Nancy Ledins: Advocate

Ruby's Rap

by Ruby Comer

Unwanted hair is a drag, especially when it propagates on the upper lip of a classy woman like myself. A moustache I don’t need! (I had a few stragglers on my chest too, but we’ll leave that for another time.) To tackle this issue, many moons ago, I would make a weekly pilgrimage to an electrology school in Los Angeles, where student interns removed my useless hair. This is where I met Nancy Ledins, a super woman with a big personality—and an even bigger heart.

Photo courtesy N. Ledins

Nan, as I’ve always called her, has had many incarnations. After she plucked a few hairs, I learned that she had just transitioned and that “he” was a former Catholic priest, Father William Griglak, a native of Cleveland. Yes, Nan had been a cleric. She was the first priest to ever transition. This was way before Caitlyn Jenner. Back in the seventies, the subject was taboo in the mainstream.

As a priest, Father Griglak was a highly regarded school history teacher and athletic director. He also served in the armed forces as an Army Chaplain in Viet Nam. He received many awards in recognition of his work. Father Griglak received his PhD in psychology and counseled in the field of addiction and directed the Suicide Prevention Center in Pueblo, Colorado. (Nan is a published author and she is also a member of MENSA.) Ms. Ledins also worked briefly with Sister Mary Elizabeth Clark, who created AEGIS (AIDS Education and Global Information System), an early Internet global informational platform.

Nan and I became BFFs, but eventually she moved on, teaching and lecturing on

Illustration by Davidd Batalon

electrolysis in other cities and becoming the director of each school at which she taught. Her passion also extended to causes and one of them was AIDS. Together we participated in several AIDS Walks, one time alongside Carrie Fisher [A&U, April 1998]—delightful, friendly, and down-to-earth. Carrie, Nan, and I became fast friends, frequenting AIDS benefits, and even volunteering with Project Angel Food, delivering food to housebound clients. I really miss Carrie….

Over time, Nan and I moved on with our lives and we lost contact. I decided to do a search and tracked her down in Charlotte, North Carolina. At eighty-four she’s retired and in fragile health. She does keep active by preaching at her non-denominational church and she still waves the banner for human rights and HIV, by attending fundraisers and other local events.

Nan has lent support to RAIN, a nonprofit that was established in 1992 that provides care to those who are HIV-positive. The education and advocacy organization empowers youth, provides medical case management, and a social support system. When it first was established, RAIN stood for Regional AIDS Interfaith Network.

After visiting RAIN, I drive my rent-a-car to Nan’s suburban apartment. We cozy up on a royal blue sofa in her living room, where the picture window offers a calming view of a voluminous graceful elm tree. She lives in a quiet neighborhood reminiscent of the fictional Mayberry.

Ruby Comer: My gosh, sister, this town is so friendly, I’m wondering if Sheriff Andy Taylor and Aunt Bea live across the street! [We both chuckle and embrace.] I can’t tell you how spine-tingling it feels to be sitting here with you after all these years….[She sports a tender smile.]
Nancy Ledins: Likewise, Ruby.

My god, I’ve always told you this, but, hands down, your life needs to be turned into a movie!
Well, who knows, Ruby. The pastor of my church is currently writing my life story.

Hey, hey, hey! Let’s see what actor we can get to play you. [Nan rolls her eyes with a dismissive glance.] I think Kathy Bates could fill the shoes nicely! Such a fascinating life you’ve led, Nan. I mean, at one point you even got married, correct?
Yes, from 1970 to 1979. Her name was Dodie. We met when I was still a priest and was conducting a month-long retreat. Among the participants was this nun, Dodie. I later found out that she fell in love with me. When I left the priesthood, she left the convent. We were married in Colorado. She was a marvelous person!

[She takes a sip of iced coffee that I brought from a corner coffee stand.] Several years into our relationship, I was honest with Dodie about my true feelings of wanting to transition. I convinced her that I could “beat the odds.” [Nan tilts her head and briefly pauses.] After 1979, I was not in contact with her. And, Ruby…I just found out that she died in August of 2015.

Sorry to hear, Nan. I know you two had a special bond. Several years after transitioning, you fell in love with another woman, a Shaman. I’ve often seen this with others who transition from male to female. Why do you think many retain their sexual preferences?
My answer may sound glib but I think that it’s easier and more comfortable.

One thing I learned from you was never to call a person, “transsexual,” as it has nothing to do with sex, you said. It’s …. transgender!
[Nan nods in earnest.]

Swedish magazine article about Nancy Ledins, circa 1980

Directly after you transitioned, I recall you received death threats and some nasty things were written about you. [In the Catholic Church, once ordained a priest, you are one for life.] Any regrets about having gender confirmation surgery?
An emphatic no! Had I not pursued the gender change, which included SRS [sex reassignment surgery], I feel strongly that I would have taken my life back in the sixties or seventies.

[My eyes moisten, we hold hands.] I always considered you a trailblazer, honey. I mean, it’s Christine Jorgensen (1952) and Renée Richards (1975), then Father Griglak! What would you say to someone who is currently transitioning?
Make sure you’re in the “correct ballpark.” In other words, clearly knowing whether this is general or whether it is cross-dressing in disguise. A number of those who think or feel they are transitioning gender are really cross-dressing in disguise.

Good point. So you have now been a woman nearly as along as you were presenting as a man. What advice can you give about living a fulfilling life?
For the first forty-seven years of my life as a man, I went through various chapters never feeling congruent or fulfilled. After the gender change my advice would be to first of all be grateful for every day. Secondly, I felt that what really fulfilled my purpose in life was to become involved in a career or cause. For me it was teaching electrology and helping people in the field to realize their full potential. I sidelined that with working towards women’s rights, breast cancer, gender reassignment, and HIV.

Back in the day you campaigned for condom usage and getting tested….[She interrupts.]
I still strongly advocate both! If I were to counsel someone about sex, I would advise them to find out about the other person’s status and proceed with caution. It is highly important to get tested on a regular basis. When I was active sexually, I got tested.

Remember that one time we went together to get tested! [Recalling, we both grin knowingly.] I know, Nan, that you have a strong belief in God. If God represents love, how could he allow AIDS to be inflicted on mankind?
When all is hunky dory we hope that the person loved knows of our love, but when things are tough and there is evil—depression, disagreement, tsunami, illness, AIDS, and so on—only then do we really know without a doubt that we love another or that we are loved. Our God is a strange God, but a God who knows that without incompleteness, without pain, without even death, we would never be able to say that we are loved—without a shadow of a doubt. Our God turns everything on its head. Evil is the only sure-fire way to be able to say we love another and we are loved.

Photo courtesy Los Angeles Times Photographic Archives (Collection 1429). UCLA Library Special Collections, Charles E. Young Research Library, UCLA.

In essence, when disaster strikes, humans come together. Period. When you preach at church, what do you talk about?
The topics usually follow a Gospel reading of the day. I try to help people live better, think better, and share their beliefs with others.

You always were an altruistic gal! How would you counsel someone who suffers from a terminal disease and fears death?
[She chortles]…with great difficulty. Having said that, I think a person with a terminal illness knows there is an end time and the counseling time is meant to open that door into the next dimension. Since I also believe in reincarnation, I find it easier to talk of the next dimension instead of the finality of this earth span time.

Through all of your ups and downs, did you ever stop believing in God?
No. I was most fortunate in meeting Ramtha [an entity] and having a fabulous theologian friend in Jim Fitz. Both taught me that we are living a unique adventure, which allow us to look with fascination at life, death, and the next dimension.

I strongly believe in the next dimension, Ruby. Believing in reincarnation, perhaps that means settling on another galaxy. Whether that is fact or not, my belief structure says that one short lifetime can’t be all there is. [I offer up my cuppa chai tea and we clink with a “cheers” as Nan concludes)]I believe we live on….

Ruby Comer is an independent journalist from the Midwest who is happy to call Hollywood her home away from home. Reach her by e-mail at [email protected].