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Trans pioneer shares her journey of trauma, abuse and, finally, ‘a pretty good life’

Lydia Rosell in historic Fort Hill Cemetery in Auburn, New York. Rosell has done research there for years. (YJI photo)

Note to readers: This story contains disturbing descriptions of traumatic life events and offensive language.

Lydia Rosell knew who she was since she was a child. Rosell, 75, remembers walking down a street in Rochester, New York, and watching a woman in a beautiful emerald dress and matching shoes. She also remembers knowing that this was the moment she realized she wanted to be just like that woman.

But she was born a boy.

As a young transgender person growing up in the ‘50s and early ‘60s in Allegany County, New York, Rosell noted that the concept of being transgender was barely ever broached.

She never had the language to express what she felt – but she knew from a young age that others hated her for it. 

“Everybody assumed that I was gay. It designated me as a freak. It was open season. Anybody could bully me, anybody could call me any filthy name they could think of – and they certainly did,” said Rosell. “A lot of men thought I was put on Earth to be their personal sex toy.”

Fay Alice Riley and Charles Harvey Rosell, the parents of Lydia Rosell. This photo ws likely taken on their wedding day, August 7, 1948. (Photo courtesy of Lydia Rosell.)

As a child, she often cross-dressed – to her parents’ horror. Once, she remembered, she was violently beaten for trying on her neighbor’s old dresses.

“My father turned purple and told me to go change my clothes.”

In school, Rosell was often ostracized, even before she became Lydia. 

Nancy Pontius, 73, a high school classmate and friend, remembered Rosell as a teenager.

“Lydia did not have close friends. She was very, very shy, afraid of people. Hard to approach,” said Pontius. “The friends that she did make weren’t the college kids, they weren’t from respectable families.”

It was clear to Pontius that Rosell had a rough homelife.

“She wasn’t well dressed or always cleaned. I knew that Lydia came from very bad circumstances,” said Pontius. 

“My mother was a teacher and my father was the director of probation, but he worked closely with children’s services,” Pontius remembered. “I used to hear my parents talk about what a horrible situation Lydia had and whether anything could be done about it.”

Rosell said she was often ostracized in school – especially in gym class. She forged notes from her parents to get out of it, but was often made to participate alongside boys.

Rosell even remembered being forced to join the girl’s gym class as a punishment. But in her mind, it felt like more of a reward than a reprimand. 

The constant discrimination, abuse and bullying pushed her out of class and into her own mind.

“My truancy went up, my grades went down. I lived pretty much in my head, which is like living a parallel life. I was forcing myself to behave as expected, but in my mind, I was a whole other person playing a role,” Rosell said.

“I used to be very sad about her in high school,” said Pontius. ”She moved so delicately, she was just so fragile.”

Finding refuge

When Rosell was 16, she left home and went to stay with Kitty and Ralph Beaumont – an elderly couple she’d previously worked for – in Waterloo, New York. After Ralph died, Rosell continued to live with Kitty, someone she called “the most liberated and independent woman” she ever knew.

“She rescued me at age 16, gave me a new life and taught me how to live it,” Rosell said.

Kitty and Ralph Beaumont, the people Rosell called “my saviors.” She said they gave her an opportunity to escape a brutal life, expand her horizons, define an entirely new path, and to redefine herself as a person. “They taught me to give myself permission to live.” (Photo courtesy of Lydia Rosell.)

Another family in Waterloo, the Whipples, also befriended her, Rosell said, and she lived with them off and on for several years.

Russette Weand was a small child in the Whipple family and remembered that Rosell first entered their lives as a family babysitter.

“She was full of fun,” said Weand in an interview. She remembered that Rosell took them places and played with them. She showed up for school events, too, even when their own parents were not there.

Weand said she has “really happy memories” of the friendship that grew between her mother and Rosell. They spent time drinking coffee or beer at the kitchen table, laughing and singing songs, she said.

Rosell needed a place to live and the family needed a babysitter, so it worked out, said Weand.

“She’s one of those friends that are more than just a friend, they’re family,” Weand said.

One time, Weand recalled, she came home from school to find Rosell wearing women’s clothes and blurted out that she was glad she hadn’t brought a friend home because she didn’t know how she could explain it.

“That really hurt her feelings. I could see her face fall,” recalled Weand, adding that she instantly knew she’d said a terrible thing. “I’ve regretted it ever since.”

That stray remark by a child was nothing compared to the abuse and harassment that Rosell endured.

“The landlord kept bringing people over to show her off like she was some kind of zoo animal,” Weand said. “It was extremely out of line and humiliating for her.”

Some of her friends, Weand said, weren’t allowed to come to the house because Rosell lived there. 

A college ID photo of Lydia Rosell in 1979. (Photo courtesy of Lydia Rosell.)

“She’s one of the kindest, most moral people I know. She was never any threat to anybody,” said Weand, but that’s not what her friends’ parents saw.

“There was just always a lot of love there, and we stuck together,” said Weand, who said they educated people when they could and “ignored what we had to.”

Weand said, “The lack of acceptance was part of our life, it was our normal.”

Men in her community often preyed on Rosell. Nowhere was safe.

“I was abducted a couple of times by horny middle-aged men who wanted to ‘break me in,’” Rosell said. “I became quite adept at eluding them.”

Because she was considered “too pretty to be a boy” and rather effeminate, Rosell said, people made “all manner of assumptions about what I was and what I’d do for them.”

They were wrong, said Rosell.

Weand recalled one time Rosell was walking past a bar in town when a man who had been drinking “saw Lydia dressed as Lydia.” He stepped outside and told her, “You take those clothes off right now.”

Weand remembers angry crowds surrounding their house just because Rosell lived with them.

“People would drive around the house screaming obscenities,” said Weand. “There was one time when someone shot at the house.”

Weand said that while Rosell took the brunt of the harassment, her family suffered, too, for supporting Rosell.

“We never regretted it,” Weand said. “It was worth it.”

Lydia Rosell inside the historic Bradley Chapel in Fort Hill Cemetery, Auburn, N.Y. in 2015. (Photo courtesy of Lydia Rosell.)

Times have changed

Options for transgender people have vastly improved in the years since Rosell first grappled with her identity, according to Natalie Criss, a licensed clinical counselor specializing in trauma and PTSD issues in Ashland, Kentucky. Many of her clients are transgender or members of the LGBTQ community. 

“The resources right now are still so limited for people, so I can only imagine how limited they were back in the ‘70s and earlier,” said Criss.

But attitudes among transgender people and those who love them have changed, too.

“Now it’s becoming more of a thing of pride, a thing to celebrate and to support,” said Criss. “I would imagine that back [then] that it was still something you had to do very much on your own with limited support and limited resources.”

Criss expressed admiration for Rosell’s courage and called her a “pioneer.” There wasn’t even a word “transgender” when Rosell began her transition, Criss said.

According to Criss, today’s pioneers are those who are fighting anti-trans legislation and vulnerable young teens who are coming out to their families.

“I do feel that there is more awareness” today about transgender issues, Criss said, adding that for the most part, people are beginning to see that it’s okay to let people be who they are.

“It’s not hurting anything,” said Criss. “I think we’re gonna keep moving forward, but it’s going to be a fight for sure.” 

Becoming Lydia

Alienated in her own hometown, Rosell found support elsewhere. She found a role model in tennis player Renée Richards, a transgender woman who transitioned in the early ‘70s.

Richards’ story made Rosell feel like she had options.

Looking for help, Rosell, then a young adult, reached out to nationally renowned advice columnist Dear Abby. Abby sent her a private letter in response.

“She steered me to a support group in Louisiana called the Janus Information Facility, and they sent me a booklet of what to do and how to do it, and when to do it,” Rosell said, including strategies on how to pass or blend in, as well as legal tips.

“I had no personal assistance from anybody. I kind of winged it.”

In 1975, when she was about 26, Rosell wrote a letter to Upstate Medical University in Syracuse, presenting her situation.

Soon, she got a response from a doctor to schedule an appointment.

“That was one of the most euphoric moments of my life. I was absolutely thrilled that I had actually found a living person within reach that could do something about my situation.”

But before Rosell had a chance to reach out to medical professionals about her gender affirmation surgery, she contracted tuberculosis and found herself hospitalized.

While recovering, she met with a job training counselor, who encouraged her to start anew, to enroll in beauty school in Rochester, New York, to pursue a career as a beautician.

“It was kind of like being in the Witness Protection Program,” said Rosell, wryly. “It was like starting from scratch on every level.”

She found some of the lessons helpful.

“I learned useful tips on how to do my hair and makeup,” Rosell said. But she was bullied even during her time at beauty school and ended up dropping out. 

To support herself, Rosell found odd jobs. She worked in a local sauerkraut factory, at nursing homes, and in a restaurant kitchen.

About this time, Rosell dumped her wardrobe and got all new clothes. A drag queen friend taught her how to make a bra and underwear.

Rosell picked the name ‘Lydia’ out of a baby book.

“July 16, 1976, was the day Lydia emerged, and I’ve been here ever since.”

Lydia Rosell conducting a solstice rite in 1981. (Photo courtesy of Lydia Rosell.)

Going public

Her new life wasn’t easy.

“Since I switched personalities literally overnight, with no preparation or forethought, I became an object of much gossip and speculation,” said Rosell.

That led to an inquiry from a newspaper reporter from The Geneva Times who wanted an interview.

“I was led to believe it was to be a human interest story, so I agreed,” said Rosell. “At first, I didn’t want to. I didn’t feel prepared. But I figured it would save me a lot of explaining.” 

During the interview, the reporter asked Rosell how she would fund the surgery and she said she planned to approach Medicaid.

The reporter’s story, which Rosell said was published in March 1977, focused on how Rosell was unemployed due to medical issues and was forced to rely on social services. According to the article, her life was a breeze.

A photo of Lydia Rosell published in The Geneva Times. (Reprinted with permission from its successor, The Fingerlakes Times.)

“That erupted into a firestorm of angry letters to the editor,” said Rosell, “which led to threats to my life. I requested a fair hearing to clarify the situation and it was denied. That was when the case manager called me a ‘cocksucker.’”

But her story inspired many, much to Rosell’s surprise.

“I got like three fan letters,” Rosell said, and a message from a young man, who said she was “one of the great LGBTQ elders.” 

The fallout from the article, though, was horrible.

“I was spit on walking down the street. People threw rocks and garbage at me, confronted me in public and called me all manner of ugly names and threatened to kill me using all manner of methods.”

A miserable situation had grown worse.

“It escalated,” said Rosell. “I had already been publicly defined as a ‘faggot’ long before that.”

Sometime during this torment, Rosell got the crushing news from the doctors in Syracuse, who said she wasn’t a good candidate for the gender-affirming surgery.

A suicide plan

Still living with her friends the Whipples, Rosell watched as the family was evicted from their home. Their landlord, who ran a nearby bar, was getting flack for his “weird” tenant, Rosell said.

It was too much.

Deeply depressed, Rosell decided to end her life. It wasn’t the first time she struggled with suicidal thoughts.

“There had been a couple of incidents where I had attempted suicide in my teens because it was just bigger than I could cope with,” she said. “But I wasn’t successful, obviously, probably because I was a big chickenshit. I was afraid I’d botch it and end up in worse shape than I was.” 

This time, she was more determined.

“My intent was to go down to a place called the island where I lived on the canal and I was just going to open my veins,” said Rosell. “I had a straight razor I acquired in beauty school and planned to use it to slash my wrists and ankles.”

About halfway there, she stopped at a friend’s house to say a final goodbye over a cup of coffee. Meanwhile, Rosell’s mother heard from Weand’s mother about the suicide plan and rushed to find her daughter.

“My mother burst into the apartment in hysterics,” Rosell recalled. 

If her friend hadn’t been home for that cup of coffee, Rosell said, she would likely have died.

Rosell never had the gender-affirming surgery she wanted. She said her slight figure and high-pitched voice allowed her to get by without it, and most people didn’t ever know.

She’s never spoken to another reporter until granting an interview to Youth Journalism International.

But she still has the straight razor she carried toward the island all those years ago.

“I no longer feel inclined to use it,” said Rosell. “I keep it as a ‘trophy’ to remind myself that no matter how dark things have been at times, I managed to survive, and I have gone on to have a pretty good life in spite of everything.”

‘She just blossomed’

Taking advice from friends, Rosell enrolled in classes at Cayuga County Community College in Auburn, New York, where she studied psychology, sociology and anthropology.

Lydia Rosell at the 2023 Equal Rights Amendment Convention in Seneca Falls, N.Y. (Photo by Karen Simpson. Used with permission.)

“Part of me wanted to find out why I was who I was.” 

Pontius recognized Rosell’s incredible transformation, from her early childhood to now. After parting ways in Waterloo, the two reconnected about 15 years ago at a high school reunion picnic.

“She’s a different person. She’s self-assured now. She’s still very bright, but now she can do more with it. She just blossomed,” said Pontius. “She not only survived it, she thrived, and that brings me a lot of joy. She was not really a whole person, and then she became one.”

Weand admires Rosell for her courage.

“She’s the bravest person I know,” said Weand.

Lydia Rosell at right with her friend Russette Weand, at left, and Weand’s sister Lynn in 2012 at Main Street School in Waterloo, N.Y., where Rosell attended eighth grade in 1962-’63.

Pontius said, “It’s like she was born again after all that happened, like Lydia was born.”

This feeling seems to be common, according to Criss, the counselor. She said many people find great joy and fulfillment in their lives after they recognize that they are transgender and accept their identity.

Today, Rosell is a local history expert and community volunteer in Auburn, her adopted hometown.

An inspiration to a younger generation, Rosell’s is a story of strength, perseverance and hope.

“I survived it,” Rosell said. “Here I am.”

Sreehitha Gandluri is a Correspondent with Youth Journalism International from Maryland, U.S.A.

Holly Hostettler-Davies is a Senior Correspondent with Youth Journalism International from Wales, UK.

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