Tranny Regret

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

Kids would stick out their tongues at him or slap him. Somebody tripped him, and he knocked out his front teeth. His mother tried to be supportive, but by the time he hit high school, she had given up, Berke says. He saw himself as an outcast in the family. Neither of his parents nor his sister, Robin, who is two years older and lives in Chicago, would agree to an interview for this story. Robin said only that her brother is too unstable to be part of their lives and that he's been unstable and destructive for as long as she remembers.

As a teenager, Berke started acting out. "We were using slingshots and breakin' windows and lighting Dumpsters on fire," he says, grinning slightly as he puffs a Camel Light. But it wasn't until college that Berke began experimenting with drugs. He went to Wright State University in Ohio, where he tried LSD. He loved it.

Berke began neglecting his studies in theater tech to hang out with punk rockers, trip on acid, and go to shows. Then he dropped out completely. In 1985, his parents divorced. Berke took $10,000 that had been put away for him, packed his Datsun 310 hatchback, bought a trailer for his dirt bike, and drove straight to San Francisco, where he got a job as a roadie for the Sea Hags, a metal band. He also became a heroin addict. After the band's bass player died of an overdose, Berke moved to Mission Beach in San Diego to clean himself up.

Berke sat for hours at the vanity mirror, applying and blending eye makeup.
C. Stiles
Berke sat for hours at the vanity mirror, applying and blending eye makeup.
Friends always used to ask how Michelle managed to hide "Snoopy."
Courtesy of Michael Berke
Friends always used to ask how Michelle managed to hide "Snoopy."

He ended up living on the street and becoming addicted to crystal meth.

"I got absolutely out of my mind," he remembers.

He moved to L.A., hoping again for a cleaner lifestyle and a job in the music industry. He lived on the streets of South Central for a while, then moved under a bridge in Hollywood, where he became part of a street gang, the Hollywood Trolls. By now, he was in his late 20s, having spent almost a decade on drugs.

Berke started attending Narcotics Anonymous meetings, though, and he found another roadie gig, this time for the New Kind, an early '90s pop band. Berke was a diligent worker, and eventually his efforts got noticed, he says. He scored jobs on production crews for some of the biggest names of the early '90s — Paula Abdul, Janet Jackson, and Barry Manilow. He's got the framed, signed programs and passes to prove it.

"I was having so much fun, you know, reaching a dream," he says. "To actually go to Hollywood and make it... "

He talks proudly about unloading Chicago's truck and hauling equipment for the Grateful Dead and Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young. Once, he had to retrieve Janet's exercise bike from her home. Another time, he had to transport her video — the one and only copy — to a studio. "I think that's the most valuable thing that's ever been in my hands," he says.

But the jobs were infrequent and unpredictable. If Berke wanted to finish school — and he did — he'd have to say goodbye to the music industry. A friend from San Francisco had moved to South Beach and invited Berke to follow him. He packed up again and drove back across the country — 73 hours without stopping. His secrets were coffee and the company of a pet dingo, Amber.

In Miami, things fell apart with his friend. "It didn't work out at all," Berke says. "I have trouble getting along with people."

He wound up staying at a sober house and enrolled at Miami-Dade College, planning to study psychobiology. For remedial math and English courses, he had to travel to the Boca Raton campus of Florida Atlantic University. Rather than drive up there every day, Berke persuaded his father to help him buy a home in Delray Beach.

There were straight A's at first, Berke says, but then his grades began to slip. He dropped out and started going to fetish parties. Sometimes, he dressed as a woman and liked it. In fact, he liked it a lot, though he soon tired of the fetish scene. "Once you see someone get spanked or whipped," he says, "it kinda gets old."

For Berke, the only passion that has some staying power, he says, is an intense desire to be close to other human beings, especially females. Not in the sexual sense. Berke wants intimacy. He wants the thing girls seem to have with their best girlfriends — the emotional closeness or the ability to "melt into another girl's arms."

"I would never try to touch or cuddle with girls, because I would automatically think they would think I was trying to get in their pants. There was a barrier set up with how close I would be able to get to women."

Berke says he felt jealous of the way women bonded with one another. "When you go shopping in the women's department, you can come out and say, 'How does my ass look in these jeans? Do you think this looks good on me?' Now, a guy shopping in the men's department cannot turn to another guy and say, 'Hey, man, do these jeans look good on me, dude?' "

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