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."
Also at the gathering is Jeff, or "Dawn Renee," a nurse and cross-dresser who was in the closet for the first year of a four-year marriage. She may have stayed there too had her wife not discovered his Website while surfing the Internet. "It had all these pictures of me dressed as a woman. There was nothing pornographic, but still..." says the attractive brunette, who is dressed in librarian chic -- dark business suit and thin-rimmed glasses. "I wouldn't say my wife accepts my cross-dressing, but she is supportive, and we compromise. I dress only once or twice a month and keep all my things in one closet. I shave my legs but nothing else, because that's part of our agreement."
When the issue of family acceptance arises, Joanna, the big-boned blonde in tangerine, begins to pace. A pre-op transsexual who has occasionally cross-dressed since she was 15, Joanna says she long resisted the urge to become a woman. In middle age, she became an alcoholic and three years ago attempted suicide. But officers found and resuscitated her. "That's when I admitted what a mess I was," she says, smoothing her wig with a large hand. "I'd always known, but I denied my true self and drank instead. As soon as I discovered what I really wanted, I went to my doctor and got hormones."
The Boca Raton marketing firm where she works was surprisingly accepting. "When I first came out and began to cross-dress, the women in the office brought me cards and presents. There are a couple of guys who still don't look at me, but that's their problem." Her family, especially her three grown kids, didn't take the news as well. "Only one of them will even speak to me," she says.
Pam, another pre-op transsexual, shoots Joanna an empathetic glance. "Don't even consider this lifestyle if you're not prepared to lose everything -- your family, your friends, and your job," says Pam, who has long brown tresses and a Coppertone tan. Before coming out in 1992, she spent seven years living as Peter during weekdays at the office and Pam on weekends. When she came out, her bosses at a Boca Raton direct mail company were supportive. "They even encouraged me to get the operation they knew I wanted," she says. But three of her five grown kids disowned her. "They talk to me on the phone but won't let me come visit them because they still want me to be their dad."
Although Joanna and Pam were accepted at work, Sandra, a post-op transsexual with a neat blond wig and glasses perched at the tip of her nose, was not so lucky. Sandra was fired from her advertising job in Bangor, Maine, soon after she began transitioning from male to female. "I tried to explain my situation to my boss, but he wouldn't meet with me, and then he fired me," Sandra says. "I sought legal recourse, but the human rights ordinance in Maine had just been repealed, thanks to the Christian Coalition."
This law, which protects the gay and transgender communities from discrimination, is similar to the measure Miami-Dade countians will vote on September 10. The issue has SFGC members worried. "Jesus, they're trying to take us back to the days of Anita Bryant!" says Diane, formerly Dave, a pre-op transsexual who is a member of the Broward County Democratic Executive Committee. In response to Diane's words, a sea of blond and brunette wigs nods in agreement.
Then someone brings up another body of law -- the one that deals with traffic. State troopers sometimes don't, well, get those in the midst of transitioning. "It's all about how you present yourself," says Gloria, an outgoing post-op transsexual and Shirley MacLaine look-alike who's easily the most attractive -- and convincing -- transgender female in attendance this night. Before transitioning, she worked in auto salvage. "When I got pulled over once as a woman, my license still showed a man," Gloria boasts. "The officer spoke with me but then let me go."
"Oh, you probably just batted your eyes," a clearly envious voice shouts from across the room.
Gloria explains that she didn't have the surgery because she felt she was a woman trapped in a man's body. "I simply loved women so much I decided to become one," she says matter-of-factly. She still loves women, which brings up a point the group is eager to get across: Being a cross-dresser, or a transsexual, does not mean one is gay.
As Yvette, a matronly blond, post-op transsexual explains, "Sex is between your legs; gender is between your ears."
"Yeah, sister," shouts a brunette cross-dresser from the corner of the room.
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"Exactly!" agrees Dan, a female-to-male pre-op transsexual. Dan, who plans to get sexual reassignment surgery to become a full-fledged male, is looking for a nice woman to marry. But there's a problem. "People think I'm a butch lesbian and try to fix me up with lipstick lesbians. So I have to explain that I consider myself a straight man, not a gay woman," he says, picking at a plate of donut holes. Mild-mannered and dateless since 1988, Dan is holding out for Ms. Right. "I need to get things corrected before I can start dating," he laments.
And there are other, less obvious concerns. Take the use of public restrooms, for example. "If you're a man dressed as a woman or in transition to becoming a woman, you're not going to walk into the men's restroom," Sandra says. "And since it's probably obvious that you are a man dressed as a woman, you can't walk into the ladies room. People will look at you like you're crazy."
As the evening draws to a close, Wittman describes the blatant hate many transgender folk experience, especially from strangers. One evening after she lectured at the University of Miami, two college guys followed her to the car. "They said, 'We ought to kick your butt, you goddamned fag you!'" Wittman says. "I said to them, 'If I had Down syndrome, would you kick my butt?' They said, 'No.' I asked, 'If I had cerebral palsy, would you kick my butt?' Again, they sort of looked at each other and said, 'Well, no.' I told them I have a physical condition that causes me to do what I do. 'So do you still want to kick my butt?' I asked. They said 'No' and walked away. That was scary."
That conversation was a small bit of progress, Wittman says. There will be more. "Years ago, we would never have been able to have a meeting like this. So we're becoming accepted little by little," she avers. "We just want to promote understanding and let people know we want the same rights as everyone else. We want to shop in department stores without people pointing fingers and laughing at us. And," she adds with a laugh, "if anyone knows about any good deals on large-size ladies' shoes, let us know."