BY MIRANDA BAINES STAFF WRITER
Gazette-Virginian - Halifax VA
My note: I was interviewed by my Virginia young adult, hometown newspaper. This was while attending my high school reunion in October. A wonderful article was written and printed starting on page 1 of the newspaper. Keep in mind this area of Virginia is very "red" and I was allowed the opportunity to speak directly, through print, to many who may have never listened to but one side.
I do not have any family there, however, many classmates, and early career work-mates left. My family was very well known in the small community where I grew up. We ran the country general store where everyone shopped.
Rhonda Williams also recently shared her story as a transgender person with The GazetteVirginian. The Scottsburg native expressed that her goal in telling her story is empowering transgender/non-binary/gender fluid individuals to openly express their true, authentic selves in the world without fear of others’ reactions.
Williams is an activist who has experienced life on both sides of the gender continuum — male and female. She related that she spent years repressing her feminine side, until one day she finally broke free. Through that liberation, Williams revealed she was finally able to fully express herself.
|Scottsburg native Rhonda Williams stands
in front of a mural in the town of Halifax
On recent trip to Halifax County.
Now a Florida resident,
Williams is a transgender activist
recently shared her story with The Gazette.
Today, Williams has an air of confidence when she walks into a room. “I’m very comfortable in my own body".
A member of the Halifax County High School Class of 1966, Williams attended her class’ 75th birthday party, “diamond jubilee,” at the Halifax Country Club last month. She walked in wearing an off-the-shoulder black top and gray scarf paired with white pants and strappy black heels bedazzled with rhinestones, her hair styled in an updo. Her classmates recognized her and greeted her.
That wasn’t the case when Williams, now a Florida resident, walked into her 50th high school class reunion in 2016 wearing a black-and-white dress with her hair styled in a bob cut. Her classmates remembered her as “Tommy,” a football player who was “one of the boys.”
“What? You don’t recognize me?” Williams recalled saying playfully to her classmates when she walked into the reunion as Rhonda.
Williams was born male biologically and has not undergone a sex change. She identifies as a “feminine man” and said she never felt that she was “born into the wrong body.” She explained she felt at an early age that she had a feminine side as well as a masculine side that she wanted to be able to express.
Williams was raised by her grandparents, who ran the corner country store in Scottsburg. She related that her grandparents indulged her self-expression and encouraged her to be whoever she wanted to be. Then known as “Tommy,” Williams said she enjoyed playing in the sandbox and with toy cars and trucks, expressing her masculine side. But she also enjoyed dressing up in ladies’ clothes and playing with dolls, which her grandparents would buy her when she asked.
She said she did not think anything of moving back and forth on the gender continuum until her male peers started teasing her. That’s when she recollected that she knew that in order to be “one of the boys,” she had to suppress her feminine side.
Williams left her rural Halifax County home to study engineering at Richmond Professional Institute (now Virginia Commonwealth University). Last year, Williams was recognized as one of VCU’s “brightest alumni stars” because of her professional and personal achievements.
Before the widespread use of personal computers, Williams embarked on a career as a software developer, founding a software company in 1983 which brought to market the first consumer tax preparation software package PC TaxCut. The software developer from Halifax County also got married and had four daughters. Williams, still known as “Tommy” then, continued to suppress her feminine side, for the most part. But she recalled going on shopping trips with her daughters and employing her sense of style to pick out beautiful clothes for them.
Williams and the mother of her children eventually divorced, and at that time in her life, Williams recalled finally deciding to embrace her feminine side and present as “Rhonda,” in the corporate world. She enjoyed dressing the part of a professional woman, wearing silk blouses, suits, heels, and jewelry.
Williams seeks to educate and inform her readers on issues impacting the transgender community in her Blog “Rhonda’s Escape.” She posts about serious topics such as politics, intermingling more lighthearted posts, such as giving fashion advice. She posts daily in her blog, which has more than 4 million views. The name of the blog refers to the “escape” or liberation of Williams’ feminine side.
“Rhonda’s Escape comes from the concept of escaping from a prison that you build yourself into. We are our most conscientious jailer,” Williams related. “Take the key, escape and be who you are. You’ve got to come to grips with the person you are and accept that person.”
These days, Williams moves back and forth on the gender continuum, and most of the time, she said she would describe her appearance as “androgynous.” In Williams’ view, how people perceive her, whether as feminine or masculine, is up to them. “
Gender is a spectrum, and people can fall anywhere on that spectrum that they want to…I’ve cultivated the duality of my gender,” Williams explained while sporting a casual feminine look — an everyday outfit with Tori Burch flats, accentuated by accessories, thick white hair pulled into an updo, makeup skillfully applied. Williams said she seeks to inspire others by sharing her story and showing them how comfortable she is in her own skin. She also is an advocate for the rights of transgender people.
“Transgender people are people; being trans is part of our humanity,” Williams expressed. “We’re not asking for special privileges. We just want the same basic freedoms and rights everyone else has.”
By emphasizing the humanity of being transgender, Williams said she seeks to dispel the prejudice about transgender people, just as people started recognizing the humanity of gay people in the 1980s and seeing past the stereotypes.
“Transgender is probably 20 or 25 years behind the gay community in visibility,” Williams said. “It’s very easy to be prejudiced toward a concept. But when the concept becomes a person you know, you don’t want to hate that person. (In the 1980s) when people found out, say, that their doctor was gay, they didn’t want to hate their doctor.”
As a transgender person, Williams has experienced life through the lens of both a man and a woman and has experienced a disparity in the way she has been treated. Navigating her early career in the world of software engineers as a man, Williams said she could not deny the existence of “male privilege.” Later in her career, presenting the female version of herself, “Rhonda,” Williams said she had been asked to “make the coffee” in “more than a few business meetings.”
In everyday life, Williams said she feels the “same uneasiness a woman would feel in a similar situation.” For instance, she said if she is going to a shopping center after dark presenting as “Rhonda,” she will park close to the door, look around before exiting the vehicle, and clutch her purse to her body as she is walking into the store. On the other hand, she related she has experienced uneasiness from a female shopper clutching her purse more tightly while she was in close proximity to the lady, on a day when she presented a masculine appearance, as “Tommy.” “Raising four daughters, I’ve been very cognizant about how they feel in certain situations,” Williams said.
Of all the roles she has held in her life, the one that Williams cherishes most is being a father to her daughters. “I will always be a father to my daughters, because I am,” Williams said. Williams fully embraces all the aspects of herself — as a father, a software developer, an engineer, a writer, an activist, and a transgender person, and encourages others to do the same.