Originally appeared in Transgender Tapestry #99, Fall 2002.

by Debra A. Johnson

When I was 15, my stepmother told me I would never be
the man my father was. I spent the next 37 years trying
to prove her wrong. After so many years of practicing
manhood, how do you persuade others you really are a woman?
You have to start by persuading yourself. It was years
before I began to listen. Then, when I finally told my oldest
daughter, the wise one, she informed me: ?You?re not a woman,

Like many transsexual
women, I had a problem on
my hands.
Some of us take to
womanhood naturally. We
look pretty, our voices are
sweet, our gestures are
flowing. You can tell:
there?s a woman in front of

But for many of us,
testosterone and socialization
have done their damage.
For people like us, the
journey to womanhood can
be painful, But, along my
journey, I learned that the
God that wanted to put me into skirts was a humorist.
Next to my wanting to act out the woman I believed I was
was another fervent desire: not to be ridiculed or beaten up
while walking down the streets of my blue-collar town.
Learning how to apply makeup was not just an expressive
moment? it was, to some extent, a protective disguise.

Here, I made some headway. I had a video on applying
foundation and makeup. I had invested six months and a
couple hundred dollars in foundations and blushers and
lipsticks. I might have looked a bit patchy, and I?m sure my
lipstick didn?t always match the rest of my face. So, when
Anne, a neighbor I had hoped would develop into a potential
girlfriend, stopped by to ask if I wanted some tips on
presentation, I looked forward to lunch and her advice.
After eating, we set aside our plates, ?First,? she said, as
she turned to face me, ?I need to know what you?re aiming for:
the theatrical or the realistic??

I was stung! I stammered that I thought I was going for the
realistic. ? Then,? and she let me have it, ?Ditch the foundation
and the wig!?

I tumbled away from our rendezvous with hollow thanks!
I had heard from others that if you were successful, people
should be able to sense without even looking that you were a
woman? that you should be able to pass, if you had to, even in
a burlap bag. I wondered if this is what Anne meant.
Amidst my heartache, I was left with a new thought: to be
a woman, I had to be natural! It was one of the best pieces of
advice I could have been given.

At first, I felt naked without wig or protective cover. But it
was pleasant to see the confusion I could cause, even without

?Can I help you over here, ma?am?? a teller would call out
as I entered the
bank? only to
change pronouns on
closer view. Boy baggers
worried they had
embarrassed me. So,
as I picked up my
bags, I graciously
overlooked their shift
in pronouns, as if
their mistakes were
entirely natural under
the circumstances?
which, of course, they

People were
remarkably adaptable.

A postal clerk
whose eyes grew wider as I came closer became completely
normal when I politely asked for a roll of first class stamps. A
rote request brought forth a rote response? and that was
enough to bring us down to earth.

Some encounters were tinged with fear. When I walked up
to the Sears automotive counter to order a battery, the clerk, a
beefy man with hairy arms stood with his back to me, leaning
over a desk. As he heard my voice and turned, he said: ?I?ll be
with you in a moment, ma?am.? This was the response I was
hoping for? yet I was seized by a sudden fear: What if I
couldn?t carry it off? Those arms and hands could put me out
for a while! The fear! Was I deceiving him, or myself?
God must have snickered the afternoon I drove to work,
hoping to sneak up the stairs to my office in blue pumps. My
Tempo died in the middle of 75th Street and 22nd Avenue, one
of the busiest intersections in my town and kitty-corner from
the clinic at which my spouse worked.

I froze, but I had to get out of the car. The policeman
standing by The Spot, a local drive-in, would be noticing the
problem Tempo and me. With shoes pulsing like K-Mart bluelights,
I walked over to him like a drunk trying hard to walk a
straight line. I told him I would call a tow truck from the
clinic. He nodded and pulled his car behind mine. But no one
at the clinic had ever seen me in female attire before? let alone
in blue pumps.

I strode in. The receptionist dialed the number, and I slid
into a waiting-room chair and bowed my head, bracing for the
questions to come. They never came; but when I looked up,
I met the eyes of the pastor from the Lutheran college at
which I used to teach. I don?t recall our conversation. Perhaps
he was feeling gracious, perhaps he was blind, perhaps? and
this was the thought I took with me? perhaps he didn?t give a

Little by little, confidence grew, sometimes without
effort? like the weekend I had to go to the hardware store for
paint. Tired of putting myself together, I headed out in jeans
and sweatshirt, fully prepared to be a boy for the few minutes
it would take to find paint and get it shaken and paid for. The
clerks addressed me with female pronouns. I was treated as a
woman while wearing sloppy male attire!

Not everything went well. To celebrate the fifth
anniversary of my business, I took my spouse and youngest
daughter to the Deerpath Inn, a charming place serving
legendary breakfasts in an upscale Chicago suburb. The
prospect of a really excellent meal far from the eyes of her
friends overcame my youngest daughter?s reluctance to be seen
with me. She got into the car, resigning herself to my dress and

All was well at our table on the glassed-in veranda off the
dining-room. My family had filled their plates for the first
round. The waiters were attentive, and my daughter looked
happy. Now I, too, could leave for the buffet. At the table, two
small boys stood, watching the cook slice into the
ham. The oldest decided on a Belgian waffle and
took a serving spoon and heaped the whipped
cream on top. His little brother saw a shortcut and
dipped his hand into the mound of whipped
cream. He was about to dip again when I turned to
him and said rather sharply: ?Don?t do that!?
He took a step back and considered me for a
moment. Then he started jumping up and down.

?You?re not a girl! You?re not a girl! You?re just a
boy with long hair!? he yelled several times excitedly.
And away he skipped to share his
discovery. Since anything I could say in my tenor
voice would only confirm his and the public?s
opinion, I went silently about the business of
choosing my food and returned to my table? only
to see the little boy storming around the corner,
pointing me out to the father he had dragged
along. ?There he is,? the little boy shouted gleefully
for everyone to hear: ?That?s not a girl, that?s
not a girl. That?s just a boy with long hair!? My
daughter slid down her chair, her worst fears confirmed.
It was hard to tell who was more
embarrassed, the boys? father, or me. He quickly
dragged off his son. If the other diners at the tables
around had noticed, they didn?t show it; the waiters
continued attentive, and it seemed the disturbance
would be no more than local. Thanks to
good manners all around, breakfast continued
without further incident? although I did offer to
wait outside in the car until breakfast was done.
My daughter has more than reconciled herself to my
change. She feels comfortable inviting home her boy and girl
friends. The funny moments when I tripped up over physical
issues have diminished, but the human comedy continues.

There is the issue of mental and spiritual development for us to
slip up on.
The amount of mental equipment that may require rewiring
during transition can be enormous. A transgendered woman of
sporadic acquaintance who is drop-dead gorgeous and has a
lovely ringing woman?s voice used to snap pictures of her girlfriends
in sexy poses and publish them on her
website, like any red-blooded American male.

A number of transgendered women writers, including Jan
Morris, Deirdre McCloskey, and Aleshia Brevard direct us to
tackling tougher issues? not just what sort of a woman do I
want to look like, but what sort of woman do I want to be?
What is a ?real? woman or man, anyway? Better yet, what is it
that makes me real to others? Does it have to do with gender,
or is it more broadly human, having to do with developing a
capacity to love in addition to being loved?

On that ultimate human journey, there will be many more
comic slip-ups for most of us before we learn how to pass.