Sunday, February 8, 2015

Transgendering: The Halfback's High Heels

Godspeed to Bruce Jenner on his/her courageous journey

     (May 10, 2011) The platinum blonde explained the situation in hushed, urgent tones -- although the hush was unnecessary. No one else was in the ladies' room.
    Last year, she had taught undergraduate engineering as Ronald. This year, in what struck me as incredible bravery, she had returned as Rhonda.
    "I really, really, really need your help…," she whispered, "…in learning, you know, how to be feminine. I’ve been scouting around for months looking for a mentor. Won’t you please help me?“
    "I'll tell my friends I'm leaving, and then let's get out of here," I said.
Bruce Jenner is transitioning rapidly and quite gracefully.
     At the time, the mid-’70s, I think the only exposure I’d had to the issue of transsexuality was having met a pre-operative ‘trannie’ in my prison-reform work , and reading about the 1952 Christine Jorgensen case. She had to go to Copenhagen to get the surgery to become a “full-fledged” woman, because it was against the law in the U.S. (the law was to prevent men from changing sex to avoid military service -- how draconian! Besides, 'Christine' had already been a GI and received an honorable discharge.).  Jorgensen wasn’t the first American to make the transition, but her case was the first to be publicized, and it provided salacious fodder for tabloids around the world.  
Christine Jorgensen.
    So I didn’t have a deep understanding of the phenomenon, but I respected it and felt compassion for those in Rhonda’s situation. I had been interested in the subject of gender and sexuality since college, when I had several closeted male and female gay friends. This was in the ‘60s, and their stories of fear and torment were heartbreaking. 
    Then, when I attended the 1968 National Student Conference on Poverty in Colorado Springs, I had dinner with a delicate, waifish  person, whose gender I couldn't determine. Finally he/she put me out of my misery, saying. “In case you’re wondering, I am an intersex person. I was born with the ‘equipment’  for both sexes. I am one of the lucky ones whose parents didn’t make the decision when I was born as to which way I should go. They left it up to me. And I’m going to stay the way I am.”

    It was decades later before I came across this phenomenon again. It was a young woman, who had been in anguish all her life over the sense that she “wasn’t right,” that her impulses, interests and self-concept didn’t fit her gender identity.. When she became actively suicidal, her parents finally told her that she had been born intersex, and when the doctor asked what he should do, they said, “Off with the penis!”
     She got on a low-dose regimen of testosterone, pronounced herself male, and had male sex organs fashioned out of his/her own skin -- not very well, I gathered. Ultimately, he was happy, and happily married to a very warm, sweet girl.
    "Suddenly, all was right with the world for the first time in my life," he said.
    I have read that for many years, doctors didn't  even ask the parents what they wanted to do when a baby of indeterminate gender was born, perhaps believing there would be less torment all around if they simply made the decision on the spot. The current literature indicates that it is becoming more common to leave both “sets” of genitalia intact and permit the individual, as he/she evolves, to make the decision. Many are choosing to be either asexual or bisexual and/or to embody the aspects of each gender that feel natural to them.
    Intersex is actually a much more complex phenomenon than these cases imply. The genitalia are often all mixed up, with a penis so small, for example, that it more closely resembles a clitoris. Or a girl may have reasonably normal external structures but have no ovaries or uterus. Hormonal testing also reflects how wide-ranging and elusive this condition is, which accounts for the wildly disparate estimates of intersex births. It also makes a point that transgender and bisexual people embody, which is that gender and sexuality are neither clear nor easily identified. They are aspects of a spectrum, and each of us is somewhere on that spectrum.

    AS RHONDA AND I WALKED through the darkened streets of Greenwich Village, she explained to me that she was a pre-operative transsexual who had begun a hormone regimen and "lived as a woman" all summer. This was a required interlude that was pretty much standard nationwide. She still had more than a year and a half to go before she would be considered for gender-reassignment surgery. Her colleagues and students had been surprisingly accepting, but she was scared and filled with insecurity. She knew she was a woman in her brain and heart, but she was afraid she would never be able to project it convincingly to the outside world. 
    “What if I go through this whole thing and I’m still a freak?” she implored. “Will I always be an outsider?”
    It wasn’t going to be easy for her to “pass” as an everyday female. Rhonda  was very tall. She had huge hands and feet. Her jaw was large and prominent, and despite the thick makeup she wore, a sort of five o’clock shadow was clearly visible. In her denim miniskirt and high-heeled platform shoes, and with that flamboyant blonde wig, and with the too-glossy coral lips and pearly blue eye shadow, she looked -- to be brutally honest (which I wasn’t, with her) -- like a transvestite whore.
    Her request for my assistance was hilariously ironic. I had resented being a girl since adolescence --  being expected to behave a certain way and cultivate specific talents and confine myself to gender-appropriate occupations. I had attempted to defy this paradigm by stomping around New York in combat boots, swearing quite liberally, drinking heavily and smoking (well, I tried) unfiltered cigarettes. People just laughed at my charade. I guess the deeply ingrained girlishness showed through. I gradually resigned myself to the fact that I am fundamentally feminine, thanks more to my mother -- in my opinion -- than to my genes. So I had pretty much surrendered to that reality.
    But that didn't mean I enjoyed it. And it certainly seemed to me that I wasn't the right person to teach it.
    "I like your style, sugar.” Rhonda said, with her faint Southern accent. "Just spend some time with me and let me observe.“
     We got to her apartment, which was a small, cluttered studio.
    "I make a good salary, but most of it goes to my wife and kids in Boston," she said. She proceeded to make us a pot of jasmine tea.
    As Ronald, she had gone to college on a football scholarship. She had been a star athlete and an outstanding student. She married young and had two children, all in a heart-wrenching attempt to live within her “assigned role.“  She had become a respected engineer in one of the largest firms in the country, but she was miserable in the pervasively masculine, competitive  environment there and decided to try academe.
    She told me she had known since she was three years old that she was female.

    “Imagine the agony of having to live this lie,” she said tearfully. “I didn’t want to play with the boys, and the girls didn’t want me to play with them. I have always felt so alone.”
    Her parents assumed she was gay. It was true that she wanted a man to love, but that was a separate issue. She knew, in her brain and everywhere else, that she was a woman. An extensive battery of tests and exhaustive psychological assessments had validated her belief that she was a woman in a man’s body. She had what is known as Gender Dysphoria. According to the medical literature, the absolute compulsion of classical transsexualism is a matter of life and death and -- although I question this statistic -- the suicide rate is said by multiple sources to be 50 percent. 

    “Living as a woman, taking my hormone shots, even having the surgery, won’t be enough,” Rhonda told me. “I need to acquire all those affectations, gestures and manners, ways of moving and speaking  and laughing and even eating….I have to build up this superficial feminine self or I’ll never be taken seriously for the woman that I am inside.”
    There was another hurdle, and this one was very problematic: The earlier in life that a transsexual undergoes hormonal and surgical intervention, the more likely the transition is to be successful. Rhonda was in her thirties, and she had been awash in male hormones for so many years, that many of her physical characteristics were deeply entrenched. There was no way that hormones and surgery -- and not even cosmetic surgery -- could reverse her height, big bones and basic facial structure. I was afraid she would always come across as a drag queen. 

     I was especially upset by the thought that her most cherished dream -- to have a man fall in love with her and take her as his wife -- might never come true.
    I have tried unsuccessfully to find data on the percentage of transsexuals who are able to have fulfilling romantic relationships. I have read about a few marriages and seen one depicted in a documentary. There have even been situations in which a husband finally breaks down and tells his wife that he must become a woman or he will die. In at least several of these cases, the wife has remained and the marriage has gone on.
    During my work as a “watchdog” on behalf of prison inmates at Rikers Island, I had dealt with a number of gay men, transvestites and one pre-operative transsexual, Ambrosia (

    The prison doctor, Aaron Brody, told me that transsexuality is a bona fide physiological condition, (although I learned many years later, in 1999, that it had lost the stigma of being classified as a “mental” disorder).  It occurs because of imbalances in the hormones in the womb. Each brain has a sex, he told me, and the circuitry differs between genders. The brain, not the body, is where the “self” is.
    Cultures as diverse as Ancient Rome, India and the American Navajo not only recognize but even revere transsexual people, he told me.

    The photo below, by Aaron Tredwell, is from an excellent article on the rising visibility of transgendered people in arts, culture and society in general. It appeared in the March 13 2014 issue of the New York Times (
Janet Mock came out as transgender in a 2011 Marie Claire profile.

    Recent data indicate that 33 percent of transgender youth have attempted suicide,  55 percent report being physically attacked, 74 percent report having been sexually harassed at school, and 90 percent report feeling unsafe at school because of their gender expression. The number of transgender kids who wind up homeless, on the streets, is staggering.
    Estimates of the percentage of the population that is transsexual vary so dramatically as to be quite useless -- from one in every 500 (a U.S. statistic) to one in every 54,000 (a European statistic). Here again, I assume that the definition being used accounts for the discrepancy.
    A more useful number, I think, comes from Tarynn M. Witten, Executive Director of the TranScience Research Institute. He focuses on the broader transgender spectrum and has found that, of a random international sample, 8 percent of respondents self-identified as something other than strictly "male" or "female."
    “These people go through absolute hell, pretty much every moment of their lives;” Brody said. "There is a constant dichotomy between who they really are and who they are forced to be. If they don’t play by the rules, they risk ridicule, assault and death.”
    Chaz Bono, Cher’s 42-year-old daughter-turned-son, says, “For 99 percent of people, the gender in the brain and the gender in the body are in alignment. For transgender people, they’re mismatched. That’s all it is. It’s not complicated, it’s not a neurosis. It’s a mix-up. It’s a birth defect, like a cleft palate.” A documentary about Chaz’s transition will air tonight on the OWN Network. He and his longtime girlfriend Jennifer Elia are pictured below.
    Chaz admits that he tolerated the company of women more easily when he was Chastity Bono. “There is something in testosterone that makes the talking and gossiping (of women) really grating. I’ve stopped talking as much. I’ve noticed that Jen can talk endlessly.” He shrugged. “I just kind of zone out…. I’ve learned that the differences between men and women are so biological….I think if people realized that, it would be easier. I know the difference that hormones really make.” 
    Chaz did a wonderful job in his appearance on Oprah's talk show. He was articulate, candid, insightful, compassionate and very sexy. Jennifer was delightful and dignified, despite Oprah's intrusive questions.
    Rhonda brought the tea and some cheese and crackers to the table.
    “Like one of the things I noticed about you is that when you are drinking, you hold your little pinkie out. That is so cute!” she said. “It’s one of so many things I want to learn through osmosis by being in your company.”
    “Oh my god Rhonda, don’t do that!” I exclaimed. “People have been teasing me all my life about the pinkie thing. It’s not feminine -- it’s silly -- like some snooty British affectation. I wish to god that I could stop doing it!”
    “When I noticed your cute pinkie, I saw that you don’t wear nail polish,” she said. “You are so lucky not to need it. I have to wear these press-on nails, or my hands look gross.”
    The press-on nails looked gross to me. They were fire-engine red and curved like claws. “I’ve worn them since I went into puberty. It was my way of trying to fight back at the testosterone that was cementing me into being even more 'wrong' than I already was.” 
    The worst hell she had been through so far was puberty, she said.
    “There you are, totally knowing you’re a girl, and suddenly all these male sexual impulses are ripping through you,” she said. “Testosterone was like a poison to me, and there was nothing I could do to clamp it down. I was masturbating constantly, trying to get rid of it. I felt like an evil, disgusting monkey. I never hated myself more.”
    Indeed, many transsexuals describe puberty as the most terrible phase of their dysphoria, saying they felt they were being betrayed and even raped by their own bodies
    Rhonda explained to me that she was now undergoing a “second puberty” as a result of her estrogen injections.
    “It is heavenly, to have this thing you always knew you needed flowing through your veins,” she said. “I lie in bed and just touch and hug myself. I can feel the changes in my skin and my musculature. I am like a butterfly, slowly slipping out of my chrysalis.”
    This is the winner of Miss International Queen 2007, a Thai transgender beauty contest.
Tanyarat Jirapatpakon, winner of Miss International Queen 2007, a Thai transgender beauty contest

    But even if she succeeded in finally becoming a “real woman” through and through, she said she would always grieve the loss of a “back story.”
    “Sylvia, you are so, so lucky! You have always gotten to be a girl and have all the feelings and friendships and experiences that a girl has, that build up and form the foundation for being the woman you are,” Rhonda said. “I will never have that. I never had a period! I never hugged and laughed with my girlfriends or got asked to the prom or had a boy kiss me. I never got to be pretty and just feel that excitement of being a girl who was adored. That hole will always be there. Everything is totally fractured.”
    Rhonda explained to me that her ability to be a woman convincingly -- to acquire the proper affectations of movement, speech, gait, gesture, laughter -- were far more important to her survival than the surgery. 

Rhys and Zachary are married. Each is transgender.
    “Just being able to use a bathroom, any bathroom, without getting arrested or killed, is one example,” she said. “Being able to walk down a street and not be assaulted with disgusted stares or lewd comments. But if you wind up in the emergency room and they think you’re some freak, with some horrid little jerry-rigged genitals, they will leave you there to die, and I swear to god honey, that has happened.
   “So I have to emulate the desired gender role, and I am watching you like a hawk. Like how you are sitting right now, with your ankles crossed. The way you shake your hair back when it falls across your face. The way you nod and smile and how much you say with your eyes. You are saying, ‘I care’ with your eyes. And how you sip! It is such a darling sip!”
    I told Rhonda I wanted to help as much as possible.
    “But I watch other women too, Rhonda. And truly, I have no doubt that many of them, if not most of them, could help you more. I’m clumsy! I’m not at ease with myself. Let me help you find a better guide through this wilderness. This is too important to screw up.” 
   Rhonda jumped up and brought back a cassette recorder. “I have got to get you on tape, so I can practice those inflections,” she said. “Even when you say ‘screw up’ it sounds so dainty!”
    Tomorrow was Saturday. I agreed to go shopping with Rhonda, even though I hated shopping. She wanted to go to Bloomingdale’s and Saks Fifth Avenue and “have a ball trying on clothes.” I hate trying on clothes!
    “I’d love to,” I said.
    In my reading and relationships since that time, I have learned that even if transsexuals are able to learn the mannerisms, conform to the “gender script” that most of us absorb naturally from childhood, and are willing to meet societal expectations, they may well discover that they are  just as unable to be their real selves as they were before undergoing the arduous, wrenching and expensive process of gender reassignment. Gender is more confining than most of us probably realize.
    Surgery and hormones can be profoundly life-altering. There are an estimated 700,000 transsexuals in the U.S. (I assume this includes those at every stage, even those who have done nothing more than to realize with certainty that they are “trapped in the wrong body”). I find the data indicating that 98 percent of those who have had the surgery are satisfied -- making it the most successful surgical procedure of all -- to be highly suspect. I have also learned that fewer and fewer transsexuals are having "bottom surgery." It apparently remains quite primitive, and both men and women are finding that they can get the gender reassignment relief they need without altering their genitals. Chaz Bono is one of those who says he is unlikely to get the surgery, although like most female-to-male transsexuals, he felt absolutely compelled to have his breasts removed.
    I do believe, having read in the intervening years about a number of transsexuals, that the hormones alone can envelop the man or woman in a swell of bliss, of rightness and relief, that finally their bodies are on track to correspond with their minds. 
    The brilliant Jennifer Diane Rietz, who underwent her transformation 20 years ago, is extraordinarily articulate about this process: 
    “As my flesh, under the gentle but powerful magic of female hormones, began to change, as my sex drive fell away and the driving demon that possessed me was exorcised, I began to feel light as air. Sylphlike, I floated on wings of hope, and knew peace in my body, my mind and my soul. Oh, the difference! Where male hormones made me feel poisoned and sick to die, driven by sweaty-dark aggression, female hormones made me feel innocent and pure, filled with light and gentle contentment. I felt cherubic and new born, and I knew in a matter of weeks that my choice was correct.
   “It felt so wonderful to shapeshift ! Every day held promise, for I enjoyed a second childhood of soft growing wonder. I saw my hands soften and become delicate again, a sight lost to puberty. I itched sweetly inside my growing bosom, and the sea of life within my body altered its flow to fit the contours of my soul. I was no longer in the back of the dark theater of my perception, I was outside that metaphoric theater altogether, living life fully, as I do to this day. I knew constant hope, and the exquisite pleasure of being resculpted by the very Nature who once betrayed me. The Mother was repairing Her mistake.”
    Transsexuals soon learn, though, that gender will remain -- for some time, anyway -- a journey, not a destination. They will learn that what they are seeking can’t be characterized by a simple word like man or woman.
    “The reason to go through transition is to be able to be content with the flesh that we wear, so that we can concentrate on being a changing, dynamic, unique individual expression of our heartfelt selves,” according to Rietz.
    She poignantly writes about the experiences she will never have, even though she is now a woman. She still has to hide her history, essentially remaining in the closet, or things can get ugly, or even dangerous, fast.
    “(For example), it is best for me to stay as far away from the children of any person as possible, because my past makes me an instant target of bigotry. What greater horror to any mother than to have one of those perverted, sick, transsexual freaks around, corrupting their children?” she asks. “Such situations make me feel alien, outside, passing for human. Excluded from life.”
    RHONDA AND I MET  for coffee at a great, cheap coffee house near the 14th Street subway station before heading uptown for our fashionista experience. I was dismayed to see that she was wearing hot pants, which I didn’t like on anyone, but especially not on someone who was more than six feet tall. She also wore an elaborately sequinned vest and a beret.
    Once again, she had set her little tape recorder in front of me, as if I were going to teach her a foreign language. “You take such tiny bites of toast -- that’s perfect!” Rhonda said. “And your pinkie is out again when you spread the jelly!”
   “Damn this pinkie, I’ll have it amputated if you start emulating  it to be more feminine,” I told her. “It’s a bad habit. Don’t do it!”
    Our shopping excursion was a bigger disaster than I had imagined. Not only did no one have anything remotely large enough for Rhonda; they also treated her with wariness and apprehension at best, disgust at worst.
   “Where have you been buying your clothes?” I asked, as we walked down Lexington Avenue. I could see that she was trying to mimic my walk, which really is an odd, unattractive walk that I think must be from some sort of hip-joint abnormality. I wondered if I should get out of this relationship before I did her more harm than good.
    “I’ve been making them,” she said. "I started making my sisters’ dresses and skirts in high school. I designed and sewed the suit my mother was buried in. But I want some real clothes made by real clothiers. Anyway, I‘m too busy with my job to be zooming away on my trusty little Singer, churning out new outfits.”
    I realized that we were across the street from a  gallery owned by a gay friend of mine, and I thought he might have some suggestions.
    “Trannie boutique!” he said instantly. “That’s their specialty -- women’s clothes for big dudes. There are several of them in the East Village, one on Bleeker, and at least one on Canal.”
    Over the next several weeks, Rhonda and I shopped together, tore pictures out of fashion magazines, played around with makeup at her apartment and bought some less flamboyant wigs. One night, she insisted on modeling some new “nighties” for me. It was the first time I had ever really confronted the fact that she had a penis down there.  I had a bit of a dizzy spell. We spent a number of evenings at parties, restaurants and bars so she could practice the social niceties and the art of flirtation.    
    “Just be you, and let me watch -- you‘re my exotic anthropological specimen,” Rhonda told me, reassuringly. “Don’t worry about what I’m getting out of it. I’m getting plenty.”
    She wasn’t, as far as I could tell. She was slightly less garish -- I hate to use that word, but she did start out that way -- but I believed that my role in her transition to womanhood was virtually worthless. I introduced her to other women, whom I regarded as greatly superior role models, and even to a transvestite who fooled almost everybody when she was “all done up” in what she called her “full regalia.” 
 Young transvestite man in colored wig and leopard clothes Stock Photo - 7022018
    I talked to her about finding some sort of finishing school -- the kind of place where rich people send their daughters to learn the finer points of feminine demeanor. She didn’t want to. She said she was doing fine.
    She was loving those hormones. “Boobies at last!” she cried. She said her skin and the contours of her body were metamorphosing before her eyes. I saw no difference. She was ecstatic about the emotions and sensations the estrogen was eliciting in her.
    “I am being reborn before your eyes,” she said.
    All I could do at that point was to be supportive and hope that by some miracle this whole confusing, chaotic mess would turn out well for her. Frankly, I felt sick about it.
    A few months after our friendship and “womanhood lessons” began, I moved to Denver, to become editor of a magazine. I promised Rhonda that we could speak as often as she wished, and indeed we continued to talk a couple of times a week.   
    The last time I heard from Rhonda, she sent me a note saying she had accepted a full professorship on the West Coast. She also sent me several cassettes.
    One of the reasons she had accepted the offer was that it paid substantially more, and she still needed several thousand dollars to finance her surgery. She had decided to pack up her crappy little Dodge Dart and spend the summer driving around the country, trying out her different possible “selves.” She promised to send me “postcards galore,’” but the only one I got was from Berryville, Virginia, which happens to be the town where I was born.
    If you were to hear the cassettes Rhonda sent me without having met her, you would probably think they were laughably melodramatic. What she had done, she explained in the first cassette, was to douse the lights in her apartment, light some candles, turn on some soft jazz music, and let her stream-of-consciousness loose. Maybe she was having a bit to drink as well, because she had clearly forgotten to employ the “voice and diction” training on which we had worked so hard.
    Hour after hour, she alternated between sobs and quivering outpourings of her misery and loneliness, her “wasted” lifetime, her fear that she would never fit in, no matter what she did, her aching desire to be loved and held by a man, her searing pain at what an exhausting agony it was just to go to the grocery store, where she would face one horrified stare, insult or avoidance after another.
    “Sylvia, you have no idea how many times I have gone hungry for that reason alone!” she sobbed. “I’ve gone for days with nothing but Saltines and Fresca.”
    The five cassettes essentially comprised her autobiography, beginning with her first inklings that she was not a boy, “not even the teeniest bit,” she said. All of her accolades as a jock , and even as a lover, had propelled her more deeply into a life she knew wasn’t sustainable.
    It was change or die, she said.
    I believe the latter may have occurred. I had watched her try to change, and I had tried the best I could to help her, but I am afraid that the superficial architecture of manhood in her was indestructible. Her lady’s brain, her pantyhose and high heels, her flair for cooking and arranging flowers, her preference for women’s magazines, books and TV shows, her feminine style of expression emotion and affection -- I was sickened by the thought that this might not be enough for her to be accepted without prejudice by either men or women.
    I hoped to god that I was wrong. Why should I think that others wouldn’t love and embrace her as I had? When that thought occurred to me, it gave me hope.
    A couple of weeks went by, and I hadn’t heard from her, so I sent a letter to her at Yellowstone Lodge, where she had reservations in mid-July. She never showed up. And two months later, I called the engineering department at which she was expected, and they told me she should have been there two weeks earlier, but that she had never arrived or alerted them to any delay.
    With some trepidation about violating her privacy, I asked the department chairman if he was aware of her “situation,” and he said that he was. I told him I was concerned that she might have met a violent end during her travels, especially through the South, or that perhaps she even committed suicide. He vowed to alert the proper authorities.
     Rhonda has never been found. If she is alive, I think she must be about 70 years old.
    If you are out there, Rhonda, please know that I love you, and that you touched me with your beautiful spirit and your pain as much as anyone else has in my life. I hope you have found peace, somewhere.

    I spend a hilarious and touching afternoon with Ambrosia, a pre-operative transsexual, and a gang of transvestite prostitutes who are inmates at Rikers Island.

   I have learned through an organization of professional engineers that Rhonda died several years ago, apparently alone and jobless. There was no obituary.

    December 2012 marked the 60th anniversary of the Christine Jorgensen transition.  I was saddened to learn that she and her fiance were denied the right to marry because she had not been born a woman. She died in 1989 at the age of 63.
  Renee Richards, a pioneer in the transgender movement, is now quietly practicing medicine in New York. A documentary about her remarkable life, "Renee," premieres October 5, 2011 on ESPN (she fought a long battle to play tennis as a woman in the U.S. Open). This Los Angeles Times article sums up her life nicely:,0,2557155.story?track=lat-pick 

 Australia's highest court ruled on October 5, 2011 that two transgender people can be legally recognised as men, even though they have not had complete sex changes.