TV & Radio
Posted on Mon, May. 15, 2006
Fighting to become who they've always been
BY SARAH LINN
Knight Ridder Newspapers
There's a perpetual dialogue in the transgender community:
What if you could take a pill and be perfect - the girl you've always been, buried beneath unwanted body hair and testosterone, the man trapped in a female body? An instant, painless transformation.
What if it meant losing your job, alienating your friends and family members? Turning your back on the life you've always known? Would you do it?
"That's the dilemma that we all find," says Michelle Mara, who was born male but identifies as a woman. "That's what tears us apart mentally and makes us into wrecks and drives us to suicide."
More than 50 years after Christine Jorgensen fascinated the world by becoming one of the first to successfully undergo sexual reassignment surgery, questions about gender, sex and the nature of personal identity are back in the public eye.
"Transamerica" star Felicity Huffman won a Golden Globe this year for her portrayal of the born-male Bree, who discovers a long-lost son a week before the final surgery that will make her physically female. The movie comes out on home video May 23.
Members of the transgendered community say "Transamerica" reflects the confusion of being born in the wrong male or female body - torn between who society expects them to be and who they really are.
"It doesn't matter how hard you try to be a man (or woman)," says Lorelei Simone Monet of San Luis Obispo, Calif. "If you're not a man, you don't fit ... You don't belong. And sometimes it gets awfully hard trying to belong."
Growing up male in rural Oregon, Monet remembers her mother's anger at discovering her son playing dress-up with a neighbor girl. When the young boy asked for a Raggedy Ann doll, he received Raggedy Andy. Instead of a pink kitten toy, he got a blue puppy.
"I knew there was something wrong for wanting them," says Monet, now a 58-year-old woman who flaunts her femininity with magenta nails and colorful skirts and blouses.
"I tried to be a boy, and I wanted to be," she adds. "But I also knew that I didn't know things other boys knew, and I didn't have an interest in things that other boys did."
Monet struggled to make friends, always feeling uncomfortable with other boys fascinated by cars and sports. The youngster tried out for football one year only to spend most of the season warming the bench.
Then, in fifth grade, Monet read a Sunday newspaper supplement about Christine Jorgensen, who was making the interview rounds to discuss her physical transformation from male to female. Concepts like transsexualism and "gender dysphoria," as some psychologists call it, had yet to enter the cultural mainstream.
"I knew then that's what I was," says Monet, who remembers hiding the article under her mattress. "And then I worked very hard on not being that."
Alcoholism became the way Monet hid her transgendered identity through a year with the U.S. Navy and more than a decade at male-dominated high-tech companies in the Silicon Valley. She married a woman and divorced six years later, constantly clouded by depression and thoughts of suicide.
"Everyone was a man, except me," Monet says. "I just pretended to be one."
Finally, Monet says, she knew "that guy" - her male persona - "had to die." She had to sober up. She had to transform into a woman.
Mara also spent years repressing her desire to dress and act like a woman - disguising her feminine side with sports and hunting trips for wild pigs, bears and mountain lions.
Her first exposure to Christine Jorgensen's story came at age 18 or 19. She was a freshman at California Polytechnic State University living with conservative parents who made it clear "this was the kind of thing you buried," Mara says.
Around the same time, she attended a human sexuality class that identified transvestism - and transsexualism by proxy - as a mental illness for which the most successful treatment was shock therapy.
"I was terrified that anyone would find out that I was as disgusting a creature as this," Mara says. "I made the choice that I would rather keep it buried and repressed and deny it, even to myself."
If it went any further, she adds, "I thought suicide was a lot easier, cleaner, quicker, better for everybody involved."
Shocked by the revelation, Mara dropped out of college and spent nearly a decade working in a traditionally masculine job that required hard physical labor in the harsh outdoors. Around 1981, a friend introduced Mara to her future wife.
"The first thing that went through my mind was, 'Well, it's all been a mistake. It was wrong. ... Just put it behind you and let it go.'" Mara says.
Setting emotional concerns aside, she re-devoted her life to living as a man, a husband deeply in love with his wife. She fathered two children, got a new job and moved the family into their first home.
But after eight years of marriage and family, the psychological torment returned. She had recurring dreams about having a picnic with her wife while dressed as a woman.
Distraught, she'd hide behind their upscale house and cry "so hard I'd make myself sick.
"You can't imagine what it is to look in the mirror and have a severe case of self-loathing," she says.
During sleepless nights, she started searching on the Internet and found an online group support group for hundreds of transgendered people like herself.
"Here I was out there making myself sick because I was the only one in the world suffering from this and I didn't want to do this to my wife," Mara says. She told her wife the truth two days before the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
"We were sitting in bed having coffee when the two towers got hit," Mara recalls. "She told me, 'See, what's happening to you is not terrible. This is terrible.'"
"Her love was so deep for me that it was beyond gender," Mara says with a smile.
Mara couldn't be more fortunate to have a partner who accepts her transgendered status, Doug Heumann says. He was a woman living with a female partner when he first announced his desire to transition into manhood.
"I knew I had to at least face the fact that I was more than a lesbian," he says. "What I did about that was still up for grabs."
For Heumann, who grew up female in a devout Catholic family in suburban Illinois, girlhood as Debra was a turbulent time. He fought constantly with his parents about wearing dresses and resisted getting a bra.
At the same time, Heumann found himself drawn to other girls.
At age 18, he says, it finally clicked. He wasn't merely a woman attracted to other women, but a heterosexual man in a woman's body.
"I didn't have the courage to step out of my family's influence," the 53-year-old says. "I didn't have enough self-belief."
Heumann turned to alcohol to deal with the confusion, finally quitting as an engineering student in Missouri. He moved to Los Angeles to work for Lockheed Martin in 1983 and then to San Luis Obispo for a Caltrans job in 1991, convinced "I was moving to Nirvana and I'd be so accepted out here."
Feelings came and went. But when Heumann read "Stone Butch Blues" in 1994, he knew he had to follow novelist Leslie Feinberg's lead and transform physically into a man.
A year later, he was in Los Angeles meeting with other transgendered men seeking to transition.
"They told us we were going to lose most of our gay and lesbian friends and we would, without a doubt, lose our partner," he recalls.
Heumann's partner worried about how she would break the news to her children, her co-workers, her family. She wondered if they'd have to move to L.A. or San Francisco - or "go back into the closet" entirely.
"When it got down to three or four years of going back and forth like this, it was like, 'When would I stop worrying about what other people thought? When did I start basing my life on this?'" Heumann says.
Transitioning - moving beyond behavior and dress to take the physical attributes of the opposite sex - was the next step.
"As you get older, the more time you spend having this wrong body, the more you want to get rid of it," Monet says.
The transformation is harder for middle-aged people who grew up in a society largely ignorant of transgendered issues, she adds.
Under the standards established by the Harry Benjamin International Gender Dysphoria Association, people seeking to transition into male or female must first undergo psychotherapy, take hormones for a year and spend at least one year living like their chosen gender.
Only then are they eligible for breast surgery, castration, phalloplasty and other procedures, which, like hormones, are rarely covered by insurance policies. Full surgery can cost $60,000 to $100,000, Mara says.
Some measures may come too late. For instance, men with male pattern balding may never be able to take full advantage of estrogen-induced hair growth.
And there are health risks - infection in the case of plastic surgery, liver damage due to hormone use.
Those making the transition from male to female have the added cost of painful and pricey hair removal, which can take years to complete.
"(Transition) would be a wonderful goal if the price wasn't so high," says Mara, in her late 50s.
It's not only the cost of surgery and hormones that she's worried about, but also her job, her friends, her family. Bullies would torment her 15-year-old son if she publicly identified herself as a transgendered woman, she says.
Still, little changes reveal the slow transformation from the "hard-ass" drill sergeant to the bangle-loving redhead with the easy laugh - long, manicured fingernails; plucked eyebrows.
"Do I feel whole? No. Do I think about transitioning? Several times a day," Mara says. "But is it an overpowering, overwhelming thing like it was before, when I was completely denying myself to be in touch with my feminine side? No."
Monet, with her modest income may never be able to afford to make the full physical transition to womanhood.
She says it's enough to be "Lorelei 24-7," to go shopping for cute shoes and cry at movies.
"I've been living my life in such a dark place," Monet says. "I can walk down the street as Lorelei in the daylight without hiding anymore. ... As hard as it is - and it is hard - it's worth it."