Mattie Leyden didn’t waste any time identifying the community needs she could fill after moving to Palm Springs about two years ago.
During her short time here, she’s become an active member of the LGBT Outreach Committee for the Palm Springs Police Department, advisory council for The LGBT Community Center of the Desert (The Center), and the Human Rights Campaign Steering Committee for Orange County, Long Beach and Palm Springs.
Leyden, who is transsexual, is one of a few voices for transgender residents. She runs a transgender support group she started at The Center. Attendance has increased from three people in the beginning to an average of eight now and up to 15 at one time.
Her commitment to making a difference hasn’t always been easy, as she’s juggled a career and co-parenting two teen daughters with her ex-wife. But it’s fueled by the transition she began about nine years ago from an unhappy, overweight, young man named Matt to a content, fit and self-assured woman named Mattie.
Leyden will be honored for her contributions and inspiration Oct. 13 with the State Farm Good Neighbor Equality Award at the Palm Springs Equality Awards at Riviera Resort & Spa. Other honorees include U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer, California Speaker of the Assembly John A. Pérez, state Sen. Ted Lieu, and Safe Schools activist Tori St. John. Singer Freda Payne will entertain and comedians Dana Goldberg and Jason Dudey will host the event.
Leyden was nominated for the recognition by Doug Hairgrove and his husband, Woody Wood, of Palm Springs. Hairgrove was Leyden’s eighth-grade English teacher when they all lived in Redlands.
“My heart swells with pride for Mattie,” Hairgrove says in the nomination statement. “Matt was quiet, withdrawn, reserved. Mattie is an outgoing, confident inspiration to transgender youth and anyone else she touches in the Coachella Valley community. I can’t think of anyone more deserving of this award.”
For Leyden, the award means a lot personally and for the Coachella Valley’s transgender residents.
QUESTION: What motivates you to get out of bed and do what you do each day?
You know, for so much of my life, I was living for other people – trying to be something I wasn’t. For so many years I didn’t come out and help do the things I wanted to do because I was afraid people would say “Oh” and figure me out.
When I finally came out and decided I had to be me as a person, I guess I’ve gone overdrive on that. I’m trying to make up for lost time, for all the years I didn’t help. I want to make a better world for my daughters where there’s no bigotry or hatred. I spent four years in the Marine Corps – Marine Corps infantry, no less. I believe no one in this country should have more rights than anyone else. Don’t Ask Don’t Tell is gone but you still can’t be transgendered and be in the military.
What advice do you have for anyone who wants to make a difference in the community?
They can reach out to me or another person in the transgender community. There are tons of people out there. … I don’t tell people how it’s going to be when they transition. The people I thought would freak out when I came out and shocked everybody, didn’t. The people I thought would stand by me, didn’t. It was weird.
Last year it was the 20-year reunion for Desert Storm. My old unit was having a reunion in Vegas and I went. I still served. I was still a part of that. My past is still my past. The reunion went well. Most of the people I served with are friends with me on Facebook. They still talk to me.
What are you looking forward to at the Equality Awards?
It’s nice to get dressed up, have a nice dinner and meet new people. More than getting the award I like meeting and interacting with people and representing the transgender community. So many people have images in their head of “Rocky Horror Picture Show” and street walkers at night. I’m going to be recognized for the work I’m doing.
Palm Springs Equality Awards
The event begins with a reception at 6 p.m. at Riviera Resort & Spa, 1600 N. Palm Canyon Drive in Palm Springs. Dinner follows at 7:15 p.m. For tickets and other information: www.eqca.org