Ten Arizona legislators are sitting around a horseshoe-shaped desk, debating a bill that would force educators to out transgender students to their parents.
Members of the public, some of them clutching notes, watch from the rows of gray seats behind a wooden podium.
Among them is Paul Bixler, sitting, listening, waiting for her turn to speak.
It's January, and Bixler's first time at a meeting of the House Education Committee. She's there because of House Bill 2161.
The wide-ranging bill would require schools to get consent from parents before surveying students on topics like guns, religion and money. It would grant parents access to their child's counseling records (though a right to access all records already exists in the state Parents Bill of Rights).
And it would allow parents to sue if they felt a school had "usurped" their fundamental right to raise their kids as they saw fit.
But Bixler wants to address one specific line.
The line would mean educators could not withhold or conceal information from parents about a student's "purported gender identity or requested transition, if the student's purported gender identity or expression is incongruous with the student's biological sex".
Most speakers at the committee meeting support the bill. Their sentiment is clear: my children, my business.
Then Bixler's name is called, and she approaches the podium.
"My name is Paul Bixler," she begins. "I am a citizen of Arizona."
Bixler tells the committee she sits on the board of the Liberty Elementary School District, which covers eight schools on the outskirts of metropolitan Phoenix. But, she says, she isn't there to speak for the board.
She is there just as herself, a 72-year-old transgender woman.
"I know from personal experience that transitioning is not easy," she says. "It's hard."
She argues the proposed law would harm, not help, vulnerable children.
"When you threaten a child's disclosure with exposure, those children will continue to question, but will not seek the highly qualified individuals that could assist them," she says. "Threatening dedicated trained caregivers with litigation also threatens the welfare of the children within that student population.
"When you marginalize this student population and force them to go into hiding, they won't stop questioning," she says. "They simply will not receive the help that they need."
Bixler says forcing children into the closet will seriously affect their well-being, and spark drug use, homelessness, and ill mental health.
"But I believe there's a bigger question here," she says.
Bixler knows the bill is just one of many aimed at transgender youth, in Arizona and around the country. She looks up from her notes, eyeing the committee members.
"What are you afraid of?"
'It's been positive'
Bixler lives in Goodyear, in a spacious home thoughtfully decorated in desert colors. It's on a sculpted cul-de-sac, lined with cactuses, in the long shadows of the Estrella Mountains, right on the edge of the city sprawl.
It's a conservative pocket of metropolitan Phoenix. In 2020, when Arizona turned blue, 59% of Bixler's precinct voted for Trump.
You might expect a transgender woman — and a Democrat to boot — to feel like a fish out of water.
But not Bixler.
"It's been pretty positive," she tells The Arizona Republic.
She goes everywhere, she says, and is mostly met with blissful indifference.
"When I do get a reaction, it's usually the little kids. They'll kind of look at me, they kind of wonder what's going on," she says. "And I just smile and wave at them and so on."
But Bixler, a retired school teacher, was left in disbelief at the January meeting as legislators grappled with the issues at hand.
"The lack of understanding is just amazing," she says.
"I couldn't believe this guy didn't understand why a child would feel that having this deep, dark secret exposed without their permission would be a problem.
"How could they not see that?"
Bixler hasn't in the past made a habit of turning up to committee meetings. But the gender identity clause in HB2161 seemed so patently unfair that she felt compelled to say something.
"I figured I was in a good place to do that," she says.
She was certainly in a unique place to speak out.
As someone who transitioned — albeit late in life, which carries different considerations than with children — Bixler understands the process. She knows what it feels like to have gender dysphoria from a young age, and to go through life trying to repress it.
And, Bixler knows schools.
She spent more than three decades working in the public school system in Arizona and Texas, in roles ranging from teacher to coach to principal.
She also may very well be the first transgender woman to hold an elected public office in Arizona.
In 2020, she found herself with time on her hands, and wanting to contribute to the community.
"I thought, 'shoot, what I know is public education. And right here in Arizona, they could use me.'"
So in the summer of 2020, she went from door to door in her district, collecting signatures to get on the ballot for the Liberty Elementary School District board.
Bixler is so gregarious that it's actually believable when she says she enjoys canvassing, even in the Arizona heat. "I like people," she says, grinning.
The election was uncontested in the end, and so Bixler is careful to clarify she is not the first transgender woman to actually be elected to public office in Arizona.
It's hard to pin down those kinds of firsts. No one is officially keeping track, there are a ton of public office positions, and transgender identity is not always apparent.
But Bixler's research has not uncovered anyone else. "I've looked under a lot of rocks," she says.
"I just felt that I was probably as good a person as any to step forward," Bixler says.
"That I had enough experience, in so many areas that that would be touched upon, that I could be of help."
HB2161 passed the education committee that day, 6-4, went on to pass through the legislature and was signed by Gov. Doug Ducey on April 29.
But along the way, the "purported gender identity" language was removed. Other parts of the bill remained largely intact.
In recent months, Ducey has signed into law a bill banning gender reassignment surgery for minors, which Bixler also spoke on at committee, and another banning transgender girls from playing on girls' school sports teams.
Intersex advocates say: Arizona's ban on surgeries for trans minors hurts both groups
Planning for one future
Originally from Akron, Ohio, Bixler's family moved to Phoenix in 1955, when she was five.
She and her mother and twin sister lived all over the valley, their zip code changing with their financial fortunes. It was just the three of them, after Bixler's father died when she was 10.
Even as a child yet to hit double digits, Bixler knew she was different, somehow.
"But I didn't know what it was," she says.
She thinks she was around 11 when she learned about Christine Jorgensen, the first transgender woman in the United States to receive widespread publicity after undergoing gender reassignment surgery.
Jorgensen's story gave young Bixler the vocabulary for the incongruence she felt, the difference between her body and the way she was perceived, and how she felt about her own gender.
But she stashed those feelings away, not wanting to tell anyone.
Bixler went into teaching and met her wife, Candace, while working at Camelback High School.
A stint out of the classroom selling copiers for Xerox took the couple to Prescott, where they lived for 15 years.
But Bixler became disillusioned with the state of public education in Arizona. She and Candace had two sons by this point, and didn't see a future in the state, either for their children's education or their careers.
So in 1995 the family moved to Austin, Texas, which became home for the next two decades.
"I love Austin," Bixler says. "My very favorite place on earth."
In 2009, Bixler retired, Candace following suit six months later.
Soon after retiring, Candace was diagnosed with breast cancer. After a grueling treatment, she went into remission.
Excited by their newfound freedom and Candace's clean bill of health, the couple started planning for the rest of their lives, what they wanted to do, and where else they might like to live.
But they ran up against a minor problem: They couldn't find anywhere they liked more than Austin.
"It's funny because people knew that we were looking around," Bixler says. "They would ask us, 'Hey, you know, what are you going to do? Are you going to stay?'"
They were sure of one thing only.
"We will never go back to Phoenix."
Dealing with the dysphoria and grief
But the universe had other plans for the Bixlers.
Candace's cancer came back. This time, it was stage four. She started treatment at the Cancer Treatment Centers of America hospital in Goodyear. The building sits just off Interstate 10, along a road called Celebrate Life Way.
Initially, Candace flew back and forth from Austin.
"It just didn't make sense," Bixler says. "An airplane full of people breathing all kinds of weird things, and with a bad immune system."
So in 2015, they moved back to Phoenix. Candace died in 2017. She and Bixler had been married 36 years.
"There's actually a picture of it over there," Bixler said, pointing to a shelf covered in frames.
In another photograph, Candace reclines on a young, sleeping Bixler's chest, looking serenely into the camera. Behind the couple, both dressed in retro mustard, is a tent on a beach in Mexico.
"That's in Rocky Point," Bixler says. "That was the very first picture taken of us."
Candace knew about Bixler's gender dysphoria. She tried to be supportive, Bixler says. To be along for the journey.
"But it was clear that it just wasn't comfortable for her. There was just too much to it that she couldn't do."
It wasn't until after Candace died that Bixler resolved to really explore the feelings she had had since she was a child.
"I just did a Google search: dysphoria and grief," she says. "I figured I was dealing with both."
She saw a counselor about her gender dysphoria. She started hormone replacement therapy. And she came out as a transgender woman, to the surprise and — mostly — support of her family and friends.
"I used to say I didn't have any sad stories (about transitioning). I've since developed a couple of sad stories, but not many," Bixler says. "Overall, it's been very, very positive."
Does she wish she had been able to transition as a child?
It's a thought that she puts to the back of her head. There's nothing she can do about it now. Carrying that regret around is just part of her life.
But it's a nuanced burden.
"Do I wish I had had the courage to do this earlier? Yeah. I think I would have been happier," Bixler says. "But look what I would have missed. I would have missed Candace."
She gestures at the photos.
"For me, that's a good enough trade-off. It was worth it."
She stayed on in Goodyear, for two reasons. First, Austin is expensive. Moving back didn't make financial sense, especially as Bixler and Candace had sold in the Texan capital and bought in Phoenix at the right time.
Which leads to the second reason: the house itself. With money from the Austin sale, Bixler says, Candace was able to decorate their new home in Goodyear.
"It's just so much her," she says. "I just don't see myself leaving it."
'I'm trusting in history'
Bixler believes the current attacks on transgender youth are a backlash to the massive progress her community has made over the past decade.
It's not great right now, she acknowledges. But it's a pendulum. Sooner or later, it will swing back the other way.
"I'm trusting in history," Bixler says. "We may have to get through 2024 before it's going to happen, but I see it coming back and hopefully it'll go a little bit farther."
Come 2024, she will collect signatures for another tilt at the Liberty Elementary School District board, cheerfully greeting people as they answer the door with: "Hi, I'm Paul Bixler."
It's common for transgender people to adopt a new name when they transition, especially if they have a traditionally gendered name.
Like Paul, for example.
"It's interesting in the transgender community, because it appears to me that there are maybe two camps about that," Bixler says.
Bixler has a good friend, also a transgender woman, who sees her own transition as the start of a brand new life.
"That she had one life as a male, and now she's living a life as a female," Bixler says. "And so that person did change their name."
But Bixler doesn't see it that way.
"I don't think I've changed at all. I think I am who I am. And I think I've always been who I am.
"And so my parents named me Paul. I've always liked being Paul," she says, before slipping into the third person.
"Paul Bixler's had a really good life."
Reach the reporter at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @lanesainty.
This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: Paul Bixler hopes trans youth can learn from her experiences