to do ‘boy things.’ “
When Terry tried to play with his sisters’ dolls, his mother would hide them and say they were broken.
“They wouldn’t let me play,” she said. “I wanted to socialize as a female.”
Wilhelm looks back at her childhood as a boy, remembering being beaten up by some of her brothers, who strapped young Terry to a chair while they cut his hair, then left him there. She remembers their taunts.
Terry’s brothers and father said they were “trying to toughen me up,” Wilhelm said.
“I realized as early as 7 or 8 years old that I was different from at least my brothers and some of the other kids at school,” she said.
She remembers how uncomfortable school could be.
“I didn’t get a high school diploma because I wouldn’t change in gym, or shower there; I didn’t want to undress in front of those boys,” she said.
Terry Wilhelm did, indeed, toughen up.
As a longtime state correction officer, Terry was an active union leader, a firearms and chemical agent trainer, and a bodybuilder.
“I didn’t know I was doing it at the time, but that’s overmasculization,” she said in a recent interview.
“I wasn’t trying to fool anybody; I was trying to fool myself, I guess.”
Toward the end of Terry’s career in corrections, the work felt increasingly stressful. In the late 1990s, after years working for the union and at his wife’s urging, he opted out of running for union office.
“My wife and my sister said I needed something to keep me busy.”
Terry took on the job of firearms and chemical agent trainer, but still couldn’t settle in.
“It was a great job, but I was still having trouble keeping my mind occupied.”
Terry started taking college classes, first at what was then Adirondack Community College, then at University at Albany, graduating in 2003.
After retiring from corrections, Terry took art classes, eventually entering Castleton State College’s Act II program for visual art and English education.
But nothing relieved the tension.
“The stress kept after me. I always had in the back of my mind that something wasn’t right with me — I didn’t know if I was gay or transgender.”
In November of 2008, Wilhelm started seeing a counselor at Choices Counseling and Consulting in Albany.
Wilhelm said that after their first session, her therapist “was very convinced” Wilhelm was transgender.
“I always had these feelings, whenever I was lonely, depressed or maybe had too much to drink: ‘I’m not me,’ but I didn’t know what it was,” Wilhelm said.
Those feelings are common for transgender people, said Arlene Istar Lev, clinical director of Choices Counseling and Consulting and author of “Transgender Emergence: Therapeutic Guidelines for Working with Gender-Variant People and their Families” and “The Complete Lesbian and Gay Parenting Guide.”
“Often when people come in, they are really struggling with their gender,” she said. “They feel shame, they feel guilt, they feel sometimes horrified, they often have spouses and children, they’re just totally emotionally overwhelmed, trying to understand their gender.”
“What I’ve heard over and over again is a chronic sense of something not being right with their spirit in their body,” Lev said. “There’s a lack of congruence between their inner sense of their self and what they factually know is true about their body and how the world perceives them.
“And it’s very uncomfortable,” she said.
“I’d never talked to anyone before,” Wilhelm said. “And I knew she (the therapist) was right.”
Carolyn Wolf-Gould, medical director of the gender wellness center at Bassett Healthcare Network’s FoxCare Center in Oneonta, said older generations struggled to put the feelings of gender dysphoria — a dichotomy between the gender a person is assigned at birth and the one with which they emotionally identify — into words.
“A lot of people in older generations had no words for it, just a vague sense of not fitting in the body,” she said.
At 21, Terry was just a few months out of the state corrections academy and working at Great Meadow Correctional Facility when the sight of a transgender inmate shocked him.
“It may have merely been the sudden, awkward, overly reactive response of a young, naive person’s curiosity, but it had this uncanny chill, as if it were something much more.”
The inmate had amateurish eyebrows tattooed into her brow, and her arms were scarred from years of drug abuse and suicide attempts.
“The obvious shortcomings to her body symmetry told the sad story that she must have received some rather crude silicone injections,” Wilhelm said.
Terry never interacted with the inmate, but remembers her as a “junkyard dog” — “a drug mule, a sex slave, a snitch to survive,” she said.
The memory became part of the reason Terry for so many years stifled his own feelings of gender dissonance.
“I couldn’t be similar to this person,” she said. “It was something very seedy to me.”
Those feelings were amplified by another encounter, when Terry was with a group of correction officers, looking at a transgender prisoner in a room on the other side of a two-way mirror.
The other men made fun of the prisoner, saying things so cruel, Wilhelm won’t repeat them.
Terry didn’t join in, but he didn’t say anything to shut down the comments, either.
“It is one of the great shames of my life,” Teri said.
In this society, we learn early that a man in a dress is something to be laughed at, she said.
“We suffer emasculation from men, we suffer from being an effeminate male. And we suffer systemic gender discrimination because we weren’t born women,” Teri said.
Wilhelm worked for years during racing season as a pari-mutuel clerk at Saratoga Race Course.
In the summer of 2014, four years after Wilhelm started presenting as a woman, she suffered the most direct discrimination she has experienced.
She walked past the bank of tellers to use the ladies’ room and, while inside, heard pounding on the door. A longtime male co-worker was screaming through the bathroom door, saying Wilhelm wasn’t a woman and had no right to be in the ladies’ room.
That discrimination — and even fear of it — is all too common, said Debra Pietrangelo, psychologist and founder of True North in Glens Falls. Pietrangelo runs a transgender support group.
“A lot (of transgender people) have a hard time believing they look the way they identify, especially people who are female transgender, male to female,” she said. “They worry people are going to look at them and know ‘they are just a dude in a dress.’ “
“They are wearing women’s clothes, makeup and they look great to me,” Pietrangelo said. “But transgender females are very conscious of their height, the size of their hands, the breadth of their chests.”
Late in 2014, Wilhelm was still tucking her hair under her collar and putting on men’s clothes to work at SUNY Adirondack.
“I cried every night before dressing as a man,” she said.
“I was so very careful to not say anything and painfully fought to remain quite shadowy,” she said. Wilhelm feared she wouldn’t be rehired as an adjunct professor.
“But after having that very ugly thing happen at the track, I decided to just rip the Band-Aid off and be done with this whole horrid mess.”
Presenting as a woman requires hormone therapy — Wilhelm wears a patch that delivers the hormones she needs — and, depending on the person, can include facial reconstruction, breast augmentation and gender reassignment surgery.
Wilhelm didn’t want to discuss the details of her physical appearance, beyond saying she spent more than $14,000 on electrolysis, a hair removal process.
What defines her as a woman isn’t her anatomy, she said.
Wolf-Gould, the Oneonta-based doctor, said most transgender women first begin taking estrogen to help feminize their features, and spironolactone, an androgen blocker that stops the effects of testosterone. They slowly develop breasts and a more curvy shape, their skin softens, body hair growth decreases and testicles get smaller.
“Most people with gender dysphoria feel better on hormones,” Wolf-Gould said. “Their hormonal system is more in line with their gender.”
Doctors don’t know the cause of gender dysphoria, Wolf-Gould said.
“I think it’s probably biological,” she said. “There are theories about exposure to hormones intrauterine; brain function is different in patients, but there’s not any clear explanation for it.
“The symptoms are so similar, I suspect they’ll find a genetic cause at some point,” she said.
While the symptoms are similar — a feeling of disconnect between mind and body — the range varies greatly.
“The condition is as varied as humanity is,” Wolf-Gould said.
Different for everyone
Lev said the experiences of transgender people are unique and individual. For some, presenting convincingly as their gender publicly is more important than gender reassignment surgery, but for others, the opposite is true.
“The more dysphoria they have in their bodies, the more likely they are to feel like, ‘I can’t stand this body and I want to change it,’ “ she said.
“There are some people, it is more important to them that their body is congruent, and for other people, it’s more important how they’re seen in the world,” Lev said.
Like Teri, Lev thinks too much of the conversation about gender issues is centered on hormones and surgery.
As important, she said, is socialization.
“If you’re walking through the world and you were raised in one gender and are now living in the other gender, there are 10,000 things that are going to be a challenge every day,” she said.
Beyond makeup, hair and clothes, transgender women have to relearn things such as speech patterns, hand gestures, eye contact and social etiquette.
“All the social-cultural differences we learn as young children, word choice, the way we articulate, even nonverbal communication” are key factors in presenting convincingly, said Jack Pickering, a speech language pathologist and professor of Communication Science and Disorders at The College of Saint Rose.
Pickering is co-director of the department’s Transgender Voice and Communication Program and has worked with Wilhelm.
Pickering and his team have helped nearly 100 clients since 2006, working with them to change the pitch of their voices and their delivery, intonation and articulation.
“For people who are transgender, transitioning from male to female, you have a voice production mechanism kind of like a flute,” Pickering said. “Most biological females have an instrument like a piccolo, so it’s smaller.
“And you really want to make that flute sound like a piccolo, not just like a flute playing high notes,” he said.
Wilhelm is soft-spoken, and has struggled to adjust her voice. It “never comes out naturally,” she said.
Pickering compared the learning process to athletic endeavors.
“If you think of this as a motor skill, any activity — serving a tennis ball, driving a car, whatever — it’s a muscular process that requires motor learning,” he said. “When you first learn a motor skill, it takes a lot of conscious effort.”
Wilhelm had been married three decades to her wife and had a son in his late 20s when she decided to transition from Terry to Teri.
Her wife did not want to be included in the article, nor did she want the couple’s son, now 35, to be interviewed, but both are supportive of Wilhelm.
“My wife is very protective,” Wilhelm said. “I don’t want to injure her socially.”
But the transgender transition has inevitably affected their marriage.
“I thought our marriage was over, but we’re inching along.”
“It’s different and I don’t know if it’s ever going to be the same, but we still love each other. I’m still me, I’m exactly who I was.”
Wilhelm referenced a book, “My Husband Betty,” in which author and blogger Helen Boyd describes the early days of waking up next to her transitioning husband.
“Some days, she was totally accepting, sometimes she was indifferent and some she would like to bludgeon him in his sleep,” Wilhelm paraphrased.
“It’s complicated being married for anybody, and yes, I’ve added something extra into the mix.”
Wilhelm is reluctant to discuss how the change affects her sexuality.
“I just think of it as two people in love, I don’t label it,” she said.
The subject is one of great interest to many in the counseling field, as the definition of gender, sexuality and orientation become more fluid, said Caroline Russell Smith, a Saratoga Springs-based psychotherapist.
“There forever has been such a binary ‘male’ or ‘female,’ you’re attracted to men or women, but as we understand human nature more, these categories are a little more spherical and less on a continuum,” she said.
Russell Smith runs a transgender support group and offers counseling services to transgender people and their loved ones.
She has worked with couples who have decided to stay married and with more who have not.
“I expect that to change over time as our understanding of all this evolves,” she said.
“For people who are transitioning, it feels more like ‘I’m becoming who I am’ and, for their families, it’s more ‘I don’t know who you are, you’re not the person I thought you were’,” Russell Smith said.
Wilhelm is sad to have lost some relationships since deciding to come out publicly as a woman.
Former fellow correction officers who were regular golf buddies stopped returning calls. One with whom Terry was close got together with Wilhelm a few times after she transitioned, but then called and said he didn’t want to see her again.
Terry was once a well-known musician in the area, filling in with bands on nights they were short a bassist, but those calls, Wilhelm said, “dried up.”
Wilhelm has remained close to her sisters, a few childhood friends and one of her brothers-in-law.
To help ensure people facing gender questions have an easier time than she did, she has become an advocate. She is active in SUNY Adirondack’s Gay Straight Alliance and Diversity Committee; hosts a transgender support group for SUNY Adirondack students every week and lectures a few times a semester on transgender issues; and as a Gay Alliance SafeZone trainer at the college, provides sessions for staff, faculty and students.
“It’s getting better all the time,” she said. “Most of the problems I see are people in my generation; thankfully, I’m at the end of that generation.”
Bob Flanagan works as an adjunct professor with Wilhelm at SUNY Adirondack and has known her for about 13 years.
“She’s always been the same person,” he said. “We’ve always talked about the things common to us.”
A lot of their conversations center on math and motorcycles (Wilhelm bought a Harley as a retirement treat when she left corrections).
Flanagan knew Terry as a man and witnessed the transformation. He said there was nothing to it, other than remembering to use the appropriate pronoun.
“Teri is Teri,” he said. “Teri is a person, is what it comes down to.”