With all the talk and controversy lately about transgenders, I thought I would share a personal experience.
In the 1990’s, I met a man named Michael. He was a Vietnam Veteran who became an accountant after he left the service. We were both volunteering for an organization in Philadelphia. Michael and I shared a love of science fiction and sleight-of hand. He lived about 45 minutes from me, much closer to the city than my house. We went to a few sci-fi movies and visited some local magic shops.
He had a very pretty girlfriend and we double dated a few times. I never suspected that he was transgendered. I found out when he called me one day and asked me to accompany him to a big annual transgendered ball in Philadelphia. After my initial shock, I asked him why he didn’t go with his girlfriend. He told me that he finally told her about being a transgender and she dropped him on the spot.
I still don’t understand about transgenders and sex, quite honestly thinking about it makes my head hurt. Obviously, he was interested in women at the time, but said he only felt like a real person when he dressed like a woman. He mentioned that he was going to get hormones as a first step but wasn’t sure that he would ever undergo surgery. Since he had just been laid off, he was going to try to live as a woman full time. Like I said, thinking about the particulars made my head hurt.
Okay, back to the invitation. This particular event is extremely famous. It was a big showcase for the LGBT community in Philadelphia. It was a black-tie soirée. I hemmed and hawed for a couple of uncomfortable moments and then thought about his service to the country. Here was a man who volunteered to serve in Vietnam and was my friend. I finally agreed. I told him I would carry a cane I had used when I had a bum leg a few years back. I figured it would give me an excuse about the dancing.
I set some guidelines. First of all, I told him there would be no dancing. Hell, I don’t even dance at heterosexual events. No hand holding, I would pretty much be his escort, period. I had a lot of friends who were openly gay so the event didn’t really bother me. I was going as a heterosexual and wanted that to be clear. Since I was on QVC back then, I was sure my notoriety would attract a lot of people. Luckily, it was a few years before smart phones, so I would be spared endless “selfies.”
I recently had a custom made tuxedo made so I was ready for the black tie get together. I met Michael at his door, not knowing what to expect. (His female name was Michele.) Michele answered the door and she looked good, but since it was pre-hormones, she still looked a lot like Michael. I figured, “what the hell, it’s a few hours to support a veteran.”
We arrived at the Center City Ballroom and I found out there was a red carpet. Shit! Okay, I knew I could do this. Michele took my arm and we strolled the red carpet which led to a big staircase into the ballroom. Forget the selfies, there were news photographers and video cameras from the local press. I smiled and we walked into the ballroom. A few of them recognized me and called me by name. I tried to ignore them but they were relentless. I did a few red carpet interviews.
Michele told the organizers about my status as a QVC host so we were seated at a table in the front. I had a moral turpitude clause in my QVC contract. While today it would be no big deal, back then they could have raised hell about my public attendance. I figured, “Oh well, in for a penny, in for a pound.” It was too late to turn back now.
You could count the number of fancy balls I attended before this on zero fingers. It was a very nice event, a fresh buffet line and really loud dance music from a DJ. Several people asked me if I wanted to dance and I politely declined, noting the cane. Several said I could just stand there with the cane and move my butt. I had to get insistent a few times.
Lots of people came up to me to ask the usual questions about QVC, “Is the gold real?” “Do you get commission?” “Are there any gay hosts?” I responded to that last one by saying, “How do you know someone is gay?” That usually embarrassed them and made them go away.
One very large transgendered woman grabbed me from behind and tried to carry me to the dancefloor. It was a lose/lose situation. If I tried to deck them the headlines would have been brutal. Plus, I could not bring myself to hit a woman, even a transgendered one. Michele intervened and told her to “put me down,” which she did. She then yelled at the person about “assaulting” me. If I ever develop erectile dysfunction (worse than I have now), it can probably be traced to memories of this incident. It was funny and extremely embarrassing at the same time.
I survived the event and Michele had a great time. I took her home and went back to my place. I was exhausted.
My phone rang early the next day. It was Michele, thanking me for accompanying her to the event. She also asked me if I had seen one of the Philadelphia gay newspapers that day. (There was more than one?) I said no. She told me I should check it out. When I hung up, I jumped in the shower, got dressed and headed over to a local bookstore that carried a wide selection of newspapers.
Sure enough, they had the paper in question. While I had not been on any TV news reports about the event, there I was, arm-in-arm with Michelle on the red carpet. It was a very large photo, above the fold. The headline said, “Home Shopping Host Arrives at the Ball.” Back then, the media was always making this kind of mistake, calling us the name of the competition since it described the industry. Hey, I looked good in the photo and so did Michele. But I pretty much figured my career was over. Again, this was a big deal in the mid 1990’s. (Thank goodness it wouldn’t matter today.)
Bottom Line – I never heard a word about the event from anyone at QVC. Either they had not seen the headline (unlikely) or they just didn’t want to admit they had read a gay newspaper. Most likely, the fact that their name wasn’t emblazoned on the front page was the primary reason. Honestly, if they had fired me over the incident, I would have fought back legally. The headlines would have been very interesting. Home Shopping Network would have hated me.
Michele and I remained friends. We went to lunch and some movies. She did get stared at, especially in the early days of her transitioning. During the first few months of hormone therapy, it was pretty obvious she was a guy identifying and dressing as a woman. I realized what she was doing took a lot of guts. She finally decided that she was gay and was going to start dating men.
While I have many friends in the gay community, her choice led her to new friends and social circles. Our friendship faded as we had less and less in common as she transitioned. Sadly, she developed a very aggressive form of cancer before her surgery and died before completing her journey.
Epilogue: Knowing Michele showed me that gender identity has nothing to do with a person’s capabilities as well as their hopes and dreams. Once she decided to live full time as a woman, she had a difficult time finding a job that understood her lifestyle. Keep in mind we’re talking about the mid-1990’s, not that long ago. Hopefully it’s better today. Undaunted, she started her own accounting business and was very successful.
And while serving in combat might be ill-advised for transgenders because of the availability of the necessary medications and their effects, completely banning them from military service is, in my opinion, wrong. There are many ways to serve.
May Michele rest-in-peace and may God bless the United States of America.
© 2017 Steve Bryant – No portion of this or any blog can be reproduced or copied and posted on any online site or read aloud on any audio or video media without the express permission of the author.