Trans activist JoAnne Wheeler will share her story at Saturday’s Double-Edged Stories

JoAnne Wheeler Bland | Courtesy of KET

Double-Edged Stories, the Louisville-based storytelling event with dueling themes that present two facets of human nature at every show, is back on Saturday, Jan. 19.

The themes are “resolutions/resignations,” and organizers have brought out a great crop of storytellers, as always, including JoAnne Wheeler Bland, a woman who came out as trans when she was 65 and has spent the years since telling her story to anyone who needs to hear it.

Insider spoke with Bland in advance of Saturday’s performance.

“Coming to my decision to transition is what I’m going to talk about, although I’ve got so many stories,” she says.

Born in Sylacauga, Ala., and raised in Sonora, Ky., in Hardin County, she felt alone most of her life.

Bland came out at 65. | Courtesy of Double-Edged Stories

“I knew I was different when I was 5 years old, but that was 1950, and I had no understanding of why I felt the way I did,” says Bland. “The word transgendered hadn’t even been invented yet.”

She did all the things she was supposed to do — went to high school, then college and then law school. She got married right after she received her juris doctor degree from the University of Kentucky. She then practiced law for 45 years, became a pillar of her community and lived in an 11,000-square-foot home in the middle of 50 acres of land. She had it all.

But she was miserable, living as a man in the eyes of the world, unable to be herself.

“I knew I was going to transition, or I was going to die,” she says. “Staying the same was no longer an option … I tried that for 65 years and it didn’t work.”

So she decided to come out, started therapy and began the process of transitioning. She began by looking for a therapist and recalls speaking to her for the first time over the phone.

“And she said, ‘Do you have a female name?’ And I said, ‘Yes.’ And she said, ‘Well, what is it?’ And I said, ‘JoAnne’ … and then she said, ‘When you come, I’d like for you to come as JoAnne.’ ”

The request startled Bland.

“Well, that was like getting hit up on the side of your head with a two-by-four, ’cause I had never been out like that,” she says.

During the many decades of knowing she was a woman, Bland hadn’t been out in public — even the very limited public of walking to and from the car — while presenting as a woman. She had never even told a single person about her feelings until her first therapy session.

Bland covertly traveled from her small town to Louisville and Lexington, but her secret could only stay secret for so long. One day she was shopping — as JoAnne — at Talbots in Louisville.

“One of our former judge’s wives happened to be there that day, and across the room, my eyes met her eyes and I recognized her, and I guess she recognized me,” recalls Bland. “And I thought, ‘Well, I hope she doesn’t kill herself driving 100 miles an hour back to E-town so she can tell everybody.’ ”

That’s when the secret got out, and that’s when Bland started telling her story. It’s brought difficult changes, including a divorce, a new place to live, the dissolution of her law practices and being asked to leave her church. But it also has brought wonderful changes, and the string of her accomplishments and achievements is longer than the 15 minutes she has to tell her story Saturday night.

Double-Edged Stories is hosted by storytellers David Serchuk and Randi Skaggs. | Courtesy of Double-Edged Stories

The highlights include everything from serving on the board of the Fairness Campaign to participating in Emerge Kentucky to being the first trans woman in the country to be elected president of a Democratic Women’s Club.

Despite all those accomplishments, there’s one that sticks out for her.

“I became sort of the person you went to talk to. Parents brought their kids to me, the school started sending me their trans kids,” says Bland. “I talked several kids between the ages and 8 and 12 out of suicide. I feel like if I don’t ever do anything else …”

Bland couldn’t quite find a stand-alone single word, but the implication is clear — if she can save the lives of trans kids, she’s going to keep telling that story as much as she can. 

You can hear that story, or 15 minutes of it, on Saturday, Jan. 19, during Double-Edged Stories at Monnik Beer Co., 1036 E. Burnett Ave. There will be additional stories by Sandra J. Combs, NeNe Lasley and Don Pratt and music by Lance Minnis. Tickets are $10, and the show starts at 8 p.m.