How Natalie Grace Martin stopped lying, learned to write again, and found a future worth fighting for.
Natalie Martin is on a truth crusade. The first time I met her, she told me this casually, as if practicing total honesty is easy, like forgetting to water a houseplant.
“It just seemed like the right thing to do,” she said. And so she did it.
Four years ago, after she came out publicly as a transgender woman, Natalie stopped lying entirely—and hasn’t lied since. She destroyed the bigger lies first; the ones that almost killed her before she could face them. And then she crushed the smaller ones too—the kinds of lies we all tell ourselves, and sometimes the world.
For thirty years, Natalie buried her femininity and traveled the country. She got married, had children, and became every kind of man she could think of. But by her thirtieth birthday, she found herself cornered and desperate. Still struggling to navigate masculinity in a violently binarist world.
“My whole existence was a lie,” Natalie tells me, with a kind of measured confidence, her hands folded in her lap. “Every now and then, a bit of truth would slip in,” she says, “and it would terrify me.”
Now, it’s only the lies that scare her.
In the room where she wrote and recorded her most recent album, She/Her/Hers, Natalie’s silhouette is illuminated by the blue glow of a computer monitor. “You have to hear this,” she says. “It’s an arrangement I’ve been working on.”
She’s writing the score for her students in concert band at the Lippman School, where she teaches music. She clicks through the files, sets the arrangement playing over the speakers, and sinks into an armchair; eyes closed, humming out each line of instrumentation—fingers floating, flicking back and forth between the french horn, trumpets, trombones, flutes, percussion. The most authentic version of Natalie is here, lost in the music.
Natalie’s parents are musicians too. Transfixed by her mother sitting at the piano, Natalie played as soon as she could reach the keys. She learned to harmonize by listening to her parents trade melodies, and then learned to play every instrument she could touch—flute in middle school and bass in jazz ensemble; percussion in marching band.
For Natalie, music is an intrinsic element of life itself, and an expression of identity that defies the confines of language. For Natalie, music is a mode of being.
The score fades out, unfinished, and Natalie checks her phone. She laughs, and her beauty is effortless; the sound of perfect grace in her new body, her new life. Rich with sweet deliverance, and finally settled in the truth.
Natalie tells me she’s shrinking. “I used to be six feet and one-half inch tall,” she says. “And now I’m five ten.”
Losing those inches was a pleasant, though unexpected, result of HRT, or hormone replacement therapy—which, for many trans women and transfeminine people, includes some combination of hormone blockers, estrogen, and/or progesterone.
Culturally, we code smallness as indicative of fear or shame. A thing that leaves us somehow diminished, a veiled or partial appearance. We read smallness as loss.
But for Natalie, shrinking was a godsend, and a relief. While her vertebrae gently compressed, everything else shocked into exponential growth. Sure, Natalie was technically shrinking. But she was getting bigger on the inside.
Natalie’s life seems crafted that way, naturally attuned to poetic design. She is always both one thing, and the other; shrinking and growing; woman and father; teacher and student.
Natalie swipes a finger across her phone screen. She leans forward, flipping the phone to show a grainy picture; a photo of a photo glued into an album.
“This is wild,” she says, laughing. “This is the craziest thing in my life.”
In the picture, two boys shake hands, grinning wide for the camera. They’re young, maybe seventeen, and notably handsome in white tuxedos.
“That’s my boyfriend and I,” Natalie says. “When we were in high school.”
Luke knew Natalie before she came out, and before she transitioned—long before her truth crusade. And long before she lost those two-ish inches. Back when honesty was still terrifying. When she bleached her hair and wore a white tuxedo to prom.
For years, Natalie and Luke lived parallel lives but were never much more than casual friends. After graduation, they lost touch. Natalie moved across the country, and then back again. Luke had a daughter. After Natalie’s divorce, and a Facebook message with cosmic fairytale timing, the two met for a drink.
"There’s no relationship I’m ever going to find that is going to be with someone who knew me back then and accepts me now,” Natalie tells me. “Every time I wake up next to him,” she says, “I’m still astounded.”
Natalie tells me she felt pressured by the men she dated to diminish the truth in everything she’d done and been before—her music, her children, her whole complex life. But Luke never asked her to hide.
Natalie’s life seems to always curve back into itself; always letting her off with some second chance. She was meant to find Luke now, again, after all this time—after she began to socially and medically transition.
Not all trans, non-binary, or gender non-conforming people feel comfortable discussing the medical elements of their transitions. These details are deeply personal. And because they take place within the context of a culture that seeks to dehumanize, brutalize, and delegitimize trans bodies and identities, they’re also incredibly complicated.
But Natalie talks about her body with a kind of careful reverence; with a love and honor that was hard fought, and a long time coming.
I’m able to move through this life relatively uninterrupted by the fact that I am trans. I know that I'm a white female in this society, and the true people at risk in my community are trans women of color. That is absolutely undeniable.
She tells me she never dressed in women’s clothes before coming out. She was too afraid it would look perfect, feel perfect; set that low growl of truth rumbling through her life like an aftershock. Eventually, the floodgates opened anyway, and Natalie found herself in front of a mirror, meeting herself for the first time, suddenly left to reconcile two parts of a full life.
"When I first came out, I wore a wig for a year and a half,” she says. “I had to completely stuff my bra. I had a padded girdle so I could get hips with proper proportions.”
Natalie tells me she was afraid hormones would change who she was—her personality, or her ability to create. She’d heard other people talk about it online, in message boards and support groups—that hormones change you somehow, make you someone different than you were before.
“My friend Rachel told me that was bullshit,” Natalie says. “The hormones don’t change who you are. They just let you be who you really are after years and years of suppressing it." And that, Natalie tells me, is really intense.
After a few years of HRT, Natalie ditched the wig for headbands. Gradually, her face changed. And one by one, she shed the parts of herself that never felt like her own. The girdle, the padding, the name and the shape of someone she never really knew.
It was a radical act of becoming, to shed her masculinity for the girdle and the wig. And then to grow out of the padding and into her own skin.
As soon as Natalie recognized her own femininity, she knew that it was shameful. In a social system that privileges maleness and masculinity, femininity is often equated with weakness, failure, shame, or guilt. Especially when it is performed or practiced by people who are assigned male at birth.
So it makes sense that Natalie should bury herself in music; in a culture where masculine emotion and sensitivity are not so harshly punished. It makes sense that this is where she should invent and reinvent herself.
In a grainy video from the summer of 2001, Natalie’s head is shaved. She’s sweating through percussion warm-ups in an oversized white t-shirt. She’s beautiful and blurry, half-obscured by the snares. Every inch of her, marching in perfect time.
Natalie was eighteen the summer Santa Clara Vanguard called. And when they offered to fly her out to Reno to audition, her parents couldn’t say no. A competitive junior drum and bugle corps, one of only thirteen founding members of Drum Corps International, Santa Clara Vanguard tour the country every summer on a rigorous competitive circuit.
After a string of accidental injuries, they found themselves looking for a replacement on the third drum in their bassline two weeks into the competitive season. By some wild twist of cosmic circumstance, they called Natalie.
“My hips are still fucked up from that summer,” she says, laughing. She stands next to a bar stool, sixteen summers later, swinging her leg back and forth.
She tells me she fell on the field during rehearsal, and limped through the injury that gave her this little click. When I ask why she didn’t go home, she scoffs, like I should already know the answer. “They needed me,” she says. “There’s no way I was ditching them.”
That kind of natural persistence—the belief that what she does is not only valuable, but necessary in some larger sense—might have been what saved Natalie.
Santa Clara came in fourth that summer, and Natalie came home and enrolled at the University of Akron—half-propelled and half-stuck; singing opera, and then jazz. By the next summer, she was in California studying at the Musician’s Institute.
She fell in love there, when she was still so much that kid in the white tuxedo. She moved home to Ohio, got married, snagged a two-year, two-album deal with Vindicated Records, and became a dad. All along, slipping deeper into a life lived by half-truths.
The full truth had always been there, buried beneath whatever Natalie could find to pile on top of it. She was a woman, is a woman—had always been a girl and then a woman.
Alone in a garage with a laptop, Natalie takes test after test. She starts with a silly quiz, “What Gender is Your Brain?”—and then finds a copy of the questionnaire medical professionals often give to patients suffering from gender dysphoria.
“I found the official thing,” says Natalie. And what the official thing told her—after two hundred questions—was something she already knew, and had known for a very long time.
“It said, according to my answers, that I was a transgender woman, afraid to come out,” she says. “And I couldn’t deny it,” she tells me. “It was exactly what I was afraid of.”
Natalie covers her face with her hands and squeaks, a playful reenactment of that night in the garage. But it was terrifying then, to be faced with the prospect of coming out—to herself, and to the world.
“Once you have a realization of that nature, you can’t ignore it,” Natalie tells me. “You simply cannot live like you used to. That’s just not an option anymore.”
But Natalie didn’t tell anyone, not for another few months; not until the weight of those lies threatened to crush her—not until it became unbearable.
I get a text from Natalie on my way to meet her: “I’ll be at the bar flirting with my boyfriend!”
When I get there, she’s nursing a cup of coffee, sitting in the corner seat. Luke is bartending, and they wink at one another across the room. Later, when Natalie orders a pizza, Luke already knows what toppings she'll want. He brings more milk for her coffee, and tells her she’s beautiful.
He is endlessly sweet, and Natalie basks in the sincere attention. “Nobody called me beautiful for thirty years,” she says, her whole face curling into a smile. “That was never part of the plan.”
Nothing about Natalie’s life now was part of the plan. Not Luke, or her divorce. Not having children, or teaching at Lippman—and certainly not such a public transition. “But I was spiraling,” she tells me.
Miserable and furious, hosting nightly karaoke at bars around Akron, Natalie was unraveling. After she self-recognized in the garage that night, and was faced with the full reality of her identity as a transgender woman, she grappled constantly with the terror of total isolation.
She had just finished recording the second album in her deal with Vindicated Records. She called it UltraHeavy. It was, and remains, the most significant statement of masculinity she has ever made; every ounce of man she had ever pretended to be, wrapped and packaged.
It was her opus. And it wasn’t enough.
"It didn’t just feel like someone else had made that album,” she tells me, “it felt like some other person marched in Santa Clara. It felt like some other person had lived my life.”
After writing something every single day for over a decade, Natalie couldn’t write a single note for three and a half years. She was consumed.
“I was nothing but angry and jealous,” she says. “I hated every man for how easy he found it to be masculine; for how easy he found it to do overtly male things.”
Natalie stirs more milk into her coffee. “And I hated women for their sheer freedom to be whatever they wanted. It drove me crazy,” she says. “I was nothing but a ball of rage.”
At its highest point, the Y-Bridge is one hundred and thirty-four feet tall—time to think for every second before the ground comes up to meet you.
It could be the end of that mask always pulled so tightly over the face. The end of that skin always pinching in around a body that never felt good or true. It could be an accident.
“The third time I rammed my van into the guardrail, I saw my daughter’s face,” Natalie says. Penny was only one then, still a small sprout of what she might one day become.
Natalie thought of her, on the bridge, choking down tears, choking back the truth until she made it home. Sometime after three, she woke her pregnant wife and told her everything.
While Natalie narrates this almost-death, Luke shows up with the pizza she ordered. She says, “It looks just as handsome as you.” He asks, “Do you want sprinkle cheese?” Yes, she says. Please and thank you.
To witness the tender normalcy of Natalie’s life with Luke, with her kids and her career, is to witness a kind of resurrection. The second shot she always seems to snatch from the wreckage.
“I would rather have died in an accidental car crash,” says Natalie. “I would rather have died than been the freakish pervert black sheep of my family.” Natalie cuts her pizza into little squares. “Those were the only options I thought I had.”
“Coming out meant saying goodbye to my family, my career, my friends, my home, my children, my reputation,” Natalie says, stabbing a square of pizza with her fork. “But none of that seemed as scary as living one more day feeling like, in all the years you’ve lived, not a single person has really met you.”
She glances down, present in that moment of sick desperation. For a moment, she is quiet.
“That’s incredibly lonely,” I say—the only way I can think to tell her that I see where she’s been.
“Yeah,” she says. “Yeah, it is.”
Natalie’s dad asks her what she’s wearing to perform at Cleveland Pride.
“I don’t know,” she says. “Black flats?”
“That won't work,” her dad says. “Get your purse.”
At the store her dad buys her a pair of white heels, and then a purse to match. After a lifetime of tension, they’ve finally settled into a relationship that works for them.
Natalie’s dad thought he was raising a boy; preparing a boy to live in this world as a man. And that framework left their relationship stuck in an endless loop of frustration and unmet expectations.
Natalie wasn’t ever a boy, and isn’t any kind of man. Her dad sees that now.
“It was too much for them at first,” Natalie says. She read her parents and wife personal letters, crying through the script as she came out. They listened, Natalie tells me, but struggled to process what her transition really meant: “permanent hormones, surgery, total wardrobe change, name change, legal name and gender marker change—having to tell the world about it.”
Natalie’s only brother no longer speaks to her. No longer shows up for birthdays or Christmases. Natalie’s kids will never play with his.
She tells me she’s seen them, her brother’s children, at the grocery store, or the movies. They don't know her, and they never will.
Over time, Natalie lost friends too. And two years into her transition, she lost her marriage. In so many ways, the past few years have been a silent catalogue of loss for Natalie. A slow crawl of unpredictability that knocked her breath away.
But we often underestimate other people’s potential to love us through the rough parts; to grow and change with us, even in the face of newness or uncertainty.
Natalie’s own parents gave her a real lesson in that kind of transcendent love—stark against the fear and shame she spent so many years fighting alone.
Many parents of trans and gender non-conforming people are left feeling like they've lost some part of the child they raised, especially in the wake of a medical or social transition.
“It was so hard for me to tell them that I had been planning to throw away the name they had given me,” says Natalie. Sitting at the bar, I see a fleck of her own grief at having had to hurt her parents at all, even in the name of her own survival.
“Grace was the name my mother would have named me had I been born cis-female,” says Natalie. “So she had a hand in naming me.”
When I came out, I finally felt like I could start planning a future. because I finally felt like I had one.
It took time for Natalie's mom to find her place again as the mother of a daughter. She grieved, and then found comfort in that Grace.
Now, Natalie sinks easy into the love she’s been given; by Luke and her family, her children, friends and students. She’s learning to forgive and be forgiven, and teaching her own kids what that looks like.
Natalie's kids both have huge beautiful eyes and sweet baby-tooth smiles. They’re still small, and Natalie is still at the center of their universe. Her Facebook is littered with photos of them together, with Luke and his daughter, carving pumpkins, playing at the park, napping on the kitchen floor.
“I have indescribable amounts of pride in being their father,” says Natalie. “Being a parent is the best thing that ever happened to me.”
Natalie takes a bite of pizza. “There’s nothing a cisgender father could do that I couldn’t do just as well,” she tells me. For her children, Natalie finds new ways to embrace that kid in the white tuxedo with love and reverence, to embrace the fullest narrative of her life, and to teach and practice real self-love.
There are post-it notes stuck to the door frame in Natalie’s kitchen. You are beautiful, one says. You can do this.
In the next room, there are drum heads tacked to the walls from her time with Santa Clara, a tabletop filled with drawings, signatures, and notes from friends.
Natalie plays that arrangement she’s been working on for her students at Lippman. She’s not explicitly out to the ninety-one kids she teaches, but that’s an intentional decision—an effort to normalize the lives and identities of all trans people.
Natalie is visible at Lippman, and needed. She’s scrapping the recorder program in favor of ukuleles (“Have you ever heard of a professional recorder player?”), teaching kids basic and complex elements of music theory, and gearing up for a decade’s worth of work re-building the entire trajectory of Lippman’s music education program.
Natalie taps one heel next to an upended unicorn mug filled with Pixie Sticks; a jar of pickles rolled against the table leg. Sitting in front of a double monitor, she clicks through a couple hundred recorded songs and plays her newest record in its entirety.
“This is the first time I’ve written music that sounds like me,” Natalie tells me, nodding her head to the track. “This is mine,” she says. “It’s finally mine.”
Natalie wrote this record as much for the listener as she did for herself; for other people like her, who spent so much of their lives hiding, buried in half-truths, stacking up stones to build a fortress.
This record is the story of how Natalie survived the bridge, and how the rest of us can survive it too. It is a love letter for all of us to read.
Natalie tells me she believes we go where we are most needed in this world, not out of conscious thought, but through some kind of infinite coincidence. She was needed in Santa Clara, and in the flute section of her high school marching band. They needed her in L.A., and then in Ohio, and then at Lippman.
There's a real truth in that, etched into Natalie's track record—written into the time signatures of all these songs. Wrapped up in her children, and in her life with Luke.
Sunk into that armchair, Natalie pats an open palm against her thigh. "I'm so damn proud of this record," she says, her eyes still closed as her name erupts against the naysayers of the world.
She tells me that as a kid, her brain had always changed the first a in Natalie to an o. Not-a-lie, she thought. Ever since she can remember.
Seeing that name again on the television screen, written in the description of some movie, she knew it was hers.
“I gave myself a name that would always serve as a reminder to keep myself honest,” Natalie says. And now, she is no longer a lie; no longer wracked with guilt or shame—and no longer hidden in the music.
Natalie has claimed herself, in this new life, and in this new body; a few inches shorter, but full to the brim, with a truth hung in her bones like melody—and a future she can finally see in focus.
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Founded in 2001, the mission of the Gay Community Endowment Fund is to advance a lived equality for all LGBTQ+ people in Greater Akron. The fund accepts grant applications for programs that benefit the local LGBTQ+ community and Greater Akron as a whole. It also advocates for issues vital to the health and well-being of the LGBTQ+ community and promotes systemic change that advances the LGBTQ+ community toward a future of full inclusion and equity. The Gay Community Endowment Fund is a permanent philanthropic endowment of Akron Community Foundation. Learn more at www.gaycommunityfund.org.