Tranny Regret

Do transsexuals get a second chance in the great gender-identity sweepstakes?

For the first time since he packed Michelle's things away, Michael Berke tugs the cord of the attic door above his garage. Surrounding him in the suburban Delray Beach garage are power tools, bicycles, sandpaper, and a lawn mower, though Berke's prized possession — a Harley — is in the shop at the moment.

Berke, who is 43, looks the biker-dude part. He's a solid six-footer in a black cutoff T-shirt, Harley jeans, the beginnings of a Fu Manchu, tattoos, and a freckled, clean-shaven head. He climbs the wooden ladder and, in one final, creak-inducing impetus, heaves himself into the attic.

Michael Berke became Michelle in 2003
C. Stiles
Michael Berke became Michelle in 2003
A year and a half later — after an evangelical intervention — Michael reemerged.
Courtesy of Michael Berke
A year and a half later — after an evangelical intervention — Michael reemerged.

It's mostly Michelle's stuff up here, Berke says, looking around reflectively. Just before Michelle disappeared, she gave it away to a friend, Rachael Balentine, who some day will come to claim it. Balentine has apparently hit the accessories jackpot.

"She [Michelle] had so many purses and things," Berke says, unsealing a blue plastic bin. He lifts out a knee-high black XOXO boot and studies it. "These were Michelle's favorite pair of shoes," he says, petting the leather.

He reaches into a white plastic bag and retrieves a magenta alligator purse from Guess. Michelle had Chanel shoes to match, he remembers. There was also the zebra-print jacket, with fake pink blood on it and the pink lining. Michelle loved wearing pink.

Really, she just loved to shop, Berke says. Over the year and a half that she ruled Berke's life, she bought 45 pairs of strappy high-heels, mostly from DSW. For bras, she always opted for Victoria's Secret. Everything she bought had to be tight, vibrant, and provocative.

Berke wishes that he had more pictures of her in those stunning outfits. Or a bottle of Michelle's elegant Incanto perfume. He can almost hear her gravelly voice, making those offbeat jokes. "Hickory, dickery, dock — I got tits and a cock," she used to say. He'll even miss her impulsive spending.

"She bankrupted me," Berke says with a smile.

It's been two years since those D-sized breasts, beautiful legs, fire-red hair, and killer smile all belonged to him. Literally.

That's right, Berke used to be a woman who used to be a man. He's an MTFTM, male to female to male. An ex-tranny who took a surgical U-turn. No, it never got to the big one. He's still got "Snoopy." But add up all of Berke's other surgeries, including breast implants, a brow lift, a nose job, cheek implants, and more and it equals about $80,000. Call it bankruptcy, as far as Berke is concerned. All for a big mistake.

Or was it?

In recent years, the transsexual community has beseeched the media to cover its discrimination and to help extend equal-rights protections. That's important, all right. Transsexuals are mistreated because of their gender identities, particularly in the criminal justice system and the workplace. "Transsexuality is the biggest taboo in the world," says Mark Angelo Cummings, a Hollywood transgender activist and the author of The Mirror Makes No Sense, about his life as a transsexual.

But the story of oscillating trannies has slipped under the radar. The truth is, not every tranny lives in gender bliss ever after.

Sometimes, surgery doesn't fulfill expectations. Sometimes, mental problems are exacerbated. But in Berke's case — as with others — there was another powerful force at work: evangelical Christianity.

If Berke's female incarnate had never set foot in Calvary Chapel — Florida's largest and most influential megachurch — she might have lived a long, sassy life. Instead, after several sessions of fundamentalist counseling, Berke became convinced that God didn't make mistakes. Berke's return to manhood — finagled and partially financed by the church — has outraged local transgender activists.

"I was an extremely happy baby," Berke says, sitting cross-legged in his Delray Beach home and presenting a series of photos, taken in his hometown, Cincinnati, Ohio. In each one, baby Michael displays a tuft of red hair and a toothy, carefree smile.

What happened to Berke between these photos and age 4, he's not sure. He believes he may have been abused. He remembers being ignored by his family and spending a lot of time in the basement. His father — a salesman — played catch with him just once, Berke says. In third grade, Berke was diagnosed with a neurological disorder, but he can't recall what it was.

His parents didn't keep his medical records, and after ten years, the hospital discarded them. He remembers there being something amiss in the connections between his right and left hemispheres in the frontal lobe of his brain. The disorder prevented him from getting dizzy, Berke says. As therapy, Berke remembers his doctor spinning him like a top. Sometimes, Berke would be tucked into a plastic ball and rolled around. For 70 minutes a day, his mother would secure him in a hammock — cocoon style — and spin it. (This treatment is unheard of in modern medicine.)

After a few years, the problem — whatever it was — had been corrected, but the damage was done. Berke had a learning disability. He attended a special school from third through sixth grades. Then, in seventh grade, he reentered the public school system but was placed in special classes. He was picked on mercilessly, he remembers. Though he had no early impulse to cross-dress, Berke suspects he was a little effeminate.

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