Kim Speaking On:
You know, the police [in Tacoma once] stopped my sister and they says, “why is your brother the way he is?” And my sister says, “You mean my sister? She’s always been like that, growing up and everything. She’s always liked dolls.” This was back in the ‘50s!
I had another transgender teach me [dress and makeup]. Billie Joe was my mentor. She’s really sick now. Every time I go back to Tacoma I try to look her up just to see how she’s doing.
I helped [another transwoman, Benderella,] get dressed in drag the first time she ever did it. I lacked expertise. I was new to it myself. We both looked like clowns going down [to the bar]. I hid underneath the table. They took Benderella in the back and they fixed her up; they taught me how to do her make up.
I didn’t know a damn thing [about cross-dressing successfully]! But my heart was in the right place. When people would laugh at her . . . called her a “freak” . . . I said, “No. Benderella’s not a freak. You shouldn’t talk like that. You don’t know what’s happening.” A lot of people don’t know what’s happening. But that was just me back . . . You know, I’ve always been like that. I didn’t give a damn what people thought.
I was there when she used to cry [about her family’s distance, or about being called a freak]. I’d just pick her up and say, “Well, Benderella, come on. We don’t have time to think about that now. We’re here. We’re alive.” I didn’t know how to deal with it either. So I just said, “We’re here. We’re now. Let’s move on.”[The police] used to shake their heads. They were gentle. They’d look at Benderella and say, “[Sigh.] Benderella, go home! Get off the streets!” [She’d respond, in falsetto,] “Okay. Oh. Kinda kicky!” Yeah. They were protective. I mean, they knew she worked the streets, but . . . I don’t know if they really knew how to deal with her, because of her [diminished] mental capacity. [Benderella taught me about] acceptance. To accept people as they are, instead of who you want them to be. That’s a big lesson. That’s been an important lesson. A lot of parents could learn that. It’s a very powerful lesson. Just let people be who they are and not try to change them.
Today, I’d like to spend as much time as I can to help educate people about transgenders. I think that that’s important. I think one of the biggest things that transgenders deal with is ignorance. Ignorance causes a lot of destruction. You can’t take away what was done.
With everything that I’ve gone through, I can hopefully educate people and help pave the road for the new transgenders. Transgenders are becoming more visible at younger ages. They have a support group here for transgenders. I can’t go because of various things, but I do go when I can.
Now that I’ve made it to 61, it’s like, “Oh, my God, now what?” Well, damn it! I’m still here. I might as well make the most of it. I might as well go be a drug and alcohol counselor and just do that until I die. And see how many people that I can educate.
I’m not going to make them well, but I’m going to educate them. It’s just amazing. I met some gay and lesbians in the field. They’re afraid to tell anybody [about their sexuality]. I says, “But you lose your effectiveness, because nine times out of ten, the clients already know it.” People are not stupid. You can fool some of the people some time, but you can’t fool all the people all the time. I don’t care who you are. Or how flawless you are.
Once you start being honest with yourself and those around you . . . That’s when I started getting support from my peers. My little circle of support. They said, “You know, you’ll be good at that, because you’re not holding it back.”
We’re here. We’re here. I’m here, to give you a different set of tools. I want to teach you how to fish, so that you can feed yourself. That’s my goal. If I see maybe three or four of you going out fishing and surviving, I’m going to feel a sense of accomplishment. If you don’t, then we’ll keep working on it until we can find something that’ll work. But we won’t give up five minutes before the miracle.
Heck, that’s more of a chance than I gave myself when I was younger.
I’m doing a scrapbook at home, so my nieces and nephews—and whoever wants to read my journey—can read it. I’ve had pictures of me throughout the years, you know, telling them some of the challenges that I’ve had to encounter, and how I overcome them. I always reiterated in there, “I never had to do it alone. Your grandma was always there for me, but it took me a while to realize that she was there for me. I had to quit fighting with her long enough to realize that she was there for me. I had to grow up some.”
More information about the life and death of Benderella will be published as Laura S. Hodgman , “No Cinderella Story: Friends Remember Ben Scott “Benderella” Rae,” Oral History Review, forthcoming. The article, which relies on a wide variety of source material, sometimes departs from the story as it is told here, but it could not have been written at all without Kim Winchester’s collaboration and willingness to share her memories.
Sources: Interviews with Laura S. Hodgman on 22 February 2013 and August 28, 2013.