Karen Topham didn’t set out to be a trans trailblazer. She just knew she had to save her life. But when she finally came out as trans 25 years ago this month (on her birthday, no less), she became the first public schoolteacher in the U.S. to transition while still on the job.
Topham retired from teaching English at Lake Forest High School in 2016, where she also directed over 30 plays. (She earned her bachelor’s in English at Northwestern and her master’s in directing at Roosevelt University.) Now she runs the online theater review site, ChicagoOnStage.com, and has also freelanced for Windy City Times and the Reader.
Over a two-hour interview at Café Urbano near her home in Albany Park (which she shares with her husband, photographer Dirk Topham), Topham, 66, takes me on a trip through her history. She also explains why she chose not to discuss her transition with the press at the time, despite receiving numerous overtures from media, including producers for Jerry Springer and Oprah. Her three kids, who ranged in age from two to 12 when she came out as trans, were the reasons Topham chose to control her media exposure once news organizations got wind of her story. Her oldest child, Chicago actor North Rory Homewood, is also trans.
Though it took many years for her to finally make the decision to transition, Topham says she’s known “without a doubt” since she was three that she was trans, even if the term didn’t exist.
“I didn’t know what to call it yet. I didn’t know that it was possible to do anything about it except, you know, go to sleep praying that God would send an angel down and change me overnight. But I knew. And I also knew, because I was a precociously astute observer of the world, that people weren’t gonna accept it. And that it was too hard. There was such a strong divide between boys and girls that I was like, ‘If I tell anybody about this, they’re not gonna accept me. I’m gonna be made fun of.’ I was already teased and made fun of my whole life.”
Growing up in a conservative Catholic family in New Hampshire made it even harder to come to terms with her identity. When Topham finally did come out to her father (her parents had divorced by that time), she says, “He told me, ‘I don’t care what you have to do, but make sure your kids are out of high school. You brought those kids into the world, you gotta see them through.’ I’m like, ‘Yeah, Dad. That’s exactly my plan. I want to be there to see them through. And I know that if I don’t transition, I won’t be.’ He said, ‘Don’t get melodramatic.’ I told him, ‘I’m not being melodramatic. That’s just the truth.’ I understand completely when they talk about those statistics. Forty percent of all trans kids try to kill themselves at some point. And I know that statistic is true because, hell, I was an adult when I tried.”
During our conversation, Topham references more than once the lack of solid support and information networks that existed for people seeking to transition in the late 90s. She had to create her own networks. That included a long road trip in the summer of 1997. “My short version of that trip is I drove west until I hit an ocean, then north until I hit Alaska.” But it wasn’t random: Topham planned stops along the way with other trans people she had met months earlier through Internet news groups (“whichever ones I could find that had ‘transsexual’ in the name”) to gather as much information and insight into the process as she could.
Prior to the road trip, Topham began experiencing serious suicidal ideation, which led her to a therapist. She was then able to begin hormone treatments in fall 1997. “It was in just a few days that I felt, ‘Great—my brain finally has the right food.’ That’s really how it felt.”
When I asked her about finding her medical team, she responds, “There was no team. I found my own endocrinologist, my own therapist. Transitioning in the 90s used rules invented in the 70s by a psychiatrist named Harry Benjamin. I had to have a psychiatrist and a therapist both sign off on this. And I had to spend at least one year in what they called at the time a real-life test, where I would be a woman in every aspect of my life for a year.”
Later, Topham emails me about the Benjamin standards. “I do know that for the past decade or more they have been viewed by the community as archaic and problematic. I wanted to be clear that I am not endorsing their methods; they were a transition themselves, coming at a time when studies of what were then called transsexuals were only just beginning to occur. Benjamin [who died in 1986] humanized and attempted to codify what the trans experience was, but he was working within the parameters of the time in which he was writing . . . Today, it is clear that there is no single standard for what trans care should be; it’s different for everyone, as everyone’s experiences are different . . . and that is as it should be.”
Coming out at school was also a long process, and not always one where she could count on support from places she expected to find it. Topham says she spoke to representatives at Lambda Legal about her plans to transition as a public schoolteacher. “They said, ‘Every bit of our energy right now is going to the fight for gay marriage, and we can’t take on a losing cause right now. I said, ‘Oh, that’s nice to know that I’m a losing cause.ʼ” Topham then contacted her union rep, who advised her not to tell her principal even as she began the medical process and started (as per the Benjamin rules) presenting as a woman in public.
She laughs as she tells me that she did confide early on in one colleague at school—a gay man who told her, “Well, that’s gonna take the pressure off us.”
In the end, Topham (who was tenured) kept her job without a battle, though she notes her principal was upset that she didn’t confide in her initially. Since rumors were already flying, she had asked the school to make a brief public announcement before the start of the 1998 school year so, as she wrote in an email, “I could be out and about in the town as myself over the summer. Once it was out—as I knew would happen—it suddenly was open season for reporters. The Sun-Times did an article, as did the Trib, which wanted to feature me in its glossy Sunday magazine. Looking back, I should have let them (and let Oprah put me on her show as well), but I was focused on keeping my face out of the press to protect my small children.”
In a 2022 article in the Lake Forest High School newspaper, the Forest Scout, Topham recalled that she began her first class that semester (after walking past news trucks to enter the school) by saying, “Let’s address the elephant in the room. I’m sure you all have noticed that there have been a few changes over the summer. I moved my desk over here.”
The changes in her personal life were more profound: Topham’s first marriage ended (after some adventures in dating, she married Dirk in 2006), and she didn’t fight her ex-wife for custody of their children, though in practical terms they shared joint custody.
“Whenever I play one of those mind games like, ‘Would you have transitioned earlier if you could have?’ my answer when I’m talking to myself is always, ‘I would’ve loved to.’ If somebody had asked me when I was, you know, nine or ten or 13 or whatever, I would’ve said yes without blinking an eye,” Topham says. “But if you ask me now? I mean, yes, I would’ve loved to be able to do it then, but I wouldn’t have my kids. And I don’t think that’s a trade-off I can make.”
But when her son North came out as trans at 16 (the first out trans student at Stevenson High School in Lincolnshire), it caused unexpected tension in their relationship.
“She says a lot to me that one of her biggest regrets in our relationship is how she handled it when I came out. She freaked out. She got very defensive about it,” says Homewood. “I completely understand her reaction that she didn’t want me to feel that pain, but it hurt a lot. Here’s the one person who’s supposed to understand what I’m going through and she told me that I’m wrong and I’m not feeling this. It took her a while to get around to realizing it was really happening, and once she did, she came around immediately and said, ‘OK, we’re going to get a therapist, whatever you need.’”
Topham tells me in a later email, “Having a trans son taught me a lot. The thing about being trans is that it is inherently personal; it’s all about you. I mean that makes sense: no one else knows what you are going through. But this actually forces you into a kind of feedback loop with yourself, and you are not the best judge of how to deal with the world.”
She adds, “When North transitioned, I could suddenly see everything from the other side. And I understood how it felt from the perspective of watching a loved one change before your eyes. It hurt. And I felt terrible that it hurt. But I also found myself better understanding my father’s reaction, at least to a point. It provided me with the other side of the story. I think that seeing transition from both sides gives me a unique perspective.”
Homewood also credits Topham for fostering his love of theater. “It’s really nice to have somebody in my family who gets it. Theater is a contentious thing. My other mother spent a lot of time trying to convince me not to do this.”
Homewood and Topham talk a lot together about their fears of how the forces of anti-trans hatred have been on the rise. “It’s hard to get around it when you are living with this every day,” says Homewood. “I know it’s affecting both of us right now in a profound emotional way. It’s like watching a car crash in slow motion, especially thinking about the kids and how it was for me when I was younger. I felt like I didn’t have enough support, and now for these kids coming out in Florida, they’re going to have even less than I did.”
A few years ago, Topham wrote a novel, The Cooper Boy, about a young boy in New Hampshire struggling with the decision to come out who ends up as the target of an anti-trans politician. An agent she sent it to told her to “take all the politics out.” Finally, as she did in the beginning of her life as an out trans woman, Topham decided she had to do it on her own; she self-published.
Topham has done several public programs on her trans journey—a few of them with her son—and spoke at a march in Washington, D.C., after the 2014 suicide of trans Ohio teen Leelah Alcorn. But when I ask if she considers herself an activist, she says, “I think I’m more of an advocate. I wish I had been more of an activist.” But sometimes, living your truth fully when there are no role models ahead of you lights the way for others to follow.