After living 57 years as a macho man, veteran Philadelphia police officer Maria Gonzalez will retire as a middle-aged woman.
At 8 years old he tried growing an onion but killed it through overwatering. His mom noticed that he liked flowers and taught him how to grow his own. Soon an L-shaped garden decorated the backyard where Heladio Gonzalez planted morning glories and snapdragons. Almost 50 years later he found out about the fights.
"Mom and Dad used to argue about you," one of his sisters told him. "Dad would holler that she was turning you into a faggot."
His mother tried to repair the breach. "Take Heladio," she'd say if his father ran an errand.
"He didn't want to be seen with me," says Gonzalez. "I think they knew something was wrong. I was different. Finally I said, 'Oh God, I'm not going to go with Pop no more,' and I never did."
He built a swinging wooden door to the garden, with slats and a Z design on the front. "Your father's very proud," his mother told him. But his father never mentioned the door to him.
There was an empty parking lot where he and his friends played baseball. He felt he should befriend the neighborhood girls, but in the North Philadelphia of the late '50s and early '60s that wasn't really possible. So he hung with the boys in the neighborhood, who grabbed their baseball gloves and took off running with an ease and desire he never felt.
At 10 he saw a picture in the Daily News of a woman who'd been a man. She was blond and thin with a big daisy on each shoe. It was his first inkling that such a thing was possible.
At home he slept in a third-floor back bedroom. He stuck his head out the window and listened to planes flying overhead, dogs barking in the distance and conversations from nearby windows and houses-seemingly within a stage whisper's distance. All the while he maintained his garden. To this day he dreams about the snapdragons, the morning glories and the swinging wooden door.
Heladio Gonzalez took 57 years to finally come clean. In January 2004 he told everyone he wanted to be called Maria. Whatever his physical body, on the inside he'd always been a woman.
Now just two years later, transgender people are more visible than ever. The movie Transamerica put the issue on the big screen with wit and sensitivity, earning actress Felicity Huffman an Oscar nomination.
And two transgender women made news earlier this month. A New York City transit officer arrested 70-year-old Helena Stone for using a women's restroom before city officials dropped all charges. (The cop allegedly called Stone "the ugliest woman in the world.") And a school board in Eagleswood, N.J., allowed 71-year-old Lily McBeth to keep teaching elementary school students just six months after she'd taught as a man named William. (A father argued McBeth's continued employment would turn his child into a science experiment.)
Here in Philadelphia the city passed an amendment in 2002 outlawing discrimination against transgender people. (See "What's in a Name?" p. 24.) And the most public male-to-female transsexual in Philadelphia is probably Gonzalez, a 38-year veteran of the city's police force.
The media chronicled Gonzalez's announcement in print, on TV and in radio interviews, yet rarely put a name to what drove the cop's desire. Gender identity disorder, or gender dysphoria, replaced the word "transsexualism" among healthcare professionals in 1994, describing anyone whose gender preference doesn't match their apparent physical sex.
In less formal terms, medical science now holds that guys who'd rather be girls and chicks who'd rather be dudes suffer from a mental disorder. The diagnosis remains controversial among transgender people, who see their problem as physical. One study, published in The International Journal of Transgenderism, found the brains of male-to-female transsexuals identical to a biological female's in one key region. The study suggested the condition occurs in the womb, and lent scientific validation to the transsexuals' experience of feeling trapped in the wrong body from birth.
It's believed that one in 12,000 men and one in 30,000 women suffers from gender identity disorder. It's also believed that 1,000 people in the United States and Canada undergo sex-change surgery each year. But so little funding is available to study the phenomenon that any statistics are suspect. Careers in law enforcement, fire fighting and the military are believed to be particularly alluring to male sufferers, like Gonzalez, who seek to please their families and fit into society by fighting themselves.
Heladio Gonzalez's parents divorced when he was 14 years old, and his father took custody of the children. The older man worked in a warehouse and announced his presence to his son and two daughters by leaving lunch money on the kitchen table.
The teenage Gonzalez abandoned gardening and started drinking. He snuck wine when no one was around, downed it quickly and stood woozily in the summer heat. He tried to cultivate friendships, going fishing with his male friends, but the experience only underscored his alienation.
Dinner with Luke Palladino