Amazing Grace

Amazing Grace
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I should've known she'd find me. Within minutes of my March blog posting of my first visit to the Boston Alliance of Gay and Lesbian Youth, Grace Sterling Stowell, BAGLY's executive director, sent me a Facebook message, thanking me for sharing my story and sounding very happy to be in touch with me again. I was flattered, but not altogether surprised that she remembered me. She probably remembers all the kids who pass through BAGLY.

When I used to go to the group, I knew her only as Sterling. I remember her being there on that chilly March night 25 years ago when I first stumbled into my first BAGLY meeting.

I seem to recall her sitting on a wooden bench by the wall of the church basement, wearing tasteful makeup and a wide-brimmed pink (or purple) hat. She didn't get up to greet me because as one of the group's two adult advisers, greeting new members wasn't her job. And for my part--I'm now ashamed and embarrassed to say--I felt too intimidated to go near her. I'd never known anyone who was transgender. To see her sitting on a bench that close to me was to realize I'd entered a new, life-altering world.

But now that we were back in touch, I felt no such qualms: I wanted to see her again. I was already planning to visit my family in Boston in a few weeks. And so it happened that on a hot Thursday afternoon in May, I found myself settling into the guest chair in Grace's cool, small, blue-carpeted office on Beacon Hill, asking her both about her life and about the organization she's thrown her heart and soul into for more than three decades.

She had a modest way of putting things, but I couldn't help noticing how clearly and confidently she spoke--the calm, smooth voice of someone who's made a difference. Seated straight in her swivel chair, behind a desk piled high with papers, she told me about the 1980 founding of BAGLY--one of the oldest youth-run gay groups in the country. The group was launched right around her 23rd birthday--making her too old to be a "youth member." But she was recruited as an adult adviser, and "the rest is history," as she put it to me.

We talked about how much BAGLY had grown since the 1980s. I used to consider 20 youths dropping in for the Wednesday meeting a large crowd; nowadays, Grace told me, the average weekly attendance ranged from 40 to 60. My first BAGLY annual dance, or "prom," was held in a church basement; nowadays, they hold it at Boston City Hall. In the 1980s, BAGLY had neither a full-time staff nor office space; nowadays, the group boasts seven full-time employees, including Grace.

But to call Grace an "employee" of BAGLY, or even an "executive director" of BAGLY, doesn't do her justice. She was known as "Mother Sterling" when I went to BAGLY; later on, she told me, she became "Mother Grace," and, later, "Grandmother Grace"--at her own insistence--upon turning 50 years old in 2007. Despite the modesty in her voice, I could still hear the pride when she spoke of the BAGLY youth as "the smartest, most wonderful ... talented ... courageous," and of her commitment to "giving them a safe space for them to grow and develop." She described herself as "very lucky, very privileged" to have this role.

Listening to her, I couldn't help kept thinking back to my own first BAGLY meeting--my visceral discomfort to find myself in the same room with her--and realizing how unfair I'd been. Here was someone who'd helped found an organization that would later change my life, and all I could see, when I walked into that church basement, was her makeup and her hat. And, honestly, what's so scary about makeup and a hat?

Sadly, having people react to her that way is all too common, even today. Unless she's attending a transgender-specific event, she told me, "I am always in the minority" with "inherently a feeling of outsider," even if she's among people who don't mean her harm. "That level of fear and anxiety is a daily experience," she told me.

When I asked her about how she met those challenges, she got thoughtful. Then she explained that for her, being transgender was only one part of her identity. She was, as she put it, "an older, single, transgender woman," all of which are "greater than the sum of their parts" and "shape each other." She added that she was middle-class and educated--she holds a master's degree in counseling psychology--and added she felt "lucky" for her supportive family. "They're all of who I am," she said.

And, of course, she had her work at BAGLY. In light of all that, I thought, a few unpleasant stares on the subway seemed a small price to pay for a life lived authentically, and for a life that derived such strength--such obvious satisfaction--from helping gay youth.

As I was leaving, I took in her office for one last time. Along the wall behind her were built-in shelves that held several blue-and-white ceramic tea seats--a classy and cozy touch. "You have to say the tea sets," she told me with a smile, saying she was well-known for her passion for a cup of tea.

But there was another feature of her office décor that stuck with me. Above the bookcase hung a sepia-toned world map. I also spotted globe bookends in a windowsill and a globe on a shelf near the door. When I remarked on them, she told me she kept them as a reminder that "we're part of a larger world." I left her office feeling larger myself.

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