For nearly six decades, John Wheeler Bland bore the crushing weight of a secret he could never, ever tell: Though born a biological male, Bland knew in his heart he was actually a female.
He married and became a respected attorney and a Special Justice to the Kentucky Supreme Court, but Bland feared suicide might be the only escape from a life he felt was built on a lie. So at age 65 he decided to pursue sexual reassignment surgery. As John became JoAnne, Bland knew she had finally found freedom.
“I feel for the first time in my life I’m at peace, I am at peace with myself,” says Bland. “The torment that I lived with day and night, 24-7, which never goes away for anyone who deals with transgender issues, is now over.”
Bland discussed her long journey to accepting her true self on KET’s Connections with Renee Shaw.
The Secret Starts in Childhood
Bland says she was about 5 years old when she first realized she was different. But in rural Kentucky in the 1950s, Bland knew she had to keep the knowledge that she might actually be a girl a secret from her friends and classmates.
“I was fortunate or maybe smart enough to see that to keep from being bullied, you don’t talk about this,” Bland explains. “The worst thing that could happen to any young boy was to be thought of as being a sissy, because they were treated unmercifully by the school bullies.”
Her family offered no safe haven either. Bland’s father played basketball at Tulane University, while her mother’s brothers played football in Alabama. So the expectation was that John Bland would play sports as well. Yet Bland refused, much to the irritation of his parents.
Then there was the time Bland’s youngest sibling, a brother, was beaten for trying on their sister’s clothes. That brother has since had his own sex-change procedure, and Bland says her sibling still cries when recounting the childhood punishment she endured for experimenting with cross-dressing.
Playing the Role of a Man
As Bland grew older, she says she became more adept at hiding her secret. She immersed herself in law school studies and then later in her work as an attorney. She also spent countless hours each week tending a fastidious lawn, studying genealogy and theology, and volunteering at her church.
And Bland got married, a union that lasted 39 years.
“I should’ve gotten an Academy Award for best actress because I was playing a role… of a male person named John,” Bland says. “I did it very well, to the point that nobody had any idea that this is what I was facing and dealing with inside.”
But living as a straight man was taking a toll. Bland says she suffered from depression and debilitating migraine headaches for decades. She even contemplated suicide. As she approached her 65th birthday, Bland says she realized she was too old and tired to keep hiding.
’Free At Last’
So in 2010 Bland began the long process of changing her biological identity to female. She went into counseling for the first time in her life, and underwent more than 37 hours of surgery as well as extensive hormonal therapy.
Although her change cost her marriage, long-time friends, and her law partnership, Bland is relishing her new life as a woman. She is a frequent speaker on gender issues and she lobbies for LGBT rights. As a member of the Kentucky Council on Postsecondary Education’s Committee on Equal Opportunity, Bland fought to include gender identity and gender presentation in state public university non-discrimination and diversity policies.
Because her sibling is also transgender, Bland says she believes there is a genetic component to gender identity issues. She also argues that being transgender is not a new phenomenon. Bland says the eunuchs referenced in the Bible were transgender people, and that scripture acknowledges the genetic nature of gender identity. She quotes Matthew 19:12, which says “For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth.”
Now 70 years old, Bland can reflect on her first five years as a biological woman. Her depression and migraines are gone. She recently married her new partner and has found a level of peace that eluded her for most of her life. It’s a serenity she likes to describe with a familiar quote from Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
“I am free at last, free at last. Thank God Almighty, I’m free at last,” Bland says.