Amazing grace: Transgender violinist seeks to educate at Capitol

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As the strains of Amazing Grace reverberated through the Oklahoma State Capitol on Wednesday, 19-year-old Suhaila Abu Amara focused intently on the violinist playing the hymn.

“It’s really good music,” said Abu Amara, a native of Jordan who attends Putnam City North High School. “It makes you feel this song.”

What the young English-as-a-Second-Language student did not realize, at first, was the background of the tall woman who had brought music to the Capitol’s fourth floor.

A resident of Tulsa now, Robbie Dee Ewens grew up in England. She was born a man.

“I don’t really care,” Abu Amara said. “If this person likes that, I don’t really care. He’s happy. Or she’s happy. It doesn’t matter.

“Even if old people talk about her, it doesn’t matter to her. She’s playing, and she’s having fun. There are a lot of people that can make you down, but don’t listen and keep going.”

Ewens almost didn’t keep going more than 20 years ago.

“At the age of 30 in England, I was married and my whole life fell apart. In fact, I was going to commit suicide,” Ewens said between performances. “My business fell apart. Everything a man normally holds in his life fell apart. And I found myself — not being brought up this way at all — but I was crying out to God. I had this incredible personal experience in my bedroom with Jesus. It was just so unexpected, and it changed my life.”

‘Allow yourself to be who you are’

Robbie Dee Ewens, right, speaks with Putnam City North teacher Russel West on Wednesday, April 19, 2017, at the Oklahoma State Capitol. (William W. Savage III)
Robbie Dee Ewens, right, speaks with Putnam City North teacher Russel West on Wednesday, April 19, 2017, at the Oklahoma State Capitol. (William W. Savage III)

Ewens became a missionary for three years, traveling to three continents. On Wednesday, Putnam City North teacher Russel West and students from three continents observed the violinist’s talent while legislators and lobbyists milled about.

“These kids are the best students in the whole Putnam City School District,” West said. “They show a lot of respect for their teachers and the school.”

West was leading a Capitol tour for students from Peru, Panama, Honduras, Ecuador, Vietnam, Thailand and the island of Chuuk, population 49,000. He said the students could likely relate to Ewens on the basis of feeling isolated as a minority.

“Most people do not know anything about transgendered people personally,” said West, who watched a friend transition from male to female in California years ago. “Everything is more conservative here (in Oklahoma). You feel it. You hear things. There’s a lot more prejudice. I’m primarily talking about our older citizens — my age and older.”

West’s students, on the other hand, were largely enthralled by Ewens’ performance.

“It’s great!” an ESL student from Vietnam called to Ewens while clapping.

Ewens has played at the Oklahoma Capitol for each of the past three years and said she notices a shift in atmosphere.

“Acceptance is getting better and better,” she said. “As people gain knowledge, the old myths are dying away that it’s a mental illness or a deception from the devil and things like that. They’re starting to realize that’s not the case. That’s why people who don’t get set free or delivered from it, you either suppress it and get suicidal, or you allow yourself to be who you are.”

Educate and challenge (in a very nice way)

With a distinct British accent and a voice that fluctuated between octaves, Ewens described two decades of coming to terms with her gender identity.

“I put myself through 20 years of therapy, counseling, retreats, deliverances, you name it. I did it with all my heart to fight against this female identity that kept coming up in my life,” she said. “I could never overcome it, and I thought there was something seriously wrong with me. But three and a half years ago, I had an encounter with God again who basically corrected me and said, ‘No, I made you this way, so go and be free.'”

Ewens, who authored the book At Last! Free to be Me in 2014, blamed “ignorance” for a House staff member’s email sent April 10 that referenced transgender people as “cross-dressers.”

“That’s why I come to places like this — to bring light and truth and exposure to people who don’t know what transgender people are like. People quite often have false ideas about what it’s like. So I use my talent as a violinist as a platform, yes to share my gift of music with other people to hopefully enjoy and be blessed with, but also to give people an opportunity to meet someone who is transgender but also is still a strong Christian believer.”

Wednesday, two passing lawmakers offered spontaneous positive comments about Ewens’ performance.

“It’s beautiful,” said Rep. Leslie Osborn (R-Tuttle).

“First Amendment, you’ve gotta love it,” said Sen. Kyle Loveless (R-OKC).

Ewens said she always hopes lawmakers are willing to learn more about transgender people.

“I often sit down with people from the House of Representatives here, particularly those who are doing bills that would discriminate. So I try to sit down with those people,” Ewens said, noting that she was scheduled to meet with Sen. Joseph Silk (R-Broken Bow) Wednesday afternoon. “Sally Kern was very well known for doing such things, and I sat down and talked with her and gave her a copy of my book.

“I offered to go to church with her. She turned me down. But I put myself in those situations because I know who I am. I know who I am in God and in Christ. I’m comfortable with that. I’ve got peace about that, both scripture-wise and belief-wise. So I now go out to help educate and even challenge — in a very nice way — other people to realize that there’s more out there than their belief system would recognize.”

Christians ‘wrong about gender and sexuality’

Ewens said her message to lawmakers and others skeptical of or unfamiliar with the transgender community is two-fold.

“First and foremost, being gender-different is not a sin against God, for those who are strong Christian believers like myself,” she said. “Secondly, it’s a variation, a condition that a very small percentage of the population has, and it’s totally wrong to deny them to be who they are. They shouldn’t judge and shouldn’t discriminate against people like myself, particularly youth members, ’cause it’s hard for youth. They’re still developing as people anyway.”

From a theological perspective, she said her time spent in conservative Christian churches makes her have compassion for those who oppose her life choices.

“The thing about belief is that you may believe something about your faith, but it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s true,” she said. “Christians have believed things in the past and they’ve been wrong, and it’s taken a long time for them to admit it and move on. This is one of those things where they are wrong about gender and sexuality.”

She said Jesus Christ is her lord and savior.

“It’s not an issue with Jesus. Jesus never once judged a person for who they are. Not once,” Ewens said. “You can go through all the scriptures. He never judged a person for who they are. He said you will be judged according to your words and actions by the intentions of your heart.”