After decades of depression and despair, an unexpected question changed everything for Chloe Schwenke, then known as Stephen: “Do you think you might be a woman?” Chloe’s journey began, and her Quaker meeting learned along with her.
Content warning: suicide
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The challenge for me was that I couldn’t do it alone. Changing gender is not something that… I don’t know how anybody could do that alone. It is so hard. And it’s so comprehensive in every aspect, and there are so many people who are influenced by it, particularly in relationship with you. In this case—a parent of two kids, and a wife—you know, this was not going to be an easy thing at any level. So very early on, it was also clear to me that the person who was going to help me—the people who were going to help me is my Quaker meeting.
My Journey as a Transgender Quaker
I’m Chloe Schwenke. I’m a member of Adelphi Friends Meeting, Baltimore Yearly Meeting. I live in Olney, Maryland, which if you’re in the center of Washington, DC, is 18 miles straight north.
I grew up without any concept of the notion of what transgender was. That wasn’t part of the dialogue back in the ’60s and ’70s and ’80s. It really wasn’t. I have 3 brothers, and I noticed pretty early on that I was not like them in really important ways. I did not do the stuff they did. There’s a gazillion examples of that. My parents—particularly my Dad as he got really elderly and I came out to him, it opened a door for him to share some of the perplexing episodes from my early childhood that they could not figure out all of these ways that I would behave like a little girl.
A Sense of Dislocation
Most of my life, and I’m talking decades here, was a really bad fight against depression. Just the sense of not feeling right in my bones. Feeling this sense of dislocation, if you will, and going on a spiritual quest to find the spiritual community that would put me together, that would help me to align myself with the fact that I was—and I wouldn’t even have put it in these terms—the fact that I was in a male body. Just to put me together was as far as I could take that thought because it just wasn’t cohering.
Running Out of Hope
It really was years later—I’m talking in my early fifties—that I finally, after saying goodbye to yet another in a long series of therapists who just said, “I don’t know what to do, I can’t tell you, this doesn’t make any sense to me.” I was so, so deeply depressed and so at a loss for any kind of solution and it was just getting worse by the day. I stepped out of that last therapist’s office into a busy street in Silver Spring, Maryland, rush hour traffic whirling around me… and it’s hard to talk about this, but I got to a place on that sidewalk where I just couldn’t take another step.
I just—it was like, everything just has to stop. And when I came to that conclusion that everything had to stop, I realized that that’s got another dimension to it. That everything has to stop means I have to stop it, I have to take my life.
It’s eerie to recall, I can’t really bring back that feeling. But that’s probably one of the most peaceful moments I’ve ever had, was that sense that there’s something I could do. There’s some way to get to that sense of peace. It was just as clear as could be.
I share that knowing that my population, transgender people, have the highest suicide rate of any demographic, and I’ve been right there. I’ve been right at that space and it’s a space of—sadly—of peace in the most tragic way imaginable.
Saved By a Promise
What saved me was a promise. I had made a promise to a friend that had recommended yet another therapist, as friends do, and I wasn’t going to disappoint her. I had promised I would go to this other therapist, and it seemed a totally ridiculous thing to do. But I’m a person that believes in promises, and so I did. I went to this therapist, and it was like every other therapist: there’s 40 minutes, the clock’s ticking, she asked the usual questions.
We got down to minute 36 or something like that and she just looked at me and said, “Did you ever stop to think you might be a woman?” I had never been asked that question, and I had never asked myself that question. The truth that was contained in that question was the biggest single truth of my life. I mean, it completely rolled me over. My entire insides, spiritually, psychologically, intellectually—it was just an explosion. There was lots of noise and dust and chaos, yet as that dust settled right there in those two minutes there was the most beautiful sense of clearness and integrity. Integrity is the right word. It was just like, “Yes! This is exactly what this was about.”
Reaching Out for Support
One of the things I love about Quakerism is the testimony—if you will—of accountability. If you’re going to step into this space, then be there. Be there for us; don’t mess around. Be accountable to us.
And I made a call, I’ll never forget that call. I made a call to a woman who is soon to be our clerk as it turns out, and it was late at night, and I just said, “Carol, I’m transgender. And I need some help.” And from that point onward, what I really liked was–she said, “I don’t know anything about that either, but I want to learn. And I think we as a meeting want to learn and we want to be here with you and for you, but this is not going to be easy for any of us because we don’t know what we’re talking about. So this is a journey for all of us to trust in the spirit.”
We agreed to meet at her house. They made it very clear from the outset—they got a group of Friends together, kind of like a clearness committee on steroids. One of Quaker processes is clearness committees: getting people to share and achieving clarity through holding people in that silence and in that space.
The second time we met, there was uneasiness in the room, and it was wonderful: they said,“We can’t talk to Chloe when she looks like Stephen. You gotta come in the clothes, girl! You’ve got to get dressed.”
And it was such a wonderful invitation to take that really important declaratory statement of putting the girl clothes on, and being who you say you are and be yourself in a way that speaks to us in that sense.
So I would drag along my clothes and change in her bathroom. I mean, it was funny and awkward and all of those wonderful things, but it was exactly what was needed. Again the accountability. “If you want us to do this, then you have to do this too.”
Accountability Within Community
The accountability in this space was that fact that this wasn’t just Chloe. This was Chloe’s wife and children and people that were connected. And they said, “We’re not going to do this for you. We’re going to do this for you and them. This is for your family. This is for all of you. And it’s for us, too, as a meeting. We’re going to all do this together.”
And it just set it up exactly in a way that I could trust. They were not just looking after me, and I would have felt hollow pretty quickly if that had been the case. They were doing it for us.
We are all pretty clear, I think, that our lives are interwoven in a Quaker meeting. We’ve just learned so much from each other’s spiritual journeys and the sharing from those spiritual journeys that there’s a sense that when somebody shares from a place of phenomenal need in this case, of just somebody that’s really crying out for some help, you can’t simply say no or ignore them because they’re going to be there, and not just the next Sunday, but they’ll be there in the committees you work on and all the other ways that we as Quakers work really, really closely together.
That level of spiritual trust is not something that you can just brush off. It’s something that you’re invested in another person and when they call in the chips, they call in the chips. There’s no way to walk away.
- When have you reached out to your meeting in a time of need? What support did you find in your Quaker community?
- “If you’re going to step into this space, then be there.” Chloe describes accountability to one’s Quaker community as one of our testimonies. How does this invite you and challenge you to show up to your spiritual community?
The views expressed in this video are of the speakers and do not necessarily reflect the views of Friends Journal or its collaborators.