After living 57 years as a macho man, veteran Philadelphia police officer Maria Gonzalez will retire as a middle-aged woman.
He cultivated some transvestites as informants and enjoyed talking to the streetwalkers on North Broad Street. But the exchanges were brief, furtive and ostensibly focused on police business. Anything else could compromise the identity he'd built for himself.
Sometimes, around 13th Street, he'd see male-to-female transsexuals who lived otherwise normal lives. He realized there are men who live as women every day and work normal jobs and make their way in the world. But such a future seemed out of his reach.
"With this fricking job?" he'd holler at himself.
But for all his fear he couldn't escape himself. "You can survive for a while just imagining it," says Gonzalez. "But when you act on it and start wearing outfits or whatever, it just kind of closes the circle. That took all the shit away from me. My mind just relaxed."
By 2003 living in his mind was no longer enough.
He spoke to his wife, told her he needed to live as he pleased. With 32 years of marriage at stake, she tried to accommodate him.
For three weeks he came home from work, removed his police uniform and put on women's clothes. At first he thought the arrangement might work. But one day she came home to find him in slacks and a blouse, cooking.
"Is this going to be an everyday thing?" she asked him.
"Well, yeah," he replied. "I hope so."
He thought about throwing all his ladies' clothes away again. But this time was different. This time he sat down at the computer. He'd recently joined an online chat group called Transgendered Network International. He thought about logging in using his aunt's name, Marie, but instead selected the Spanish version: Maria.
He met Dee online.
Dee had been using a feminine name and dressing as a woman for quite some time. After chatting online with Gonzalez for a couple of weeks, she invited him over. A cop to the core, Gonzalez drove past her house to scope the place out before parking the car.
Dee, too, started having second thoughts. "Am I crazy?" she thought. "No one on the Internet is who they claim to be."
Seeing Gonzalez didn't help. He arrived dressed in his male clothes. He looked dumpy and drab. But Dee allowed him inside, and after a couple of hours he dipped into the bag of clothes he'd brought with him and modeled three different ladies' outfits-flats, slacks, blouses.
"It was nice," says Gonzalez, "to have somebody see me dressed as Maria and not think poorly of me."
Dee then took Gonzalez to meet her psychotherapist Aviva Nubel, who cast new light on what had been bothering him all these years.
Nubel works almost exclusively with clients suffering from gender identity disorder, and she can rattle off a list of disturbing symptoms. Many sufferers spend their entire lives showering with the lights off, says Nubel. One client owned only a small decorative mirror, just large enough to reflect his eyes. Many marry members of the opposite sex and have children. One sought sex-change surgery at age 72 because he didn't want to die a man.
She often accompanies clients who've been estranged from their families on trips to Canada and Colorado, where genital reassignment surgeries are most often performed. "Many times they tell me," says Nubel, "'If I die during the operation, please make sure the surgeon finishes before I'm buried.'"
After meeting Nubel, Gonzalez even went out in public dressed as Maria. He put on a wig. He applied a little makeup. He donned slacks and flats.