Across the Great Divide

They like to wear women's panties, girdles, and bras

They meet at a modest Unitarian church tucked away on a Fort Lauderdale side street. Their conversation sounds like that of any PTA committee or female support group. Ladies' laughter and gossip flood the tiny lobby, and the aromas of a potluck supper beckon in an adjacent meeting room. You can almost taste the homemade brownies.

But, when an unexpectedly deep voice rises above the din, this much quickly becomes apparent: It ain't your grandma's coffee klatch. "We're not all nut cases like the Jerry Springer Show makes us out to be," insists Joanna, a big-boned blonde in a tangerine-colored blouse. "We just want to be who we are and blend in. But people think we kidnap children and barbecue them or something!"

Although Joanna isn't the sort of deranged cannibal you might find on Springer, she is, well, different -- as in, she's a pre-op transsexual. Joanna was John until three years ago, when she began dressing and living full-time as a woman. She looks forward to having the gender-reassignment surgery that will transform her into a full-blown female as soon as she can afford it. Becoming a lady's not cheap: Surgery and electrolysis can run anywhere from $30,000 to more than $100,000.

Joanna and the two dozen or so others chatting over beef macaroni and Entenmann's cake this night are members (or spouses of members) of the South Florida Gender Coalition (SFGC), a Broward County-based support group for the transgender community. The group, which started with just four people in July 2001, now has 28 members (average age: 50) who live as far south as Miami and as far north as Stuart.

Tonight, for fear of repercussions, most ask that their last names be withheld. The exception is group founder Don "Donna" Wittman, who is 58 years old and a part-time truck driver. She fancies dresses and fuchsia lipstick. As she begins reading the night's minutes, ladies wearing neatly pressed clothes politely wait their turns at a buffet table where the potluck spread includes chocolate chip cookies, KFC chicken, Dunkin' Donut holes, sodas, and fruit parfaits.

Wittman started SFGC after realizing that Broward and Palm Beach counties lacked a support group. "There needed to be a place where transgender people could unite and feel comfortable with each other," Wittman says. "Our group is growing bit by bit, through word of mouth and through our Website (www.geocities.com/sfgender)." SFGC's goals, Wittman says, are to unify the transgender community and educate the public. The group's members can be separated into three categories, she explains: cross-dressers, transvestites, and transsexuals. In the future, she hopes to attract hermaphrodites.

At 6 feet and 250 pounds, Wittman appears an unlikely candidate to be a cross-dressing pioneer. But growing up in the Midwest as one of eight kids in a strict Catholic family, she knew at an early age that she was different from other boys. At age five, for instance, she began secretly trying on her older sister's dresses and underthings. And although the need to don frilly frocks scared her, she couldn't stop. "For years, my mom would catch me dressed as a girl, and she'd scold me and tell me it was wrong," Wittman recalls. "So I'd do it in private, feel guilty afterward, and swear I'd never do it again."

According to the Renaissance Transgender Association, a nonprofit, national umbrella organization, cross-dressing "fulfills a body of complex psychological needs rather than simply being a sexual dysfunction." The association cites motives such as arousal, a conscious alternative personality (male cross-dressers often refer to their female personalities as "sister"), androgyny, envy of the opposite sex, a need to fool others, creativity and, as in Wittman's case, a relief from tension.

Another group, Tri-Ess, which has a South Miami chapter, includes heterosexual cross-dressers and their families. With affiliates in many of the 50 states, it organizes parties and social events for its members and offers toll-free phone numbers for cross-dressing-related emergencies. According to Tri-Ess's Website (www.tri-ess.com), an estimated 5 percent of men in the United States have the compulsion to wear women's clothes.

"If I don't dress, I get depressed," says Wittman, who on this night wears a royal-blue dress, sensible shoes, and a Mary Tyler Moore-style wig. "It's like subduing a part of yourself. When I first realized this, it was very difficult for me to accept. It's not something you choose to be."

Gloria, Wittman's wife, is an x-ray technician with a sweet face and a stylish brown coif. Like any good hostess's spouse, tonight she's busy socializing and replenishing the buffet table. "When Don first told me he was a cross-dresser, obviously I was shocked," says Gloria, who grew up with her now-husband in Wisconsin. "So once I heard, I went into denial.... Then I started reading up on it, and realized it was more common than I thought. There are doctors, lawyers, politicians.... I think the moment of acceptance came when I bought Donna a dress and we went out in public for the first time. I realized that if I loved him, I had to love that side of him also."

Wittman's expression turns dreamy recalling the memory. "When I saw her with that dress, my heart melted," she says. "That's when I had the courage to come out to the world."

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