After living 57 years as a macho man, veteran Philadelphia police officer Maria Gonzalez will retire as a middle-aged woman.
After his divorce he frequented gay bars, but felt only discomfort. He never tried hooking up. "I'm looking at these guys," says Gonzalez, "and they're having a high old time, and I wanted to be happy too. But after a while I just said, 'No, this isn't it.'"
In hindsight he knows he hated men at the time, probably because he didn't want to be one. Then one night his mother called just after he got off work.
A young lady friend of the family was at a party. Everyone there was drunk, and she wanted to go home. Gonzalez drove over, still wearing his police uniform, and reflexively beat on the door like a cop. "You saved me," she said.
He met her family. Her aunt said she liked him because he was so macho. "She just knew I was the one for her niece," says Gonzalez.
He entered his first alcohol rehab center the same year he remarried, after a particularly brutal bout with the bottle left him hospitalized. Over the years he mixed four stints in rehab with years of seemingly normal life.
In 1978 he celebrated the birth of a daughter, yet lived mostly inside his own head. Riding a trolley by himself, he indulged the fantasy he might some day live as a woman. In the meantime he became a good cop.
"He made good arrests," says retired city police officer Dean Bergkoetter, who worked with Gonzalez on the street. In cop parlance, that's high praise, connoting aggression and a willingness to mix it up.
"He was very good," says retired Sgt. Frank Somensky. "He did everything everybody else did. If there was a disturbance call, he went right into it. With cops, there are no secrets. If anybody had suspected he had those feelings, they'd have dug right in."
In the mid-'80s he caught a particularly prolific burglar. Police cornered the man in a high-rise apartment building in the 1200 block of North Broad Street, and moved from floor to floor. Gonzalez heard the door above him close, stalked upward and found the burglar on the third floor. The man had four stolen rifles, which were arrayed under a white sheet and lay uselessly across his arms like a bundle of wood.
Gonzalez served 21 years on the streets of North Philadelphia's 23rd District, including a stint on horseback and another 15 years giving firearm instruction at the police academy.
He could be a rough cop. Once he went into a restaurant and overheard a man giving a waitress "a raft of shit." He told the man to leave. The man said something back, so Gonzalez grabbed him by his belt and collar, and suddenly they were in a wrestling match.
"I busted him in the fucking mouth," remembers Gonzalez. "I drag the guy outside and start cuffing him. My partner asks, 'What happened?' because I'm cuffing this guy who's limp, and I say, 'I had to knock him the fuck out.'"
Mental health professionals see so many overly macho male-to-female transsexuals that they've ascribed the phenomenon a name: the flight to masculinity.
"That cop was never really me," agrees Gonzalez. "That was something I developed. I told that to my shrink, and she said, 'Yeah, I see that in some of the other girls. You are the world's best actors. Nobody knows you.'"
During his second rehab stint, in 1982, he worked up the nerve to tell a male counselor the real reason he drank. "I'll look into this," the counselor told him. But Gonzalez never heard back.
He brought up his daughter, enjoying the traditional "dad" things. He drove her to school, to see friends, to cheerleading practice and to gymnastics. When she played T-ball, he taught her to catch. He bought and threw out countless ladies' outfits over the years, which he hid in a brown paper bag on a garage shelf.
"It was like hiding a body in the basement," says Gonzalez. "You don't want anybody to find it, but the stink is there."
Once, in 1986, his wife found him dressed as a woman, prompting him to throw away another set of clothes. The two of them also became complicit in hiding the woman inside Heladio Gonzalez. "I was scared," says Gonzalez, "scared she was gonna throw me out."
If he went out drinking with his fellow cops, he departed quickly and found another place to drink, quietly, by himself-afraid of what he might say, afraid that one belt too many might send him scurrying off to find a pair of women's shoes. He had nightmares about getting caught again, about getting thrown out of his house. Even after he joined Alcoholics Anonymous and developed a decade-long relationship with a sponsor, he couldn't confess the reason he drank.