“I’ve changed a lot since I left Decatur,” says Allie n Steve Mullen.
It’s late January, and Mullen, a 61-year-old music composer and father of two grown daughters, is driving 180 miles from Chicago to Decatur, a central Illinois city of about 72,000. Outside, snow-covered fields lining both sides of I-57 blend into an equally colorless sky.
It’s the first time Mullen has been home since coming out about a year ago – and WTTW is invited along to record the reunion. Mullen is “trans-feminine” and “gender-mobile,” meaning Mullen lives between genders, sometimes dressing as male, and sometimes female. (We’ll use the gender-neutral pronouns “they” and “their” in this story.) Their name is a quirky combination of their birth name, Steve, and their chosen name, Allie.
Mullen wrestled with their identity for years.
“In my twenties I lost my faith. I don’t believe in god,” Mullen says. “And now, you know, I’m trans.”
The three-hour trip to Decatur was prompted by a text Mullen recently got from their cousin, Terry Mason. “We hadn’t seen each other in a long time, so I wasn’t sure how he’d react to me,” Mullen says, “or even what he knew.”
But, Mullen says, Mason suggested that they should “talk about this trans stuff.”
While friends and colleagues in Chicago have been accepting of Mullen’s gender identity, Mason’s conservative worldview gave Mullen pause.
“Most of my family on that side have all remained evangelical Christians,” Mullen says. “Conservative. That’s the background I come from.
“Trans identity threatens that. It’s really threatening to the sense of man and woman and some stable idea of what it means to have a nuclear family or some kind of firm identity,” Mullen says.
But Mullen hopes this reunion with Mason – however messy – can bridge a family divide and even serve as a road map for others. The cousins agreed to let WTTW capture the event because they’re aware their situation is not unique.
Many people choose to skip holiday gatherings, and meaningful discussions often seem impossible because friends and family members are afraid to say the wrong things, or to hear something painful.
“We’re so polarized right now that we can’t find ways to talk to each other,” Mullen says.
How do you handle difficult discussions with family members? And what do you make of the cousins’ conversation? Add your voice to the discussion by leaving a comment.