My new friend Juli invited me to a party for transgendered people out in the 'burbs. After hours at a fancy restaurant in a posh pocket of manure-smelling McCain country is the unlikely spot where men--mostly blue-collar types--can safely mingle while zippered into pencil skirts and hoisted up in heels.
Here, transgendered women (the party�s open to anyone but transgendered men rarely show) sneak in a few hours dressed in feminine finery and, in varying degrees, act in ways our society says is only cool for people born with vaginas.
To clarify the he-she-it language issue: It's appropriate and respectful to refer to transgendered and transsexual men in the feminine. (All names here have been changed.)
In some ways, TGs are buried deeper in the closet than gays and lesbians. If you're a homosexual living a double life, at least your sexual partner knows what gets you hot. Not so with transgendered people, who often live their entire lives hiding hose from girlfriends, bosses and beer-hall buddies.
Many of my new friends here go to great lengths to manage rigidly compartmentalized lives. Like Juli, who's never even been out to a romantic partner. Juli's especially stressed tonight because since the last party, her worlds collided in the worst possible way.
Juli's friend Grace, who's taking hormones, tried to kill herself. Juli couldn't help save Grace. It wasn't until she heard her friend's desperate cries on the other end of the phone that she realized yet another risk of staying in the closet: Juli doesn't even know Grace's real name.
Madison is a professional plumber who's got a stylish Jackie-O-meets-'50s-housewife thing going on. Sidled up at the bar, she tells me the biggest misconception about TGs is that people assume dudes who dress like ladies are gay.
"Your gender preference is one thing, and your sexual preference is another," she says. As a board member of Renaissance, the national support group association for TGs, Madison talks on the topic at colleges. She says the percentage of gay men in her world is about the same percentage as the general population.
"They assume you're gay because you cross-dress. That's just homophobia. They look at your legs or think you're sexy and then they think, 'Oh my god. I was just turned on by a guy, and what does that say about me?'"
She says they catch plenty of shit from girls too.
"White rich girls are the worst. They chase you through the mall pointing and laughing. That's just bad parenting skills to not teach them tolerance. Not that I'm not different, but still," she says. "You don't have to be mean about it."
Madison says it's harder to come out in the suburbs. "That's why this is so nice. Out here it's just me and my horse," she sighs. "And my horse doesn't care how I dress."
Margot organizes the parties. She did her time in the closet, but she's "about as out as you can get" now. She tells me how cross-dressing's been around since ancient times and about the old days, when TGs were a top-secret society with coded door knocks and everything.
As we look out over a bar bustling with a few dozen TGs--almost all of who would only talk to me on the condition of total anonymity--Margot says things have gotten better.
At the mirror in the ladies room (it's like Grand Central Station in there) I'm chatting with Tina, a woman who looks like your friendly neighborhood biker mom. She's there supporting her man.
She agrees to tell me her story as long as I promise to write no identifying characteristics. She wants people to understand. To leave them alone.