Gene Otto – Identity and Awareness

“Her breasts were built here on Christmas Eve.”

[When I moved to Spokane in 1974,] I probably didn’t admit I was that gay at the time. I actually had a girlfriend from college. I did find out [that I was gay] though, once I got here, because my secretary’s husband took me to a gay bar. The owner of the bar, Jack’s Nite Hawk, had sponsored our curling team. So, it was sort of like, “Oh, we’re going to the establishment that pays our way.” All of a sudden you go, “Hm. These people and I have more in common than I thought!” [Laughs.] Once you find other people like yourself, you can admit to yourself who you are. There are a lot of gay people in Montana, [where I was from]; it’s just you don’t really run across them daily. Well, you do now, but in those days you didn’t.

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[The owner of Sonya’s Majic Inn, in the late 1970s,] was always “Sonya,” because you really never saw him without makeup and dresses. Sonya wasn’t, “Let’s pretend I’m somebody I’m not,” in the drag world. Sonya was a real human being: kind of messed up at times, but still. Sonya was the transgender person. Always the dual spiritual: always the feminine side. You never really got to know the male side of [the persona]. Coming from Montana, you knew the Native American version of transgender, so you understood. It wasn’t a shocking thing. It was more like, “This is the first berdache I’ve ever known.” You knew about those things in Montana, because you were around Native Americans. When you kept her sober, she was in that good space. When she drank too much and took pills for whatever, you couldn’t tell who she was that day.

[Surgery for transgender people was] very expensive. You couldn’t always get it, especially at a Catholic hospitals! “We don’t do that,” you know. “You are whoever God made you. Just because you decided, doesn’t make God change His mind,” in their world, the [world of the] Catholic nuns. Sonya was probably a little more notorious to us [than other transgendered individuals], because she was here. We did know [people] from Portland and San Francisco [who had gender reassignment surgery]. We knew of [other] people, [but] Sonya was [Spokane’s] own. So it was kind of like, “Okay. Is this going to be a train wreck, or what?”

Her breasts were built here on Christmas Eve. It was one of those quiet little things. You know, everybody was gone [for the holiday] and nobody was paying attention. So [the plastic surgeon did it by] a slight of hand almost. It was not notorious until probably February, May, maybe April. Probably April, when she came out and was showing everybody her new breasts. She was so proud of them, because she had always wanted them. Then it was like, “Okay. What’s the next step?” You have to have psychological assessment and na, na, na. That was done, I believe, in Seattle. I don’t know which hospital that was. But I do know [she had her breast surgery at] Sacred Heart [Hospital], downtown, Christmas Eve.

[Most people] thought she was crazy, she was a train wreck ready to happen. That was partly [her] drinking too. They were really very judgmental: “How would you dare [do] this sexual reassignment thing? You don’t do that!” I suppose that’s middle-class values, or Christian values. They didn’t understand. “How would you dare cut your body into pieces? For what?” They didn’t understand the psychological part—that this person was really hurting inside to be who their assigned sex wasn’t matching with. No one knew enough to explain it to anybody. It wasn’t like Sonya’s out there running workshops. [Laughs.] “This is how it happens, and this is why it happens.” I mean, [my husband Ted and I] were aware because we read, but you never really went through it with people. You didn’t know anybody really. I was lucky. I knew her, or him. There were a number of cross-dressers, transgender-ish people, at the time. Most of them were not, [thinking]. “We have to reassign to be happy.” They were living with the problem. [They’d ask,] “How do you cope with it? How do I dress? Go to work? How do I keep a job?” Because once somebody found out, I mean, it was like, you were on the street.

[Sonya moved to Seattle, because it was a] more accepting world. There were probably more people like her [there]. Not necessarily a support group, but she wasn’t thought of as a freak of nature. She was a survivor. She went where she could survive, which was very positive. She did hold a job. Her driver’s license could say, “surgically reassigned,” or whatever they were labeling in those days. She went to survive. She had a boyfriend eventually. I don’t think that worked out real well. But [it was easier for her there]. Times over. You could tell by looking at her that she was happier, or at least more herself, complete. You don’t know if that was because of the assignment surgery, or she could be normal with a man . . .

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Sources: Interview with Susan Williams on 3 December 2006, held at the Northwest Museum of Arts and Culture; interview with Laura S. Hodgman on 27 November 2012.