Utah's first openly transgender teacher, partner tell story of love, transition

Thursday , June 30, 2016 - 7:24 AM45 comments

MARK SAAL, Standard-Examiner staff

MOUNTAIN GREEN — Freedom is an important concept in the Rice home.

So important that prominently displayed on a wall in the family’s living room are four Norman Rockwell prints, created for the artist’s 1943 “Four Freedoms” oil painting series. The four works  — “Freedom of Speech,” “Freedom of Worship,” “Freedom from Want,” and “Freedom from Fear” — have special meaning to Angie Rice.

“Norman Rockwell’s studio was 30 minutes from where I grew up,” Angie said, explaining the artist would often take photographs of local people and places and incorporate them into his artwork.

But Angie and Sandi Rice’s home would never be confused with a Rockwell painting. Until a year ago, Angie Rice was publicly living as Art Rice.

Today, Angie identifies as transgender.

While the struggle to embrace her identity took place over the course of years, she finally felt the freedom and courage to begin living life as she always believed she was intended in May 2015, when Utah’s LGBT antidiscrimination law went into effect.

Angie grew up in small-town Vermont, the son of a retired Air Force veteran and a stay-at-home mom. Her earliest memories are as an 8-year-old boy, feeling “confused and scared and ashamed” of who she was.

As Art, she was careful not to let people know she had “gender interests that weren’t male.”

“I hid who I was out of fear and shame,” she said.

In high school, Angie “overcompensated,” competing with the other boys in basketball, cross-country and baseball, and excelling in student government. Following high school, Angie became the fourth generation in her family to attend the Air Force Academy, graduating in 1984.

She became a pilot, flying rescue helicopters for five years and later KC-135 aerial refueling aircraft; she flew special operations in three overseas conflicts. Angie is now retired from the Air Force and has spent the better part of the last decade teaching special-education classes at Roy Elementary School.

In 1988, Art Rice was living in Northern Utah and met Sandi Rasband, who was running the night school program for the Fran Brown College of Beauty.

“Angie came in and learned how to cut hair,” Sandi says. “She was my student, this macho helicopter pilot.”

 

They quickly became friends. Sandi, who was experiencing abuse at home and was having suicidal thoughts, said Angie was the first person she could trust. 

“I had a plan to end my life, and I was ready to try it,” Sandi says. “But Angie said, ‘You don’t have to live like this, life can be better.’ She gave me hope.”

They were married in October of 1989. It was a Friday the 13th.

NOT FEELING BROKEN ANYMORE

Sandi recalled they were married for about a year before she “started seeing the signs.” Sandi was playing with her makeup one day and said to her husband, “Let me put some on you for fun.” Angie agreed.

A couple of days later, Angie asked Sandi to put more makeup on her, and the requests for makeup became more frequent after that.

“And I thought, ‘OK, wait a minute. You weren’t supposed to like it that much,’” Sandi says. “So for a while I thought it was my fault. I thought I brought it on, because I was the one that tried the makeup on her first.”

Eight years later, the family was living in Alabama when Angie asked Sandi to go to the store with her to buy sports bras. 

“I asked her if she was gay, and she said, ‘No,’” Sandi recalls. “And I said, ‘What is it? Do you want to be a girl?’ And she said, ‘No. Yeah. No. … I don’t know.’”

Sandi had heard about cross-dressing.

“What I’m thinking in my mind at the time is, ‘Well, I’m married to a cross-dresser,’” Sandi said. “But then I thought, ‘Well, a sports bra’s not going to hurt anybody, so what the heck.’ And it made her happy, so she wore sports bras.”

After Angie retired from the Air Force in 2004, her struggle with gender identity seemed to intensify.

“I stepped up the self-medication of alcohol (as) I’d done for so many years,” Angie admits. “Inside my home, they knew me as a depressed and angry person.”

Angie also started ordering hormones off the internet in an attempt to facilitate the transition from male to female. Sandi worried for her spouse’s health.

Finally, five years ago this October, Sandi convinced Angie to see a counselor.

“I was 49 years old, and no one should live life like that — life between age 8 and 49 — with that kind of pain trapped inside them,” Angie says.

From that first counseling session Angie learned two things: First, that the only expert who could diagnose if she was transgender was Angie.

“And the other thing that came out of that meeting was that I didn’t think I was crazy anymore,” she says. “I didn’t feel I was broken.”

But despite that relief, she still felt caught in a trap. Angie couldn’t tell people about being transgender for fear of losing her job teaching children with special needs at Roy Elementary School. 

“We’d go grocery shopping an hour and a half away, so we didn’t run into anyone we knew,” Angie says.

Sandi’s adjustment to Angie’s journey wasn’t easy, either.

Sandi had grown up a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. She describes her family as “very Mormon,” and indeed, her uncle is LDS apostle Ronald A. Rasband. The couple was also sealed the day after Christmas 2013 at the Denver LDS Temple.

“The hardest part for me was that my whole future looked different than what I ever thought it would be,” she admits.

But Sandi also grew up a staunch believer in prayer. So when she found out her husband was a transgender female, she set to work. 

“I didn’t want to know what God said to others,” she said. “I wanted to know, ‘What did God say to me?’ If anybody is entitled to personal revelation, I was. Because this is my life.”

Sandi realized she didn’t want to live the rest of her life without her soulmate.

“The only thing I ever got (from prayers) was, ‘This is my best friend. This is the person that I raised three children with. This is the person that helped me save my life, all those years ago. This is the person that I sent to war over and over again, when I didn’t know when she was coming back.’”

Besides, she reasoned, leaving Angie now — at her time of greatest need — would be nothing short of a sin.

“I just got the feeling we needed to figure this out as a family,” Sandi concluded. “And we did.”

About three years ago, Angie and Sandi called a family meeting with their kids, Josh, Danielle and Jacob — now ages 25, 22 and 17, respectively — to break the news.

“We were watching TV as a family,” Jacob remembers. “Our parents kind of muted the TV and we thought, ‘OK, something is going down.’”

Sandi did most of the talking. She brought up a couple of documentaries the family had seen on transgender individuals, and then told the kids that’s how Angie feels.

“Angie was crying a lot during it all, and she said to me and my sister, ‘I hope you don’t grow up like me,’” Jacob said. “That kind of hit me hard, because I always looked up to my parents. So I said, ‘I’d be proud to still grow up like you.’”

And, in fact, Jacob is following in Angie’s footsteps. This summer, he becomes the fifth generation to attend the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colorado.

Sandi says the news didn’t come as a complete shock to the kids.

“They’d seen her wear mascara before,” she said. “They weren’t too surprised.”

Still, it wasn’t easy.

“It’s been hard, I won’t sugarcoat it,” Jacob says. “It’s been a big learning experience.”

He says that while there’s plenty of information available out there for transgender people, there’s not a lot for their spouses — or their children.

Jacob said he’s come to the view that it shouldn’t matter how a person choose to express who he or she is.

“I just realize that the dignity of every person is just that,” he said. “People deserve that basic dignity.”

GOING PUBLIC

When Utah’s LGBT antidiscrimination law — which bans housing and employment discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people — passed, Angie finally had the legal protection to go public.

One of the first things she did was meet with the principal at her school.

“We had a two-hour session in the principal’s office,” Angie recalls. “I did some crying. She did, too.”

Then she met with district administrators.

“The only thing I received from them was love and respect,” Angie says. “And that day I was branded with a title: first openly transgender teacher in the state of Utah.”

Jeff Stephens, superintendent for the Weber School District, says Angie’s transformation hasn’t been an issue — mostly, Stephens said, because Angie is “an outstanding teacher who has such an extraordinary influence.”

Stephens says the district’s only concern throughout the process has been to be sensitive and respectful of Angie’s feelings in getting the information out to the staff and others.

And Stephens says the district has received nothing but positive feedback about Angie as an educator. 

“I have never had a single call of concern, and I think a lot of that is a tribute to her and a testament of the quality of teacher she is,” he said. “Because those parents know her. Angie stood out as one of those teachers that goes so far above and beyond in ways that deeply influence children and families. I have a lot of respect for her.”

Becky Campos’ daughter, Aly, has been in Angie’s special-needs class for the last two years, so she’s experienced the teacher as both Art and Angie.

“Angie called us after the school year ended last year to let us know that she was going to be known as Angie Rice,” Campos said. “After that, every week in the summer we’d take Aly over to see her, so she could get used to her as a woman.”

Not that Aly, a severely autistic second-grader, needed any time to grasp the concept.

“It didn’t even really faze her,” Campos says. “She’s always just called her ‘Rice.’ In fact, if you ask Aly if Angie is a boy or a girl, she just looks at you and says, ‘Rice is a girl.’”

Aly will be in Angie’s special-needs class for two more years. Campos is grateful for that; she says her daughter has made amazing progress with Angie’s guidance.

“When this happened, Angie called us and let us know that if we did have any concerns (about the gender transition) she was open for us talking to her, or we could talk to the principal,” Campos recalls. “Our only concern was we asked her, ‘Are you going to change your teaching style?’ She said no. And we said, ‘That’s all we need to know.’ ”

Outside of work, things have been somewhat more complicated. 

Shortly after Angie went public, the bishop of their LDS ward asked for permission to address their situation in a church meeting — people had begin talking in the neighborhood. They gave their blessing.

Although they didn’t attend, they were told by others the bishop did a good job, and that it was a “beautiful meeting.”

But Angie says it only took a couple of days for the hurtful whispering to start.

“Some of the sisters in the ward called me ‘Satan,’” she said.

Since that day, the family hasn’t been back to church, though Angie and Sandi said they recently accepted an invitation to their ward’s Relief Society Spring Salad Social and reported the evening went well.

Angie says she never wants to burn the bridge she feels with the LDS church.

“As a transgender woman, I understand and respect there’s not a place for me there,” she said. “I’d never use my authority of the Melchezidek Priesthood, nor would I expect to receive a calling in the Relief Society. All I ever asked for and wanted was a place to be me.”

Abby Beattie and her family have lived next door to Angie and Sandi for three years.

“When we moved in, they were very welcoming to us and kind of adopted us,” Beattie said. “We have five young children, and we’d get together and have music nights or watch videos, things like that.”

Beattie says that when Angie was transitioning to a woman the family was very private about it, and they didn’t see Angie and Sandi for about six months.

Beattie remembers well the day she saw Angie and Sandi outside, celebrating the passage of the state’s anti-discrimination legislation.

“I saw who I thought was Art, dressed as a woman,” she recalls. “They said, ‘We’ll explain it later. Everything’s fine.’”

As promised, a few days later Angie and Sandi invited Beattie and her husband Brent to their home. Sandi again took the lead, explaining that Art now preferred to be called Angie, and that the couple would be staying together.

“We’re strong LDS, and I had a prayer in my heart that I’d be able to understand what they’re going through,” Beattie said.  Although the news was a bit of a shock, Beattie insists it didn’t change her feelings toward the Rice family.

“Honestly, the thing I took away from that meeting, as they were speaking, was that I had this overwhelming feeling of love for Angie, and that it was not my place to judge in any way,” she said. “I just felt such a love for them, and I felt it came from the Savior.”

Beattie admits they sometimes stumble over the pronouns, but she looks forward to being neighbors with Angie and Sandi for many years to come.

“They are some of the kindest, most compassionate people we’ve ever met,” she said.

At its essence, the journey of Angie and Sandi Rice is nothing short of an epic love story.

“I’ve been in hostile combat airspace, I’ve been shot at, but by far the greatest fear I ever had in my life — what took the greatest courage — was admitting who I was, and the fear of losing the love of Sandi,” Angie says.

That won’t happen, Sandi promises.

“I learned that I can love bigger than I ever thought I could,” Sandi concludes. “I don’t regret anything. I would marry her all over again, knowing what our life would be now, and knowing where we are and knowing that she was going to be transgender later on in our life.

“I would still marry her all over again.”

Contact Mark Saal at 801-625-4272, or msaal@standard.net. Follow him on Twitter at @Saalman. Like him on Facebook at facebook.com/SEMarkSaal.

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