Happiness is the key to quality of life, says speaker

By Jan Murray
St. Lawrence News; April 24, 2014

Calvin Neufeld is a speaker, an independent writer and a female-to-male transsexual.

A self-described thinker, Neufeld's goal is to make life better, not just his life but everyone's. His message is clear. It is all about quality of life and making happiness and quality of life a priority.

Neufeld was invited to speak at South Grenville District High School in Prescott on Monday, April 14 by Theresa Roach of Connect Youth, in connection with the day of silence (held the previous Friday). The day of silence raises awareness and tries to stop bullying against lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transsexuals.

"My story is just about quality of life and making happiness and quality of life a priority," Neufeld explained. "To give people the okay to be who you are."

Neufeld has spoken at many high schools around south eastern Ontario about bullying, sexual diversity and other topics, each with one common theme, quality of life.

Last Monday, Neufeld shared with the students his own personal story. He laid the facts on the line in a manner which was clear and concise. He began by explaining to students how often it is that they themselves can be their own worst bully.

"If you don't send hurtful messages to yourself and if you don't let in hurtful messages that others send your way, then there would be no bullying."

He was direct in his message and was able to speak with such an ease and confidence that the room was silent, each student intent on hearing his message. A message that focused on three facts: People are no different despite their differences. Be happy. However much you feel otherwise at times, life is good and quality of life is even better.

The heart of his message being that self confidence, self acceptance, loving your neighbour, loving yourself, having integrity, and most importantly having a sense of humour are the most important things.

"I am a female-to-male transsexual. I was born a girl. And that's where my story begins." Neufeld got right to the point and made no qualms about the facts. The students clearly appreciated the honest and straightforward approach.

"My parents gave me the name Caitlin Joanna. Caitlin meaning pure and Joanna meaning God is gracious," he said. "I chose the name Calvin, which believe it or not, means little bald one."

Born a Christian and a Mennonite, which according to Neufeld's description is a cultural identity and a conservative religious tradition defined by hard work, community, faith and fierce pacifism, he pointed out that usually in Mennonite families one will find very strict male and female roles.

"My parents were free thinkers and raised me to be the same. In my head I knew that I was a girl, but I didn't feel like one."

"I didn't even know what to do with Barbies and dolls, honestly. Other than tying them up and popping their limbs off...," he joked with students.

He called this stage of his life "oblivious" and explained he remained that way throughout most of his childhood.

"The day when my best friend Thomas told me that I was a beautiful princess, I knew that the good ol' days were gone. This was a whole new ballgame. This was puberty. This body was determined to turn into a female body and I had no choice but to turn into a girl."

Though admittedly, he had no natural instincts for it. He called this stage of his life "clueless."

Pulling no punches, he laid it on the line for all those in attendance. "I had no idea there was an alternative to living as a female imposter. Basically I had no idea about anything. I was raised in the Mennonite tradition. My whole life was church, bible study, private Christian school and Christian youth group. They didn't teach sexual and gender diversity anywhere in those little bubbles. My school didn't provide sex education. I had skipped a grade and missed biology where they tell you what's what and why. Puberty felt all wrong and completely unnatural."

He believed his only choice was to "go with the flow" and hoped this feeling would pass. But the feelings didn't go away. They grew stronger with time. And the experience of acting like somebody that he wasn't felt an awful lot like lying. Through no fault of his own, he had become a liar. A liar to himself, and to others.

Being a girl on the outside but feeling like a boy on the inside made him confused, sad, angry and sick. "I call this stage of my life, unhappy."

"I hated everything about me. For years I couldn't eat. And for years later, when I started eating again, I would throw it back up. I hated everything about me. My voice, my hair, my hips, my boobs, and since I hated my body, I hated myself. And since I hated myself, I hated everyone else. And since I hated everyone and everything, I hated life. All of that hate turned into violence and instead of letting it out, I turned it inward, throwing myself on my own grenade of rage. I grew very thin from the starving and puking and very scarred inside and out. I wanted to cause as much damage as possible to a body that felt like an enemy. I isolated myself from family and friends but I put on a good show when it counted so that I would get what I wanted, which was to be left alone to kill myself, or to die trying. Suicide is all too real and the cost of silence is all too high."

By the time he reached university, he felt like a shell of a person floating through life under a very dark storm cloud. Admittedly most days he stayed home and slept and starved and hurt himself, but once in a while he dragged himself to classes where he would spend time staring at the floor, fantasizing about curling up and falling asleep. Nothing had the power to waken in him the will to life until one day, a face stood out in the crowd. This of course was the woman he now calls his wife.

"Sharon was something completely different and she woke me up. Sharon loved me just the way I was, though she thought I looked funny and didn't hesitate to say so. From that moment on we were a bird and a fish making a home together."

This stage of his life, he calls "happier." Sharon was teaching him that happiness was the most important thing.

"It's taken me 10 years and counting to figure out why she's been right all along," Neufeld explained. "When I was unhappy, nothing mattered to me, not even my own life. Happiness is restoring my life just as unhappiness sucked it out of me. I'm amazed at how long it took me to realize the totally obvious: That happiness leads to quality of life and unhappiness leads to the opposite."

He continued to explain, "Before I met Sharon I was obsessed with being the person that I thought my friends and family and God and in fact my own biology expected of me. And I was doing a terrible job of it and I was miserable every step of the way."

Sharon gave him the courage to be who he was. "First I came out technically as a lesbian, although I never felt that that term applied to me. Then a few years later we got married, when it became legal for us to do so, and a few weeks after the wedding I came out finally as a transsexual."

Since that time he has undergone hormone therapy and surgery although he merely mentioned this and did not elaborate. "Every step along the way I was becoming more and more truthful and more and more comfortable in the body that I've got to work with and more and more happy."

This stage of his life he calls rebuilding. "If there is anybody here who is so foolish as to think that the world is better off without you or that you're better off dead than facing the truth about something: Remember that those who love you want you any way that is alive. Never forget that. Life doesn't always go the way you planned and there will be times when you feel like life isn't such a sweet deal."

The room was silent as he delivered his message. Clearly a message that was closer to home for some but relevant to all.

"Be ruthless in your pursuit of quality of life for you and everybody else. Don't forget that you can't have quality of life without truth, love and happiness."

After his 30 minute presentation he was surrounded by students who accepted his invitation to come forward to speak with him, whether to share experiences or to ask questions.