My earliest memory is lying on the floor of my bedroom. I was about 3 and would spend hours in the low light, paging through children’s books. The illustrations of the girls and women in dresses were riveting. There was a feeling of want and fascination that kept me looking for hours.
As much as those picture books drew me in, they also haunted me. Something clearly was not right. But it was also abundantly clear that any mention of interest in feminine clothing or activities was not acceptable. Not to my mother, sister or family friends. Not to anyone. There was not a lot of tolerance to being different while growing up in the 1960s in La Habra in the middle of Orange County. After all, I was a boy. I was expected to act like one. Mentioning anything girlish was met with an admonishment. Sometimes it was gentle, other times not so much. These corrections were always served with a dose of shaming.
This internal sense that something was “off” would drive a decades-long search for an answer to who and what I was.
Nothing about being a boy felt natural. I would watch and see what the other boys did, then mimic them. I would lie awake at night wondering Why was I this way? Why wasn’t I a girl?
When I was 6, I found a string of fake pearls that Mom had tossed. She noticed I was hanging on to these and insisted I throw them away. Being self-schooled in deception, I claimed it was a bandolier of bullets for my plastic Tommy gun. While pulling it over the barrel, I barked out gunshots. This was bad-assed enough to allow me to keep them, although they had mysteriously disappeared by the next morning.
My sister was around 10 when her girlfriends would come over to play Barbie dolls. Tons of girl talk and sharing of outfits for their dolls. I wanted so badly to join in. Naturally, my sister was annoyed. Some of her friends were OK with it but my sister’s protests summoned Mom. Mom threatened to make me wear a dress and play with them if I did not leave them alone. I did not see a downside in that, but I was sent outside instead.
I felt like my survival and acceptance were based on what I could do as a young man. I raced through the requirements in any activity. In Boy Scouts, I completed the Eagle Scout prerequisites so quickly as I turned 14 that the adults discussed whether this was too young to finish the program. I had to be the leader, even when it came to selling new subscriptions to the Fullerton Tribune for my newspaper route. High grades came easily, as did academic accolades and awards. I never, ever felt I earned or deserved any of them. Always present was the nagging belief, “If they only knew….” It was an exhausting life. I truly felt that no one would know the real me. The shame would kill me.
By my teens, the desire to be a girl was ever present.
I noticed the way girls dressed, moved and spoke. Whenever I saw a pretty woman, the draw to be with her was equally shared by the feeling I wanted to be like her. I would dream of everyone disappearing so I could go into the juniors or women’s department of the now vacant stores and choose whatever I wanted to wear. No one would ever see me or know. I was raised Catholic and felt this secret of mine would certainly damn me. There was no way I could confess to any of the priests. Besides, I still didn’t have the words for it.
I was so lonely.
In my freshman year at Whittier College, I pledged a men’s society. Who would question a frat guy, right?
I had always been attracted to women. That’s partly why it was all so confusing. I enjoyed dating women and always wanted to meet “The One.” I never had sexual desires for a man and I knew I was not gay. I knew about transvestites and drag queens. It seemed like they were on to something, but I could not ever imagine going out in public dressed as a woman. Besides, guys from school would drive to Hollywood to harass transvestites.
Halfway through college, I sought out psychotherapy in hopes of easing a black depression. After several months of weekly sessions, I finally admitted that I wanted to dress as a woman. Huge step for me to tell anyone. The therapist (a former priest) said, “I saw men doing this in the seminary and it made me physically ill. I had to go to a strip club to get the bad taste out of my mouth.” He said that when boys grow into men, they leave such things behind. I was totally stunned, I sat up straighter and thought maybe I finally had my answer. “Yes. It is time to leave this behind.”
I left his office convinced he had “cured” me. We actually congratulated one another on this incredible achievement.
I then felt free to marry, thinking it was all behind me. A big wedding and big dreams. Somehow, those feminine feelings really did seem to be gone. I could finally step up and have a normal, happy life.
It would be five years before the depression returned. By that point, I had two sons I loved deeply, a house and a career in clinical pharmacy. So it was back to therapy with a new female counselor. I told her that I felt like I had a “little black pea” in my brain and that if I could eliminate it, I would feel great again.
We worked on finding that black pea, and it was decided that I must be a cross-dresser, as I enjoyed wearing women’s clothing. This was a devastating diagnosis. I had a wife and family. But it did also feel like a solution.
I wanted an honest relationship with my wife. So I asked her to go to my therapist with me. I tried to explain. I stammered and started to cry as I tried to admit that I was a cross-dresser. My wife had always told me she was attracted to the “macho” side of me. The muscular surfer. The take-charge person. After listening to my story of a lifetime of struggle, she ran to the bathroom and vomited.
My wife got her own therapist. After months of single and couple sessions, tears and struggles, we decided on a policy of “Don’t ask, don’t tell.” She insisted that no one could ever know that I dressed as a woman. I rented a tiny office in Costa Mesa to store my wardrobe. I would go there once a month. It felt like I was adrift for 29 days and then would have one day of life. I thought it would work. We had a third son.
But it became impossible. I believe I disgusted her. We divorced after 15 years of marriage.
I found a house a few miles away that was affordable for me and the boys, and we shared custody. I built a hidden closest in the house by walling up an alcove that backed up to the master bedroom. I installed drywall and a locked door. It looked like a simple access to utilities, nothing that would raise suspicions. All my feminine clothing, makeup and wigs were in there.
While being a father and working, I found time to meet other cross-dressers and eventually gave lectures at the local colleges for psych and human sexuality courses. I did it when I had the house to myself. It very much felt like a double life. Driving out of my garage while dressed as a woman was nerve-racking, as I was still hiding it from everyone. But I also felt like I could breathe.
But I still longed for a woman to be my soul mate. I was sinking again in 2000. I saw that second therapist again after many years. She said that any woman accepting of my feminine side would be “airy fairy” and not a suitable mate. She asked how it would feel if even one of my boys found out and I lost him. That was a knife through my heart. She was right. I quit dressing again. Cold turkey. I loved being with my boys and would never let them know.
I dated more than 100 women. It was mostly fun, but I was searching for a partner. Many warm, funny and smart women, but none felt just right. And then…
Mika was referred to me for information on a lecture she was preparing. (That mutual friend later admitted thinking there might be a potential for romance there as well.) Mika and I both worked at Long Beach Memorial Medical Center. I had a pharmacy practice setting up therapeutic IV infusions for patients at home. She worked as an audiologist testing newborns for hearing loss, and our paths had never crossed. As we spoke on the phone, my “partner sense” started tingling. I pulled journal articles and called her back. She suggested I mail them to her.
I countered that we meet for coffee and I could hand-deliver them.
It was love at first sight (at least for me). I swear she had an aura or at least the sun shining from behind her as she approached that morning. She mentioned that she had two young boys who played soccer. I discretely asked if Dad enjoyed the soccer and she said he was not in the picture. Be still my heart.
We would meet for “super quick” drinks and conversation, so she could get home before the babysitter had to leave. And so it flourished.
In 2009, I was offered a managerial position by the executive director of the outpatient pharmacy department. It would be a step up in salary and involved supervising the ambulatory pharmacy and staff, where I had been a clinician. I was a very good clinician and loved it. I had avoided going into management, but this man said, “Give me a year, and I will make you a great manager.” I admired and trusted him. We shook hands. I asked if there was a secret handshake I needed to know, now that I was going to be in the big leagues. He laughed and said no. But he whispered there was a secret manager dance and promptly demonstrated his version. We laughed.
It was the last time I would see him.
Two days later and four days before my new role was to begin, I’d had a day off and was repairing a wooden gate in the backyard. I remember the sunny day, the smell of the redwood. My cellphone rang. It was a coworker. They were whispering. Something about a lockdown in the pharmacy. They hung up. A lockdown? My phone rang again. It was a nurse friend. Then the call dropped. Then it rang again, this time a fellow pharmacist. I was able to piece this much together. An employee armed with a gun walked into the pharmacy department and shot his manager. My boss, my new mentor, had heard about the gunfire and came running to help. The shooter turned the gun on him and fired several times, killing him, before turning the gun on himself.
It was crushing for me and many others. I went into a very dark place. I could barely sleep. I would go to work, come home and go to bed. And then the nightmares began: I was trapped with someone trying to hurt me. I would struggle to outwit them verbally. But we both knew violence would happen. I would wake up drenched in sweat, my heart racing. During the day, I did not feel fit for human company. Mika and our five boys knew it was bad. Mika tried to isolate me from conflict, thinking a calm environment was what I needed. But my conflict was internal.
A therapist provided by the hospital after the shootings explained that violent traumas can make your inner emotions flare. All your conflicts, even those years old and long buried. And so I confessed it all. All my struggles. And this time, with the therapist’s help, I recognized that I was a woman.
I think had always known in my heart that I was transgendered. But this therapist was the very first to give me a name for it. I cried bitterly. This was all more than I could take. I was exhausted with living. The therapist said it was not something I had to deal with now. Maybe later. Or maybe never. He said to put that female identity in a “box” on the back shelf of my mind and not address it until I was ready. And so it was stuffed down again. Still, I felt bleak. I questioned myself. How could these killings affect me so deeply? I was not there that day, after all.
But I would have been, if I hadn’t taken the day off. My new work office was 15 feet from the executive director’s office. Would or could I have stopped him from running out? Would I have gone with him? Could I have stopped the gunman, or would I have run?
I pushed those questions into another box on the back shelf of my mind. So many of my friends witnessed the shootings. I had no right to be so affected.
After seven years of both being marriage-adverse, Mika and I decided to wed in 2011. Greatest choice ever. I was so happy to be with her that I became convinced that my past conflict was gone forever. I knew my ex was was too ashamed of me to ever tell anyone. And I eliminated every trace of the hidden closet. I converted it into a rec room for what was now a houseful of boys, who all got along.
I still struggled with nightmares and depression. Sometimes, it physically hurt to type.
I finally found a new therapist, and she was good. I told her everything. Mika sometimes joined me at the sessions. But Mika still did not know my secret.
I remember thinking that I would rather die than lose her. But I was dying nonetheless. I went to therapy to try to hold on.
I will always remember the Tuesday session in May 2015 where the therapist said: “I know Mika, and she is strong. But you have to make the decision on whether to tell her.” But I knew I could never tell her. I could not risk losing her. She was my dream, my soul mate, my life. I was too afraid to take that chance.
I would have to figure out how to survive somehow. I had to fight this feeling and figure out how to be a happy husband and father. When I got home after that session, I passed Mika on the stairs but was crying too hard to speak. I crawled into bed. I lasted four days before it all came spilling out.
Although I was so very afraid of losing her, it was so dark and impossible to live this way.
The boys were gone that following Saturday morning. I asked her to sit with me on the floor of our bedroom. Outside, the sun was shining and lighted up the room. We had bought our first window air conditioner a week prior and Mika was delighted with it. I got up and turned it on to fight the heat wave outside. She knew I was breaking. She was so worried. I felt like I was dying. My throat felt so tight and swollen.
I told her that I could not live this way any longer.
I told her of being deathly afraid of sharing something and losing her.
I choked out my story between sobs.
I started with that earlier memory, lying on the floor of my bedroom as a 3-year-old. I told her everything. I explained that I never meant to put her in this position. Mika gasped and cried with me.
She said she had been so afraid all these months. We had such a wonderful, blissful time for so many years before the shooting. She did not know what else to do for me, for us. She too was exhausted from trying to hold us together.
Then she said that she was actually relieved. She thought I might be hiding a terminal illness. Or that I was cheating and wanted out of the marriage. We cried, hugged and talked and cried some more. There were wads of tissues on the floor around us. She listened to every word and held me close.
Early in our relationship, when a challenge would confront her, she would state, “I got this.” I loved that about her.
That morning after I told her all, she looked at me close and said, “We got this.”
We knew we would be going down a path that neither of us fully understood. We did not even try to imagine how it would unfold. We were too emotional to plan the next steps. Her acceptance left me dazed. Remarkably, she smiled at me and said, “We need to go shopping. You need a wardrobe.”
In the last few years, I have transitioned to female. Hormone therapy has changed my body and emotions, giving me peace. I struggled for almost 60 years. The last five years have been nothing less than euphoric.
I am blessed and lucky. My wife is incredible, and all five sons have accepted me as I truly am. Nearly all of my family and friends support and love me. Work was tremendously open and affirming.
This is not the case, however, for many people who are transgendered. One survey by the National Center for Transgender Equality found that 41% of respondents reported at least one suicide attempt. And divorce is common when a spouse comes out. Thankfully, transgender youth are identifying earlier, and there is growing support available for them.
Only one therapist out of a dozen was able to finally give me the courage to accept myself.
This journey would never have happened without Mika’s extraordinary love and understanding. This unconventional life journey we share bonds us so tightly. My wife and I are truly soul-mated, and her courage and love are unmatched. She has grieved the loss of the man, but we have shared the pure joy of me being alive and happy. She says she has gained a better me. We cannot wait to share the rest of our life journey, because we know our love will take care of us no matter what happens.
Every morning, I pull out colored pens and bright Post-It notes and write a love note to go with her coffee. They are brief words describing the joys, laughter and stumbles in our shared days raising kids and cats. We ran out of room in a keepsake box and now this confetti-colored assortment spills out of a clear 12 gallon plastic bag. I loved her at first sight, and my love and gratitude grow more every day.
Happy Valentine’s Day, Mika.
The author is retired, making custom furniture and writing a book about her journey with Mika. She is on Twitter @jennifermoorewrites.
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