"As a youth, I didn't feel so much like I was in the wrong body," Rachel says, "as that I was a girl." She was born a genetic male, however, and her parents made it clear that her declarations that she was something else were unacceptable. "My earliest memories are of when I was 3, whenever I was around women and other girls, and thinking I was one. One time, I informed my parents that I was heading to the PTA meeting, just like my mom. They didn't like that at all."
Soon, she was suppressing such thoughts furiously and was "horribly frightened that people might be able to read my mind, anyway." She lived as a boy, then a young man and a businessman, dating lots of women and getting serious enough with two of them that she risked asking them to accept her as she really was—a woman in a male body who longed to be herself when she was with them.
"I was learning, the more my partner was allowing me to express myself as a woman, the more I wanted to behave as a woman, and the more frightened she was becoming."
Rachel was describing the first of the two relationships, which occurred in her early 20s. The second, in her late 20s, was the mirror image of the first.
Both relationships, and the lie she was living, left her depressed and "quite unhappy."
Today, at 43, Rachel is the picture of a smart career woman in every respect, albeit the chromosomes will never change. She's taken female hormones for a decade, gritted her teeth through five years of weekly electrolysis treatments that removed all vestiges of her facial hair, and treated herself to two breast augmentation operations. (Unlike many MTFs—male-to-females—hers didn't bloom with the hormones. On the other hand, her face softened nicely, and she hasn't needed any of the facial reconstruction work that's common.)
And 10 years ago she jetted to Brussels, Belgium, for surgery to tuck away her penis and replace it with a fully functional vagina.
She describes that operation joyfully, from her importunate fear as they were rolling her in ("I was thinking I would really like to not do it") to how wonderful she felt when she woke up and saw the swollen, stitched-up, beautiful cavity they'd given her.
That was one great moment.
Another was the first time she experienced orgasm as a female. Remember, she's describing this to a male—me—and Rachel is someone not given to overstatement anyway. But she'd thought that the price of surgery—"one I was willing to pay to live as a woman"—would be no more orgasms. Not so, as she discovered nocturnally.
"It was totally different and a complete shock," she says. "I woke up rather startled and alarmed. 'Well, I'll be darned.' It was much more internal. I really can't describe it in words. But, interestingly, I am capable now of multiple orgasms."
The smile on her face says it all.
She's happy now. She's been on and off of late in a third, serious relationship with a woman, and her mother's health isn't good; but these are the problems of someone whose basic life is a source of joy, not one who lives in constant pain. She's got a new job in Greensboro she likes and a new home in Durham that she also likes, especially because of the active, accepting gay community in Durham.
(Was she gay before? No, she says. Straight.)
Rachel's totally out with most people she knows in Durham—gay, trans, transwoman. In Greensboro, though, while she's out as gay, many there do not know she's trans. It wasn't that difference, however, that caused her to ask that her full name not be reported in this story. Rather, it was a nagging concern about Internet stalkers.
The job thing is very important to her, though, because this is a woman who was, in her former life, a highly paid sales executive in the computer industry up until the time she began to take female hormones, and a few customers heard a rumor and complained. It wasn't long before her company let her go—blaming it on a bad economy—even though she'd already made her yearly sales quota in the first quarter.
That began a rough time for her personally as well as professionally: She was trying to look male in a series of jobs that didn't pay as well as her old one, while at the same time she was spending a lot of money on hormones and electrolysis so her body would change—which it did.
For a time, she was working one job as a male by day and another as a female—at the gay-friendly American Social Health Association in Research Triangle Park—by night.
All to pay trans medical bills that eventually totaled about $100,000.
"It's ironic that, at the point where you need the money most, as you're making the transition, that's when you're the most vulnerable in your job," she says.
The transition complete, she says she's not quite as ambitious as she used to be, career-wise. She's content to stay in the job she's got and learn awhile—ironically, it's with a company she used to sell to—while she works on that new relationship and on the carport the two of them have been building at the other's house.
Which, Rachel says, brought out a bit of her male side that's still there—the zest for carpentry and hard, physical work. She's completely OK with that. Welcomes it. What she's not OK with, she says when I ask, is crying. She does cry more. She does not like it.
"No." She's emphatic. "I don't like it at all. My tear ducts swell up and my nose clogs and I can't breathe, and ..."
But then she remembers that she does like it when music or a movie moves her to tears. Or when, in Florence, she saw Michelangelo's David. Then, she cried in joy at the beauty and strength of its physical expression. "I do love nude art," she adds, and smiles cryptically.
Actually, not cryptically at all.
Correction (June 29, 2007): Rachel's surgery took place 10 years ago.