(c) 2013, Fran Fried
In much of Christianity, January 6 is the Feast of the Epiphany — the commemoration of the revelation of God the son in human form through Jesus, whether it be the visitation of the Magi to the baby in the manger (Western Christianity) or the grownup Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan (Eastern Christianity). (And thanks to Lys Guillorn for reminding me of that a couple nights ago.)
In the life of this estranged Catholic, the Feast of the Epiphany takes place three days later. It was five years ago this very evening, January 9, 2008, that Fran the daughter was revealed to a fat, schleppy, uncertain, middle-aged man with no self-esteem in the middle of California, in a voice so loud and creepy that it sounded as if it came from outside my body.
My life, as you can imagine, was never the same after that. And thank God for that. And I can’t believe it’s been that long ago already.
With the distance of time, it’s hard for me in current form to comprehend what has happened to me. Oh, I sure as hell do know what happened. I just still can’t believe I listened to that voice and acted on it. Smartest and best thing I’ve ever done.
It was as simple and mundane an act as sitting on the bed.
I had come home that evening from my job as an assistant features editor at The Fresno Bee. It was around 7, but for some reason, I felt really run-down. I didn’t even have the energy to walk down the hall and turn on Jeopardy! So I took off my coat and plopped down at the foot of the bed and sat there, trying to muster the energy to just do something — make dinner, watch TV, even start taking down all the Christmas stuff, which is a daunting task and exhausting to just think about when you’re flying solo.
And for some reason, I turned to the closets, which took up the wall to my right. One closet in the house I was renting was mine. The other was relatively empty. It was supposed to be my ex-girlfriend’s. The plan, when I moved west in 2004, was that she was going to try to find a teaching job in Fresno and come out from Long Island. But she was an elementary school art teacher, and we had no idea that the Fresno Unified School District had slashed elementary art from the budget three years before. (I mean, who heard of a city of half a million cutting out its school art budget? I guess they had to pay for all those former superintendents still under contract …) Plus, she hated the heat of Fresno, so after coming out to spend a couple summers with me, we broke it off.
The closet wasn’t entire empty, though — it had a few items hanging. They were a couple of dresses and a couple of skirts and tops, all from experimenting over the years by myself or with girlfriends — dressing up occasionally when I wasn’t sure whether this was a fetish, or for Hallowe’en, and before the brutal case of sleep apnea that nearly killed me a few months prior caused me to put on so much weight that I felt incredibly ugly, old, bloated and weary, not to mention asexual. Those and a box of many of the shoes I had bought surreptitiously over the years
– half were size 10, a size smaller than I wear now, and were a difficult fit even in my skinny days in the ’80s. I mean, how many places sold size 11 women’s shoes back then that weren’t orthopedic or made for old ladies or drag queens?
In any instance, I looked at the closets. Then I felt this huge sense of calm, followed by total silence, and then a voice.
This was no ordinary voice. It was a voice, accompanied by that same sense of calm, that I first heard in the fall of 2003, when, while sitting at my desk at the New Haven Register, I opened an email from the Bee’s then-features editor; she told me she had seen my resume at journalismjobs.com and was wondering if I would be interested in the assistant editor’s job in Fresno.
And the voice said, in a creepy, loud whisper — like HAL 9000 in 2001: A Space Odyssey — “Okay — it’s Fresno.” I knew then that I was going on a little trip. I was finally gonna be able to get off the hamster wheel that was my job in New Haven. I knew that people weren’t offering me jobs every day — especially out West, and especially at McClatchy, which, at the time, seemed to be the best company in the newspaper business. Six months later, I was in the incessant (save for winter) sunshine of the San Joaquin Valley.
And I felt a HAL moment coming on again, and a split-second before it happened — the overwhelming calm, then the voice so creepy and whispery-loud it sounded as if it were coming from just to my left:
“Can you do this?”
I knew what it was asking me. And just like that, good ol’ HAL cut through four decades of denial and anxiety and fears like a machete through a Gordian knot. Sliced it clean through. Leaving me to quick-snap toward the voice and yell,
“What are you, fucking NUTS?!? You have a respectable job — you’re an editor at a newspaper — and you work with high school kids, and all it’s gonna take here is one parent equating gender, homosexuality and pedophilia!”
In my mind, that was no stretch in Fresno, which took pride in its right-wingnutiness, which often went hand-in-hand with many prominent Christian churches and Worship Entertainment Centers (TM) in the area. The same ones that would, months later, drum up much of the support that helped vote in California’s controversial Proposition 8 and ban gay marriage. (With huge financial assists, I should add, from the Mormon church and the Catholic — and New Haven-based — Knights of Columbus.)
One of my duties as assistant features editor — my favorite one, since I was able to pay it forward at long last — was editing and mentoring two dozen local high school students, who had their own Sunday features page. I assumed — correctly, it turned out — that most of the kids were of a liberal bent. But the parents? I wasn’t so sure of that. After all, as I said, I figured it would take just one raising hell to open a box of Pandora-brand worms.
And I didn’t know how people at the Bee would react. At one point, I could count six gay editors and reporters in the newsroom, two of whom sat in my cubicle quad in features. But trans was a different matter. Or so I thought. As it turned out, there was a woman named Jonni Pettit who worked downstairs on the business side of the business; a few years earlier, her husband, David, an Air Force veteran who had been a navigator-bombardier on B-52s in Vietnam, became her wife, Angela — and they remained happily married.
So it was old hat as far as the Bee was concerned, and in 20/20 hindsight, the powers-that-be would have had my back. But I didn’t know this at the time. To be trans and in the closet involves a lot of unknowns atop a great fear of the unknown — especially when everyone in the newsroom knows you as a fat, schleppy, balding, middle-management guy with a ponytail, who plays poker regularly with the guys, most of them in sports. Or the friends in the Tower District who knew me as the guy who always wore doo-rags and music T-shirts and New Orleans Saints and Fresno Grizzlies jerseys.
And that wasn’t even thinking about the people at home yet — not the least would be my elderly, devoutly Catholic parents. Or my brothers and nieces. Or the ex-girlfriends, even though they knew deep down. Or the friends I made over the decades in the music scene in New Haven. Or the people who read my columns in the Register or heard my radio shows on WPKN for so many years.
Just what the hell was I biting off here?
Was I really nuts?
Well, they do call the voice of reason the voice of reason for a reason, y’know? And it answered me back in a voice that sounded, well, normal — it sounded like me arguing with myself:
“Look — you’re 46, you’re more than halfway past your life expectancy and you should be dead already. So are you gonna find out for real or are you gonna be fat, miserable and in the closet the rest of your life?”
Can’t beat logic sometimes. Maybe I missed my calling — I should’ve been a trial lawyer. With arguments like that, I’d have been Perry Mason — well, whatever the female equivalent of “Perry” is. In all those years, I think he only lost to Hamilton Burger once.
Anyway, I knew at that moment that I was going on a little trip. And I thought simply moving cross-country would be an adventure …
I let out a huge, slow breath, absolutely drained at this point.
“Okay,” I told myself, “this is where I’m going. So how the hell am I gonna do this?”
It was a week later. Bedtime.
I wasn’t even in bed five minutes when that calm hit me again. But it wasn’t the voice of HAL — it sounded more like a reassuring version of my own voice:
“Yes, you’re a woman.”
I smiled broadly as I drifted off and slept like the proverbial baby. I knew now.
The following Monday was Martin Luther King Day and a day off work for me. My closest friend in Fresno, Heather, also had the day off, so I talked her into coming with me to San Francisco for the day — my first official girls’ day out. My attire was more androgynous than overtly femme, actually — black velour shirt, shiny purple scarf, black beret, jeans and a pair of black patent Mary Janes. And a touch of amateurishly applied eyeliner and a surreptitious dash of purplish lipstick. I was naturally nervous but thrilled — hell, I was gonna be in San Fran, and if I couldn’t be myself there, then where else?
We spent the afternoon walking through SF MOMA, then took the Market streetcar and the 22 bus to the MAC store on Fillmore and Pine. (I chose MAC because RuPaul had been its spokesman a few years before, and if it was good enough for RuPaul … )
There, an artist named Mimi asked if she could help me. I was damn near a wreck as I started to stammer something along the lines of “Well, it’s actually for me. I’m transitioning and I need to learn how to do my makeup.” Except there were quite a few uhs in that sentence.
“Sure! No problem!” she said, or, again, something very much like that. This was no biggie for her. And I began to relax as she gathered her tools and the cosmetics I needed and gave me a wipe to clean off my face. And she took me through the process step by step, showing me as she went along how to apply the concealer, then the liquid foundation and the powder. And the eyeliner. And, for the lips, a fuchsia-purple lipstick shade that’s still one of my go-tos, Up the Amp.
And when she was done, I was floored. I was looking at my future in the mirror. I was exhilarated, close to euphoric. I couldn’t stop smiling. Heather and I celebrated with sushi dinner up the block and a cup of gelato from Tango Gelato, a now-gone shop that was next door to MAC.
Free at last, alright.
And so it began.
Five years on, I’m sitting here in the cellar of my folks’ house. I’m wearing a flowing black top, black leggings, sparkly purple socks and black patent ballerina-style flats with inch-high rubber platform soles. My wig — which is what I have to use until I can one day afford hair restoration — is a blonde bob with a purple hairband. My face is made up, accented with purple eye shadow. Thanks to the
hormone replacement therapy I started in April 2010, I have growing breasts, my body has reproportioned itself and my features have become rounder and softer.
This is pretty much every day for me now — the me I could never imagine or dream of until that night. A quantum leap from the scared creature who walked into MAC that early evening five years ago.
Transitioning — being my real self at long last — was by far the best and smartest thing I ever did. Were it not for the four years of unemployment and underemployment and virtual piles of disregarded resumes and failed interviews, it would be the happiest I’ve ever been, too.
Weight aside (although I wear it better than I did, thanks to the hormones), I look much better than I did in my boy life. And the hormones cleared up 35 years of chronic depression — though, thanks to the seemingly endless job and money struggles, the stress level is often no lower than Defcon 2. But being myself has reduced the stress to something closer to manageable.
These last five years have, obviously enough, been a process in self-discovery. Much of that has involved confronting and conquering almost every fear I’ve had in my life over the last four decades — from the time I was that “faggot” growing up in the hick town where I now live again.
People don’t point at me as if I’m some freak — the ones who know me generally are good to me, and the ones who don’t know wouldn’t, as I pass very well. There was no laughing or mocking when people saw Frannie 2.0 for the first time — just a lot of smiles and hugs. And my (platonic) girlfriends in Fresno readily accepted me into the club — just like that. That was huge — one of my biggest thrills. Bring one of the girls, as I had wanted to be and felt I was from childhood, has been absolutely wonderful. (It doesn’t mean I can’t be one of the boys when I need to — ask my old poker crew.) And in September 2011, I did go back to the Bee, as an on-call copy editor for 10 months, and was greeted with open arms — literally; a lot a hugs that day when I walked back into the newsroom.
Four Augusts ago, while on vacation, I began coming out to my closest friends here. I was slowly, with much trepidation, building a foundation. And when I finally broke down and joined Facebook two years ago January, I was astounded at how many people I’ve known through the years — music-scene friends, fellow journalists, fans of me from both newspapers and radio — came on board with me. I’ve only lost two friends because of my transition and gained hundreds. And most of my long-standing friendships have changed and deepened. Considering how many transpeople lose much of their family and friends, that’s pretty incredible. It’s a blessing, I fully realize that, and even though life has me in a bad way at the moment, I’m extremely grateful for this. It also speaks volumes about the people I’ve allowed in my life.
And I came out to my immediate family in September 2009. It certainly wasn’t paradise — I encountered a lot of weirdness for 14 months after that, and there’s still some unresolved family matter or two; I’ll leave it at that. But my parents took me back in back in August and don’t flinch a bit about seeing, or being seen with, their daughter. Their friends and their priest and some of our neighbors, whom I grew up with, know, and are fine with me. And it’s not as if I haven’t gone out with my parents to the store or the doctor as my better self. As large as this is on a certain level, in the day-to-day, it’s no big thing anymore. And that’s a good thing. And I’m proud of them.
I’m a lot more confident now — that is, when I’m not dwelling on my failures in the job-seeking world and threatening to plunge down the rabbit hole for the 124th time.
One of my dearest friends, Colleen, worked with me on the features staff of my first paper in Waterbury in the early ’90s. Over dinner one night three years ago — the first time she and her husband, Russ, and our friend and ex-features colleague, Karen, saw Frannie 2.0 — she told me, “You know, the one thing I thought about you back then was ‘not comfortable in his own skin.’” I never knew she thought that. That floored me, but it was so, so true.
I’m comfortable enough now to live my life openly and not worry what people think of me, or whether they can even guess I wasn’t born with the right plumbing.
On those occasions when I do go on job interviews, I own it. I don’t think of myself as anything more or less than Fran, and I do my damndest, if unconsciously, to make people see me as Fran foremost and not as a transwoman, let alone a woman, period.
I came that close to a copy-editing job at a national news magazine in Santa Barbara in the spring of 2011. I was there three hours and hit it off wonderfully with the staff. But the editor-in-chief put in his notice three weeks later, and while I freelanced for them through the summer, the new EIC had her own ideas. And there was a shakeup of sorts, and the other two copy editors are no longer there. I’m friends with one of them; she told me they knew about me being transgender going in, they didn’t care one bit, and that when they finished interviewing all five finalists, everyone wrote down their top three choices on slips of paper … and I was No. 1 on everyone’s list.
In early November, I had a six-hour interview at a pretty huge place for a job for which, much to my extreme disappointment, I was rejected six weeks later — and by voicemail, to boot. On the way out, I was chatting with the supervisor who brought me in. She knew about me ahead of time; after all, this blog is one of the reasons I got the interview, as it showed I was adept with social media. Besides, other people in my loosely affiliated tribe work or have worked there before.
I knew none of the people I met with would or could bring up the gender thang — a major human-resources no-no, especially in a state where gender-identity discrimination is illegal. But we were at least comfortable enough for her to ask me afterward, “So, have you felt a greater level of acceptance since you’ve been back?” Meaning back home in Connecticut.
“I realize you couldn’t ask me about it in the interview for HR reasons,” I told her, “but I knew you knew about me going in.” I told her how I came out in a very red-state area and how my circle of friends exploded in Fresno, and how the same thing happened here when I went on Facebook.
“I was impressed at how comfortable and how confident you were,” she said.
“And a hell of a lot better-looking than I used to be.” We laughed. But I told her, “Seriously, I felt comfortable coming in and knowing it wasn’t gonna be a factor. Besides, I knew I wasn’t breaking any new ground here.”
Y’know, in my next life, I wouldn’t mind doing the transition thing again. Only much earlier in life and in a more enlightened era. And to tell ya, I think I appreciate my womanhood more after having had to deny it and bury it for so long. I don’t take it for granted. (Ask my wildly overgrown shoe closet …)
But the next time around, I won’t make the mistake of spending my life in a line of work that screws me over and pulls the rug out from under me in middle age, either. Next time around, I’ll be one of those silver-spoons who doesn’t have to work a day in my life, or get me a sugar mama. Then again, maybe there’s still a sugar mama waiting for me in this life …