A Plague of Grackles - Bonus Content

The Jumping Off Point

When I came out many years ago, I lost everything—my family, my friends, my marriage, my job, my home, and my church. But I discovered my true self. Here is a glimpse into that time.

The moving van’s engine tinked and pinged as it cooled in front of my parents’ house in the Atlanta suburbs. I stared blankly out the windshield, my breath fogging up the glass. My body trembled, as much from fear as the January chill.

Can I really change my gender? What if everyone rejects me? What if I lose my job? How will I survive?

I had come to the jumping off point, like a fledgling seagull perched at the edge of a cliff, wondering if I could really fly. Countless voices insisted I couldn’t. “Thou shalt not change gender,” they bellowed.

But after twenty-six years of denying my internal womanhood, the crushing agony of living a lie outweighed my fear of losing the life I had known. It was time to fly.

I took a deep breath and opened the door. The winter wind blew through my sundress as if I were naked. I climbed out of the truck, careful not to slip on the metal step, and approached the house.

My mother, having heard the truck pull up, opened the front door and looked up at me across the yard. She offered a smile filled with Southern hospitality. “Hi, can I help you?”

“Hey, Mom,” I said solemnly.

Like a rose dipped in liquid nitrogen, her smile iced over and shattered as she recognized me. “Oh, it’s you.” She turned and disappeared back into the house.

It was the first time she had seen me dressed as a woman. In her mind, I was killing her firstborn son and disgracing the family. She wanted no part of the woman I was becoming.

A year and a half earlier, my wife, Sandy, had gone out for the evening to attend a professional seminar and wasn’t expected home until late. My female self seized the rare hours of privacy as a chance to feel “normal”—to eschew my outward male identity and try on my wife’s clothes.

Sandy and I were roughly the same size, except for my lack of breasts. I tried on a several outfits, settling on a silk blouse and a skirt. The texture and rustle of the fabric, the way it moved, established a bridge between my outer and inner worlds. But I needed more.

I headed to the bathroom and opened up Sandy’s makeup kit. With a midnight black eyeliner pencil, I drew a thick outline around my eye, followed by emerald green eyeshadow from eyelid to brow. For my lips, I chose the richest cherry red. The result lacked the subtlety of the magic Sandy created every day. I looked more like a hooker. But it was something. It eased the conflict if only for a moment.

I heard a gasp behind me. Sandy’s eyes grew wide with horror. “What’re you doing? Why are you in my clothes?”

Before I could answer, she threw up in the tub. I reached to help her, but she pushed me away.

“Don’t touch me.” She wiped her face and dashed out of the bathroom.

Shaky with humiliation, I quickly scrubbed my face and changed into my bathrobe. I found Sandy in our bedroom crying.

“I’m . . . I’m sorry.” I approached the bed, struggling to explain my appearance.

She held up a hand. “Stay away from me.”

“I… I thought you’d be out late.”

“My seminar got canceled at the last minute.” Her eyes met mine, expressing the crushing disappointment I had long feared. “But that doesn’t explain why you were wearing my clothes.”

My throat tightened, and I stared at the floor. “I don’t know how to explain it.”

“Well, fucking try!”

“Sometimes . . . sometimes I feel like a . . . a woman.”

“But you’re not a woman. You’re a man.” Her voice was hoarse and choked with tears.

“I don’t feel like one.” I pulled my knees to my chin, wrapping my arms around my legs.

“How long’s this been going on?”

“All my life.”

“All your life? And it never occurred to you I oughta know about this? Like BEFORE we got married?” Her tear-swollen face tore at my heart.

“I’m sorry. I didn’t understand what I was dealing with until recently, much less how to explain what I felt. Still don’t.”

“Are you gay?”

“I’m transsexual.”

“What’s that even mean?”

“It means I want to be a woman. It’s who I’ve always been on the inside.” I walked over to her, kneeled on the floor, and took her hand. “Could you love me as a woman?”

Our eyes met, her lower lip trembling. Underneath the hurt, I thought I could see the love she’d always held for me.

She took a labored breath. “I can’t handle this!” She snatched her hand away and turned away from me.

I ached for her to understand and love me for who I was. But that wasn’t going to happen. She could love the man, the lie, but she couldn’t love the woman underneath the façade.

Hopelessness wrapped its tendrils around my chest. My vision narrowed. She didn’t want me. I needed to leave.

I got dressed, scrambled clumsily into my Plymouth Horizon, and drove off into the night as my world collapsed around me. My mind reeled as I raced out of town with no destination in mind.

Why? I kept asking myself. Why can’t I stop doing this? What the hell is wrong with me? If only I were a better person. If only I had more faith, God would free me from these feelings.

For two hours, I sped north along two-lane state highways, past lonely gas stations and sleepy rural towns. There was nowhere in this world I belonged. As the Blue Ridge Mountains rose around me, I pressed the accelerator harder, skidding through the deadly curves, tires squealing around every corner. 

When my adrenaline ebbed, I pulled into a gravel lot where the road intersected the Appalachian Trail, ten miles north of Dahlonega, Georgia. I’d parked here several times before when I had gone hiking. It had been a place of solace and answers. It was as good a place as any to sit and figure things out.

How can I fix this? I kept asking myself. But some things, once broken, can’t be fixed. I sobbed, replaying Sandy’s unexpected arrival in my head. My marriage was destroyed. All that waited back for me in Atlanta were questions I couldn’t answer and shame I could no longer bear.

The next morning I woke shivering from the mountain cold, hungry and knowing I’d fucked up the one beautiful thing in my life. Even as the sun’s cheery light peaked through the verdant leaves on Big Cedar Mountain, darkness clung to my soul. The Blue Ridge offered me no solace this time, few answers, little hope.

Maybe if I promised to get help and to never cross-dress again, Sandy would take me back. Maybe a therapist who could cure me. Maybe, maybe, maybe.

My mind was numb and exhausted on the drive home. Residents of the small towns I’d passed in the night were going about their usual morning activities. I craved their normalcy, wishing everything could be the way it was before. Well, not exactly as before. I prayed to no longer feeling like a woman, to be the self-assured man that Sandy could love and be proud of.

When I walked in, Sandy was still angry, confused, and hurt, but also worried about me. I tried to tell her about a lifetime of feeling like a woman and my desperate attempts to overcome it.

She couldn’t comprehend what I was saying. The picture I painted didn’t match the man she thought she knew. She felt bad for me but wanted nothing to do with this craziness. Our marriage quickly ended in divorce.

As a single person, my finances forced me to move back in with my parents. I hoped being around them would make it easier to resist my urge to cross-dress. For a while it did. Prayer, evangelical bible studies, and other church activities filled my off-work hours. Religiously, I repeated their admonitions against me changing gender:

“God doesn’t make mistakes.”

“Why would you want to throw your life away like this?”

“If God had wanted you to be a woman, he would have made you one.”

“This is just the devil tempting you.”

“If you get a sex change, you’ll be an ugly woman.”

No amount of prayer or Bible study could stop the persistent, insistent, and consistent force of my gender identity. Inevitably I would cross-dress. Sometimes I would sneak off to gay bars to numb my shame with alcohol and anonymous sex, only to return home drunk and defeated, bawling my eyes out, begging God to help me stop.

On my twenty-sixth birthday in November 1992, I hiked down into Tallulah Gorge in the north Georgia mountains, hoping the richness of nature and the calming roar of whitewater would ease my depressed, weary mind.

After a steep walk down to the canyon floor, I followed the churning river to where the canyon wall was a sheer, stony cliff face. The urge to climb it overtook me. Didn’t matter that I’d never taken a rock-climbing course or have any ropes or other safety gear. The challenge and danger of climbing an actual rock wall called to me like a Siren.

My fingers sought handholds and lifted my body up. Handholds became footholds. Bit by bit, I climbed, adrenaline focusing my attention on each grip, until the Tallulah River was coursing through jagged rocks forty feet directly below me.

When there were no more handholds to be found, I edged my way across an inch-wide ledge until I came to a place where a waterfall trickled in a ten-foot wide stream down the rock. Countless years of water on stone, accompanied with algae growth, made the surface slicker than ice. 

A fall from this height would either kill me or at least break enough bones to make hiking out of the canyon unlikely. Going back down the way I came wasn’t an option. The footholds were too narrow to see. On the other side of the waterfall, an easy descent awaited. But crossing this span of slick, wet rock seemed nearly impossible.

Gut-wrenching fear replaced the exhilaration of climbing. My knees shook uncontrollably, threatening to toss me from precarious perch. Tears streamed down my face.

Often in such situations, people make bargains with God. “If you get me out of this, I promise I’ll . . .”

I made no such bargain. I had spent a lifetime of hiding and running and wishing. Too many of my pleas and prayers for freedom from gender dysphoria had gone unanswered. I no longer believed in miracles.

My reality had been reduced to the cold granite surface inches from my face and the whitewater river forty feet below. Survival required me to draw on my own resources and find a way across the waterfall and reach safety. 

With my attention focused on the contact between the edge of my boot and the tiny crevices in the granite, I inched across the span of wet rock at glacial speed. Sometimes, I had to wait for my legs to stop shaking. At one point, my foot slipped and I nearly lost my balance.

Who would miss me if I died? I wondered. Even if I lived, I would never be the man everyone expected me to be. And after twenty-six years, I was fucking tired of trying.

After a half hour, I reached dry stone and a steep, but manageable, place to climb down. Once again on solid ground, I sat on the banks of the river for hours, letting the roar of whitewater fill my soul, washing away the fear. A lifetime’s worth of struggling with gender tumbled through my mind, like pebbles in the river. As late afternoon shadows filled the canyon, I reached a decision.

I was tired of fighting. I was tired of living by other people’s standards. It was time to be true to me, to consider the unthinkable, to listen to that tenacious, desperate voice calling me to be a woman. I had reached the jumping off point.

I spent a month researching everything I could find on changing gender. There was no World Wide Web yet. So I hit the major libraries and poured over medical journals. I read Christine Jorgensen’s and Renée Richards’ autobiographies, and even a Playboy article on Caroline Cossey, a trans woman who worked as a professional model under the name Tula.

I learned my desire to be a woman had nothing to do with sexual orientation. Nor was I crazy. I wasn’t a pervert or an abomination. I had gender dysphoria, a conflict between my physiological sex and my neurological gender identity.

As I was finishing up my research, my mother called me at work and invited me to lunch at a local restaurant. When I sat down at her table, she pulled something out of her purse.

“I found this in your trash can.” It was the wrapper for a package of women’s underwear I had recently bought. Her confrontation caught me off guard, but I hadn’t gone to extraordinary measures to hide the evidence. Maybe I wanted to be caught.

“Yes, they’re mine.”

“You can’t do this. Not and live in our house.”

“I’ll move out.”

“Why are you doing this?”

“It’s who I am. I’m a woman.”

“You’re not. You’re a very handsome young man.”

“Maybe on the outside.” I put a hand on my chest. “But that’s not who I am in here.”

She studied me in silence for a moment. I could imagine the wheels in her mind turning as she changed tactics.

“After all I’ve done for you, this is how you repay me.”

“This isn’t about you. It’s about me living a life that’s true to who I am.”

“If you do this, you’ll go to hell.”

“I’m sorry you feel that way. I’ll be out of the house as soon as I can find a place.”

For the next few weeks, I scoured the ads and found a room to rent in a rural town forty miles from Atlanta. Not the safest place to begin a gender transition, but a lack of time and money limited my options.

My new roommate Stanley didn’t understand why I wanted to transition. But as long as I paid rent and my half of the utilities, he didn’t care.

I showed up at my folks’ house as my new self and hauled my belongings to the moving van. When everything was loaded, I locked the back of the truck and took a final look at the house. “Goodbye.”

Once inside the truck, I turned the key. The cheerful notes of Katrina and the Waves’ “Walking on Sunshine” filled the cab. I stepped on the gas and flew away.

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