top of page
  • Writer's picturePenny Sterling


Updated: Feb 5, 2018

In October 2017 I did a TEDx talk at St. John Fisher College in Pittsford, NY. The theme of the talk was "Revealing the Invisible." This is the script of that talk. You can see the video of the talk here.


HI, I’m Penny. Last year I wrote a show for the Rochester Fringe Festival, called “Spy in the House of Men.” It was the story of my life, and it was really well-received. Everyone who’s seen it says everyone should see it. This summer I took my show in the road--to Ithaca, Cincinnati, Washington DC, Minneapolis and then back here in Rochester--and I plan on continuing to to perform it much as i can. After so many years of being hidden, the positive responses were amazing, unexpected, and validating.

But one thing I don’t really address in my show is the title. “Spy in the House of Men.” What does that mean? How was I a spy?

So, in the spirit of revealing the invisible: I called my show “Spy in the House of Men because: I applied to the festival before actually writing my show. I had to call it something and that’s such an awesome title and it got me in the paper and it was on all the festival programs and I had put it on my stationery so I just went with it.

I really did want to address it in my show, to be honest. But there was so much backstory I needed to do, and there was the cool story about actually admitting I was transgender and transitioning when I was 55, and the interesting stories about what my life is like now, and I was already close to an hour with all that so I just sorta glossed over the “spy” part of my life with a couple of sentences, and it didn’t seem to matter that I didn’t get into it.

Plus, the story of those years as a “spy” aren’t very entertaining. They’re kind of dark. There was dark stuff in the stories I told in my show, too. It’s just that in those stories, I wasn’t the bad guy.

And to be honest, I wasn’t the bad guy--much--during those 40 years spent in hiding, either. I was a pretty good guy, really. I helped people move, bought pitchers of beer sometimes even when it wasn’t my turn, told funny stories, worked a steady job, got married, raised a family, loved my wife and kids, all that stuff.

Really, the bulk of who I am now is the same as who I was then. Except with a lot less beer. I’m just doing it better, and more joyfully, and without that big, fundamental lie about who I am.

It’s in the talking about that lie that I get into the ugliness. And as much as I would like to, I can’t separate all the stuff that requires content warnings and say ‘oh that was Brian,’ and take all the good stuff and say ‘this is Penny.’ It was all me.

I think it’s important that I talk about that part of my life, especially now, with so many stories about powerful men sexually assaulting women in the news, and with so many of my women friends posting on Facebook about their encounters with random men who casually objectify and terrify them on a daily basis just because they happen to be women in public, because I’ve dealt with it too.

Which quite frankly surprises the hell out of me. I mean--look at me. I’m 58 years old, I’m built like your dad and I dress like your mom, but in three years I have have been propositioned, threatened and assaulted, verbally and physically, at least a half a dozen times.

Yaay. I’m in the club.

The thing is: I’m in the other club, too. The club that uses size and strength and words and volume to intimidate and threaten and get what they want from others. I wish to God I wasn’t, but I am. It was a big part of how I presented myself as a man in our society. And I use terms like ‘in the club’ because I know it’s an awful subject and it deserves to have content warnings, because i’m talking about abuse from the perspective of the abuser.

It’s hard to talk about and I can imagine how hard it can be to hear. So please bear with me while I talk about this as honestly and gently as I can, with nothing added, and nothing taken away. And be aware that this is such a complicated subject for anyone to talk about--especially for a person like me.

I’ve always been transgender. Always. I’ve been transgender since before transgender was even a word--since before I even knew it was a concept. Something was different about me, but I didn’t figure out it had to do with gender until I was eight, and I didn’t find out that there was anyone else in the world who had this issue until I was 16.

That was when Renee Richards, an eye doctor who had gender reassignment surgery made the news by competing on the woman tennis circuit. And the reaction to her in the small, affluent, isolated little city where I lived was pretty negative. A lot of crude jokes, mostly. Many of them involving Title IX--the federal amendment that made it illegal to discriminate based on sex, which had just recently been signed into law and was equally mocked, ridiculed and resented.

By this time I had already decided that I was never ever going to reveal to anyone who I was, ever. This was going to be a secret that would be buried with me, and what I was seeing just reinforced that decision. So I went about the business of hiding myself and fitting in as best as I could, and hoping against hope that I could somehow kill that part of my soul that was screaming that this is not who I am. And although I never did kill it--obviously--I was able to deprive it of enough oxygen so that it kept pretty quiet.

I called my show “Spy in the House of Men” because that’s what I was. I was alone in a world that insisted I was a male and I wanted to be one but I wasn’t, and I had no one talk to about it so I had to navigate all of this by myself. I had no mentor to guide me or coach me, partially for reasons beyond my control, but I also kept my distance for fear of being discovered as a fraud. But that was okay, since self-reliance was a manly thing to have. I had to learn everything by observing other men and imitating them, and I mean everything, right down to walking, because my dad had told me I walked like a girl.

By the way you have no idea how awesome it is to be able to use my hips again when I walk. My entire lower back is constantly going “oh, thank GOD!”

The world I observed was run by men. And those men didn’t much tolerate women who wanted to encroach into their territory. Men were men and women were women, and we all had our own spaces, and any hint of gender variance was either done as a joke or treated as one. This was the world I observed at home, where my father got everything he wanted without discussion and my mother completely supported him.

It’s what I observed at school, where the older guys bullied the younger ones and the assholes got all the cute girls and I just figured that when I got to be their age, I would be the one who bullied. So I did. The girlfriend thing--not so much.

And it was the world I observed on TV--my greatest teacher--which taught me that women were to be pursued and controlled and were prizes to capture and even if they put up a struggle and protested, they liked it and wanted it to be that way, and I saw nothing in the world around me that really contested that view. I was a man, and that meant I could get what I wanted if I was forceful enough. And I was bigger than many and stronger than most and selfish enough to think this was a great idea. And when I came across women who didn’t react properly to the way I was living it was because they weren’t following the script properly. Fortunately, I knew the way to counter that.

It’s called abuse. I was an abuser of women. Some that I knew, and some that I barely knew.

Every time I say those words--which isn’t a lot, but still certainly more than I want to, because I don’t want to say them at all--I want to throw caveats into it. Some abuse was when I was a teenager just beginning to explore my sexuality. Some of it was when I was drunk. Some may even have been welcomed, but then again, I assumed all of it was welcomed. Most of it was just in my attitude and the way I objectified them. None of it was violent, or even very aggressive.

Until I was married. But even then it was just me using my words. Sometimes using them real loud. And my size. So it was just the threat of violence. Mostly just the threat. Just enough physical stuff--isn’t that a nice way to put it? “Physical stuff?” Could be a reference to an Olivia Newton-John music video.

Just enough pushing and grabbing and holding and hitting so that it got to the point where I could get what I wanted with just a word. Sometimes just a look. Worked on the kids too. So that’s better, right? At least I didn’t hit them--much--certainly far less than I got hit myself as a kid--so that’s not really abuse, right?


No. It’s not right. Abuse is abuse is abuse, and terror is no better than violence. In some ways it’s worse, because it’s harder to prove and really easy to justify. And if you justify it, you can just keep on doing it.

So I did that, and I was ashamed of myself while doing it. Eventually I had enough shame that I got into therapy, where I learned about “toxic masculinity.” I discovered that the life I lived--the one I developed from watching and imitating other men--was toxic.

After a while with my therapist I got to the point where I could accept that I was abusive and I have worked ever since on recognizing this pattern in my behavior and moving away from it, and that’s hard because it is so ingrained in me that I default to it.

My therapist told me that ninety-nine percent of spousal abusers never get into treatment. And of those that get into treatment, ninety-nine percent of them never admit they’re abusive. My therapist didn’t say this part, but I’m guessing that of the ones who have admitted their abuse, ninety-nine percent of them would never get up on a stage and talk about it.

And if any of them did, none of them would dress better than me, so how lucky are you guys.

So that took care of my big, obvious, fairly undeniable abuses. Admitting I am an abuser was hard--is hard--but it’s worth it, because by admitting it, I broke my heart. I had people who loved me, admired me, and needed me, and I abused them, physically and emotionally. And I will spend the rest of my life making amends for that behavior. At least that’s my hope. I don’t ever want anyone to be afraid of me ever again.

I can’t say enough good things about having my heart broken, by the way. I think it can be one of the greatest gifts we can receive. Yeah, I know it gets a bad rap in romantic terms. Romantic heartbreak deals with star-crossed lovers and scorned advances and longing gazes over windswept marshes and stuff like that. That’s not what I’m talking about.

I’m talking about the breaking of the hardened heart--the heart with the thick, self-defensive crust coating the true, tender center of the soul. The breaking that happened when I couldn’t stand hating everyone and everything including myself--especially myself--for one moment more, and I started weeping and saying things like “wow--I am such an asshole,” and I found people who said to me “I know, and I love you anyway,” and eventually one of the people who said this to me--was me.

Because when that happened, I let go of the toxic part of the masculinity. Which meant I didn’t need to be right all the time. This allowed me to listen when others told me that stuff I was doing that I thought was perfectly okay was not and then I could accept that I was wrong, and apologize for my behavior and work on changing this as well.

And then I started seeing this behavior in other people and I learned how to say ‘no--that’s not okay,’ to them, even when what they’re doing really didn’t negatively impact me, but it did hurt someone else, and that is how I healed my broken heart.

And I realized that my healed heart is stronger, more resilient, and just plain better than my crusty old hardened heart, and I discovered that I am only as sick as my secrets.

This allowed me to accept that I needed to get rid of more than the “toxic” in the toxic masculinity.

And that’s how I got to be a spy who came in from the testosterone, or something. The metaphor kinda breaks down at this point.

One of the biggest difficulties I faced in writing this was right-sizing what I did. On one hand, I didn’t want to minimize or defend my behavior. On the other, so many of these words prompt extremely negative reactions from people and I am afraid that I will be shunned and ostracized for talking about it. I’m still afraid of that.

But I don’t know of any other way to bring this subject up. I believe in a much larger definition of what constitutes abuse than what seems to be the popular perception. Or even the legal one. I could-and did--easily defend what I did. And that’s my point. If the stigma of admitting an unacceptable behavior is so great that it’s safer to deny it and continue than it is to admit it and work towards ending it, we will never change.

You’ll notice I didn’t give any specific instances of what I considered abuse. That was deliberate. I didn’t want any time or thought spent on wondering if what I was doing was or wasn’t abuse, or comparing something you’ve done to some standard you think I just laid out for you. If you’re wondering if you’re being abusive, please continue wondering. And maybe talk to someone--probably not the person you may be abusing because there’s a chance you won’t get the truth.

And men are not the only abusive people in the world either. Not by a long shot.

If you want a yardstick, try this out: The proper use of power in interpersonal relationships is to first make things safe for those who have less power. Not to protect or rescue or punish or correct. Safety first. Are you making things safe? Do you feel safe?

Whatever you do, whether any of this is helpful or not, please be gentle with yourselves and others. We’re all just doing the best we can.

80 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All



bottom of page