Saturday, December 02, 2006
I Am Woman
By D. Cookie Fields as told to Michelle Burford
from Essence Magazine
November 2006 edition
As a man he joined the Marines, married the love of his life and had two children. All the while he struggled with the sense that he was meant to live his life as a woman. One day he decided to make a change.
As far back as I can remember, I had felt like a stranger in my own body. As an only child growing up among rambunctious boy cousins and friends in a working class Chicago suburb, I knew I wasn't quite 'right.' I think my mother suspected something, too. When I was 4 she found me coloring my fingernals with crayons.
"Little boys don't do that," she whispered as put away the Crayolas and scrubbed my nails clean. Later I would borrow her skirts, earrings and shoes to play dress up. I often told her I that I felt different, not like other boys. "What do you mean," my mother would say. "You fit with our family." I know she had no idea how it felt to me-a girl trapped in a boy's body. Back then my parents could not have conceived that I would one day board a plane to Thailand as their son, D, and return as their daughter Cookie.
By the time I reached adolescence, I regularly dressed up as a woman, though I knew enough then to hide it. If Mom discovered my stash of heels, dresses, bras and makeup hidden in the house, she admonish me by saying "You've got to stop this!" But neither she nor my father ever had a direct conversation with me about my cross-dressing. Maybe they thought it was a phase I'd outgrow. I never did.
LOVE AND MARRIAGE
I wasn't gay. I've never once been drawn to a man, nor have I ever had sex with a man. I am only attracted to women. At 17 I had intercourse for the first time. What I recall most was the feeling of intimacy-the kissing, the caressing, the closeness. The only part I didn't enjoy was the penetration. When I was still living in a man's body a girlfriend once told me, "Making love to you is like making love to a woman."
And yet I did everything possible I could to seem as manly as possible. After graduating from high school in 1977, I joined the Marines and moved to South Carolina. Within months, I had worked my way up to the head of uniform inspections. I still felt a compulsion to cross-dress sometimes, but I'd sneak off the base to do it. Then in 1980, when I was 20, the military relocated me to Los Angeles. There for the first time I met other cross-dressers like me. And I met transsexuals-those who'd had sex-change surgery. Though we all fell under the acronym LGBT(lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender), I discovered that even in this group I was atypical, in that most male cross-dressers are attracted to other men. Still for the first time in my life I felt understood. It was such a relief to know I wasn't alone.
In Los Angeles I also met the woman I would marry. I saw her sitting with her sisters at a military social and asked her to dance. She turned me down, but her sisters, both military wives, urged her to give me a chance. I must have seemed perfectly respectable with my short Marine Corps fade. We exchanged phone numbers, and soon I was seeing this woman with the unforgettable smile every weekend. Eventually moved in together on the military base. That's when she found my women's clothing.
"Whose are these?" she asked me. Nervously I told her the truth-that I liked to dress up as a woman. The obvious questions followed: "What do you get out of it?" "Are you gay?" I tried to reassure her that I simply felt most comfortable when I cross-dressed, and that I'd never had sex with a man or been unfaithful to our relationship. She was confused and disturbed by my desire, but our relationship was so good in every other way that she stayed, and in 1982 we got married. We had a son soon after, and two years later a daughter.
I would sneak off to Hollywood at least one weekend each month dressed as a woman. In the first few years of our marriage, my wife stumbled across more and more of my women's clothes, and with each discovery, the strife between us intensified. "Just don't bring your life into our house," she'd tell me. I began keeping my wigs, heels, purses, earrings, nail polish and lipstick in the garage. I understood why she and almost every other person in the world would never get it, but I felt so compelled to cross-dress that I couldn't give it up. The most I could do was promise my wife that I wasn't sleeping around. Even with my secret hovering over us, we enjoyed a fulfilling sex life. So we each did what we had learned how to do: live in the space of denial.
DON'T ASK, DON'T TELL
Then came the night that my 11-year old daughter saw me dressed up as a woman. I'd come home late to find the garage door locked, so I'd gone to another door. When I passed my daughter's bedroom, she woke just in time to glimpse her father in a skirt, wig and red lipstick. The next day she said, "You we're dressed as a woman last night." She didn't seem upset, but I insisted she was mistaken. I felt so guilty about lying to my child, but I was convinced she would find my behavior confusing. I told myself I was protecting her.
In the months that followed, I escaped to Hollywood with increasing frequency. Somehow I felt more myself with my transgender friends than I did anywhere else. One Sunday, sitting in church with my family, listening to the minister preach about living an authentic life, I felt as if my heart would shatter from the pain of living such a lie. I knew then that I would never be happy as a man. That was the day I began to think about becoming a woman.
Though I still loved my my wife deeply, our marriage, undermined for so many years by my secret excursions, finally collapsed under the weight of them. I'll never forget the night we told our children we were separating. "Does this have anything to do with that night I saw you dressed up?" my daughter, then 12, asked me. I confessed that it did. My son, who was 14, looked at me in stunned silence. I can only imagine how difficult it must have been for him to grasp that I didn't want to be a man. Even now, though we have a pleasant relationship, he won't discuss it.
I wish I knew how to explain it to him.
By the time we got divorced, I had started taking hormones (progesterone and estrogen pills) to grow breasts. The hormones also made my voice higher, and I underwent electrolysis to remove my facial hair. After four months, my C-cup breasts were definitely noticeable. Since I was still in the military, I wore a sports bra to flatten my chest and used a stall when forced to change clothes at the base. But the strain of hiding was getting to me, so after 15 years of active service, I joined the reserves and applied for a job as a police officer with the LAPD. During my required physical I had to take off my shirt for an EKG. The technician was shocked to see my full breasts! But after an awkward moment she never said a word.
I still don't know why she never told my supervisor. After that, I wore bulletproof vests on duty, so my secret remained safe.
MY NEW BODY
I decided to go ahead with a sex change in 2001. I told my wife ex-wife and my children first. At the time my son was 19 and living with his mother, and my daughter was 17 and living with me. Maybe because she'd seen me all those years ago, she supported my choice to have a sex change. My ex-wife and son were a little more distant, but they, too, promised to be there for me.
Next I wrote a letter to my parents explaining what I'm sure they had expected: I was living as a woman everywhere, except at work. After my marriage ended, all my relationships had been with lesbian or bisexual women. I was so exhausted with my double life. I wanted to align my exterior with who I'd always been inside. The news must have roked my parents to the core, but when I telephoned them later, my mother simply said "I always knew," while my father was characteristically silent. I didn't expect either of them to understand or accept my choice. I'm just grateful that they heard me.
I know there are many who would call my lifestyle a moral abomination. But at my church, Unity Fellowship, I've been taught that we're each here for a unique purpose. God could have created me as a woman, but for some reason didn't. That's why I'm so sure I was put on Earth to take this journey. It's not as if I heard God speak through parted clouds, but in my heart I just knew a sex change was the right path for me.
My surgery lasted five hours and cost $5,000. I chose to have it done in Bangkok, Thailand, because one of the pioneers of transgender surgery operates there, and his price is half of what I thought I would pay in the United States. My friend Stephanie came with me. Together we boarded a plane and landed halfway around the world so that I could become a woman. If this isn't the journey you want me to take, I whispered to God during the 26-hour flight, then please just let me die on the operating table.
The doctor explained the procedure. They would remove my testicles, scrotum and half my penis using a laser, then invert the remaining skin to create a vaginal cavity. I signed the waiver and checked into the hospital early the next day. Five hours later, I awakened on a gurney with a row of bandages across my pelvic area and no pain. I stayed in the hospital a week, marveling at the possibilities of my new life. The afternoon I was released, Stephanie and I went shopping. I know it's hard to believe, but the only soreness I experienced was when the doctor pulled off the bandages. What I saw in the mirror amazed me, a vagina so perfect it looked like I'd been born with it.
I've since retired from the LAPD and now work as a security guard. I date women exclusively, and I alwys tell them about my surgery. Sensation has returned to the tissue used to create my vagina, and sex with my new body is exponentially more satisfying. I feel blessed because I have the most any transsexual can hope for: a family that stands by me. When people see me in my uniform now, I let them refer to me as whatever gender they believe I am. Most suspect that I used to be a man, but how they see me doesn't really matter. What matters is that at last I am a woman at home in her body.
D. Cookie Fields lives in Los Angeles. She told her story to Michelle Burford, a writer who lives in New York