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Sharon Schubitzke looks like the kind of person you could have a long talk with, and afterward, you'd feel good about life. It's that easiness and kind spirit that many in Tucson's transgendered community have come to depend on for the last six years. Schubitzke was recently recognized by Wingspan, Tucson's LGBT community center, with the Lavina Tomer Truth to Power Award. The award recognizes a Wingspan volunteer who has confronted oppression and refused to be silenced. For more information on Wingspan, visit www.wingspan.org.

How did you find yourself interested in transgendered issues?

It was in the spring of 2002. I had met someone who was transgender, and ... I found out that she actually lived a dual life: with family (as) a male, with certain friends (as) a female. In talking with her, I started to hear her struggles. I said, "I think you need to get some support here." Through Wingspan, I found out about Dezert Girlz (for males transitioning to female), and SAGA, the Southern Arizona Gender Alliance. That was also my first contact with the LGBT community in Tucson. She started getting support there, but left because of her work schedule. Then I was asked to continue to go (to the group), because they like my spirit, so I consider myself a Dezert Girl now, although I have not transitioned.

You're a 65-year-old with 13 grandchildren and one great-grandchild—not an LGBT activist stereotype. Do you have a family member who is transgendered or gay?

We always knew people, and one of my aunts was a lesbian. My second (former) husband is bisexual. His son and my stepson is gay, and died of AIDS at age 35. He was always loved and cared for in our family. ... Really, it was meeting this transgendered person and finding out the struggles in that area of the LGBT community that got me active.

Did you know about Wingspan?

I didn't really know anything about Wingspan. In 2005, I spoke with the head of the anti-violence program at that time. I went through training, and I volunteered on the hotline for a little more than a year. Then when I did my (bachelor's degree in social work) internship, I did it with Senior Pride. ... Back then, there was a strain between the lesbian and transgendered (communities)—especially (regarding a) transitioning woman who identified as lesbian. I facilitated a group to try to bring some understanding. I ... discovered that even in the LGBT community, there are factors that are not accepting of each other.

How has your volunteer work with Wingspan and the transgendered community helped you?

I think it gave me a deeper understanding, compassion and empathy for people. One of the things I find is that I have changed a lot over the years and have made my own transitions. At one point in my life, in the 1970s, I got involved in a religious commune that was kind of culty and very judgmental. ... I might not understand struggling with my gender, but I do understand struggle, finding yourself and overcoming past expectations.

Regarding the transgendered community, what should we know?

It's been (considered) such a joke for so long, and still is, and the hate crimes are so appalling. ... There are a lot of transgendered people living in Tucson. Right now, I know of several families who have children who are questioning their gender. Every day, they wake up and say, "I am not who my body says I am." We need to be there to support them all. There is not a stereotypical transgendered person. Each person is unique.

You're almost done with your master's degree in social work. How did you find yourself back in school?

I didn't finish high school. ... My first career was raising kids. Then I got divorced and had to figure out what to do. I went into business management and accounting. After Sept. 11, I decided I wanted to do something else. Social work made sense. I really enjoy people; I am drawn to the aging and people who do not fit the norm. I love people who have stories.

Has there been joy working with the transgendered community?

Joy? Oh, yes, both with the person in transition and their partners. I was at the general meeting for SAGA. ... It's great to be there when someone comes in and shares (that) they just got their gender marker changed or their name changed to match their presentation. It's so exciting when people are finally peaceful about who they are, and are able to live that way.

More by Mari Herreras

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