4/10/2020 -- UGA, Boneshakers, “Mama”, and Boot Camp!!! (Part 1)
While finishing up at Gainesville College, I had decided to major in social work at the University of Georgia (UGA) and I had begun working at The Salvation Army Homeless Shelter in Gainesville, GA. It was an incredible learning experience and I lived there five days a week (in my own room). When I started attending UGA, I would get up early, get everyone up who was staying there, make breakfast for everyone, and get them all out by 8am. I then drove the 45 minutes to UGA, went to class, and got back to open the shelter at 4:30pm. It was a pretty hectic time and that lasted a couple of quarters before I decided that I just wanted to be a college student! I was now 33 years old and had been working at least part-time since I was 13 years old! I wanted a break! I took a student loan, found an apartment to share with two guys (remember, I was still seen as a “guy” by society), and, for the next 10 months or so, I was just a student...albeit one who was intent upon partying as much as possible!
Eventually, I had to get a job as the loan money was about gone. There was a convenience store on Baldwin Street (adjacent to campus) and I got a job there. Now, during this time, I was taking a lot of psychology classes along with the social work classes and there was usually something about trans people in every textbook! I was soaking up as much info as I could...still wishing I’d die, but as a much better informed person! :-) I was also beginning to have suicidal thoughts as it was getting harder and harder to look in the mirror each day. I’d shave in the morning and there would still be a shadow on my face. My chest, arms, and legs looked like a shag carpet and (in my mind), my nose was as big as Jimmy Durante’s! All in all, this was not a good time. My mind was constantly thinking, “How can I die without actually committing suicide?” God wasn’t answering my nightly prayer to not wake up in the morning and I don’t think I could have drunk any additional alcohol and still function at all. Yeah...it was a vicious cycle.
One day at work, I was there with the manager (ironically, also named Steve) and on this particular afternoon, the most effeminate male I had ever seen sashayed (yes, really!) into the store, got an OJ, spoke with Steve complaining about a late night and hangover, gave me a quick glance, and sashayed out. I asked Steve who this person was and he said, “Oh. That’s Anastacia.” “Excuse me?”, I responded. He replied, “Anastacia is one of the drag queens at Boneshakers. They do a show every Monday night.” Well...this bit of info took me aback! I had never met a drag queen or been to a drag show. In fact, I had never been in a gay bar at this point!
As fate would have it (or as Hare Krsna devotees say, “By Krsna’s arrangement...”), Anastacia (I found out that Kristopher was the given name) started working at that convenience store about two weeks later. One day, we were talking and I asked about the drag show. She (I always refer to her in the feminine) told me about it and invited me to come to one of the shows. She then said something that changed my life. She said that she was planning on transitioning to female and wanted surgery. You know those scenes in movies where the camera focuses on a person’s face, but everything around them is moving? That’s exactly how I felt when she said that. I immediately got up my nerve and said, “I need to tell you something. I’m transsexual. I’ve been in denial for 12 years and I can’t keep living like this. I haven’t been dressed in 12 years. I don’t know how to do makeup. I don’t have any female clothes. I don’t know anything and I need help. Will you please help me?” Honestly, I couldn’t believe that I had actually said all of that out loud! She eyed me up and down and said, “If I help you, you have to promise me that you will, in turn, help someone else. Do you promise me?” “Absolutely! I swear I will!”, I almost yelled at her! She replied, “In that case, I am your Mama and you are my daughter….and you WILL call me Mama!” She was ten years younger than me. I called her “Mama” from that day on. Let the learning begin....
4/11/2020: UGA, Boneshakers. “Mama”, and Boot Camp!!! (Part 2)
Now, it was around the same time that I met “Mama” that I was doing an internship at a non-profit agency in Athens. Soon I met three people who became very important to my transition. I met Kristen (K) at that non-profit. She worked as a grant writer. One day we got to talking and she asked me what I wanted to do once I graduated college. I told her that I was thinking about becoming a therapist to work with transgender people. She thought that was interesting and asked me why. I told her, “Because I’m trans.” We became friends and she said that she had a couple of friends that she wanted to introduce me to...Chandra and Nathan. K introduced me this way, “This is Stefanie. She’s transsexual and is going to begin transitioning soon.” Chandra and Nathan didn’t bat an eye. From day one, it was always, Stef, she, her, etc. Please understand that I didn’t look anything like I do now. No hormones. No electrolysis. Nothing...yet they accepted me as Stef from the get go. That was HUGE to someone just starting out. I hope that over the years I’ve properly conveyed how much that meant to me. I meant everything!
Above: My dear friends, Chandra and Nathan.
One day at work, Mama said, “Why don’t you come over to the house and I’ll do your hair and makeup? Let’s see how you look.” I was extremely excited, yet quite nervous. What if I was too ugly to pass? I actually tried to get out of it by saying that I didn’t have any women’s clothing. Mama would have none of that! “Just bring the most androgynous outfit you have.” So, that evening, I went to the house that Mama was sharing with a few friends. I was really nervous. I had short hair at the time and had no idea what to expect. Mama introduced me to everyone. A friend named Becca was there. I immediately thought, “She’s a doll-baby.” Just as cute as could be. I liked her immediately. Mama began on my makeup. Seeing my shadow (even though I shaved right before coming over), she said that I would probably need to use Dermablend to start with. That would cover the shadow. She did her best...not letting me see anything...then she got a wig and put that on me. When I finally looked in the mirror, I was speechless. I’m not saying I looked great because she only had so much to work with, but I thought, “Holy shit! With hormones, electrolysis, and a nose job...this might just be possible.” Becca and everyone there was very complimentary and I felt pretty damn great!!! Then Mama put on this flawless gown and said, “Ok. Let’s go to Joe’s.” I felt the blood rush to my feet. Joe? Who the hell is Joe? I don’t know him and I really didn’t think that I was ready to go out in public. After all, it had been 12 years! I think the last time I had gone out dressed en femme was to see Frankie Goes To Hollywood! Mama insisted, “Come on. It will be great!”
Above: My beautiful "Mama", Anastacia Romanoff.
So we left to go to Joe’s. Joe’s turned out to be Jittery Joe’s, the VERY popular Athens coffee shop. I was mortified...beyond scared. Shaking. Mama made me get out and go in with her. It turns out that she was promoting that night’s drag show at Boneshakers! You know how, right before and right after high noon your shadow is directly next to you when you look at it? Well, that’s how I was with Mama….RIGHT BEHIND HER! My head was down and I wasn’t looking at anyone. The next couple of minutes seemed like an eternity!! Finally, she was done and we got back in the car. I think I was having heart palpitations! Mama said, “Ok. Let’s introduce you to the girls.” We drove the couple of blocks over to Boneshakers. It wasn’t open yet, but all the performers would get there early and have drinks at the bar. When Mama opened the door and the queens saw me with her, you could have heard a pin drop. The looks I saw said, “Who the fuck is this bitch and what the hell does she think she’s doing here?!” Mama said, “Girls. This is my new daughter, Stefanie. She’s transsexual and is planning on fully transitioning. She needs our help. Well...once they found out that I wasn’t planning on performing, but was asking for assistance, the mood changed immediately! I was greeted like long lost kin! Since all of the queens consider themselves sisters, I now had a bunch of new aunts!!! They took me under their wings, protected me, and taught me. There was Sasha, Jacqueline Dominique Bouvier, CheriLyn, Pebbles, Miss Leslie, Terry Carrington, Anastasia Armani, Liz Perry, and Miss Kelly Brooks. They were the queens who did an amazing drag show every Monday night. It became imperative to not have an early morning class on Tuesdays!!! There was also TJ the DJ, Paul, who MC’d the drag shows, Jay (who would play a MAJOR role a little later), and Boneshakers awesome bartender, Kerry. He and I hit it off immediately. We both loved music and he always had some cool stuff that he’d play before the place opened. I would always get in early with Mama so, while they would get ready for the show, I’d hang out with Kerry. Great guy!
Above: Miss Kelly Brooks and Sasha with Terry Carrington (in boy drab) photobombing before it had a name! :-)
Above: Taking a bow after another great Boneshaker's drag show (from L) Kelly Brooks, "Mama", Auntie Jacqueline Dominique Bouvier, and Sasha.
Above: My Auntie Jacqueline was absolutely mesmerizing when she performed!
Above: (From L): Sasha, Kelly Brooks, and "Mama"
Above: Terry Carrington as "Belle, the bitch from hell"! Hysterical!!
Above: Liz Perry and Cherilynn
I was sharing an apartment with two guys (Jason and Dusty). They were cool with the whole trans thing and came to Boneshakers for the show every Monday. It was THE place to be in Athens whether you were gay or straight! Anyway, after the show, we would always have people over and we’d party until 3 or 4 in the morning. Like I said….imperative to not have an early class on Tuesday! When I say that I was “raised by drag queens” I mean it. Let me give you an example. It might have been the second or third time that I had gone to Boneshakers dressed as Stefanie. After the show, we all went back to our apartment. I had to pee. In my inebriated state, I failed to close the door all the way. I still had a penis, so I was peeing the way I had for 35 years. My Auntie Jacqueline happened to walk down the hall and saw me. She screamed, “STEFANIE SCHUMACHER!!!!!” I was so startled I peed on the wall!!! “YOU ARE A WOMAN! YOU SIT YOUR ASS DOWN ON THAT TOILET!!! DON’T YOU EVER LET ME SEE YOU STANDING TO PEE AGAIN!!!!!!” That was the last time I ever stood to pee...except for right after surgery when I had the catheter in me. This was my “tranny boot camp”. If Mama or any of my aunts saw me doing something unfeminine or using mannerisms that weren’t feminine enough or not walking properly or not trying to soften my voice a bit, they would call me out!!! They were amazing and I will forever be indebted to them all.
Above: Auntie Jacqueline Dominique Bouvier
Above: Miss Kelly Brooks
Above: Miss Pebbles
Above: Everyone's favorite bartender, Kerry!
Above: A fairly early pic of me from 1995.
There are many, many Athens stories to tell, but those will have to wait for the book. I’ll try to wrap up my Athens years next time….
4/12/2020: UGA, Boneshakers. “Mama”, and Boot Camp!!! (Part 3)
There are several stories that I do want to share with you that occurred during my Boneshakers time. Shortly after I met “Mama”, I knew that I had to tell my parents what was going on. I explained how I had tried for 12 years to ignore it (my transsexuality) to the best of my abilities, but that it was always there and, if I didn’t at least try to transition, I didn’t think that I’d be around much longer...and I really didn’t want that to happen. My mother was an amazing woman who truly understood the meaning of unconditional love. She told me that she and my dad were there for me and would love me no matter what. Dad was still pretty silent about the whole trans thing, but he did nod in agreement.
For clarity, please know that Anastacia will always be referred to as “Mama” and my birth mother will always be referred to as Mom or Ma. I brought “Mama” home to meet my folks and that went really well. I then invited Mom to come to Boneshakers so that she could see me as Stefanie, meet all the amazing people who were helping me, and see a great drag show (her first). Atlanta drag legend Lily White was going to be the guest star, so I thought that would be a great first show for my mom. Mom drove down to Athens from Gainesville and came to the apartment. She met my roommates and then “Mama” said that it was time to get ready. “Mama” didn’t let me do my own makeup for months after I met her. She always said that no daughter of hers would go out looking less than the best they could look! So we got dressed. She was always very careful to do my makeup as naturally as possible. When Mom finally saw me, she said that I looked beautiful, which meant everything to me! “Mama”, of course, looked flawless! :-)
Above: My mom with Ms. Lily White
We all went to Boneshakers, which was only a few miles away, and got there early, so Mama and the other girls could get ready and my mom could get situated. I introduced her to the other queens and to Kerry and everyone was super nice to her and said very nice things about me which was very sweet and made Mom happy.
I warned Mom that drag shows in general and Lily White, in particular, were quite “off-color”. Mom said for me not to worry. She was ready for anything. Mom was 65 years old when she saw her first, and only, drag show. The show was stellar! Lily White was her usual raunchy, hilarious self and all the queens put on a great show. Mom really seemed to enjoy herself. Of course, at one point, Ms. Lily White, had to interact with Mom and she had a blast!!! The two of them really seemed to hit it off! We left shortly after the show was over and Mom spent the night at the apartment. It was a great first mother-daughter night out.
Above: DJ Paul introducing the performers
Another time, shortly after I had started my transition and, yes, even though this was before hormones and electrolysis, it WAS the beginning of my transition. Anyway, one day I had to take my car to get a leaky radiator fixed and our mechanic was in Gainesville. After the car was finished, I decided to get a slice of pizza at the late, great Monkey Barrel. They had awesome food and the best local entertainment around Gainesville, GA! I sat myself in a booth (it was only 4pm, so the place wasn’t busy yet) and was looking over the menu. I heard the waitress’ voice say, “May I take your order?” I looked up to see Celi! We had not seen each other in over 4 years. I immediately jumped up and we hugged. She looked amazing...as always! We couldn’t really talk as she was working, but I asked her what time she got off. I waited in The Monkey Barrel until 9pm when Celi got off work. We decided to go to the lounge at the Holiday Inn, so we could catch up. We talked and talked and talked and the next thing we knew, the lounge was closing. It was 1am. She told me that she was renting a room from a friend and that he was out of town. She asked me if I wanted to come over. Of course, the answer was YES! I followed her over to the house and we sat down on the couch. I’m not gonna lie. The spark was still there. We both knew it. We had only dated for 9 months over 4 years earlier, but we had discussed marriage. Unfortunately, the reality is that I was incredibly miserable and drinking a LOT. I pretty much did everything that I could to push Celi away. We had discussed my being trans. She had this awesome silk sleep shirt that I used to wear. It was the only female that I wore, but I loved it! When she had finally had enough of me (and who could blame her), we parted amicably, but she did mention that there could never be a future for us because, ultimately, I was trans and she was not into women. She left that night and went back to drinking and being miserable….alone. Ok. Back to the couch with Celi….Yes. We made out. I remember it to this day. We decided to retire to the bedroom and I took off my t-shirt. Celi made an audible gasp! I asked her what was wrong. She said, “Your chest hair. It’s gone!” I responded, “Well...it doesn’t really go with a low cut gown.” It was at that point that we knew we had a problem. You see, I wasn’t the man that she fell in love with. I wasn’t a man at all. We could have tried to force the relationship. After all, we do love each other. However, in the long run, we both know that it wouldn’t work. We decided to just be best friends with a unique history. We’re still BFF’s to this day and, yes, I will always love her. :-)
We need something lighthearted after that heavy story. Let me tell you about a very memorable night. The bar at Boneshakers was “L” shaped with the bottom of the L (if you were looking down on it) pointing towards the stage and dance floor. I was sitting with Sasha at the corner of the L. Me on the bigger side and her on the smaller side. We were talking about something when this very attractive girl in a halter top hopped up onto the bar to place her drink order with Kerry. This, of course, really pushed her boobs to the forefront. I was in the middle of a sentence when this happened. I stopped cold in mid-sentence. Sasha said, “What’s wrong, Stef?” Motioning to the young girl I said, “I want those tits...and I want those tits!” LOL! Somehow, I got the nerve to go up and introduce myself to her. Her name was Karen. She was a UGA student and was just out with some friends for the night. I told her about myself and what my ultimate plans were and how attractive I found her and her boobs to be. I also told her that I was attracted to women. She found this fascinating! I introduced her to some of the queens and we had a really fun night of flirting. I remember dancing with her. At one point, she caught me looking at her friend and she gently took my chin in her hand and guided my view to her bosom. “Hey! I thought you wanted these.”, she said. I never saw her again after that night, but I will NEVER forget what a fun night of dancing and flirting we had. Fortunately, I have a pic!
Above: Auntie Jacqueline with my one night flirt, Karen
I’ve still got a couple of more Athens stories to tell, so I’ll save those for next time.
4/13/2020: UGA, Boneshakers. “Mama”, and Boot Camp!!! (Part 4)
So many things happened to me while I was in Athens that, again, they could probably fill another entire book! There are a few more tales that I want to share with you here. I had previously mentioned that I spent a lot of time at the Hare Krishna temple in Atlanta back in 1987 and ‘88. I learned a lot about the Vedic culture and the very first lesson you’re taught is that you’re not this body. You're a spirit soul. Well, when I was going through my boot camp in Athens, this weighed heavily on my mind. After all, fully transitioning (for me) meant that it would, ultimately, end with surgery. If that’s not identifying with the body then I don’t know what is! During my temple days and for a time afterwards, I had been very close with a married couple who lived in Marietta, Mathureswari prabhu and Babeshwari mataji. He was as knowledgeable about the Vedic culture as anyone I had ever met and they used to invite me over to their house where we’d talk about Krsna and Vedic philosophy. One day, while I was sitting in the apartment in Athens and drinking, which was most days, actually, I decided to call Mathureswari and tell him what was going on. I completely expected him to rip me a new one and talk about how Maya had me convinced that I was this body and what a fallen fool I was being. Instead, he said something that completely blew my mind and cleared the path for me to continue with my transition. He said, “If you’re doing this just so that you can have another material body so that you can enjoy sense gratification, then it’s a waste of time. However, if you’re doing to rid yourself of the conflict that you have in your mind so that you can focus on what’s really important, Krsna, then it’s absolutely the right thing to do.” I sat there stunned for quite some time. His words would play a big part in my life...now AND later.
It wasn’t all rosy and gay (pun intended) during my Boneshaker days. Mama, for all the help and guidance she gave me, could be a serious bitch who was sometimes downright mean. One Saturday, after a very late Friday at Boneshakers, we were beginning to mill about the apartment (Mama was living there now, too) sometime around noon. I had not not showered or shaved yet and I came out of my bedroom in a t-shirt and sweatpants. I said that I would go out to check the mail. As I headed for the front door, Mama (who was sitting on the couch) said, “My Gawd! I can’t believe that I have such a butch daughter.” I went out to the mailbox, got the mail, returned, and went straight to my room. I sat on my bed completely destroyed. Any progress that I thought I had made went right down the drain. How could she have said that to me?! If she, the person who was supposedly teaching and guiding me didn’t think that I could pass as female, how the hell was I supposed to??!! After some time, I went to the kitchen to get some breakfast and I took a knife along with my cereal back to my room. I don’t remember if I ate or not, but I do remember that I had a big bottle of booze in my room and I drank until I passed out. I awoke in the evening trying to remember if the events of the morning had really happened or if I had dreamed them. When I realized that they had, indeed, happened, I sat on the edge of my bed and put the knife to my right wrist. It was over.
Above: Though I'm forever grateful to "Mama" for all she did for me, she hurt me very badly, too.
I sat on that bed with that knife to my wrist ALL NIGHT LONG. I cried and cried and just stared at my wrist. In the Vedic philosophy there is no such thing as eternal damnation. Krsna (God) will not turn his back on you no matter what you do. We keep getting more chances (reincarnation) to finally come to the conclusion that we truly are part and parcel, eternal servants of the Supreme. However, it does mention that if a human takes his or her own life, they give up the right to a body for whatever amount of time is determined by Yamaraja, the lord of death. You become a ghost and it’s supposed to be a very hellish existence because you have all of the sense desires (i.e. you want to touch, taste, feel, etc.), but you have no body to perceive these desires. This is the only thing that kept me from pulling that knife across my wrist. The next morning, I walked out to the living room, showed Mama the knife and the mark on my wrist (that lasted for three days) and said, “If you don’t think I can do this and pass, then tell me now. Otherwise, please don’t ever say anything like that again. I can’t take it!” Of course, she apologized, but it wouldn’t be the only time that she hurt me. The pros of knowing Mama definitely outweighed the cons, but when she hurt me, it really hurt.
Now then, let’s get back to something a bit cheerier. I mentioned Jay, who was one of the Boneshakers regulars. One night, towards the end of my “boot camp”, I was sitting at the bar with Jay bitching and moaning about how I needed to get hormones, but I didn’t even know where to begin. Jay, never looking up from his drink, said, “Go see Dr. Jaume.” Who’s Dr. Jaume?”, I asked. Thus started a very frustrating back and forth. “Just go see Dr. Jaume.” “Who the hell is Dr. Jaume?” After a few minutes of this I finally got him to tell me that his mom worked for Jaume and that he thought Jaume had experience working with trans people.
Ok. So I had the name of a doctor, but you can’t just waltz into a doctor’s office and say, “Give me hormones.” I learned that the hard way when I was 19. During this time, my mom went into the hospital for hip replacement surgery. She had a tough time recovering and was in the hospital for almost 2 weeks. On the day that my dad and I went to take her home, all the nurses and staff were coming in to say good-bye to her. If you ever met my mom, you know that she never met a stranger and everyone loved her. :-) As we were getting ready to leave, Dr. Janice Hughes, a psychologist, dropped by to wish Mom well. Any time a patient has a tough recovery, they’ll send in a psychologist just to make sure no depression is setting in. Mom introduced Dad and then me. Dr. Hughes said, “Oh. You’re Steve.” From her tone I knew that Mom had told her about me. “Is there anything I can do for you?” I replied (in somewhat of a demanding voice), “Yes. You can tell me the name of someone who has experience working with trans people!” Her response left me speechless. “Well, I worked for 3 years at the Galveston sex reassignment clinic. Does that count? Call my office and make an appointment.” There have not been many times in this life when I’ve been speechless, but that sure was one of them. She smiled, said another good-bye to Mom, and was out the door.
I made an appointment with her and, believe me, after the horrible experience when I was 19, I had my shit together for this meeting. I had studied SO MUCH about gender dysphoria and I was more than ready. Usually, it takes regular meetings over two or three months for a psychologist to determine if someone is truly gender dysphoric. I had one one hour session and, at the end of it, she said, “Ok. What is it that I can do to help?”. It turned out that she and Dr. Jaume worked out of the same medical building in Gainesville, GA two floors apart from each other. They didn’t know each other, but when I told her that I wanted to start hormones and had been given the name of Dr. Jaume, she said that she would call him and get back to me. I drove home and, right after I got home, the phone rang. It was Dr. Hughes. She said, “Call Dr. Jaume and make an appointment. You’re starting hormone treatment.” What the heck are the odds of finding both a psychologist AND a doctor who could give me what I so desperately wanted and needed in a small town like Gainesville, GA? Talk about Krsna’s arrangement! :-)
Next time: How I became a walking biology experiment!
Now would be a good time to say that, if you're transgender and going through a really hard time, please don't get to the point that I did. There are SO MANY more resources today than there were 25 years ago. If you're trans and you're feeling like life's not worth it, PLEASE reach out for help. The folks at Trans Lifeline are trained to help our community. You know the statistics. Don't become part of them. Peace, health, and love to you all!!!
Today, I wrap up the Athens days.
Above: My last UGA student ID. I always tell people to look into the eyes of a pre-transitioned transgender person. Even if the person is smiling, the eyes are so sad!
4/14/2020: Leaving Athens plus Hormones, electrolysis, and changes...Oh my!!
Before I met Dr. Hughes, I have to go back a bit and tell you about leaving Athens. My “boot camp” lasted about 9 months. Mama and the queens taught me SO much! When Mama finally decided to let me do my own makeup, it was a gradual process. She would do one of my eyes and I would have to do the other and make it match. If it didn’t get the Anastacia Romanoff stamp of approval, I would have to wash it off and start over. Eventually, I was able to do my entire face. Mama always said, “If you look in the mirror and are not 100% happy with what you see...take it ALL off and start over. If, on the other hand, you look in the mirror and LIKE what you see, then fuck the rest of the world!” :-) That was my Mama.
Things were getting crazier and crazier in Athens. Mama moved in with her boyfriend. I had a nasty fight (verbal) with my roommate Dusty. My other roommate, Jason, was involved in a new relationship and was just over the whole drag thing. You see, there’s a LOT of drama that comes with drag queens. I mean a LOT! After nine months, it really got to be too much. I was so ready to start hormones and get on with my transition. I knew that my time in Athens was about to end. The straw that broke the proverbial camel’s back was when Mama asked to borrow my car one night to go to Boneshakers. I wasn’t going out that night for whatever reason. I didn’t think twice about it. That quarter I was doing my big internship and it involved driving to a lot of rural counties south of Athens and helping people sign up for utility assistance. I had all of the paperwork from several weeks worth of doing this in my backpack in my car. Mama didn’t lock my car that night and my backpack was stolen. All of that work was gone. I went into a deep depression, sure that I would fail this internship. After a very serious weekend of drinking, crying, yelling at Mama, and being terrified about telling my professor, I knew I had to get out of there. I managed to redo some of the paperwork for my internship and squeaked by with a “C” for the class. I had one Spanish class left to get my Bachelor of Social Work degree. I found out that I could take it at Gainesville College and be able to get my degree from UGA. That’s all I needed to know. I rented a U-Haul, packed all my things while everyone was out of the apartment, and left without saying good-bye. I was as close to a nervous breakdown as I’ve ever been. I went home to my folks’ place to get my head together. I never did take that last Spanish 201 class, but I did get my BSW from UGA, but that’s yet another story!
After a week or so of decompressing, I went to see Dr. Jaume. Since he had already spoken to Dr. Hughes about me, I just had to get a physical examination and bloodwork done to make sure I was healthy enough to start hormones and to get a hormonal baseline that he could monitor. Somehow, despite all the years of drinking and smoking and doing other illicit substances, I passed my physical and was ready to go. I liked Dr. Jaume immediately. He was born in Spain, but had been in the U.S. for many years and spoke without a trace of an accent. We seemed to hit it off and, when the time came, he asked me if I wanted to do oral doses or take injections. Everything I read and everyone I spoke to said that injections would give you faster results, so that was a no-brainer! We started with 25 ml of estrogen. Dr. Jaume asked me if I wanted to come into his office each week or do the shots myself. I asked him to show me how. They showed me how to get the needle right into the muscle in the hip. Now, I always thought that it was cruelly ironic that the more it stung and burned, the better you had done it because that meant that you got it right in the muscle! Krsna truly has a wicked sense of humor!
It didn’t take long for the “hormone fairy” to start working her magic. I had spoken to several people who told me about very serious mood swings that they experienced. Some people went through periods of depression. I actually know one person who was so determined to do hormones that she had an orchiectomy so that the mood swings would stop! Me? Well now, my body knew what it had been missing this whole life and it absorbed the estrogen like a sponge! No side effects. No mood swings. Nothing negative whatsoever! I did weekly shots of 25ml for about a month. I would see Dr. Hughes once a month for an hour session and I would see Dr. Jaume to get blood work done and levels checked. After a month, Dr. Jaume said, “Do you want to up it to 50ml?” Of course!!!!!! The changes started happening soon enough. My breasts got very sensitive. I could see my hips getting curvier and even the shape of my face changing! After another month we upped the dose to 75ml and then, finally 100ml per week! I had a timeline in place. I truly believe that anyone who wants to transition needs to come up with a realistic timeline.
For me, it was to start hormones and give them about four months to go to work on me. Then, I would start the painful process of electrolysis. One year after starting hormones, I planned on legally changing my name so I could start what’s known as “the real life test” (RLT). That’s when you have all of your documents (social security card, bank accounts, driver’s license, etc.) changed to your new, legal name and begin working and living 24 hours a day as your true self. I started hormones in January of 1996. I started electrolysis in April of ‘96. I went to my first Southern Comfort Transgender Conference in September of ‘96. Ok. FULL STOP!!! Mama had told me of this magical place where trans people could go, meet other trans people, attend lectures on subjects related to us, meet surgeons and discuss with them what we wanted to have done, and just be ourselves for a week or long weekend. It sounded like heaven. Mama was already gone by the time the conference came around, but I went. I didn’t know anybody and was a bit overwhelmed by it all!
Above: This is Kathleen the night we met at SCC '96. She was (and still is!) absolutely stunning!
Above: K and me at a dinner outing during '96.
There were over 200 trans people there encompassing most of the transgender spectrum. I met cross-dressers for the first time. I met transmen for the first time. I met people who would become a huge part of my life. I met Terry Murphy, Sabrina Marcus, Heather Ramsey, and I met the amazing Kathleen. She was so beautiful and petite. Honestly, I thought she was a GG (genetic girl, now known as cisgender, but I hate that term!) who was there with a transperson as their date! I even asked her that. She rolled her eyes, which I later came to know meant, “Girl….please.” She said, “No. I’m trans.” I swear to you my response was, “No fucking way!” We were so different in so many ways, but something about our friendship clicked immediately and it continues to this day. She’s the best! This began a very long association with SCTC that continues to this day. I met Dr. Pierre Brassard, who was Dr. Menard’s protege and partner. Suffice it to say that it was a life-changing experience. My SCTC stories...yeah...you guessed it….another book! :-)
Ok. I’ll resume now….I had my name legally changed in December of ‘96. I had been working for a convenience store chain called Country Cupboard as an assistant manager for 1.5 years. They knew what was going on with me. They were even supportive. They had 57 stores all over Northeast GA and I discussed with the district manager how I would simply transfer to a different store and start as Stefanie. They were on board with my plan. Everything was going perfectly! As I mentioned earlier, I never took that Spanish 201 class that I needed for my BSW. I felt bad about that, but I was so absorbed with my transition that it became my obsession. I mention this because I got a call from the district manager that they wanted to see me at the corporate office. I knew that a human resources position had opened and they knew of my background in social work. I figured that they were going to offer me that position. I told the DM that I would come in as Stefanie so that they could see there wouldn’t be anything weird or outrageous about it. In fact, those going through the RLT try to draw as little attention to themselves as possible!
I went for the appointment and, after waiting for a little while in the lobby, the district manager came out and took me into a room. Waiting in there was one of their corporate lawyers. I will never, ever forget the words that he said, “We have decided that having someone like you in our employ will be detrimental to business.” The lawyer handed me a two week severance check and that was that. I honestly felt as if I had been hit in the head with a 2x4. I was stunned. I couldn’t even speak. I drove home in a fog. When I got home, my parents were anxiously waiting for me to tell them about the new job I had gotten. Instead, I told them that I had gotten fired. I had my name legally changed and now I was going to have to go out as Stefanie to find a new job. What the hell was I going to do?! I sunk into a depression the likes of which I had never known.
Next time….Ok, God. Let’s make a deal.
Today I'm finishing up my "back story" of what lead up to my being in Montreal for surgery. We'll head back to the Great White North next time when it will be March 27, 1998!
4/15/2020 -- Things got bad….REAL bad in January of 1997!
I got fired in January of 1997. It caught me completely by surprise. I checked with everyone and every bureau I could think of to see if there was anything I could do to fight it on the basis of discrimination. There wasn’t. In the state of Georgia, anyone can be fired for any reason and, except in extremely rare cases, you’re screwed. So, after I exhausted all of these avenues, I applied for unemployment. I DID qualify for that, at least. You had to put in at least two applications a week to receive your unemployment check. I was so depressed that I rarely got out of bed. On Friday, I’d force myself to get up, take a shower, get dressed, and go to two places and put in applications. Of course, on each application it would have that line that reads, “Why did you leave your last job?” I didn’t think that putting “I got fired for being trans.” was a good idea, so I would just put, “I’ll discuss in person.” Then there was the whole sex thing. In Georgia in 1997, you could not get the sex marker changed on your driver’s license until you brought the department of motor vehicles a signed affidavit from your surgeon stating that you, indeed, had had gender confirmation surgery, so for one year I had a licence that read Stefanie Schumacher, male. Yeah...that sucked. Except for Fridays, when I would force myself to put in a couple of applications, I spent most of my time in bed. I felt completely defeated. When I hear people talk about being “clinically depressed”, I get it. I had no desire to do anything.
This went on for a while and I had 10 weeks of unemployment left and it was clear that nothing was going to happen the way things were going. One Friday night, I was lying in bed and I thought about my situation and tried to come up with a plan. What I decided to do gave me a very strange calmness. I decided that, starting on Monday, I would go down GA 400 to the first town past Dawsonville. I had to get out of the Gainesville area and Dawsonville was too close, too. There were just too many people who knew me in this area from playing in bands and just from living there since I was 8! So, the next city was Cumming, GA. I told myself that I would put in at least 5 applications a day for the remaining 10 weeks that I had left on unemployment. That would total up to 250 applications. If, at the end of putting in 250 applications no one had hired me, I would kill myself. I was at complete peace with this. There was no way that I was going to go back. I knew that I couldn’t live as Shu (my nickname) anymore. If I could not pass enough as Stefanie to be hired to do my real life test, then I just couldn’t make it. I was cool with that. I was actually resigned to it.
The next Monday I put in my 5 applications. I did the same on Tuesday. Wednesday morning, I got a call from the very first place I applied...K-Mart. They asked me to come in for an interview. I met with the store manager, who was a fairly young guy (late 20’s) and I filled him in on everything about me….how I needed to do my RLT and then I’d be going for surgery. I turned out that he had a degree in psychology from the University of Tennessee. He had not met a transperson before, but he at least had book knowledge. He said, “I really don’t care about any of this. Just do a good job for me.” and shook my hand. I started work there as a cashier on St. Patrick’s Day, 1997.
Let me talk about the “real life test” and why it is so very, very important. There are some trans folks who can pass very easily, but they’re few and far between. It’s especially difficult for the male to females. Why? Well, once the guys start doing testosterone, the changes are VERY dramatic! They grow facial hair and body hair, their voices lower, and quite a few will develop male pattern baldness. I dare say that most of you have met transmen and just didn’t know it. As for transwomen, well, a lot of us are bigger than genetic women (I just can’t bring myself to type cys!). Our voices tend to be lower. A lot of us have large hands. Some of us have pronounced Adam’s apples. The list goes on and on. In my case, I’m 6 feet tall. I had a pretty big nose and I have a large frame. Let’s put it this way; when I was losing weight to get ready for surgery, at one point I dropped just below 170 and I looked like a skeleton. I mean I looked really ill. The point is that I’m not a petite little thing. Never was. I had been on hormones for a little over one year and doing electrolysis for almost one year. The changes were great, but I knew I was getting “clocked” every day. Getting clocked is when someone knows your trans. Sometimes you just get “that look”. Sometimes, you hear snickering or laughing and sometimes it can get ugly if you happen to run into an asshole or a group of assholes.
You either learn how to deal with it and grow a thicker skin or you’ll never make it! It’s a helluva lot better to find out BEFORE you have surgery! The only people I’ve ever met who regretted having surgery all took shortcuts! They either by-passed the RLT, or they weren’t under the care of a psychologist while they did RLT, or they forged paperwork to get their surgeries. Let me tell you something….RLT is HARD! It’s supposed to be hard. I honestly didn’t think I was going to make it. Kathleen was in Rochester and I remember calling her when I was about six months into my RLT. I was crying and saying that I just couldn’t take it anymore! I was tired of seeing people point at me or laugh or whatever it was. And you know...when this stuff happens, you tend to get over-sensitive, which just makes matters worse! So here I am calling my friend to get some kind words of love and support and what did she do? She verbally ripped me a new asshole!!!! LOL! I will never forget it! She let me go on and on bitching and moaning and then, when I was finished, she came back with, “You stupid bitch! Did you think this was going to be easy? Stop your stupid crying, go wash you face, and finish this!” She said it with such intensity that I stopped my crying immediately! :-)
After that, it was a little easier…...until…..
I had been working for 9 months at K-Mart and, for the most part, everything went smoothly. I prefer being open about myself (as if you all couldn’t tell!) and had no issues. I had been promoted twice: first to cashier supervisor and then to small appliance manager. I enjoyed most of the people that I worked with and was grateful for the job. One day around Christmas, I got called into the manager’s office. The assistant store manager was there, too. He told me that one of the female employees had complained about my using the women’s restroom even though there were doors on all of the stalls and I would go in, do my business, wash my hands, and leave. They actually went over the store manager’s head to the corporate office and corporate then checked with the legal department. It was decided that, until I had my surgery, I could no longer use the women’s restroom in my store. I broke down in tears. “But I CAN’T use the men’s room. I just CAN’T!!!” My store manager said that he didn’t want that either and gave me an option. Until my RLT was over and I could go for my surgery, which was now scheduled for March 23, 1998, every day that I worked, I came in carrying a green bag. It looked like a bowling ball bag. Inside that bag was a plastic urinal. Next to the employee break room was a janitor’s closet. If I had to pee during work hours, I had to use that urinal in the janitor’s closet, which had no lock on the door. I had to stand with my foot propped up against it. If I had to defecate, I had to find my immediate manager, tell her, clock out, then drive down to the other end of the shopping center where there was a McDonald’s. I would then walk into McDonald’s and use the women’s restroom. I did this for almost 3 months. Why did I put up with such humiliation? Because I was 3 months away from surgery and NOTHING and NO ONE was going to stop me. Looking back, I get quite upset if I think about this too much. It was very, very humiliating. So you see, the whole bathroom issue is nothing new and it’s still a bunch of bullshit!!
Suffice it to say that I completed my real life test and on March 19th, 1998, Celi, K, and I boarded a Delta plane to head up to Montreal, which is where this story actually began! I’ll pick up where I left off in Montreal next time. :-)
Up next: Adventures in dilation!!! and "Will I ever smell again?"
So we head back to Montreal to pick up the story. When last we left our intrepid heroine (me), she had nearly scared herself to death upon her first visit to the restroom! I know that I mentioned "Adventures in dilation, but a LOT happened that weekend! It's now been four days since I had my three surgeries. Did anyone get the number of that Mack truck!?
Friday, March 27, 1998 -- Today we go back to the residence!!!! Yea!! Although the nurses were very nice and the food was good (very good, at times) at the clinic, it certainly can’t compare to the residence and the staff there. They’re so great! We got back around 1:30pm and met the new girls who had gotten in yesterday. Veronica -- Total fish from Chicago (originally from Ecuador) in her early 20’s. Frances was in her 50’s and from Boston. She came with her wife. They were going to try to stay together. Sometimes that works and sometimes it doesn’t as I can attest. The third girl, Natasha, was from Philadelphia and in her 20’s. I was taken aback! She could be Mama’s sister! Sooooo similar in her mannerisms and looks! Actually, if any of you know of or have seen Candace Cayne...Natasha could be her twin! She and Veronica have bonded like Mary Ellen a I did. It’s cool to see. Everyone got along really well.
Above: The "new girls" (from L): Frances, Natasha, and Veronica
Above: These two were a hoot together!
Above: Veronica with a post-ops best friend...her donut! :-)
Rene, Mary Ellen, and I are SORE!!!! We want these stents out!!! Here’s a quick lesson in what happens during surgery and I’ll describe this as delicately as possible: Once the things that need to be removed are removed, the remaining skin is used to make the vaginal wall since it is the most sensitive skin on the body (scrotal and penile). It’s sewn together and checked to make sure there are no leaks. Then, cotton gauze about 7 or 8 inches long is rolled until it’s a good 3 inches or so in diameter. Then it’s put into the sewn skin/vaginal wall and everything gets inserted into the cavity that they create during surgery. The gauze is to keep the skin pushed against the sides of the cavity so that it will graft there. Dr. Menard sews the stent into you. There are two sets of stitches that go through the labia and across the stent. Of course, a body’s natural reaction to having a foreign substance in it is to try to eject it, so there’s constant pressure on the stitches and it burns more and more as the swelling goes down! It hurts! Ok. Here endeth the surgery lesson.
K called and asked if I would mind if she didn’t come out to the residence today. No worries! I’m glad that she’s seeing Montreal. I can tell she loves it here. There could be a move in her future!
Saturday -- March 28, 1998 -- I feel like hell! I only slept for about an hour and a half. My nose is still fully stuffed and it’s causing a bit of a headache. Oh! When they took the gauze out yesterday, before I left the clinic, it was like that magic trick where the magician keeps pulling more and more ribbon out of his mouth except it was gauze coming out of my nose! How the hell did they get that much up there???!!! I am in a lot of pain! I can’t smell or taste anything! I was told that I could take 3 to 4 baths a day. I found that odd until I took the first one. For some reason, the minute the stent and the stitches went into the water, the pain was gone! It was magic!!! I totally get women who want to give birth under water! :-) The nurses would have to make me get out of the tub. The instant the stent and stitches hit air, the pain and burning returned! At least I got some relief. I would have stayed wrinkled like a prune had it been up to me! Oh well, the stent comes out on Monday. Trust me, it can’t get here soon enough!
K came over this afternoon. The plan was to order pizza and watch movies. Veronica and Natasha rented six movies and Raphael had actually made homemade pizza for us..even a vegetarian pizza just for me. As I walked past the kitchen I said, “Wow! That smells good!”, then I stopped in my tracks and yelled, “I CAN SMELL!!!!” :-) It’s the little victories that mean so much. We ordered a couple of extra pizzas from Pizza Hut (just in case!) and got settled in. We watched “School Ties” first. All of the other girls were drooling over Brendan Fraser and Matt Damon. We ate, and then watched “Sleepless In Seattle”. You know that ending scene when Tom Hanks and his movie son finally meet Meg Ryan at the top of the Empire State Building? Now, you must remember that 3 of us have just had our testicles removed and had just restarted hormones. Veronica and Natasha have been off of their hormones for one month. All of our bodies are in hormonal upheaval!!! Suffice it to say that by the end of the movie, all of us were sharing Kleenex tissues and were sobbing fools. K, the only gg (genetic girl) in the room, looked around in disbelief and called us “pathetic”, with a smile on her face.
Above: The living room of the residency.
Above: The other side of the living room. You can just see a bit of the dining room in the right rear of the pic and the kitchen was immediately to the right.
After the movies, we went to my room to talk and say good-bye. She was leaving tomorrow. Again, I didn’t have the words to express my love and feelings for her. She thanked ME for letting her experience the whole thing with me. She said some extremely nice things about me that choked me up. It doesn’t take much these days to do that!! Anyway, she bought me a St. Augustine medallion at the Basilica de Notre Dame. It’s so perfect! St. Augustine is the patron saint of travelers who leads one to their destiny. That’s what this entire experience is, after all, my destiny. We hugged several times, told each other how much we loved each other, and then she was gone. Kathleen left last Sunday (the 22nd). Celi left on Thursday, the 26th and K will leave tomorrow, the 29th. I have the best friends in the world and I’ll never be able to let them know how much it meant to me for them to be here with me. I love them with all my heart and soul!
Next time….Adventures in dilating….REALLY!
My time in Montreal is quickly coming to an end, but first I had to learn the ins and outs (yeah...pun intended) of dilating! :-)
Sunday, March 29, 1998 -- Today was a quiet day...except for the audible expressions of pain we made trying to get up and sit down. Let me try to explain this to you. Seriously, my body had been pretty severely ravaged less than one week ago. Mary Ellen, my roommate, did not have a nose job, but did have breast augmentation to go along with the gender confirmation surgery. Dr. Menard prefers putting the implants under the pectoral muscle. The downside is that you don’t get quite the cleavage as if the implants are on top of the pecs, but they’re MUCH better protected (Note: As of 4/17/2020 I have the same implants. They came with a 10 year warranty and I’ve got 22 years on them, so Dr. Menard knows what he’s doing!). Now then, imagine putting something under your pectorals that will stretch them out MUCH farther than they had originally been. You just don’t realize how much you use your pectoral muscles until they are under such duress! The pain was a white hot sensation that would completely take my breath away. It made getting up from a lying or seated position one of the most difficult tasks that I’ve ever attempted. We still had the stents sewn into us, too, which were driving us crazy with the freakin’ burning pain as the stent was constantly pushing against the stitches!
The nurses would not let us stay in one place for more than an hour or so. They insisted that we get up and move around. So...here’s how it would go: We’d be upstairs lying in bed...as comfortable as we could be. A nurse would come and say that it’s time to get up. Try getting out of bed without using your arms at all because the slightest movement of the arms would pull on the pecs, which would cause the white hot burning. Lots of rolling back and forth, grunting, cursing, laughing (at how ridiculous we looked), and, finally, VICTORY as we would make it to our feet! We’d grab our donuts and go downstairs to where there were two recliners. We’d toss our donuts into the recliners and then comment about how low the freakin’ recliners were. Normally, you could just plop down on the donut and be done with it, but let’s remember what we just had done between our legs, so that plan was right out! :-) I kid you not when I say that it could take 5 to 10 minutes for us to finally figure out how to get into those recliners. We would work up a sweat! Finally, with a loud, “Shit!!!” we’d make it onto the donuts. Just about the time that we would get our heartbeats and breathing back to normal and just begin to relax...inevitably...a nurse would come and say that it was time to get up!! Are you kidding me?! This went on all day yesterday and today. It was painful and exhausting.
Above: You wouldn't think that it would be SO hard just to sit down and get up from these recliners. You would be wrong! LOL!
Veronica and Natasha were anxious to get to the clinic. Mary Ellen and I teased them about their upcoming enemas. Really, it’s not a big deal, but it’s a slow day, you know? :-) They left around 4pm and Rene, Mary Ellen, and I had the place to ourselves. We had a quiet dinner and went to be fairly early. All that getting up and down is exhausting! Sometime in the middle of the night, Mary Ellen started moaning in pain. This turned into her yelling for me to get a nurse. She was screaming in pain! I was scared to death! It turned out that her catheter had, somehow, become blocked and her bladder was over-full! They got me out of the room and called Dr. Menard. He doesn’t live far away and he got there quickly. There was no way to unblock the catheter, so he made the decision to take her stent out early so that he could remove the catheter. It was really scary! I had no idea what was going on and this 18 year Air Force veteran was in tears screaming in pain. It all happened so quickly! Thank goodness everything was ok and we were able to get some rest.
Above: My bed in the residence room I shared with Mary Ellen.
Monday -- March 30, 1998 -- Dr. Menard came by first thing this morning. First, to check on Mary Ellen (she was doing fine), and then to get the stents out of me and Rene. He did Rene first. She had a room to herself down the hall. Then, he came to me. He had that same smile that I saw as he squeezed my foot as I went under anesthesia to have my surgeries. It’s a very comforting smile. He said, “I’m sure you’re ready to get this out, huh?” OH YES!!!! With a couple of quick snips, the sutures were out and then he carefully removed the stent. He said, “Now go and have you one and only period.” I went to the bathroom and any blood that had been backed up in me came out. It was kind of freaky, but there was no pain. I used the bidet to clean myself and then it was time to learn how to do what would become the main activity that I would perform over the next month…..dilation! Before you go for surgery, they tell you to buy a set of stents. There are five of them from small to quite large. Starting now, I would have to dilate five times a day. This was extremely important in the healing process and it kept everything open and healthy. Again, when a body has an open wound, it’s reaction is to close it and that is NOT what you want to have happen after surgery! A session of dilation would last about an hour. Then you had to clean everything. Then you had about an hour or so before you did the whole thing over again. It really becomes your life!
One very cool thing did happen after my first dilation session. Every girl that came to Montreal brought a pair of tights. No one told us to...it’s just something instinctively that we knew to do. This is something that only other post-op MTF’s will understand, but that moment when I saw myself in the mirror...wearing tights….and it was just smooth….well, it made everything worth it. I won’t lie, I had tears in my eyes. I had made it. The little monster was gone and my body now matched my brain. I will never be able to put this feeling into words. As I said, it’s something special I share with my trans sisters.
Mary Ellen and I would dilate together. Well….we TRIED to dilate together. Let me explain. When you got ready to dilate, you used a lot of lubricant on the stents before insertion. Have you ever been around someone and, for no apparent reason, you just start giggling? You can’t help it, right? Well, here we are Tuesday morning starting to dilate and we got hit with a serious case of the giggles. Oh...who am I kidding? We were laughing hysterically...and then it happened. The laughter caused contractions and those stents were all lubed up! Both of us shot our stents out of us in a fit of laughter, which made us fall into convulsions of laughter!!! OMG! It was one of the funniest things I’ve ever seen! These two stents shot across the bedroom! The nurses heard and came in. They were none too pleased at the two cackling hens they came in on. We cleaned the stents and got back to work. We agreed that we wouldn’t say anything. I even put a t-shirt over my eyes. It didn’t matter. Both of us could not get the sight of those two stents shooting out of us and flying across the room. Of course, we both started laughing again and, of course, the stents went flying again. That was the last time Mary Ellen and I dilated together. The nurses made us dilate in separate rooms from that point on. Oh God! It was hysterical!!!!! LOL!
Next time: Time to say, “Good-bye!”
Well...today finishes my Montreal story. Of course, lots has happened in the 22 years since surgery and I'll be continuing. LOTS more to tell!!
Wednesday & Thursday, April 1st and 2nd, 1998 -- The remainder of my stay was spent healing, dilating, and getting ready to fly home. On Wednesday, Rene and I took a cab to go to the bank and exchange some money so we could do a little shopping. Really, we just wanted to get out of the house for awhile! When we got to the bank, there was a long que and standing in one place was definitely not our favorite thing to do. After some time, it kind of felt like you were riding a bicycle with no seat...if you catch my drift! I was looking around at all of the people, customers and employees alike, and NOBODY was smiling. I found this really odd. When we finally got up to the teller, I had to ask what was up with that. She said, “You try having seven months of winter and see if YOU smile!” Fair enough! :-)
We would tire quite easily, but at least we were mobile! I still had two black eyes from my nose job and I still hurt all over, but I was ready to go home. Not much to tell about the rest of the stay. We were all leaving on Thursday. I knew that I would, in all probability never have contact with Rene again. I sure did hope that Mary Ellen and I would keep in touch. She’s just awesome and I wish her every happiness. To have the full support of ALL of her children is phenomenal. She hopes to meet a man, fall in love, and get married. She and I both believe in total honesty when it comes to relationships. Before I would ever agree to date someone, they would have to know everything about me. No sword of Damocles hanging over my head, thank you very much! Mary Ellen felt the same way. Not all trans people feel this way. Personally, and I’m only speaking for myself, I think this is a mistake. This is how trans people get killed. I firmly believe that the person you’re with has the right to know. Besides, why would you want to be with someone who doesn’t want to accept you as you are. Do you really want to start a relationship hiding something like this? Let me give you an example of how far a transwoman will go to hide the truth.
Remember Victoria, who had surgery the week before we did? When she came to visit us in the clinic after we had surgery, she spoke with Celi for quite a while. Mary Ellen and I mostly listened as we were still kinda whacked out! Victoria, who was from Texas, told us that she planned on moving to a new state and completely leaving her past behind. She would simply be...Victoria...woman. When we asked if she wanted to get into a relationship, she very enthusiastically said, “Absolutely! I plan on finding a great guy, falling in love, and living happily ever after!” However, she had NO intention of telling him that she was trans. I remember asking her what she would do if he ever noticed anything “different” about her vagina. As great as Dr. Menard’s skills are, the fact is that we weren't born with female bodies and there ARE some differences. For example, were you to examine me VERY closely, you will see small scars. I asked her about that. What if he sees scars? She said, “Oh! I’ve got that all figured out. I’m going to say that I was in a terrible ski accident and a ski pole caught me and ripped my vagina.” At first, I thought she was kidding, but it soon became clear that she was completely serious!! That, my friends, is some serious shit! Nope. Not for me. Accept me as I am..warts and all...or you’re not worth my time.
Above: Rene getting ready to head home.
Dr. Menard came by on Thursday morning with Mrs. Menard to say good-bye. How do you thank someone who, literally, saved your life? We all gave him big hugs and thanked him profusely. Of course, he told us to call if there were any issues whatsoever and he gave us our signed affidavits, so that we could get our gender markers changed on all legal documents. Then, they left. I took pics of Mary Ellen, Dr. Menard, and Rene on that last day. One by one the taxis came. Rene left first. Mary Ellen had a late flight, so I was next. We shed a few tears during the good-byes. I will always be grateful that I had such a great roommate to go through this with. I’ll never forget her.
Above: How do you thank the person who made your body match your brain? You can't. Dr Yvon "Papa" Menard was just awesome and will always have my love and respect!
Above: Mary Ellen on departure day.
When I got to the airport, I checked my bags and went to the gate. I had a prescription for pain pills and took one. I was there quite early, so I stretched out and took a nap as I was exhausted and hurting. I woke up to an absolutely empty gate! My first thought was that I had missed my flight and was completely screwed. I found out that they had changed gates on me while I was sleeping. I just made it to the new gate as they were boarding. My dear friend, Bev, worked for Delta and had gotten me buddy passes, for which I am most grateful, but it did mean that I boarded last. The only seat left was way in the back and quite noisy, but I was on my way home and that’s all that mattered! Farewell, Montreal! I will never, ever forget this amazing, life-changing two weeks!!!
Thursday - April 2, 1998 -- Home again, home again lickity split!
The flight home was uneventful (as ALL flights should be) and when I got back to Atlanta, my dear friend, Bev, and my boyfriend, Patt (yes...I have had ONE boyfriend and he was super sweet to me!) were waiting for me with a wheelchair. I certainly wasn’t going to argue as it had been a very long day! It sure was great to be home! We met up with K and I rode with Patt while K drove my car all the way home. That’s about a 2 hour drive from the Atlanta airport to my parent’s home, which is where I was staying. Once I got home and got some Mom and Dad lovin’, K and Patt left to go back to Atlanta. How sweet of the two of them!!! I imagine that I COULD have driven if I HAD to, but this was SO much nicer! I’m most grateful for their kindness.
I don’t remember if it was the very next day or the day after that, but as soon as I was able to drive to the DMV I took my affidavit from Dr. Menard, walked in with purpose, and forcefully put down the affidavit and my driver’s license and, in a commanding voice said, “Change it!” I was done living as a “non-person”. The lady looked at the paperwork, looked at me, smiled, and a few minutes later I had my first official document with the correct gender marker. That gave me a great feeling!
One of the things you fear when you’re transitioning is having trouble with the law. The last thing a MTF (male to female trans person) wants to have happen is to get arrested and end up in a cell with a bunch of men. The best you can hope for is to be alone in a cell. I never had to worry about that, but one Saturday during my RLT (Real Life Test) period, I was heading down to Athens to see Chandra and Nathan. There’s this tiny town called Arcade, which is a notorious speed trap. I was cruising along on this beautiful day with Cheap Trick cranked in my car and just didn’t give Arcade a thought. Suddenly, I heard a siren and I looked in the mirror to see a police car with its lights on right behind me. I pulled over and the officer got out and stomped up to my car. “Didn’t you see me following you with my lights on?!” I responded honestly, “No, sir. I was jamming to Cheap Trick. I’m so sorry!” He took my license and headed back to his car to run my tag. I thought, “This ought to be interesting.” as my name on my license was Stefanie Schumacher, but my gender marker was “M”. After what seemed like a VERY long time, he finally gave me my ticket, said that I’d have to pay the fine at the Arcade courthouse, and told me very sternly to slow down. He took off and I looked at the ticket. He had written my name (Stefanie Schumacher), but under Sex he had put M/F. LOL!! I guess he wanted to cover his bases! I can laugh now, but that year when your gender marker doesn’t match your name really sucks!
April 25th was the second planning meeting for the 1998 Southern Comfort Transgender Conference (SCC at the time). Back then, it was the largest trans conference in the world and after the 1997 conference, which was the first that I had volunteered at, I had been asked to co-chair the ‘98 conference. It was a huge honor and I took it seriously. My co-chair was Jennileigh Love and she had agreed to put together the seminar track and I would handle organizing the entertainment track. We used to have a GREAT team of volunteers. Seriously, you’d have 40 people attend a planning meeting and they were always eager to help. There were awesome people involved: Terry Murphy, Sabrina Marcus, Donna Johnston, Lola Cola, Heather Ramsey, Max Anderson, Holly Boswell, and the list went on and on. The meetings would last 4 or 5 hours and we would get a lot accomplished. Afterwards, we always passed a hat around to collect money for “the party”. This would take place later that evening and the more money people donated, the more booze and snacks we could buy. We’d always get at least a couple of hundred dollars and some of the SCC after planning meeting parties are legendary! It was a different time and you could get away with a LOT more than you can today….and we did! LOL!
Above: My special cake at the April '98 SCC after planning meeting party!
Of course, this was my first time seeing everyone since my surgeries so I got a ton of congratulation hugs and kisses. At the party, which was in the hotel suite that we had for the weekend, I got all dressed up and was feeling absolutely stellar about myself! They had gotten me a special cake with a “0” birthday candle to signify the new beginning in a congruent body. I was then told that I had to take the first bite of the cake...and I wasn’t allowed to use a fork and knife. Also, there was one particular place where I was to take that bite. I’ll let you figure that out when you see the picture of the cake! Well, I got down on my knees to get ready for that first bite and, as I moved in...Sabrina pushed my head into the cake! I know she meant for it to be funny, but the room fell silent. I had felt so good about how I looked and now I had icing all over my face. I welled up with tears. Sabrina was trying to downplay it as a joke, but no one was buying it. I didn’t know what to do. Fortunately, there was a friend of Terry’s there, a gorgeous trans woman named Morgan. She took my hand and said, “Come with me. I’ll take care of you.” We went into the adjoining room and I broke down a bit. I just couldn’t believe Sabrina had done that to me. Anyway, it turned out that Morgan had had her surgery performed by Dr. Menard, so we were sisters, having had the same "Papa". :-) Due to the kindness and make-up skills of Morgan, she fixed my face and we rejoined the party. Sabrina was apologizing profusely (I have a feeling that Terry probably had a word with her) and I told her “Payback is hell.” I never actually did anything to pay her back, but I would always remind her of that for the next year or so just to keep it on her mind. ;-)
Above: Terry Murphy (L) and my Menard sister, Morgan, who helped me after "the cake incident". I told you that we got away with a lot of "stuff"! :-)
Above: (From L) The incredible Robert Eads, Lola Cola, and Celi. If you've never seen the documentary "Southern Comfort" you can watch it in its entirety on YouTube for free. Just click this link. You really owe it to yourself to watch in. I'm so honored to have known Robert and to have called him my friend.
The party went well into the night until we finally all crashed. When we woke up Sunday, we all decided that we’d just keep the party going. It was one of the very rare times during my “drinking years” where I can say that I just kept a nice buzz going all day long. There were maybe about 10 of us there and we just talked all day into the evening. We ordered in food and it was a very nice, mellow day. Several of us spent the night there on Sunday and then, Monday morning, a very interesting thing happened. Now, before I left Montreal, I had been told that I would have to wear pads for a month or so as I would have some “spotting”. No big deal. I took them with me wherever I went. Monday morning, we started getting packed up to leave feeling quite a bit worse for wear! Celi had stayed the entire weekend along with Terry and Sabrina and me. I don’t recall anyone else being there Monday morning. Celi goes to the bathroom and I hear her let out “Shit!” I asked what was wrong as she came out and she said that she had started her period and that she didn’t have any pads. “No worries.” I said. “You can use one of mine.” Without even thinking, I handed it to her, she said, “Thanks.” and then, about 5 seconds later she yelled out, “STEF!!!!” I spun around and there she was holding the pad and looking at me. We both started laughing hysterically! It was at that moment the change in our relationship reached 180 degrees. Once upon a time we had discussed marriage...now she was borrowing pads from me! LOL!!!!
4/24/2018 -- Here’s a short story, but it always brings a smile to my face when I think of it. However, before I get to it, I’ve had several people ask me about “Mama”. By the time I left Athens, she had moved in with her boyfriend, Keith, who was a really sweet guy. One night, right before I left, we were at Boneshakers sitting out in the patio area. She told me that she had tested positive for HIV. I never saw any proof and Mama was prone to telling a tall tale, so whether or not this was true, I don’t know. Once I did move back to Gainesville, I never saw her again. She seemed to be a bit resentful when I started hormones and was moving on with my transition. I remember several years later, the late, great Miss Pebbles told me that she had been to a gay bar in Myrtle Beach, SC and that she had seen Mama in “boy drab”. That means that was living as Kristopher, which completely blew my mind! Ever since then….more than 15 years later...I have no idea what ever happened to her. I would hope that she is proud of me. I did keep my promise to her and, despite the serious bumps in the road our relationship had, her help was absolutely invaluable to me and I’ll always be grateful and she’ll always have a special place in my heart.
Ok...on to happier things! I think it was sometime in the first part of May of 1998 that I first went back to Boneshakers. Kathleen was visiting and looking for a place to move to Atlanta, which I was so excited about! The two of us made the trek to Athens for the Monday night drag show. I couldn’t wait to see all of my aunties (Mama was already gone) and I had a hunch that I would have to do a “show and tell” for them. When we went into the club, I got a fantastic welcome from everyone there and they grabbed my arms and dragged me upstairs to their dressing room. Now, the dressing room of the queens is a sacred place and nobody, I mean NOBODY, went up there unless they were invited. I will say that I was always incredibly respectful to my aunties and also expressed my sincere gratitude for all they did. As a result, I had been given access to the dressing room, which I considered a great honor! Kathleen and I get up there and all the queens are yelling, “We’ve got to see! C’mon! Show us!!!” I dropped trou, laid on a table, and spread ‘em! Several of the queens (Anastasha Armani, in particular) started crying and sobbing, “I want one of those!” :-) It was pretty funny! After everyone had had ample time to view my new vagina, I put my clothes back on and they went about getting ready for the show. I noticed Kathleen at the back of the dressing room with a pout on her face. “What’s wrong, girl?” I asked. I will never forget what she said next. “I want to show my kooch, too!”, which caught me by surprise, but I immediately yelled out, “Ladies!!! Ladies!!! Miss Kathleen would like to show you her kooch.” The room fell silent. Then someone said, “You mean you’re trans?!” in amazement! Yep. Kathleen was a total fish! :-) She got to show her work and then we enjoyed another amazing night at Boneshakers….one of the last I spent there. It was a good night.
4/25/2020 -- Some SCC background and “The Dance of the Trans Nymphs”
It was back in the fall of 1995 that Mama told me about this magical place called The Southern Comfort Conference (SCC), which is now known as The Southern Comfort Transgender Conference (SCTC). My first conference was in September of 1996. I briefly mentioned it in an earlier post. It was truly a life-changing experience and I met some of the people who would become such an important part of my life for many years to come. Probably the most important thing about that first conference is that I got to be Stefanie full-time for five full days! That had never happened before and it made me want to get on with my RLT (real life test) and surgery more than ever!!! However, I had made my timeline and I was sticking to it.
In 1997, I volunteered for SCC and my application was accepted. I was to be an Audio/Visual assistant working with a Ms. Tammy Ward, who I did not know. Didn’t matter...I was SO excited to be a part of SCC and begin to keep my promise to Mama to help others. Back in those days, some volunteers got their hotel rooms comped and I was one of those people. I roomed with Helen Garfinkel. She would very soon come to be known as Aunt Helen. I must tell you a bit about her. She was a postal worker from the Baltimore, MD area and identified as a cross-dresser. She was a devout Jew and never married. She lived with her mother and SCC was the one and only time during the year that she got to express her feminine side. She took SCC VERY seriously and we were her chosen family. If Aunt Helen took a liking to you, you had the opportunity to make her “cookie list”.
Above: Aunt Helen Garfinkel
She baked the most delectable cookies and would send everyone on her list a dozen or so at Christmas. I was one of the fortunate few! :-) SCC ‘98 occurred during Yom Kippur and Aunt Helen was very worried that she would have to go to a synagogue in “boy drab”, which she really didn’t want to do. Fortunately, a very accepting synagogue was found and she was so happy that she could go en femme. Also in 1998, we had the amazing Atlanta Gay Men’s Chorus perform for us at the Saturday Night Gala. I forget who came up with the idea, but the wonderful men in the chorus agreed to be auctioned off as dates who would escort their high bidders to “The Prom That Never Was”....a chance for those to go to a prom as they would have liked to when they were in high school. K had most graciously offered to be my date for the prom...and she was amazing! Aunt Helen had bid and won a date with a very handsome man from the chorus and she asked me to help her get ready. I actually think it was this that got me on the cookie list! :-) She got all dolled up and her escort arrived with roses for her and off they went. Let me tell you, she had the night of her life!!!! When she got back to our hotel room, she got undressed, sat on the bed, and started sobbing uncontrollably. I put my arm around her and asked her what was wrong. She told me that she was so sad because she wouldn’t get to see her family again for another year and she would have to go back to life as a postal worker and caregiver. It gave me a perspective that I had never had before. Here I was fighting so that I could myself 24/7 365 days a year, but that simply was not the case for so many attendees. SCC was IT for them. Their one big blow out for the entire year. Now, some had cross-dresser support groups that they attended and some even came with their spouse or significant other, but there were also people attending the conference who had given stories to their wives/families that they were on hunting or fishing trips with “the guys” or were away on business trips. They were so afraid that, if anyone found out about their cross-dressing, it would completely ruin their lives! You know the old saying….until you walk a mile in their shoes. Let me add one personal little story from SCC ‘98 that has always been very special to me. We had over 600 people attend the Saturday night gala dinner. Our keynote speaker was Leslie Feinberg, who had written “Stone Butch Blues” and “Transgender Warriors” among other books. After Jennileigh and I wrapped up the dinner and did all of the “Thank you’s”, people were getting ready for The Prom That Never Was. I was completely exhausted and a bit overwhelmed by everything that had happened at the conference. I went out to the lobby outside of the big ballroom at The Sheraton Buckhead to gather my thoughts. I saw Les Feinberg and went to thank her/hir for coming and the wonderful speech. She/zie put one hand on each of my shoulders and said, “No, Stefanie. Thank YOU! Do you realize what you’ve done? Tonight, this is the largest single gathering of trans people EVER! You helped make that happen.” I had no words, just tears in my eyes. I gave her/hir a big hug and went to find a place to be alone for a few minutes. I really needed some time to process this.
At the end of the ‘97 conference, as we were all winding down at the hotel bar, Terry Murphy (one of the founders and head honchos of SCC) asked me if I would be interested in co-chairing the 1998 conference. I was extremely honored, but very hesitant. It was a HUGE responsibility and I really didn’t know if I was ready. He asked me to think about and that he thought I’d do a great job, which meant a lot to me. He also introduced me to Patt, who I found extremely attractive! Because I had met so many people who fell into so many places on the transgender spectrum, my first thought when I saw Patt was, “Please be like me! Please be like me!” We spoke for quite some time and I finally asked, “So, are you transsexual?” Patt responded, “I don’t know.”, which was a bit of a disappointment to me, but I found myself very attracted nonetheless.
There’s a gender support group called AGE (Atlanta Gender Explorations) and I went to a few of the meetings. Patt also went. Afterwards, we’d go to a restaurant to socialize. They held monthly meetings. Patt and I spoke a lot after SCC and, when the next AGE meeting was about to happen, I asked if I might see Patt there. Patt said, “I’ll be there, but I won’t be dressed.” I said that that would be fine, but inside I was quite apprehensive. I had never seen Patt in “boy drab”. How would that go? We went to the meeting and then to the restaurant. As we were leaving, Patt came to my car and got in the passenger side so we could continue talking. He (yes, I will use he) made me laugh...a LOT. We spoke for a while and I finally said, “You know what? I don’t give a shit!” and leaned over and kissed him!! Folks….I had my first (and only) boyfriend! :-) We dated for about six months or so and had some really, really fun times. My experience with Patt led me to discover that I am actually pansexual. I don’t care about the gender of a person. I care about the person. Of course, the fact that Patt was GORGEOUS when dressed certainly didn’t hurt! :-)
I told Terry Murphy that I would co-chair SCC ‘98 along with the wonderful Jennileigh Love. We split the duties and prepared for the first planning meeting of ‘98, which would be held on January 17th. We had a very productive meeting and prepared for the after meeting party. Back then, it was not unusual to have 75 to 100 people at the SCC parties and they were AWESOME!!!! I had decided that I would use the party to get to know the one SCC board member that I really had spent much time with...Holly Boswell. Holly and her (then) partner, Zantui Rose, were very spiritual people and ran a retreat in Black Mtn, NC called the Bodhi Treehouse. Groups could rent out the cabins for wonderful retreats in the gorgeous Smoky Mountains. She had been a board member for several years and it was her insistence that SCC had such an extensive seminar track. Back then, there would be over 100 seminars on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday with topics for everyone. At least, that was the goal. As you know, you can never please everyone! However, usually one could never get to all of the seminars that they wanted to go to because there was just too much to choose from! :-) Holly and Zantui would always have a spiritual drum circle on Saturday afternoon. It was a very cool way to wrap up the seminar sessions.
Above: Zantui Rose and Holly Boswell.
Holly was always of voice of reason and sanity whenever things would get a bit out of control and whenever something was being discussed, she would remain quiet and be the last one to speak when someone would inevitably ask, “What do you think, Holly?” She had my utmost respect and admiration, which is why I wanted to get to know her better at the party that Sat. night on Jan. 17, 1998. I was dating a wonderful woman named Dea Anne at the time we were getting ready for the party.
Above: The wonderful Dea Anne and me.
I was wearing a little grey cocktail dress and pantyhose….that was it. Look, I was pretty damn proud of my still new, congruent body and I was going to show it off! :-) I remember going up the suite and the party was just getting going. We had some great 80’s dance music, plenty of snacks, and a fully stocked bar with tons of social lubricants! I had told Dea Anne that I wanted to spend time with Holly and she was cool with that. I asked Holly to dance and we did just that….LOTS of dancing!! Holly was wearing a pair of paisley tights and a heavy turtleneck sweater. After dancing for quite some time, we decided to get something to drink.
As we mixed our drinks, Holly pulled at her turtleneck and said, “It’s so hot in here.” Without missing a beat I replied, “Why don’t you take it off?” She said, “Excuse me?” I said, “I’ll make a deal with you. You take off your sweater and I’ll take off my cocktail dress.” Incredulously, she asked, “Are you serious?”, which is all it took for me to whip off my dress. Remember, I only had on pantyhose underneath. That’s all the encouragement it took for Holly to get off that hot sweater and the two of us headed back out to dance….topless! A few people did double-takes, but before you could say “Bob’s your uncle” about 7 other trans women had taken off their tops and we were all dancing and having the BEST time!! Mind you, there was no hanky-panky and nothing sexual about it. It was simply “a freein’ up”. Nobody cared what they looked like. Nobody body shamed. Nobody had any reservations. To this day, that is quite possibly the most wonderful, positive vibe-filled room that I’ve ever been in. The air was electric with positive energy and we were all having the time of our lives!! We danced and danced and danced until…..
Above: (From L) Tammy Ward, me, Holly Boswell, and Heather Ramsey. This was taken the night of The Dance of the Trans Nymphs!
Above: Miss Heather Ramsey was one of the sweetest souls I've ever met. I miss you, my friend.
The door opened and there stood Ms. Lola Cola with tears in her eyes. I mentioned the amazing Robert Eads. I don’t want to go into his story here because it was so beautifully captured in the award-winning documentary “Southern Comfort”, which you can watch in its entirety for free on YouTube . I highly recommend that you watch this. When Lola opened that door and we saw her, we knew that Robert had left his body. She didn’t even have to say it. We stopped the music immediately and helped her to a chair. Holly went immediately, effortlessly into grief counselor mode, seeming to know all the right things to say. Of course, we were all still topless, which probably made for a fairly amusing scene now that I think about it. Lola spoke for a little while and then, wiping the tears from her eyes, she said, “Robert would not want this. He’d want us to have a party.” I said gently, “Lola...this is a party.” She got up, took off HER top, and the dancing resumed! I absolutely know that Robert was smiling down on us! It was Lola, herself, who later dubbed that night “The Dance of the Trans Nymphs”. It was amazing, incredible, stupendous, unbelievable...what other superlatives can I use?! :-) We had so much fun and it brought Holly and me much closer. I do cherish this memory dearly. Sadly, Holly left her body a few years ago. She was a tireless crusader for the trans community and we ALL owe her a huge debt of gratitude!
Next I'll write about some of the things that took place (and didn't take place) at the 1998 Southern Comfort Transgender Conference.
4/30/2020: The 1998 Southern Comfort Conference (SCC) -- By the way, if you were there, and I state anything that’s not accurate, please do correct me. I have two working brain cells these days and this did happen 22 years ago! This is quite long, but I think you're going to enjoy it. :-)
Co-chairing SCC in the 90’s and early 2000’s was a big deal and a lot of responsibility. At the time, it was the largest trans conference in the world and we would start planning for the next year’s conference in December after taking off a couple of months to decompress. The board would do a weekend retreat to get things in motion, then the first full planning meeting would be held in January, the second in April, and the last in August. If things weren’t in place by the August meeting, you might as well forget about it because the conference was usually held the second week of September. The internet was just really getting going in 1998 and I had my original PC, which cost me $1500.00, but was a piece of junk, in retrospect! Because I was going to have to be in almost daily touch with my co-chair, the board voted to buy me a very nice, refurbished computer. I pretty much wore that sucker out! :-)
It’s interesting to look back and see just how very different things were for the trans community back in 1998. I think that was the first year we offered online registration. Before that, we had a mailing list (most in the trans community had private PO boxes) and we would do a mass mailing of the registration forms. There were those who were deathly afraid of being “outed” and losing their careers and families. I know for a fact that we had bank presidents, doctors, and CEO’s who were regular attendees. A lot of people either paid with a blank money order or with cash onsite.
It’s time for another short lesson about the trans community. Remember when I said that the term “transgender” is a huge umbrella term and that, in the trans community, the old math term “a square is always a rectangle, but a rectangle is not always a square” applies? Let’s go through some of the differences in the sub-groups. Please note that there are exceptions to all of these and I am speaking about the vast majorities of each group. Cross-dressers (formerly known as transvestites): Almost 100% comprised of men. Why? Because in our society, it’s perfectly acceptable for women to wear men’s clothing, but not vice-versa. They have no desire to modify their bodies (i.e. have surgery). While there are some who do it for sexual arousal, the vast majority simply want to express this side of their personality. They are almost exclusively heterosexual. They are also most likely to be afraid of being outed and will go to extreme lengths to hide this part of their lives. I have met some cross-dressers who have had electrolysis (removal of facial hair), but that’s rare. Drag queens (sometime called female impersonators): The vast majority identify as homosexual males. The vast majority (though there are definitely exceptions) have no intention of having gender confirmation surgery. They love to emulate women and many will specialize in emulating certain icons of the LGBTQ+ community (i.e. Cher, Liza Minnelli, Dolly Parton, etc.). Once upon a time, the rule was that you could be a drag queen up until the point that you had any surgery. Nowadays, that rule is being contested as more and more performers consider drag to be an art form. Drag kings (male impersonators): Same as above, but in reverse and they can be VERY convincing! I will NEVER forget a drag king named Alex who was at SCC 1998 and performed in the talent show that year. All week long Alex was in boy drab, if not full drag king mode. On Saturday night at the big Gala Dinner, this gorgeous woman in a stunning red gown came up and said, “Hey, Stef.” I had no idea who it was. “It’s Alex.” she said with a big smile. I almost fell out of my chair! LOL! Intersex (formerly called hermaphrodites): These individuals are born with both male and female genitalia. Quite often the decision of if they’re a boy or a girl is made at the time of birth, which can lead to multiple problems later in life. Most experts now agree that the person should be able to make their own decision when they get older. Non-binary: These individuals do not want to be labelled as male OR female. Usually, they prefer to be addressed with the pronouns they/them. They may or may not pursue some surgical procedures. Gender-Fluid: These individuals don’t like being limited on the gender spectrum. Some days they feel more feminine and some days more masculine. Most will not pursue any surgical procedures. Transsexual: This term has fallen out of favor, but by definition it defines an individual who’s body does match the gender they identify with and they will usually (though not always) pursue hormone replacement therapy and surgical procedures to become congruent in mind and body. One can be a male to female transsexual (mtf) or a female to male transsexual (ftm). Again, there are ALWAYS exceptions to all of these definitions and there are other categories on the transgender spectrum that I’m sure I’m leaving out. The problem (in my opinion) is that the term “transgender” is used for ALL of these categories, meaning the cross-dressers and transsexuals are thought of as the same when that is not the case at all! Therefore, I will continue to use the term post-operative, male to female transsexual to describe myself. Mind you, there is no hierarchy of transgender and no one group is any better than any other group, we’re just different.
Ok. Back to the ‘98 conference. My co-chair, Jennileigh Love, and I worked our asses off that year to try to make the ‘98 conference a huge success. I must say that it was a pleasure working with her and she did an amazing job putting together the seminar program. I was in charge of organizing the entertainment (both at the hotel and the excursions), which kept me quite busy. Then, the two of us had to oversee everything else to make sure that everyone was doing what they said that they would do. Of course, we had the board of directors (Holly Boswell, Max Anderson, Terry Murphy, Sabrina Marcus) to turn to for guidance when needed. It was an amazing learning experience and I’m so very grateful that I had the opportunity to do this service for the community.
I was now about six months post-op and I had been told that I could “try out” my new vagina around the six month mark. Let me preface this part of the tale by saying that when I left the temple in 1988, I went to life as I had known it. You know….sex, drugs, and rock and roll. I’m not proud of that, but it needs to be known that I was most definitely NOT following the Vedic culture at the time. So….before the conference, I had the brilliant idea that, on Saturday night after the conference was over, I would organize an orgy with a few close friends. I won’t name names (except for one), but I must say that I was quite looking forward to this. I asked Terry Murphy to be a part of it. He said, “Look. If you think you’re going to have the energy after running the conference, then I’ll do it. I’ll talk to you Saturday night.” and he laughed. I’ll get back to this….
Above: K was my date for the Saturday night formal and she was AWESOME!!!
During this time period (‘97-’98) I had somewhat of a relationship with a wonderful person named Kathy. She always said that she wanted to transition, but she had a very, very good job and was afraid of losing everyone, so I don’t think she ever did. Though I’ve always been attracted (predominantly) to women, I figured that, since I had a new part on my body, I owed it to myself to try it out at least once by having someone I trusted and I knew would be gentle to take her out for a spin, if you know what I mean. I decided that Kathy would be that person, since she did not take hormones. We did….I was “Meh” about it...and that’s the one and only time a penis ever got to see inside of me. I continued dilating until I fully healed, some months later, but I never worried about it much after that experience because I knew from there on out I’d be with women. I am most grateful to Kathy for sharing that experience with me. Super sweet soul!
Friday night was the big outing and there used to be a place in Atlanta called The Chamber. It was a BDSM themed club that played heavy industrial dance music interspersed with...uh...performance art pieces. ;-) It was always very popular with SCC attendees. I was still feeling really good about my body after surgery and had discussed with Kathleen what we would wear to The Chamber. We decided on corsets, panties, and thigh high boots. Now, at SCC, we do have a dress code because, although we made up the majority of the hotel guests, we were not ALL of the hotel guests and we wanted to continue our good relationship with the hotel, so if we saw someone wearing something inappropriate, we would politely ask them to change or cover up. You can imagine that attendees brought special outfits for The Chamber outing and we had to be very vigilant to make sure everyone was sufficiently covered up to get out of the hotel! I had brought a long coat to cover up in the hotel, but Kathleen had forgotten to bring something. She ended up wearing my pink terry cloth bathrobe to get out of the hotel! LOL! I wish I had a picture of that, but alas, I don’t. I DO have one of us taken at a store that was next to The Chamber. She looked SO FIERCE and I didn’t look too bad, if I do say so myself! I had made an arrangement with The Chamber management that, with an SCC name badge, you would get in for $5.00. The doorman took one look at me and Kathleen and said, “Ladies...you go right on in.” Yeah….we were hot! :-)
Above: Kathleen and me outside of The Chamber during SCC '98. She looked SO fierce and I wasn't too shabby myself!
It was my responsibility to make sure all attendees got back to the hotel safely. We had buses running continuous routes between the hotel and the club, so people could come and go as they pleased. I think the last bus was going to be at the club at 2am. I made sure I was on that bus and went in to round up anyone left. By the time I got back to the hotel it was going on 3am. I averaged working 21 hours a day during that conference….AND I drank quite a bit in those days. I have NO idea how I managed to do it, but somehow Jenileigh and I did.
Above: (From L) Jennileigh Love, Marissa Richmond, me
The hotel (The Sheraton Buckhead) had a bar/lounge adjacent to the hotel (which had its own bar). I forget the name, but it was quite the popular hangout during the conference. One night (Wednesday or Thursday), we (me, Terry, Sabrina, Celi...ok...who am I leaving out?) went over to the adjacent bar to unwind after a long day. The place was packed, but there was one lady sitting alone in a big booth. We asked if we could join her and she graciously invited us. I started introducing everyone and I asked her her name. She said, “I don’t have one.”, which struck me as odd. Turns out that this was the first conference she had ever attended and was just beginning her transition. She had a wicked sense of humor, which I liked immediately! After a while, we decided that she needed a name. Different folks tossed out different names, but I thought that she looked a bit like Emma Thompson, so I suggested Emma. She decided to use that name. She was Emma until she finally came out to her mother and her mother HATED the name Emma, so she changed it. You all know her now as Mara Keisling. :-) Yep. I knew her before she had a name. If you don’t know who Mara is, she went on to become the head of National Center for Transgender Equality and is one of, if not THE leading lobbyist for the transgender community. We all owe her a GREAT debt of gratitude.
Above: Sabrina Marcus (L) with a very early pic of Mara Keisling.
Let me tell you two quick stories about Mara. In December of ‘98, Kathleen and I were invited to a Christmas part in Washington, DC held by the trans group up there. We knew several of the people and decided to go. Mara lived there and had offered to take us out. She told us that she would be in boy drab as she had just come back from Electrolysis 2000 (now 3000) in Texas. This is a place where they clear your entire face in one sitting! They have doctors there who numb you up with shots and then two workers at a time work on you and then rotate out with another two workers each hour. You get 16 hours worth of electrolysis done in one day, which is crazy! So, we’re in our DC hotel waiting and there’s a knock on the door. We open it and there’s Mara in boy drab with a VERY swollen face going, “Hi! I’m monkey boy! I’ll be your escort for the evening!” It was pretty damn funny! We went to this one club that had a really good drag show. There was an Asian guy there who took a liking to me. I think his name was “Jimmy”. He kept saying (in broken English), “You real woman...not like these others. I buy you dress.” This went on all night long! I couldn’t get rid of him. We had a great night and a wonderful weekend trip. After I got home, maybe a few days later, I got an email from an address I didn’t recognize. It said, “Hi. This Jimmy. I meet you in DC. You real woman. I come to Georgia. I buy you dress. Emma (Mara) give me your email.” I was furious!!!! I immediately emailed Mara, “How could you do this to me!!!!??? Do you realize what you’ve done!!!??? What the hell am I going to do now!!!???” She responded and said, “Stefanie: I would never, ever give out your email address to a stranger. However, I WOULD create a fake email account and pretend to be Jimmy. Gotcha! :-)” That’s the wicked sense of humor that I love so much about Ms. Mara Keisling.
Back to the conference...Part of the documentary, Southern Comfort, was being filmed during the ‘98 conference. I mentioned earlier how some attendees are incredibly stealth and we worked very hard with the film crew to make sure that nobody was filmed that didn’t want to be filmed. Not as easy as you think when you’ve got 700 attendees, but all went well. I know I said this before, but everyone should see this documentary. You can see it in its entirety on YouTube. On Thursday, during lunch, we had three speakers scheduled to do about 10 minutes each. One of them was my mom, Giz Schumacher. My dad, Charlie, was also in attendance. My mom became the very first parent of a trans person to ever speak at Southern Comfort. I was incredibly proud of her for doing that and for my dad being there. When people found out that my parents were there...oh my goodness!!! They were treated like rock stars!!! So many attendees came up to them and thanked them for being there and for supporting me. They heard many stories from people whose families had disowned them. Afterwards, when I spoke to them in their hotel room, Mom was crying and saying, “How can parents treat their own children like that? You are my child. I love you unconditionally and always will!” Yes. I was very fortunate to have both parents support my transition. I love you, Mom and Dad.
We finished up Saturday night and I was absolutely knackered! 21 hour days for the last 5 days will do that to a person. When I got to the hotel bar, there was Terry Murphy with a big smile on his face. “Still want that orgy?”, he asked. I admitted that there was NO way that was going to happen, so that’s one SCC event that never did materialize for me. :-) No worries. SCC ‘98 was a huge success and I have so many wonderful memories from it!
Above: Me sitting next to Terry Murphy is as close to the orgy as I got! LOL! What was I thinking?
I promised you that, when I started writing my story, I would be brutally honest. That means showing me "warts and all". New Year's Eve 1999 to New Year's Day 2009 are years that I can never get back. I'm about to show you just how very, very stupid I can be.
After the ‘98 Southern Comfort Conference, both Jennileigh and I were voted onto the Board of Directors of SCC. It was a huge honor and I served until after the 2001 conference.
In early 2000, I was playing in a band that regularly played at American Legions, Elks Lodges, and VFW’s. The pay was pretty good for a couple of night’s work and I played with some talented people. I had also played with these people at these places BEFORE I began my transition, so sometimes it was interesting to see people’s reactions. Some knew, some didn’t. Some cared, some didn’t. New Year’s Eve of 1999-2000 we were playing at The American Legion Post 7 in Gainesville, GA. After we finished, a cute blonde came up to me and introduced herself. Her name was Lesa and she would become a major part of my life (for good and bad) for the next 9+ years. We all know how hindsight is 20/20, right? I should have run for cover almost immediately! There’s something called “The Cinderella Complex” that can happen to a trans person after they have surgery and transition completely. They can have the idea that their life will now be perfect. Au contraire!!!! Nothing could be farther from the truth. Material life will continue and everyone knows, life comes with its ups and downs. The only constant is change! I never succumbed to The Cinderella Complex. I knew that my life would still have great challenges. What I DID do was not believe enough in myself...not believe that I would ever find someone to fall in love with. That lack of belief cost me. So when Lesa showed interest in me and told me how beautiful and wonderful I was, I pretty much fell for it hook, line, and sinker. Oh! Here’s a quick side story about the night we met. She was sitting at a temple with a couple of American Legion regulars who had seen me playing at Post 7 before, during, and after my transition. When Lesa expressed an interest in me, the guy at the table (a real piece of work) said, “You know that’s a ‘shim’, right?” That’s how Lesa found out I was trans. Classy, huh?
Lesa was from the mountains of North Georgia, Dahlonega to be precise. Her father had been a Pentecostal preacher and she was excommunicated from his church after being caught in bed with a deacon’s daughter. The best description of her family that I can give you is that they were a “Jerry Springer Show” waiting to happen. They didn’t want anything to do with me and asked her many times why she wanted to be with a “man in a dress”. She identified as lesbian, though she had married many years earlier because she wanted to have children. She had a daughter and a son who were both in their 20’s now. Her former husband was a surgeon. They really didn’t communicate much unless it was something about the kids. She also had a strained relationship with her children. They had both been pains in the ass. The son had drug abuse issues and the daughter had defaulted on a car loan that Lesa had co-signed, so her credit was shot!
There were so many warning signs that now, when I look back on it, I feel like a complete idiot! Of course, at the time, I’m thinking “Wow! An attractive woman is attracted to me! After my time dating Dea Anne, I kinda thought that that was a “one and done”. Now, another gg was attracted to me, so of course, I convinced myself that this opportunity will never come along again, so I had better jump on it! Yep. Ignore all of the warning signs because you don’t believe in yourself enough to wait. What could go wrong?!
Oh! I didn’t tell you about her crazy cousin, David! Lesa owned two small houses (side by side) outside of Dahlonega and, as our relationship continued, we talked about living in one of them and selling the other. She had a cousin, who was staying with her at the time. He was a creepy dude from the outset, but I figured he’d leave when we moved in together….yeah, right! Turns out that this cousin had the hots for Lesa and had hoped that they would end up together. He’s one of the main ones in her family who kept hounding her about “Why do you want to be with a man in a dress?”. Well, one day she came home from work to find him in one of her best outfits! When she asked him what the hell he was doing, he said that he thought she’d like him better this way! Well, suffice it to say that we had a problem on our hands. At the time, I was living at my folks place. I had my own room and separate entrance and Lesa spent most of the time with me. Somehow, David found out my address and started driving by at all hours of the night. Yep. He was stalking her. This was in spring of 2000.
To be continued…..
Spring of 2000 -- So Lesa and I continued with our relationship. We even discussed getting “married”. I use the quotation marks because it still wasn’t legal for same sex couples to get married in 2000. Now, here’s an interesting fact that you probably don’t know. I, as a post-op male to female transsexual, could have petitioned the court to marry as a MAN!!! How bizarre is that? After everything that I went through to be legally recognized as a woman, they would allow me to ignore all of that to legally marry. Just another example of the bullshit we deal with.
One day, Lesa got a call from a collection agency. Her daughter had defaulted on a loan that she had co-signed on. Her car had been used as collateral. Bye-bye car. So....assuming that we were going to be together forever (BTW….NEVER assume that!!), I went out with her to get a new car. It was in my name, but she would drive it. Crazy cousin David was still driving by late at night, Lesa’s relationship with her kids was down the toilet, and my dad was going through some serious health issues….so let’s plan a wedding!
Let me talk about my dad for a bit. We had a rocky relationship for most of his life. He was a small man. Seriously, the most he ever weighed was 128 lbs! He had curvature of the spine, so he looked shorter than he was. People always wondered how I ended up 6 feet tall. Well, my grandfather Schumacher was 6’2”, and my dad’s brother, Uncle Johnny, was 6’3”. Dad was the runt. His mother was a very tiny woman and he took after her. She was also a little nuts and incredibly overly protective when my dad was a child. Dad had a really good singing voice from the time he was a child. He was actually asked to join a travelling boy’s choir when he was about 10 years old. Grandma Schumacher would not even consider that. She wouldn’t let him go. Who knows how much different my dad’s life might have been. He had a beautiful tenor voice until he ruined it with smoking (2 to 3 packs of Kool unfiltered cigs a day) and alcohol. Sure enough, he ended up with emphysema and esophageal cancer.
Dad also drank every day. If he was working, it would be beer...lots of beer. If he was off the next day, he would always get a bottle of whiskey to go with the beer. When I was young (maybe 12 or 13), my mom was working as the North Georgia area supervisor for Weight Watchers. In the late 60’s she had lost 72 lbs. and kept it off many years. Sometimes, she had to monitor meetings that were pretty far away and she would spend the night in a hotel. Whenever that would happen, I knew that I would have to put my dad to bed. He would be drinking and watching TV. I would go to bed around 8:30 or 9pm, then I would wake up around 11pm to always find him asleep on the couch. I’d have to wake him...not an easy feat, and practically beg him to go to bed. When I finally got him there, I could go back to sleep. I never told Mom this and when she did find out many years later, she felt terrible! I told her that it was no big deal. It was just what I had to do.
I was fortunate. Dad was not a mean drunk. He basically just drank himself to sleep. Of course, had he been a mean drunk it wouldn’t have really mattered since I was bigger than him by the time I was 13! :-) We definitely did not see eye to eye on many things and once I started drinking and doing drugs at age 16, we would have some pretty serious shouting matches. Nothing ever got physical, but we said some terrible things to each other. We would always apologize, but it was inevitable that it would happen again. Funny how booze works that way, huh?
To be honest, the last five years of dad’s life (he left his body in September 2000) were the best five years we ever had together. He had been in a car accident while drinking. Fortunately, he didn’t hurt anyone in the car he sideswiped, but he broke every bone in his face from the eye sockets down. He never drove again. He also stopped smoking and drinking as a result of this accident as he was told in no uncertain terms by the doctor that he WOULD die if he continued either of these things. I started my transition and was happier than I had ever been. Dad was sober and we were getting along better than ever!
He never said much about my transition, but I do remember one day while I was doing my “Real Life Test” (RLT) while working at K-Mart. I got home from work and we were watching tv. I was in the recliner and he was in his spot on the couch. Out of nowhere he said, “So this is going to make you happy, huh?” Being the smart-ass that I am to this day, I responded, “Well, dad. Since we’re spiritual beings stuck in a material world we can never truly be happy….” I saw him rolling his eyes ”...but this will make me as happy as I can be.” He simply nodded. He never said anything else about it, but he was always completely supportive of me and my transition.
Lesa and I planned on having our wedding ceremony on September 9th, just before the 2000 Southern Comfort Conference. We had been looking at homes and the plan was to get a place big enough for my parents to move in with us. We found a large, four bedroom manufactured home and a nice, quiet lot of land on a cul-de-sac in Cleveland, GA. My dad was in the VA Hospital in Atlanta and was unable to attend my wedding ceremony. I’ll give props where they’re due: Lesa was amazing at planning the ceremony. She planned all of the decorations, found the cottage that we rented, and planned the food. We found a lovely place not far from home called Forest Hills Resort. We rented a gorgeous Victorian cottage and invited about 15 people. None of Lesa’s family came. Celi came a day early with her (then) boyfriend, Tommy, to help us get ready. She was our maid of honor and, in true Celi fashion, was amazing! I don’t know how we would have done it without her. My mom walked us down the aisle and we did have a minister to perform the ceremony. We did the entire wedding (including the cabin rental) for $750.00 and it was a beautiful day!
The 2000 SCC was held shortly after our wedding ceremony. My dad was quite ill at the time. He loved Lesa and she loved him. We went to see him at the VA hospital on Tuesday and Wednesday. Tuesday, he was not doing well at all and they had given him too much medication. He was hallucinating quite badly. On Wednesday, he was MUCH better. He was wearing an oxygen mask, but was kidding around and laughing a lot. We kissed through the oxygen mask as we left. That evening, I called to check on him. He had just left his body. I will forever be grateful that the last words we exchanged were, “I love you.” I’m so happy I had that last five years with Dad.
Dad was cremated immediately and Lesa and I went to pick up his ashes on Friday. Mom came down to the Sheraton Buckhead (where the conference was being held) to get Dad’s ashes. SCC invited Mom to stay the night at the hotel. Word spread quickly among the conference attendees that Dad had passed and Mom and I got LOTS of hugs and words of encouragement. I remember one person hugging me and saying, “It’s as if he’s still with us.” I responded, “You’re so right! He’s up in my room now.” LOL! The look I got was priceless!!! The next morning (Saturday), Mom, Lesa, and I were having breakfast in the hotel dining room. Mom and Dad’s ashes were on one side of the booth and Lesa and I were on the other. Terry Murphy came by to say good-bye to Mom. I said, “Terry...you remember my dad, don’t you?” as I motioned to the box. Terry did a double-take and then broke into a grin and said, “You are SO bad!”. We all had a good laugh and I promise you that Dad would have loved it! He had a wicked (and slightly strange) sense of humor. Now you all know where I get it from! :-)
Lesa knew that I was on the board of directors before we met. She came to the planning meetings and to the conference. While she was very supportive of most of the trans community, she had a big problem with some of the cross-dressers. She thought that some were insulting to cisgendered women by the way they dressed and behaved. This was a major factor, but not the only factor in why I decided to resign from the board of directors of the Southern Comfort Conference in January of 2001. In 2005, I started my “tranny boot camp” in Athens. Then I went through my transition and had surgery. I was involved with SCC for 4 years and I know that I kept my promise to my “Mama” and helped others. I was now “married”, I had a good job, had just bought a home, and I was ready to just live life now.
We closed on our home on Halloween of 2000 and moved in the following weekend. At first, it was just me, Lesa, and KittyCat, who was the first cat I ever had. All was fine….at first. Then crazy cousin David found out where we lived and started driving past our home in his truck. It was always easy to spot him as the cul-de-sac ended about 150 past our house. We started feeling fairly unsafe and I did something that I never, ever thought I would do….I bought a gun. Honestly, I didn’t know what this crazy person was capable of and I wanted some protection. Things were good at first. Lesa worked as a hospice nurse and I worked for Mencom Corporation. Between the two of us, we were doing fairly well. We worked, visited with our neighbors, took vacations, you know...the stuff every other family did. Lesa was super paranoid about any public displays of affection, whereas I couldn’t care less. This really put a damper on the cruise we took. I remember watching the gorgeous sunsets and wanting to hold her and kiss her, but she’d have none of that. Also, she would get furious if she even suspected that somebody clocked me as trans. Her mountain blood would boil and I had to talk her down on more than one occasion. I honestly think she imagined it 99% of the time. You see, my goal from the beginning was to be 99% passable. What does that mean? It means that if I walked down a street and passed 100 people, 98 of them wouldn’t have a clue about me, one might do a double-take and then think nothing more about it, and one would have watched WAY too many Jerry Springer shows and would just know. I was fine with that. After all, other than my nose, I had decided to not have any facial feminization done. I was born with great cheekbones, lips, and eyelashes and I was content. However, that 1% would drive Lesa absolutely crazy!!! That got old very quickly!
One of the reasons that I agreed to “marry” Lesa and buy a home, car, and land at really shitty interest rates is that she told me that she had money coming her way in a few months. There were some bonds that were maturing and it would be enough to pay off everything with a bit left over. So here I was a shitload of new debt and everything in my name. What could go wrong? I’ll tell you what…..EVERYTHING!!! The day came that she was to go to the bank and get the money deposited into our joint account. I was at work. I got a phone call from Lesa and she was absolutely hysterical! I could barely make out a word she was saying. I immediately left work and drove home as quickly as I could. When I got in the house, I found Lesa sitting on our bed with a bottle of pills poured out in her lap and holding the handgun. She just said, “It’s gone. It’s all gone!” First, I got the gun and pills away from her and then, when I could calm her down enough to talk she told me that her son and daughter, who were also beneficiaries on the bonds, had beaten her to the bank and took all the money. I’m going to be brutally honest with you, my first thought was, “What the fuck am I going to do now!!!??? How am I ever going to pay off all of this debt!!??” After telling Lesa that we’d figure something out, I immediately went into survival mode and called the mortgage company and the bank where I got the car loan to renegotiate the interest rates. As I said, I had HORRIBLE interest rates because I THOUGHT that we were going to pay these off in full very quickly.
I had asked for months about the chances that her kids could do something like this and she always assured me that they would never do this. Yeah….right. The daughter bought a house with her share of the money and her son blew it on drugs….a shitload of drugs! So, I settled into my new reality that I had a 30 year mortgage and a 5 year car loan and, somehow, we were going to scrape by. Enter my mom….
I mentioned earlier how we bought a four bedroom home with the idea that my mom and dad would come to live with us. Well, dad was gone, but mom was now 81 years old and it was clear to me that she could no longer take care of herself and her home. We got a ramp built to the front door and got her room ready. She sold her home, which really wasn’t worth anything, and came to live with us along with her dog, Queenie. We had increased our family to include three dogs, a bunch of birds, and a few cats. It was quite the zoo!
I must pause here to tell you about our (then) next door neighbors. Now then, do you remember when I told you that, during my consultation, I had asked what the odds were of having a recto-vaginal fistula happen? Without hesitation he told me that the odds were 1 in 250. Well...have I got a story for you!
Shortly after we moved in, a couple moved in next door. I want to say that their names were Denise and Cal, but don’t hold me to that. We became friendly with them and they would come over for drinks and to throw darts. They were pot smokers and, although I hadn’t bought any in many years, I certainly wasn’t above partaking. One day, Denise came over and had a couple of joints. We sat around smoking and talking and then it happened. Out of the blue, she said that she had been having a rough go of it lately and asked if she could share something with us in confidence. We assured her that whatever was said would stay in our den and she proceeded to tell us that she was a post-op trans-woman. I just looked at Lesa and didn’t say anything. We continued to listen as she told us about having her surgery a few years before and how she had gotten a recto-vaginal fistula. As I mentioned earlier in my story, she had to stop dilating and let everything close up. She did and waited the one year that you have to wait before having surgery again. The problem is that scar tissue had built up and it had created a ring around her vagina...right in the middle of it. So she was normal at the entrance and at the rear, but about 3 inches in, it was constricted by this scar tissue making “normal” intercourse with her husband impossible. She had had many surgeries since, but nothing had remedied the problem. She got quite emotional as was telling us this.
When she finished, I said, “I’m not sure if you told us this because you sensed something or not, but I’m a post-op trans-woman, too.” She got a big look of surprise on her face. Now, this is HIGHLY unusual because trans people are usually excellent at spotting other trans people. We had been next door neighbors for months and neither she nor I had “clocked” the other. I asked her where she had her surgery done. She responded, “In Montreal. I will curse Dr. Menard every day of my life!!” My mouth hit the floor!! When I composed myself, I mentioned that Montreal was where I had had MY surgeries and that my experience had been absolutely wonderful. They moved some months after that and I never had contact again, but please tell me what the odds are that two trans women would end up living next door to each other in, of all places, Cleveland, GA!!!?? To this day, that incident reminds me of the radical changes I made to this body and how fortunate I am that everything went smoothly. I certainly could have been that one in 250. Ok. Back to my tale....
You know how a lot of mothers-in-law never think that the spouse their child married is good enough for their “baby”? Mom was no exception in this case. She and Lesa butted heads quite frequently. It only got worse as time went by. Nothing Lesa did was done correctly and, though I called Mom out whenever she was in the wrong, nothing seemed to help. This went on for years and it definitely had an impact on Lesa and my relationship. I’d say that the first few years were pretty good. I was happy, though I wasn’t seeing my trans family and I did miss them a lot! But as time went on, I found that I simply wasn’t in love with Lesa. Truth be told, I don’t think that I ever was, though I tried to convince myself otherwise. I began to see things in her that I didn’t like and you had better hope you never see her when she is drunk on tequila. Let’s just say that I ended up in the emergency room trying to avoid her throwing punches at me because I wouldn’t give her the car keys. No. She didn’t hit me, though not for lack of trying! I fell backwards trying to avoid her punches and wrenched my knee. I can say this with all honesty: The most violent I ever became was when I was 23 and I found out that my (then) girlfriend had cheated on me 3 DAYS after I went on the road with my band, Utah. I got so mad that I threw a pillow against a wall! :-) Yeah….I’m not the violent kind. Lesa, on the other hand, had a serious redneck streak in her which was turning me off more and more day by day.
In 2008, it all came to a head. Over the last couple of years, Lesa spent more and more time with her family in Dahlonega. Pretty much every weekend was spent at her sister’s house. Me? I’d come home from work Friday night knowing that I wouldn’t see her until Sunday night, so on the way home, I’d stop off and get a big bottle of vodka. After checking on Mom to see if she needed anything, I’d start drinking until I passed out...wake up Saturday, drink again until I passed out….wake up Sunday and drink until early afternoon. Lesa would come home sometime Sunday evening...we’d barely speak and then I’d go to work Monday with a massive hangover. This was my routine every weekend. Sometime early in 2008, Lesa started communicating with her children again. You remember them, the ones who took her money. Then she started seeing her daughter on a regular basis. She had given birth to a daughter, so now Lesa was a grandmother. Apparently, that erases all of the shit her daughter had done and the pain she caused us. She was also in touch with her son, who was trying to get clean after blowing all of the money he took on drugs. When I would inquire how she could possibly forgive them and act as if nothing had happened after everything they did to us, she would only respond with, “You don’t have children. You’ll never understand.” No. I guess not. She also made it very clear to me that I should never make her choose or I would lose.
Lesa’s relationship with Mom was deteriorating, too, so home was not a pleasant place at the time. The holiday season came and I thought that, maybe...just maybe, spending time together might help. No. After Thanksgiving dinner, Lesa went to her sister’s house to spend the rest of the day and night with them. My family always celebrated Christmas on Christmas Eve. We would always prepare nosh food and give out presents one at a time. I always loved Christmas Eve and I was off from work until January 2nd. I thought Lesa and I could spend some time together. She had other plans. As soon as we finished with the gifts, she announced that she was going to her sister’s house. I didn’t see her Christmas Day, the day after that, or after that, or after that. I asked her if we were going to spend New Year’s Eve together. She said that her kids were coming over and she was going to stay there. I was most definitely NOT invited as they made it emphatically clear to her that they did not want to meet me. On New Year’s Day 2009 I called her and said, “Am I going to see you AT ALL before I go back to work tomorrow?!” Her response was, “I think I better come get my stuff.” to which I replied, “I think that’s a good idea.”
I was scared. Again, everything was in my name and, at the time, I had over $8000.00 credit card debt (mostly because of her) that was also in my name. I didn’t know how the hell I was going to be able to pay everything, but I was willing to do bankruptcy, if needed, to be out of this relationship. Thank Krsna that we weren’t legally married!!! At least there was nothing tying us together. She came over the following weekend with her niece and nephew and a U-haul to get her things. I told her to take whatever she wanted and to make sure she got it all. There were no bad feelings. Honestly, I felt nothing at all. I took her car keys and house keys and that was that. To this day, over 10 years later, I have not seen her though she still lives in the same area as far as I know.
So how did I survive all that debt? Well...it turns out that Lesa used to piss away an awful lot of money!!!! Once she was gone, I was able to get the credit card paid off in about one year, pay off the car, and pay extra each month on the mortgage. To think that I stayed in this loveless, unfeeling relationship for years because I was afraid of the financial ramifications really pisses me off! Anyway, it was over and I now had everything I ever wanted….or did I?
To be continued….
So here it was, January of 2009, and I had it all! I was out of a relationship that I really wanted to be out of, I had my home, a good car, a good job, and had been reunited with several of my oldest, dearest friends. I’ll get to them, specifically, shortly, but let me talk a little about being trans in a small, conservative town and the first time, after many, many years that people you once knew meet you as your true self.
Anybody who thinks that they’re going to be able to transition and everything will stay the same is a damn fool! I knew that I could lose family, friends, and employment. In my case, I lost a half-brother and half-sister (they just don’t want anything to do with me), I lost some of my dearest friends, and I told you about losing my job. Let me tell you about the closest friends that I lost.
I mentioned that I played in bands in my 20’s. I’ve got some great band stories and I’ll get to them later, but I started my first band with a guy named Dave Radford. He was a helluva guitarist and we were quite different people, but somehow we clicked and became SUPER tight. My first drummer was Jay Taylor. He was only 18 when he joined the band, but was very committed and enthusiastic! I also had a couple of friends from high school. I had known Mike Dayton since the 7th grade and I met Geoff Logsdon when I was 18 and he was 14. I was actually friends with his older brother, Jim, first. Mike was one of the very first people that I ever told I was trans and Geoff found out shortly after we met. At the time, they were very supportive. You see, it’s one thing to TALK about wanting to transition, but another thing entirely when you actually begin doing it! Of course, I had my 12 years of denial, so it was a non-issue during that time.
The Gainesville, GA music community was quite talented, but also quite small. Pretty much everyone knew everyone. When I started my “tranny boot camp” in Athens, word got around very quickly that I was “experimenting with alternative lifestyles”. Yeah….right. One night in 1995, I went to The Monkey Barrel to see some friends play. I still looked like “Shu” (my old nickname) except for the plucked eyebrows and long fingernails. I sat at a table in the back of the place by myself and tried to remain incognito. Then one the best lines, if not THE best line, about my transition was said to me. I saw the phenomenally talented Ted Tuck and he saw me. He came right up to me, gave me a BIG hug, and said, “It’s ok, man. We’re artists. We change.” LOL! To this day, that brings a smile to my face. Also to this day, if I see Ted, he always gives me a hug and a kiss on the cheek. He’s a super sweet man, with an amazing wife and son. Also, if you ever get a chance to hear him play….DO IT! He’s unbelievable. Anyway, the other musicians that I knew and saw that night didn’t really know how to deal with me. One gave my hug and others would give me that light punch in the arm that guys do and say, “Hey, man! How’s it going?” Of course, I would just say, “Fine.” and that would be the end of that conversation. That still happens to this day...some 25 years later.
Jay, Mike, Geoff, and I used to party and listen to music together a lot! We’d call them “sessions” and we all looked forward to them very much! Once I started my transition, I really had to focus on that and I wasn’t spending much time in Gainesville. I used to call Geoff to tell him what was going on, but I could sense a real coolness emanating from his voice. After a little while, Jay told me that Mike and Geoff were having a very hard time with my transition and didn’t want to hear from me anymore. In fact, he told me that Geoff, who was my best friend, wished that I would fall off the face of the earth. I was stunned and heartbroken.
Shortly after I started hormones in 1996, I went over to see Dave and his wife, Lisa, to meet his new son. They already had a beautiful daughter, Samantha who was about 3 at the time. I hadn’t seen Dave since I started transitioning. I need you to understand that Dave Radford and I had been TIGHT! We were on the road together. The first original songs that I ever wrote I brought to Dave to put guitar to. We were in three bands together and we spent a LOT of time together. He was my brother, which is why what he said to me on that day hurts me to this day. The hormones had started taking effect and I had small, but noticeable boobs. My hair was long and I was undergoing electrolysis. I was beginning to look different. After I held his son, Lisa took him to put him in for a nap. Samantha went with them to the other room. Dave then looked at me and said, “Listen. I just don’t feel comfortable having you around my children.” Remember that 2x4 that I felt had hit me in the head when I got fired from Country Cupboard? Well, it felt like they had given it to Dave and hit me on the other side of my head. I left and I’ve only seen Dave once since then. I ran into him and his son about 5 years later (after I had had my surgeries) at a Wal-Mart. I said a polite, “Hey stranger?!” and his response was “Hey. Looks like you’ve put on some weight, huh?” That’s it folks. That’s the last time I ever saw Dave.
As for Mike and Geoff, they made it very clear that they wanted nothing to do with me, so just before I left for Montreal, I mailed them good-bye letters. I told them how they could never take away my memories of all the great times we had had together, but that I would never try to contact them again and I kept my word. This is reality for most trans people. You’re going to lose people that you love and if you’re not willing to do that, you’ve got no business transitioning!
In 2005, it was time for my 25 year North Hall High School Class of 1980 Reunion. Ever since I had surgery in ‘98 and moved to Cleveland, GA in 2000, I really hadn’t seen many of my old (re: before transition) friends. I was, indeed, just living life. I’d go to work, come home, do things with Lesa...you know...what most people do. Going to this reunion would be the first time I had seen 99%+ of these folks and I really didn’t know what to expect, but I knew that I was going alone. Lesa didn’t like being around people she didn’t know and refused to go with me. As I was driving down from my home to the reunion (about a 30 minute drive), I almost turned around three times! I was SO nervous! I thought I looked fairly nice, but by this time, North Georgia had become incredibly conservative and even though I had had no issues living in Cleveland, I always was on-guard. Again, it’s just a reality of being trans.
I got to the old Georgia Mountains Center, parked, took a deep breath, and went in. I went right into the main room and the first person I saw was Terri Laughridge and her husband, Larry. I loved Terri! I first sang publicly with her in our high school talent show when we were juniors. We didn’t win, but the next year, we sang again and I also wrote my first original song along with Mike Dayton and performed that, as well. As far as I know, to this day I’m the only person to win both first (with Mike) and second (with Terri) place in the North Hall High School Talent Show. :-) Terri ran up and gave me a big hug followed by Larry with another big hug. I had been invited to their wedding before I transitioned and this was the first time I had seen them since. I was a great way to start off the evening and gave me some much needed confidence. Terri asked if I had signed in (which I hadn’t), so she directed me to the lobby. There I found kids of my classmates who were now juniors and seniors themselves. I signed in, got the little bag of commemorative paraphernalia, and got down to the end of the line where, instead of doing name badges, they had taken our senior yearbook pictures and made them into buttons. The young lady there was the daughter of my old friend, Bob Lackey. I don’t remember her name, but she was super sweet! I looked down and spotted my button. I said, “Oh dear. This will never do.” She asked me what the problem was as I held up the button to show her. She looked at the button...looked at me. Looked at the button...looked at me. Then she broke into a big smile and said, “Cool!” :-)
I ended up having a great time! As a trans person, you can sense when people don’t want to interact with you and I simply avoided those folks. I don’t have time for negativity. Besides, there were plenty of people who were very glad to see me! The most surprising thing to me was how many people told me that they had heard about my transition and that it really didn’t surprise. Apparently, I was giving off trans vibes even while doing my best to not do that in high school! Of course, I DID dress as a woman for senior dress-up day on Halloween, so that might have been a bit of a hint!
Two instances happened that stood out to me. The first happened in the women’s restroom. It was there that I bumped into Echo Baker. Echo and I had gone to school together since the 7th grade, but ran in different circles and were never really friends. Not that there was any animosity, we just never really spoke or hung out together. I said, “Why hello there, Echo.” as she was putting on lipstick in the mirror. She was a bit startled, but then we started talking. We probably spoke for 20 to 30 minutes...in the restroom. She had lots of questions, which I was happy to answer (By the way, if anyone reading this has anything they ever want to ask me, you can e-mail me at email@example.com. Nothing is off-limits!). At the end of our conversation (I still hadn’t gone to the toilet yet!), she asked if I was happy. I told her that I was and she said, “Then that’s all that matters and I’m happy for you.” It was so very nice because it was totally unexpected.
The other occurrence was when I was talking to Jerry Brady. We had played basketball together in junior high before he went on to become an amazing drum major and all-state band member. He was super talented as a drummer. I hope he’s still playing. Anyway, in the room they had a slideshow that was showing pics from our old yearbooks mixed in with pics that classmates had sent in of their families. As we were talking, Jerry’s wife came up. I’m sorry that I don’t remember her name, but he introduced me as Stefanie and we continued talking. He asked me if I was still playing music (which I was) and he brought up the talent show and singing with Terri. At that moment, a pic of me and Terri came up on the overhead screen. I said, “There’s me and Terri now.” Well, folks, his wife looked at the picture and looked at me. Looked at the picture and looked at me. Then looked at me with her mouth open. Jerry, who is about 6’2” or 6’3”, leaned over to be face to face with her and said in very deliberate words, “She used to be a guy.” ROFL!!!! It was hysterical!!!!!!
More to come soon!
Above: Jay Taylor and me in 1985.
Above: Jay Taylor and me in 2019.
In late 2008, I got a big surprise!! Jay Taylor somehow got my email address and contacted me. He said that he’d like to get together to visit. I suggested that we meet for dinner in Gainesville. I suggested Loco’s in Gainesville and we set a date and time. I hadn’t seen Jay in 12 years. I really didn’t know what to expect, but was excited at the prospect of seeing my old friend!
We met and hugged. Once we were seated, we started talking. I knew that Jay was still in touch with Mike and Geoff and, of course, I wanted to know how they were doing. Remember, I had not tried to contact them since mailing them the good-bye letters I sent in 1998 and I hadn’t seen them since 1996. Jay said that they seemed very interested when he told them that he had contacted me and was going to see me, which seemed like a good sign to me. At one point during our meal, we were reminiscing about our time on the road with Utah and Isaiah Kelp and Jay said, “You know. It’s weird. It’s kinda like I’m having dinner with Shu (my old nickname).” I responded, “Dude! I just had a sex change! They didn’t give me a fucking lobotomy!!! I have all of the same memories and feelings that I’ve always had!”
This is one of the fallacies that trans people face. For some reason, people think that we become these completely different people and nothing could be farther from the truth, in most cases. Again, there are always exceptions, but for me, it was simply about getting my body to match my brain. That’s it! I was predominately attracted to women before. I was still predominantly attracted to women. I played bass before. I played bass now. I loved Monty Python and George Carlin before. I loved Monty Python and George Carlin now. Of course, there WERE some differences. Before transition, I hadn’t cried in well over a decade. After starting estrogen and progesterone I couldn’t make it through an episode of “Little House on the Prairie” without tearing up. Damn you, Laura Ingalls! :-) Seriously, hormones really got me in touch with my feelings, which I LOVE, but aside from that, I’m pretty much the same person you knew before...just a LOT happier!
We finished up our dinner and promised to keep in touch. He also told me that he would be seeing Mike and Geoff soon and would fill them in. Secretly, I was hoping that we could have a reunion. I was tired of crying when listening to The Alan Parsons Project’s song “Old and Wise”. Jay kept his word and filled me in after he saw my old friends. They were stunned to find out that I was basically the same person they had loved for so many years. Let’s remember that, in 1995, Geoff had said that he wished that I would “fall off the face of the earth”, so this was definitely a step in the right direction.
A few months later, it was around Christmas, Jay (who was living about 25 minutes from me at the time) said that he was going to have a few people over and he invited me. I asked if Geoff and Mike were going to be there and he said that he wasn’t sure he was ready for that. Regardless, I was happy that he had invited me and that our friendship seemed to be back on track. I headed over to his house and was the first one there. Once I got in and settled, I asked him who else was coming over. He said, “I didn’t want to tell you, but it’s Geoff and Mike.” I freaked out a bit! I asked if they knew I was going to be there and he said that they didn’t. Now I was REALLY freaking out! I told him that as soon as they saw the White county license plate I was sure that they’d turn around and leave. Jay said that if they did that they were no friends of his. I had a stiff drink to calm my nerves and waited. I kept saying to Jay, “I can’t believe you’re doing this to me!!!” Finally, they arrived...at the same time. I stood as Jay greeted them at the door. Geoff came in first. He hugged Jay, looked at me, did a double-take, and then said, “Oh! Hey!” and hugged me. As we hugged, he whispered in my ear, “I was hoping you were going to be here.” Mike came in and had a bit of a surprised look on his face when he saw me, but also gave me a hug. Geoff and I sat on the couch together. He looked at me and said, “So...what’s new?” Seriously, it was as if 12 years had never passed. We just started talking. I should tell you that Geoff and I have very, very similar brains. We tend to know what the other is thinking during any particular event and can almost finish each other’s sentences. We used to kid around (long before my transition) that if one of us had been born female, we would have gotten married. I always wondered if that might have been part of the reason he had a problem with my transition. Anyway, the four of us had a great time talking, listening to music, drinking, smoking, and talking some more. Mike was a little distant, but he was pleasant enough. Geoff and I talked all night. At one point, the obligatory tears, apologies, and lamentations about losing 12 years came. He apologized for not trying to be more understanding of trying to understand my exuberance when I began my tranny boot camp and transition and I apologized for not being more understanding that the whole thing was simply overwhelming for him and he had a very hard time processing it. Anyway, all’s well that ends well, right? We all saw each other a few times. I had them over to my house. Of course, Lesa wasn’t there, but that made it even better. :-) The guys loved seeing Mom again and she loved seeing them. My friends and parents always had a great relationship.
So here I was in early 2009 with everything I could possibly want, right? I was out of my almost 9 year loveless relationship, my finances were quickly on the mend, I was reunited with my best, old friends, and I had a good job and a nice home. So...why was I so miserable? Honestly, I couldn’t figure it out. I kept telling myself that I must be nuts (pardon the expression), but I had a huge emptiness in me. I didn’t want to be in another relationship, so I knew that wasn’t it. I was still healing from my last relationship. I had all my friends back...except for Dave Radford. Jay told me that he had visited Dave and I came up in the conversation. Dave said, “I don’t understand it. I’ll never understand it...and I don’t want to understand it.” Well, there you go! The last I heard, Dave divorced his wife, Lisa, many years ago and was living somewhere in Colorado. I wish him well, but if there’s one friendship that I wish I could have mended, that would be it.
I guess it was in late April or early May that I came across the japa (chanting) beads that the amazing Dhira dasi had given me in 1987. Now, after I left the Brahmacari (single, celebate male) Ashrama at the Atlanta ISKCON temple in December of 1988, I stopped all of my devotional service. I didn’t chant or read vedic scriptures. I even tried to go back to eating meat after being a vegetarian for 9 months, but it became apparent that my body wanted nothing to do with meat, so I gave up after about a month of trying to force myself. To this day, 32 years later, I’m still a vegetarian. So, I took those beads and I did something that I hadn’t done in 21 years...I chanted the Hare Krsna Maha Mantra. If you’ve ever heard George Harrison’s classic “My Sweet Lord” you’ve heard the Maha Mantra. It’s comprised of three words said in a certain order: Hare Krsna, Hare Krsna, Krsna Krsna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare. Hare refers to the internal energy of Krsna (which is the primary name of God). This internal energy is manifested as Krsna’s eternal consort, Srimati Radharani. Krsna literally means the most beautiful and Rama refers to the strength of the Lord. Put all together, the Maha Mantra means, “Oh energy of the Lord. Oh most beautiful Lord. Oh strength of the Lord. Kindly engage me in your devotional service.” That’s what devotees try to meditate on when chanting each day. Well, I hadn’t chanted in 21 years! I figured I’d start with a couple of rounds. There are 108 beads on a set of japa beads. You chant one Maha Mantra and then move to the next bead. When you’ve said the Maha Mantra 108 times, that’s one round. Initiated devotees vow to chant at least 16 rounds per day, every day, but I’m getting ahead of myself.
So I would chant a couple of rounds and then, usually, smoke a cigarette. Yeah. I’m an idiot! Now, on the weekends, I’d be drinking (usually vodka), so I wouldn’t chant at all. See? Idiot! :-) Over the past 21 years, I had stopped by New Panihati Dham (the ISKCON temple in Atlanta) a handful of times. Once, I hadn’t been for 7 years, but Lesa wanted to go, so I agreed to take her. We went on a Sunday, when they had the “Love Feast”. I had taken many friends over the years and they had always enjoyed the experience. However, I had not gone since I had transitioned and had surgery. As I mentioned earlier, the first lesson you learn in Krishna Consciousness is that we’re not these material bodies. We’re spirit souls. We’re not supposed to identify with these material bodies and doing what I had done is pretty much the ultimate in identifying with the material body! I figured that my temple days were behind me, even though Matureshwari prabhu had told me that if I was transitioning to free my mind to focus on what’s important (Krishna), then it was the right thing to do. Well...I wasn’t focusing on Krsna. I was enjoying my new body and life. Anyway, this particular Sunday, Lesa and I went to the temple. After the kirtan (dancing and singing), we sat down to listen to the lecture. Balabhadra prabhu, who had been temple president when I was spending time at the temple in the late 80’s was going to give the lecture. Like I said, I hadn’t seen him in seven years. He saw me and mouthed (didn’t say out loud), “Steve?” I sheepishly nodded. Afterwards, as we got ready to enjoy the sumptuous feast, he came up to me and said, “You did it.” Startled, I replied, “You knew? How? I never said anything to you!” He said, “Dhira must have mentioned it to me.” I confessed, “Prabhu (which is a term of respect)...I didn’t think I would be welcome here anymore.” He asked me why and I told him because of that first lesson we're taught. I will never forget what happened next. Balabhadra prabhu put his hands on my shoulders, looked me squarely in the eyes and said, “This is your temple. You come here anytime you want.” That meant so much to me. Of course, I didn’t return for another couple of years, but I knew the door was open.
For many, many years I attended the Georgia Renaissance Festival and 2009 was no exception. I went on a Saturday on the first weekend in June. On the way home I thought, “Hey! Let’s stop at the temple and say Hi! to the deities.” As I turned onto S. Ponce de Leon I couldn’t believe the number of cars parked there! Then I saw the booths and big tent in front of the temple. Little did I know that this was the weekend of the Panihati Festival, the biggest festival of the year at the temple. As I got out of the car, I heard music. I immediately recognized it as being Murari Band. On my second visit to the temple in 1987, Dhira had given me a cassette of Murari Band. It was the first time I had ever heard Hare Krsna rock and roll and I LOVED it!! I couldn’t believe that I was going to get to hear them live after so many years! It was amazing! I was moved to tears when they played “Flock of Birds”, which has the line “We all fly together, but we make it on our own” in it. Yep. The tears they were a-flowin’! It was an amazing afternoon and I took that as a sign that maybe Krsna wasn’t averse to my visiting.
In July of 2009 I ordered a sari, choli, and petticoat online. When it arrived, I opened it and took out the sari. It was seven yards of cloth. I was like, “Uh….how are you supposed to make this look like a sari!?” I was so intimidated that I put it back in the box and didn’t look at it for one month! I really wanted to wear a sari at the temple, but I didn’t know if that might be considered offensive. At this point, I really didn’t know where ISKCON (The International Society for Krishna Consciousness) felt about trans people. I didn’t know any other trans people who were devotees. I remember asking Balabhadra if it would be offensive to wear a sari in front of the deities. His response? “That’s between you and the deities.” Yeah...big help, prabhu! :-)
So I did the only thing I could think of to do...found a YouTube video on how to wear a sari. Let me tell you, it’s not an easy feat! I practiced and practiced. Finally, the Sunday came that I decided to go...wearing the sari. By this time, I think I was chanting four rounds per day. Two on the way to work and two on the way home. I was still smoking and drinking, so no chanting on the weekends. However, I stayed sober this one weekend so I could go to temple. I did my best at getting the sari situated. I finally looked in the mirror and figured that it wasn’t going to get any better than it was. I had been away from the temple so long that there were only a few devotees that I even recognized. As I stood in front of the altars (there are three in Atlanta) waiting for the curtains to be opened, I was extremely nervous. When I was at the temple in the 80’s and “shaved up” and wore the traditional Indian clothing, I felt very uncomfortable. What was going to happen now?
Above: Sri Sri Radha Madan Mohan (Krsna and Radharani)
The pujari (priest) blew the conch shell three times and the curtains opened. We all bowed down to pay our obeisances (respect) before rising and starting the kirtan. I was right in front of Krsna and Radharani, the deities known as Radha Madan Mohan. As I stood staring that the unimaginable beauty that is Krsna and Radharani in my poorly thrown-on sari, I had the most amazing sensation of peace and happiness. I distinctly remember thinking, “This feels so right!” After the program, we all went outside to eat. We call that “taking prasadam”. Prasadam is spiritualized food….food that has been offered to Krsna before anyone else tastes it. While waiting in line, I realized that I was right behind Gandhari prabhu, who is Balabhadra’s wife. I hadn’t seen her since 1988. I meekly said, “Excuse me, Gandhari. Do you know who I am?” She said, “You certainly do look familiar.” I told her, “I used to be Bhakta Steve.” Her eyes got huge, her mouth fell open, and she gave me a big hug!!! Let me just take a moment to say that Gandhari is one of the sweetest souls you could ever hope to meet. She’s just wonderful!! Anyway, we spoke and I filled her in with the Reader’s Digest version of my transition and surgery. Then, she saw another devotee and called out, “Sachi Sundari!!! Do you know who this is?” Sachi Sundari was an older devotee from Nepal. She had been a devotee her entire life and was very serious about it. She looked at me in my haphazard sari (Gandhari actually said that I had done a great job for a first attempt!), pointed at me and said, “I know this face.” Gandhari told her, “That’s Stefanie who used to be Bhakta Steve.” Sachi Sundari stared at me for a few seconds before saying, “Well….how about that?” LOL!!! It’s funnier if you know Mother Sundari, I promise. :-)
All in all, it was a great day and I felt so very comfortable in my sari. Things were looking up!
Above: Me and Poonam in Alachua, FL during The Festival of the Holy Name.
After my very positive experience on that Sunday in August, I went to the temple a little more regularly, but I was still drinking a lot of alcohol, so there would be Sunday’s that I just wasn’t up to it (i.e. I had a hangover!). Balabhadra prabhu told me about the Srila Prabhupada Super Saturday program that was unique to the Atlanta temple and was held the first Saturday of each month. It would begin with harinam (the Hare Krsna version of “takin’ it to the streets) in Little Five Points, which is kind of like a miniature version of Greenwich Village in NYC. You never know who you might meet there! It was an eclectic group to be sure. We would bring harmonium, mrdanga drums, kartals, and spend a couple of hours singing the Holy Names. We’d also distribute books and try to engage with those that seemed interested by dancing with them and teaching them the Maha Mantra. I would come to love these Super Saturday harinams, but on this particular day, I only made it down for the temple program.
We would do Gaura Arati at 6:30pm followed by Guru Puja for Srila Prabhupada. This is a way of showing respect to the man who brought the Vedic philosophy to the west. It’s performed every morning in the temple at 7:15am, but it’s just not possible for many of us to be there for it as we either live too far away, work, or both! It’s nice to at least have this opportunity once a month. The Super Saturday attendance is always smaller than the Sunday feast attendance, which makes for a much more intimate, and sometimes, sweeter kirtan experience!
It was November 7th, 2009 and I was at my first Super Saturday program. I distinctly remember that we started the Gaura Arati and at some point during that, I looked over at the clock on the wall and thought to myself, “I’ll get out of here fairly early. I’ll have time to stop off and get a bottle of vodka on the way home.” The instant that I thought that I felt horrible!!! Here I was dancing in front of Krsna and Radharani and I’m thinking about getting drunk! I was crushed! If my life’s priorities were truly this far out of whack then I was really screwed up. In all the times that I had been in front of the deities I had never thought this, but now I was. My heart sank. After the arati and Guru puja, we watched a lecture by Srila Prabhupada. I could barely concentrate as I was so ashamed of myself. When the lecture was over, Balabhadra prabhu asked if anyone had any comments about what we had just seen. This young girl sitting about 10 feet in front of me raised her hand. She was handed the microphone. She said, “Well, it’s like Srila Prabhupada said…” and she quoted some Sanskrit that Prabhupada had quoted from the Vedic scriptures. She continued, “We’re always so concerned with trying to please Krsna, but we’re all very insignificant. I think that we should focus more on pleasing Srila Prabhudada. We are much closer to him than to Krsna and, if Srila Prabhupad is pleased by our actions, then surely Krsna will be, too.” My mouth fell open. Who was this girl? It was obvious that she was an advanced devotee and I was floored by her logic and maturity! Then Balabhadra prabhu looked at me and said, “Stefanie...You look as if you have something on your mind.” and he handed me the mic. My heart was in my throat and I was on the verge of tears still thinking about what I had thought earlier. I managed to stammer out something about how I lived 1.5 hours from the temple and had no devotee association and, if anyone would like to share their email address or Facebook info, I’d be grateful. After the discussion, we took prasadam (ate food that had first been offered to Krsna). I ate alone and spoke to no one. I just wanted to go home. I finished eating and made my way to the front door. Just as I was about to reach the door, that young girl literally jumped in front of me and said, “I’m on Facebook. What’s your name?” I gave her my name and she jotted it down in her phone. “I’ll send you a friend request.” I thanked her and made the long drive home. I felt just awful. I still couldn’t believe that I had thought about getting drunk while standing in front of the deities.
When I got home (after NOT getting that bottle of vodka) and went online I saw that there was a Facebook friend request from someone named Poonam. Sure enough, it was the young girl I had met. I messaged her and asked if she would be at the temple the next day. She said that she would be. I decided to go again the next day for the Sunday feast. I had to talk to this girl. There was something about her that drew me to her.
I told Mom about my experience and that I was going to go back down today (Sunday, Nov. 8, 2009). Mom had been to the temple several times back when I had first started going in ‘87 and ‘88 and she had always enjoyed it. She had been raised Catholic, but converted to Lutheran as a young adult. I was raised in the Lutheran church. The family rule was that you had to go to Sunday school and, when old enough, go to catechism classes so that you could become a member of the congregation and take communion. After that, it was up to you whether or not you continued to go. Mom felt that she had done her duty. :-) The Lutheran church is, by and large, pretty laid back. I know in our church, there was a group of men (including the pastor) who, after the Sunday service, would meet at one of their houses to watch the Atlanta Falcons football game, drink beer, and smoke cigars. To a young teenager, that seemed pretty damn cool!! Of course, by the time I was 16 and I couldn’t get any answers to the questions that I had (particularly about why I was trans), I lost interest in church, but figured that, if the pastor was drinking and smoking, it must be ok, right? It was at 16 that I started drinking and smoking pot, but I digress. Mom had no problem with me going to the temple. She was very open-minded when it came to spiritual beliefs and, even though she had no belief in reincarnation or karma, she enjoyed hearing the lectures and the food...if it wasn’t too spicy! The devotees were always super nice to her and she particularly loved Balabhadra prabhu.
So here I was at the temple two days in a row for the first time since 1988. I saw Poonam and we made contact. I watched her and the other young girls dance. I was definitely NOT a dancer, but seeing them made me want to try. Poonam showed me a couple of easy steps and there I was….dancing (poorly) in front of the deities and really having a blast! Of course, I apologized for what I had thought the night before and I was feeling better about things. I was wearing my one and only sari on this day. It was cold that day, so after the program, prasadam was being served in the temple. Poonam and I were making small talk. She commented that she liked my sari. I told her that this was only the third time I had ever worn a sari (once at SCC when Kathleen lent me one of hers for the Saturday Gala Dinner, that August day at the temple, and now). We got our prasadam...finally. Let me just take a moment to comment on Indian people and queues…..they don’t go together! The concept of a queue seems foreign to many, many Indian people. There’s always a lot of pushing and shoving and it always seems worse in the women’s line than in the men’s. I don’t know why.
So we took our prasadam and took a seat on the floor in the guest room. I asked Poonam about her school. She was in honor programs and college prep courses and did all sorts of extra curricular activities. I was suitably impressed. I then asked her how many rounds she chanted each day as I took a big bite of prasadam. “Oh...I chant 16 rounds each day.” was her response. I nearly choked on my food!!!! 16 rounds???? With all the schoolwork and other activities she was doing!!!??? I was chanting 4 rounds at the time. 4 rounds. I found Poonam fascinating. She was wise WAY her years (16) and so knowledgeable about Krsna Consciousness. I immediately knew that she would be a teacher for me. I also met her younger brother, Sujay, that day. I liked him immediately, too! I really didn’t want our conversation to end, but we all had to go home. Before we left, Poonam said to me, “Call me at 5:30am. We’ll read a verse in the Bhagavad Gita and discuss, but don’t tell my parents! They’ll kill me if they know I’m getting up that early after getting to sleep so late after doing all of my schoolwork.”
So, the next day, Poonam began teaching me and I immediately doubled my chanting to 8 rounds a day. I mean, if she can do 16, surely I can do 8, right? Now, please understand, here’s a 16 year old young woman who’s staying up late to get all of her homework done for all of her honors programs and here she was sacrificing 30 minutes of sleep in the morning just to help me. I felt so guilty, but she insisted that I call. So, that was my daily routine. Wake up and call Poonam, read a verse from Bhagavad Gita and discuss, and chant some rounds before going to work. Then...it happened.
Above: The first pic I ever took of Poonam and her brother, Sujay. November 8th, 2009.
I was so happy to have reunited with Geoff, Mike, and Jay and I really wanted them to meet Kathleen, so I arranged a get-together for Friday, Nov. 13th. Everyone showed up and it was so cool to finally bring my old life and new life together! We listened to music, drank, and talked into the wee hours until we finally crashed. Kathleen decided to stay the next day, and we watched movies...and I drank more. She finally left in the early evening. I finished out the day by drinking until I passed out. When I woke on Sunday morning, I could still feel the effects of the alcohol in my system. I got on Facebook and saw that Kathleen was on, so I messaged her. Remember 6 months into my real life test when Kathleen verbally ripped me a new asshole and got me through the rest of the test? She’s always been a straight shooter and still is to this day. It’s one of the things that I love about her. She’s never going to blow smoke up my butt. She’ll tell me exactly what she’s thinking. She’s also the only person that I call, “Girl”. She does the same to me. Her: “Hey, girl. What’s going on?” Me: “Nothing, girl. How about you?” On this Sunday, November 15th, 2009, Kathleen asked me how I was doing. I said that I was ok. She then said, “Girl. You’re a mess!” I knew what she meant. I had basically been drinking for 24 hours straight and this wasn’t unusual for me on the weekends. I paused, thought about what she (my best friend) had just said, and responded, “You know what? You’re right. Last night was the last time that I’m ever going to drink alcohol.” I can vividly imagine the look on her face when she read that!! :-) I had quite the reputation for drinking and for the “Schumacher Method of Drinking” that I had invented when I was 16 years old. Let me explain. I hated the taste of alcohol when I first tried it, but I enjoyed the buzz that you got. I started thinking, “How can I minimize the taste and maximize the effects?” So I came with this idea...or method of drinking. You could use any alcohol and any chaser. Remember, it was a method, not a drink. For many years, I used rum and Sprite. I created three strengths of drinks, Weak, Medium, and On Your Ass. I never actually measured how much booze I put in the different methods (as they were known), but since it was MY method, I was the only one who could pour “an official method”. As my tolerance of alcohol expanded, I needed stronger methods. I ended up with seven strengths: Weak, Medium, On Your Ass, Death, Ultra Death, Kilroy, and Hell. I also created the rules of drinking the method: 1. You should always start with the strongest drink you’re going to have and then work your way down. 2. If you were right-handed, the drink was held in your left hand and the chaser in your right hand. The opposite if you were left-handed. 3. The drinks were held proportionately higher than the chaser depending on the strength of the drink. 4. There was no time limit in drinking the method, but once you started drinking, you had to shoot it and finish it completely. 5. After drinking, chase it immediately to get the taste out of your mouth (remember, I wanted to minimize the taste). And, finally...6. Burp! Get that gas out of your stomach. I know. It seems like a lot of pageantry, but it became very popular in the late 70’s and 80’s. Seriously, it was not unusual for people who recognized my car to flag me down, ask me to mix them methods (with their booze), and pay me in joints. I later found out that “The Method” had been done in 7 countries around the world and I was once offered $250.00 by a bartender to write down the rules. I declined. There was another unofficial rule of The Method. The keyboard player in my first band, Utah, was Jewish. Before he took a drink, he would always say, “L'Chaim!”, which is Hebrew for “To life!”. Kind of ironic when you’re drinking something that kills brain cells and can destroy your liver, but anyway, one night I was doing a method and Ron said, “L’Chaim.” Geoff immediately followed by saying in the most redneck, Southern accent you can imagine, “I heard that!”. We all doubled over with laughter and a new tradition was born. Before I would drink a method, I would say “L’Chaim” and it was expected that someone would respond “I heard that!”. Please let me put a disclaimer here that I am in NO WAY suggesting that anyone try to drink methods. They’re extremely dangerous and I’m sure I suffered from alcohol poisoning on more than one occasion. I’m extremely grateful to Krsna that He kept me around long enough to meet Poonam! Speaking of Poonam…
So I told Kathleen that I was completely serious about not drinking alcohol anymore. She was, of course, skeptical and I can’t blame her. She asked, “What about the cigarettes?” I had just bought a new carton, but I told her that when that carton was finished, I was giving them up, too. Mind you, except for a 9 month period in 1988 when I was spending time at the temple, I had been smoking and drinking since I was 16. I was now 47. Although I was never a heavy smoker (less than a pack a day), still...that was a long time to smoke! Obviously, I didn’t make it down to the temple that day as I was severely hung over. I remember calling Poonam to explain why I wouldn’t be there. She was disappointed...not that I had been drinking, but that I wouldn’t be there. She had been looking forward to seeing me. I felt terrible letting this amazing young woman. I swore that it wouldn’t happen again. I recovered that Sunday and resumed my morning calls to Poonam on Monday. I also resumed chanting my 8 rounds a day. After a week or so, I increased to 10 rounds a day. I also went to the temple that following Sunday and told Poonam of my intention to give up drinking and smoking. I was honest about my fears that I wouldn’t be able to keep that promise. I will never, ever forget the look in her eyes and on her face as she said to me, “I believe in you.” How could I let this sweet soul down? Our bond grew stronger every time we saw each other. By now, she had introduced me to her family (her mom, dad, aunt, and uncle) and, like everyone else, they could not understand how we had become so close, so fast! After all, how many 47 year olds immediately become best friends with a 16 year old? Yet, there we were….immediate best friends. This brings us to the night of November 30th. Actually, it was the early morning of Dec. 1st. I woke up to go to the bathroom and, when I got back in bed, I decided to have a cigarette. Guess what? It was the last cigarette that I had. I held it and looked at it for a long time before lighting it. I decided to make a deal with Krsna. Yeah….right! Like I’M in any position to be making any deals with the Supreme Personality of Godhead!!! I said out loud, “Krsna. I’ve been smoking since I was 16 years old. I’ll make a deal with you. If I get any craving to smoke and you’ll help me overcome that, I’ll chant an extra round. Deal?” Seriously. I said, “Deal?” to Krsna! LOL! So, I smoked that last cigarette and went back to sleep. The next morning, for the first time since 1988 I chanted 16 rounds (the recommended number of rounds) and I’ve been doing it every day since then. I actually chant 17 rounds per day. The extra round is for my Guru Maharaja’s health, but I’ll get to that. I also have never had the urge to smoke or drink since. This is all because of a 16 year old young woman who believed in me. NEVER underestimate the impact that you can have on another person!! :-)
So much more to come….
Above: His Holiness Jayapataka Swami
My life had changed dramatically in a very short time! Plus, I had this new, best friend who had also become my teacher. Though I had serious doubts as to whether or not I’d be able keep this up (chanting 17 rounds a day, no alcohol), I took it one day at a time and found that I got into a daily routine. All week long I would look forward to going to temple on Sunday to see Poonam. By now, she had introduced me to her family and friends and I had a LOT of new folks who I really enjoyed hanging with...especially the youth. You see, I’ve never grown up and I don’t have kids, so I’ve always related more to young people than most adults. On top of that, when you’ve finished transitioning, it’s like starting over, so, at this time, I was only 11 in post-op trans years! :-)
Right after the holidays (2010 now), we got news that His Holiness Jayapataka Swami (JPS) would be visiting Atlanta for an extended stay. JPS is the guru that, in 1988, I told that I would one day like to be his disciple. Of course, shortly after that I left the temple and never looked back for 21 years. He had suffered a massive stroke in Oct. of 2008 that, according to all the doctors, should have killed him. It left him paralyzed on the left side of his body...including his mouth, which made it difficult to speak. It was touch and go with him for months, but he was finally released from hospital. To this day, he has to do hours and hours of physical therapy daily! Remarkably, he resumed all of his duties (managing ISKCON Mayapur, overseeing the building of the new temple there, preaching, giving classes via Facebook and Zoom, etc.) WAY before the doctors told him to and they finally admitted that he was actually healing faster when he was doing these things.
It turns out that JPS was going to be in Atlanta for his vyasa puja the first week of April. When Poonam told me that,said, “That’s great! What’s a vyasa puja?” :-) Turns out that means his birthday. I told Poonam about taking “aspiring disciple” in ‘88 and she told me that I needed to write a vyasa puja letter. You see, disciples and well-wishers will give offerings to the guru on his birthday. They write letters telling the guru how much he means to them and thanking him for all he’s done for them. Some prepare food offerings, some give monetary offerings (to help cover his travel expenses), but almost everyone writes an offering letter. I was in a quandary. If I was ever to become an initiated devotee, I wanted it to be with JPS, but why on earth would he accept me as a disciple with my track record? I turned to Dhira, who was the first person to ever explain Krishna Consciousness (KC) to me. She was also a long-time disciple of JPS. She told me to just tell him the truth and trust that he would be merciful. After all, JPS was known for being very, very merciful. I also asked Poonam and her advice was to write from my heart.
I began the task of trying to write in a letter why JPS should give an idiot who turned her back on him 21 years earlier a second chance to be his disciple. When I finally finished it after much re-reading and editing, I sent it to Poonam to get her opinion. She said, “It’s perfect. It’s truly from your heart.” When JPS’s vyasa puja ceremony was held, I went feeling extremely nervous. The room was packed with disciples and well-wishers and we waited for him to be wheeled into the room. I had not seen JPS up close since his stroke. He had lost a LOT of weight since I had last seen him and you see the paralysis on his face. He had to use a small metal device to gently pull the left side of his mouth up and he had to use special eyelid adhesive weights to help him blink his left eye. It was heartbreaking to see him in such a condition, but he never complained. He truly understands that we are not these bodies and he makes do.
He began speaking to all of us. Poonam was sitting behind me. As JPS spoke, he would have one of his aides repeat what he said as his words were a bit slurred and sometimes hard to understand. You see the enormous effort it was taking for him to speak as clearly as possible. At one point, he mentioned about disciples taking their vows and how important it was to follow them. You see, in the Vedic culture, it’s taught that when a guru accepts a disciple, he actually takes that person’s karma and is subject to additional karma of theirs should they break vows or not chant their rounds. He then said that he had too many disciples not follow their vows and, therefore, he had to take “the karmic hit” in the form of the stroke. My heart sunk! How could I possibly ask for a second chance when I had done SO MANY things in the past 21 years that had contributed to his current physical condition? I found out later that only initiated disciple’s actions affected the guru, but I did not know that at the time and I was absolutely convinced that I was as responsible as anyone for causing JPS to have that stroke and for all the suffering he had endured since. Tears welled up in my eyes knowing that I would never be able to have JPS as my guru. I thought of leaving and going home. JPS finished speaking and they prepared to have the disciples and well-wishers come to give their offerings. Some senior disciples read their letters to everyone. I barely heard a word. I just wanted to crawl under a rock. There was a tap on my shoulder. It was Poonam. When I turned to her, she saw that I was crying. She immediately asked me what was wrong. When I told her, something happened. She became the most annoying, nagging human being on the face of the earth!!! “No, Stef! You HAVE to give him your letter. He’ll understand. You’ve come this far! You can’t stop now! Please!! Please, give him your letter! You just HAVE to!” This went on for, what seemed like, hours! I finally had had enough and snapped at her, “If I give him the letter, will you please SHUT UP!!??” “Yes!”, she replied. So I stood up with her and got in line. She helped me wrap my dupatta (scarf) around my head as all women are supposed to have their heads covered in front of the guru.
Poonam went and stood with her aunt and mother while I waited in line. I don’t know how fast my heart was beating, but I’m certain that it was NOT at a healthy rate! As I got closer and closer, the urge to run became greater and greater, but then I would see Poonam looking at me and smiling and I just couldn’t let her down! It was finally my turn. I bowed down to pay obeisances (respect) to JPS and then, on my knees, handed him the letter. I was shaking so much that I let go before he had a hold of it and it fell to the floor. Embarrassed, I picked it up and re-handed it to him. One of his aides held a huge tray and JPS was taking all of the offerings and putting them on the tray. I don’t think I even looked at him after re-handing him my letter. I just went and stood with Poonam and her aunt. “Well, that’s all I can do.” is all I could say to them. At that moment, I looked at JPS. He was still receiving offerings, but he was holding a letter and reading it. He’d put it down to accept the next offering and then pick it back up. I stared hard at the letter he was holding. It looked oddly familiar. I looked at Poonam and asked, “Is that MY letter he’s reading?!” At that moment, he looked at me and motioned with his finger for me to come to him. Ok. If my heart was beating fast before it was NOTHING to what it was doing now!!!! I walked towards JPS and got on my knees (as is customary). People were still coming and giving offerings, so I had to wait for what I’m sure was an eternity! Finally, he looked at me again and motioned for me to come closer...and closer…and closer. I walked up to him on my knees until I was only a couple of feet away from him. He looked me right in the eye and said, “So...how’re you doing?” Do you remember Jackie Gleason on The Honeymooners going “Homina, homina, homina? https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wK9odsWwfIo That’s EXACTLY what was going on in my head! I couldn’t think! I couldn’t think! Finally, I stammered out basically what he had just read in the letter. It was all I could get out! He looked away in thought, then looked back at me and asked, “How many rounds are you chanting?” “16”, was my reply. “For how long?”, he wanted to know. “Since December 1st.”, I responded. He looked off deep in thought again and then looked back to me and said, “You can take shelter during the Panihati Festival.” (I’ll explain shortly.) I thanked him, paid my obeisances and went back to Poonam. Of course, she was dying to know what had just transpired. In a daze, I said, “I can take shelter at the Panihati Festival.” She started jumping up and down and gave me a big hug. “You see? I told you!!” I was still in shock and all I could think was, “Is this really happening?”
Let me take a moment to explain how one becomes an initiated disciple in the Hare Krishna movement. I know that some of you think that the Hare Krishnas are a cult that brainwashes people into mindless zombies. Nothing could be farther from the truth. It’s actually quite difficult to become initiated. First, as I mentioned earlier, once you find a guru that you think you want to take initiation from, you approach them and tell them that you are aspiring to be a disciple. If the guru agrees, then there’s a very small ceremony and that’s that. Hopefully, you don’t do like me and leave for 21 years before getting to the next stage: taking shelter. In order to take shelter, one must have been chanting at least 16 rounds and following the 4 regulative principles. Another small ceremony is done and once you take shelter, JPS told me that it was my responsibility to make sure that he was the guru that I wanted by listening to lectures and speaking with disciples of his. At the same time, his staff would contact the Atlanta temple to confirm that, to the best of their knowledge, I was following the regulative principles, chanting my rounds, and being an active member of the temple community. One must go at least another six months before they can ask for initiation. In order to be initiated, you are expected to have read the Bhagavad Gita and some of the Srimad Bhagavatam. You have to complete a test to prove that you have an understanding of the Vedic philosophy and you have to pass an oral interview with a senior disciple. It’s even gotten MORE strict in the past few years as they now require that you take a disciple course, which is very intense indeed. Initiation is not to be taken lightly and, as I’ve said many, many times, it’s not for everyone. Although there are millions of people who attend temple, chant rounds, follow principles, there are less than 200,000 initiated disciples in the Hare Krsna movement. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/International_Society_for_Krishna_Consciousness
And to think….my relationship with JPS started with me wearing a Cheap Trick concert T-shirt with a cocktail waitress serving alcohol on the back (see picture below). What an idiot I am!!!! :-)
Next time….Taking shelter!
Above: Me taking shelter from His Holiness Jayapataka Swami
The Panihati Festival in Atlanta is traditionally held the first weekend of June. That means that I only had a couple of months before I was told by Jayapataka Swami (JPS) that I could take shelter. My friendship with Poonam continued to grow. All week long, I would look forward to seeing her on Sundays at temple. She was wise way beyond her years! We spoke almost daily...sometimes more than once. It seemed as if she taught me something new every single day.
So, the festival arrived and I really didn’t know what was going on! I was at the temple very early on that Saturday. Poonam was there for the Mangala Arati (the first offering of the day held each day at 4:30am). Then, she went home with her family and was going to return in time to see the shelter and initiation ceremony. Well...things got weird! I was doing some service around the temple when I ran into a senior god-brother of mine (god-brother and god-sister refers to devotees who have the same guru). He asked me if I was taking initiation. I told him that JPS had told me that I could take shelter. He said, “No. You should take initiation.” I said that I wasn’t ready and he said, “Sure you are. I’ll take care of everything. Make sure you take the test and get clean clothing and a new sari.” Ok. Jackie Gleason’s “Homina, homina, homina.” came flooding back to me. The next thing I know, I was being handed a written test and was told to fill it out and return it. I began freaking out!!! I called Poonam and told her what was going on. Of course, she was extremely excited for me. I continued to freak out!
After I finished the test, I turned it in and then had to go to buy new underwear and a sari. I was also told that I had to fast all day. This is tradition. As I was driving to the nearest store to find undergarments, Poonam called. Something had come up with her family that was going to make them late for the initiation ceremony. She was in tears, but said, “Listen to me. I have to give you ‘the Maya talk’.” For those who don’t know, Maya is actually a great devotee of Krishna. Her duty is to keep all of us in the material world in illusion so that we completely identify with everything that is material and forget that we’re actually spirit souls and not these bodies. Poonam said, “You are about to declare war on Maya! As long as we don’t show any interest in spiritual things, she pretty much leaves us alone, but when someone takes initiation, they’re saying that they want to serve Krishna and she begins to take notice. She’s going to attack you. I don’t know when or how, but I promise you that she will. You have to be ready. Never let your guard down!” Please remember, this is coming from a 16 year old! Mind-blowing, huh? :-)
Poonam begged my forgiveness for her not being there. We both cried a LOT and told each other how much we loved one another. Ever since we had met, we had talked about how, no matter where or when, we would be at each other’s initiations and now that wasn’t going to happen. I got back to the temple and bought a new sari from one of the vendors at the festival. I got changed and then found the devotee who was organizing the shelter and initiation ceremonies. It was now just before everything was to begin and she asked me if I was taking shelter or initiation. I explained how I THOUGHT that I was going to be taking shelter, but how my senior god-brother has arranged for me to take initiation. She told me to wait where I was and she went off. I have to say that everything was just spinning! I really didn’t know what was happening. They told us all to go into the temple and be seated. There’s always a fire ceremony and everything had been prepared for that. As I sat there waiting, the ceremony began with one of JPS’s assistance speaking about the importance of shelter and initiation. As he spoke, the female devotee who had told me to wait came up behind me, knelt down, and said, “You’ll be taking shelter.” Well, ain’t that a fine kick in the pants!? For the entire day, my life had been turned upside down running around trying to get everything in order for initiation. I seriously had not had a chance to catch my breath in a good six hours and now it was as if JPS didn’t want me as a disciple. I felt completely defeated and felt tears welling up in my eyes. I made it through the shelter ceremony and Poonam arrived about midway through the initiation ceremony. When our eyes finally locked, I just mouthed, “Shelter.” to her. Afterwards, when we could speak, Poonam made me feel better as only she could. She said, “Maybe this was Krsna’s way of saying that he wants us to be at each other’s initiations.” How could I argue with that? :-)
Things don’t really change when you take shelter except that now you have committed to chanting 16 rounds per day and have said that you will follow the four regulative principles. Since I was already doing that, no big whoop. What WAS a big whoop was when I decided to tell Poonam that I was trans. This actually happened before JPS’s Vyasa Puja celebration. Back in the winter, after a Super Sunday program when we were standing in line to take prasadam (eat spiritualized food), Poonam and I were talking and she complimented me on the sari I was wearing. I thanked her and told her that I was still learning as this was only the third time I had ever worn a sari. She got a quizzical look on her face and said, “I thought you told me that you lived at the temple for a month.”, which would have meant that I would have been wearing saris quite a bit. I hemmed and hawed and told her that I would explain everything soon. Not long after that, I was invited to my first devotee home program. Poonam said that I should meet her and her family at the temple and that I could follow them to the program from there. Her family was sponsoring the program and the temple had prepared all of the prasadam. She was there with her brother, Sujay, and her father.. I helped them load all of the prasadam into her father’s car and got into my car preparing to follow them. Suddenly, there was a knock on the passenger side window. It was Poonam. “Can I ride with you? There’s no room left in my dad’s car with all of the prasadam.” She got in my car and I knew that Krsna had arranged for us to be alone so I could tell her the truth about me.
“Poonam. I have something to tell you and I really hope that it won’t change things between us.”, I said. She said that I could tell her anything. “Remember when I told you that I lived at the temple? Well, my name wasn’t Stefanie then.” I took a deep breath. “It was Bhakta Steve.” She looked at me for some time before saying, “You’re a guy?” I pleaded, “No!! No!! I’m transsexual! I had surgery 12 years ago in Montreal! Legally, and in every way, I’m a woman!” She turned and stared out of the front of the car for a little while. Finally, she said, “I’m really sorry that you had to go through everything that you did, but I only see you as a spirit soul.” Again, she was SIXTEEN!!!! I thanked her for being so understanding and told her that she could tell her parents, if she wanted to. She said that she didn’t think that would be a good idea...at least right now.
Life went on. I did my daily chanting and Poonam continued to teach me. That fall, on Thanksgiving weekend, the Alachua, FL temple was holding their second “Festival of the Holy Name”. It was a two day kirtan (Kirtan (Sanskrit: कीर्तन; IAST: Kīrtana) is a Sanskrit word that means "narrating, reciting, telling, describing" of an idea or story, specifically in Indian religions. It also refers to a genre of religious performance arts, connoting a musical form of narration or shared recitation, particularly of spiritual or religious ideas, native to the Indian subcontinent.) festival. I drove a car full of devotees to the festival and we shared a hotel room. There were five of us in that hotel room, but we had a blast! We’d get up at 3am so we could all take showers, get dressed, and get over to the temple for Mangala Arati, which begins at 4:30am. After the morning program ended, around 9am, we would take prasadam and the first kirtan would start at 10am. It would continue until 10pm. The kirtan leaders would either lead a 30 minute or 60 minute kirtan, then change. It was an amazing weekend with some of the best kirtan leaders in the world doing 12 hours on Friday and 12 hours on Saturday. I do love a good kirtan and this particular festival will always be special to me. Of course, I spent the majority dancing with the Atlanta temple youth, as per usual. It would definitely not be my last visit to Alachua (New Raman Reti temple)
My mom came to the temple with me sometimes and always enjoyed it. Of course, she was happy that I was no longer drinking and smoking, but she also genuinely enjoyed her temple visits. The devotees were very kind to her and she became very close with Balabhadra prabhu. She came to the devotee Christmas party with me. No. Technically, Hare Krsna devotees don’t celebrate Christmas, but Jesus is absolutely recognized as a pure devotee of Krsna (God), so some devotees do celebrate the occasion. :-)
For Christmas that year, Poonam gave me a copy of Radhanath Swami’s autobiography “The Journey Home”. It’s a fascinating read about one man’s spiritual quest. Poonam was hoping to have him as her guru someday. I loved the book! What a story!! I highly recommend it, but I digress. This is supposed to be about MY life, not Radhanath Swami’s! ;-) In the Spring of 2011, New Raman Reti in Alachua was installing Krsna/Balarama deities. This is a BIG deal and you wouldn’t believe how much is involved! They made a festival weekend out of it and a bunch of us from Atlanta made the trip down. Krishna Consciousness is also known as bhakti yoga, or devotional service to God. Ideally, everything we do should be done as an offering to Krsna (God). At these festivals, there’s always so many opportunities to serve the other devotees, which is very pleasing to Krsna. Whether it’s helping with food prep, washing pots and pans, picking up/taking out garbage, serving prasadam, or any number of other duties that spring up, it’s really nice to get involved and help out. It makes the festival experience even better!
Of course, there was non-stop kirtan going on! Sometimes, they just would spontaneously start, which was really cool! There were LOTS of gurus, senior devotees, and higher ISKCON higher-ups there. It’s tradition that, when you see a guru or sanyasi (someone in the renounced order of life), you bow down and pay obeisances.
We say, “vancha-kalpatarubhyash cha
kripa-sindhubhya eva cha
vaishnavebhyo namo namaha”
Which means, “I offer my respectful obeisances unto the Vaishnava devotees of the Lord. They are just like desire trees and can fulfill the desires of everyone, and they are full of compassion for the fallen conditioned souls.”
Well, there were so many gurus and sanyasis there that I got calluses on my knees! Seriously! I have them to this day. I called them “obeisance knees”. LOL! JPS was not at this festival as his health did not permit it, but so many other gurus were there including Radhanath Swami. Poonam was SO nervous!!! She really wanted to speak to him, but she was afraid. Radhanath Swami is a small man, but he has a SERIOUS aura around him. Unlike most gurus, who walk around with assistants/attendants, Radhanath Swami prefers to walk alone. At one point that weekend, I walked out of the temple building and heard kirtan coming from the pavilion behind the temple. I recognized the singer as another guru, Indradyumna Swami. I loved his kirtans! They were always so happy! As I made my way around the back of the pavilion, I could see that Radhanath Swami was there, too. I saw that he was getting up to leave. There was no way we were going to avoid each other. There was no one else around...just me and him. I just HAD to say something! “Excuse me, maharaja.” He stopped and looked at me. “I just wanted to let you know that I was given your book “The Journey Home” for Christmas and it was very inspiring! Thank you so much for telling your story. My name is Bhaktin Stefanie. I took shelter from your god-brother, Jayapataka Swami, last year and I hope to take initiation this June. I humbly ask for your blessings.” He smiled, slightly cocked his head, gave a very slight nod, and walked away.” This began a really strange pastime that Radhanath Swami and I continue to have to this day.
On five separate occasions, in five different places, I have spoken to Radhanath Swami. Alachua was the first. I saw him at the Festival of Inspiration in West Virginia in 2012. On the final morning of the festival (Sunday morning), I was sitting in a mostly empty temple doing my chanting. As so often happens, Radhanath Swami just appeared from the hallway that led to the pujari (priest) room. There was a female devotee sitting about 25 feet away from me. He recognized her, immediately went to her, and he bowed down to pay obeisances! I had never seen a guru do this, so she had to be someone very special and important to him. I remember sitting there thinking, “How cool! They obviously haven’t seen each other in awhile.” At that moment, a family of five came up to him...totally oblivious to the conversation they were having and started begging for him to take pictures with them. Being the humble person that he is, Radhanath Swami obliged and, finally, the family left. I sat there thinking to myself, “Man! This guy can’t catch a break! People are always hanging around him, asking him for this or that, and finally, he has a chance to catch up with someone whom he obviously cares about and he gets interrupted again! As much as I’d like to speak with him, unless he walks right past me, I’m leaving him alone.” At that exact moment, he looked at me, smiled, slightly cocked his head, and gave a slight nod. Since I had not said any of that out loud, yeah, it was a little freaky, but cool!
Next was in Mayapur, India during Kirtan Mela 2013. I saw him walking alone, bowed to pay obeisances, looked up, and he smiled, and gave me that slight nod. I KNOW he recognized me!!!! Then, a couple of years later, I was at the Sadhu Sanga Retreat in North Carolina. It was early morning before the kirtans began. As I was sitting there chanting, Radhanath Swami appeared to my right. He was speaking to a female devotee who was sitting right next to me. I could hear his voice. I figured that, finally, I would get a word from him. He finished speaking to the woman next to me and stood right in front of me. I said, “Hare Krsna, maharaja. It’s so nice to see you again.” You know what he did, right? Uh huh. He smiled, cocked his head slightly, and gave me a slight nod! NOT A WORD!!!
In 2017, I went to California for a reunion with Andy Qunta and Jane Wareing. I hadn’t seen them in 28 years and it was so great catching up with them, meeting Andy’s wonderful wife, Teresa, his child, Alex, and his friend, Tom. The Los Angeles temple is quite famous and, of course, I wanted to visit it. I actually went twice. The second time was the morning of my last day there. I was heading to the airport and decided to stop by to see the deities one more time. I walk into the temple and who is standing there talking to a few people? You guessed it...Radhanath Swami. I actually said out loud, “You have GOT to be kidding me!” He saw me, broke into a BIG smile, cocked his head slightly, and gave me a slight nod! To this day, he has never spoken to me! It’s almost comical at this point!
Next time: Initiation and my first trip to India!!!