There really shouldn’t be boxes [for gender identity], but that’s how our society is. “You go in this box. You go in this box.” It’s not really a box. What it is, is a continuum of the infinity sign and it just keeps going. The more straight people that understand that—and I think that we’re going that direction, that the general public’s getting more educated—that it’s not all just choice, that it is biological, then I think we’re going to see more acceptance.
I have to kind of be careful. I don’t want my husband to misinterpret. But I can be very honest: I’d say I [now] see myself as bisexual. Of course, I’m male-to-female transsexual too. I just don’t want [my husband] to think that, since I’m bisexual, I’m going to go cheat on him! Let me put it this way: I’m bisexual choosing to live a heterosexual relationship.
I was in grade school and one guy says, “I’ll suck your dick if you suck mine.” I thought, “Okay, you first.” [He said,] “No, you first.” So I did, and he ran away. [Laughs.] I didn’t think of it as good, bad or indifferent. I didn’t like being betrayed. That was the thing that really upset me. I didn’t identify it with [the idea that] I was a gay person. It didn’t come across to me that way. I just didn’t like being betrayed. That was hard. That was the only time that I had that. After that I was just pretty much just chasing girls.[In high school,] I was oblivious. My parents raised me a heterosexual male, and that’s what I was. I didn’t understand anything else. That’s how I went through high school. I finished up high school here at Shadle [Park High School]. I graduated in ’72. I identified as a typical guy-chasing-girls. During high school I was a bit of a problem child at home. I had intense arguments with my mother. I remember telling her one day, “You know, something’s not right. I don’t know what it is. I can’t put my finger on it. I don’t know. I’m sorry I’m causing so much trouble. I’m really struggling.” I had no clue. [Later on,] I considered myself gay. I was involved in gay relationships, lived with another man for three years, and [was] just having a gay relationship. It was, oh, probably, after about two years into that relationship that I started realizing that, “There’s something wrong here.” You know, kind of like when you put a puzzle together and a piece looks like it goes there, but it doesn’t really quite go there? Parts of it did seem right. Playing to feminine role seemed right. Emotionally speaking that [relationship] seemed right, but the sex part didn’t seem right. That was misplaced for me.It was through a three-year friendship/relationship with him that I began to realize that it wasn’t gay that I was, because I was able to experience more and more of my cross-dressing at the time.
There was a period of time where I identified as a male cross-dresser. Having a male partner wasn’t quite right. So I was just a cross-dresser, had a girlfriend, lived with her, and everything else. I would just go out dancing. [I] liked the idea of cross-dressing, but did not see myself as female.
I don’t really know how [my cross-dressing] started. I know when it started, but I don’t know what would have triggered it. I was married at the time. My daughter was maybe 14 or 16 months. My wife was really wrapped up in being a mom, to the point where I didn’t even exist anymore. You know, like I had nothing to do with this [baby]? [Laughs.] Wouldn’t let me feed the child. Wouldn’t let me do nothing. I could just watch. That’s all I could do. I think that that particular stressor—of not having a relationship with my wife—may have caused cross-dressing to occur: I’m attaching myself to something feminine, since I’m not getting the “wife” part. That’s the only thing I can really understand. It was vague then, and is still vague to me now. With my [social work] education, I’m putting into my reasoning as [to] what could’ve caused that.
My desires to dress must have been latent up to that point. It just took off from there. Not like snowball effect, like down a hill where it then became a big, huge snowball [right away]. Maybe [at first] it was like underwear. Then it graduated to pantyhose. It took over the years in order to do that, because [at that time] I’m still struggling with the fact that I’m heterosexual, and what I’m doing is wrong. I’m still struggling with that. I haven’t come around to that way of thinking where I think it’s okay. I’m thinking it’s wrong, and I need therapy.
Back in college, when I was still living in the dorm, I had already a stash of nylons and some underwear. But because I had a male roommate, [cross-dressing] wasn’t something I was too keen on doing because . . . You know, guys are guys. Guys do guy things, and sometimes, when it’s time to get up, a guy isn’t going to go gently, “Wake up; wake up.” They just like yank the covers off! And it’s like, “Oh, my gosh. Look what you got on.” I was cautious of that. I was also respectful: I didn’t wear such items when I was in the company of my girlfriend at the time. It just pretty much stayed in storage. I don’t think they came out of storage until I moved into Spokane. Then that’s when the cross-dressing started to pick up more, because I had the freedom to do so. Even though I might’ve wanted to wear a bra, I didn’t, because I was going to school. I didn’t need some guy—or even a professor—to come up, put their hand on my back and feel it. So, I didn’t wear bras or anything.[Cross-dressing started with whatever] I can disguise under my clothing that you can’t see. You could see a brassiere line, unless you’ve a sweater like I’ve got on [now]. Then you can’t so much, you know. But I was wearing t-shirts and that kind of thing when I went to school. I’m not going to have that show. I was concerned with [being] ridiculed. I didn’t want to go there. I wanted my education more than I wanted to push the envelope. So [my cross-dressing] was at a minimum until I moved into Spokane and got an apartment. Then that’s when I really took off at that point. [I was living with] my girlfriend. I already shared with [her] that I was a cross-dresser, and she was okay with that. She just didn’t know that during the time that we were together, that I would just choose to want to be female all the time. That was just something that we were trying to work through in our relationship. We wound up splitting off. Then, when she was no longer living with me—which was after about two-and-a-half years—things again accelerated at that point.
I saw this “Oprah” show about female models, juxtaposed to male models dressed as females. They took this guy from the audience who was willing to go into the back and have their makeup crew set him up with wardrobe, put a wig on, and do all this kind of thing. When that person came out, [he] looked like a biological woman from birth! It was like, “Wow.” Well, I then wanted to do that to myself, because I wanted to see: could I do that? How would I look if I did that? I talked to this friend, who was able to loan me some of her clothes, because I didn’t have but a limited wardrobe. [My friend] did my hair, makeup, nails. My hair was long then, like it is now. So we just had to “do” my hair. I’d get all the makeup on and stuff. Then, I looked at myself in the mirror. When I saw what I saw, I knew I was never going to go back. That was it. “I’m going that direction.” I never went back to identifying as male. I wasn’t even a cross-dresser anymore, at that point. Everything just rang true when I saw myself that way. Everything that I struggled with, that I thought was abnormal, has now fallen into a category of normal! It was euphoric! Look how I see myself: up here in my head and in my heart. Never mind the anatomy. I had a sweater [on]. It was pink, white, and kind of a lavender color. That matched some pink stretch pants. I think I still have the sweater. Pink’s not my favorite color anymore, but it was then.
***[The way I would get women’s clothes is, in college,] I would go to a laundry room, and behind the dryer was things that get left, because you’re in such a hurry. [Initially,] that’s where I would pick-up underpants. I’d make sure that they were there for a while. I wasn’t going to steal somebody’s stuff unless it was there for a while! If it was there for a while, then obviously they didn’t miss it. Then it became mine. I had that philosophy. I just didn’t steal from somebody. Eventually, I would go to a store and I would buy what I need. For outer clothing, I would go to a thrift store and I would buy what I wanted. What started out underwear had progressed to nylons, then went to nightgowns. Then, after nightgowns, I started getting more outer clothing.
I remember belonging to the Hosiery Corporation of America. I would get my nylons that way, shipped to me. [I shopped at] thrift stores. When I became more comfortable, I’d just go shop at a regular store and buy my clothes. [I didn’t try things on] until just before my surgery, when I got really good at passing as a woman. But I knew what size I was. I knew if I was small, medium, or large. I knew, kind of, what was what. I would go ahead, take it home, and I would wear it. Now, if for some reason it didn’t fit, then I just gave it to somebody who it would fit. So that was okay.
When I was in [college], I was taking my abnormal psychology class. [I] started learning about cross-dressers and transsexuals, and it clicked. I go, “Oh. That’s where I am. I identify as a woman.” That explains why, then, if I were to have sex with a man it’s okay. It wasn’t actually until I had that abnormal psychology class [that] I began to identify that I wasn’t like some weird person: I actually fell into a category, or a box. I was able to come to a point where I was beginning to identify more as being female. The more I did that, the more I realized that I was female. It’d probably be the middle to late of 1995 that I began to identify [as female].
I was just on the cusp of graduating [from Eastern Washington University]. I wanted to finish my education in that [male] persona. Then I was going to start my real life test, where you live 24/7 in that [female] role. That’s necessary for a minimum of one year, you know, with the counselors and all that. I was so jealous at graduation because all the girls are in their beautiful gowns, and I was [thinking], “Oh, this sucks!” But I toughed it out and finished [college as male], because that’s what everyone knew me as. I just went ahead and finished up that way and then I transitioned that summer. [I got my Baccalaureate degree] before I transitioned.[When I first started to transition,] I had no intentions of having any surgery. It wasn’t important to me at that point in time. It’s kind of like when you’re telling a story: at the beginning of the book you don’t know what the ending is. My transition was like that: I’m just really taking it chapter by chapter.
Nobody I knew in Spokane had surgery. Spokane is not a town where that would be acceptable. I think every hospital we have in this town is operated by Dominican Sisters and that’s just not part of their program. Dr. Toby Meltzer was [in Portland], where I wanted to go. Every time I was $2000 short, he’d raise his price by $2000 dollars. I did go see Toby and I talked to him. Other trans women [and I] were concerned about the outcome of the surgery. We were searching for a doctor who can deliver “a quality product,” shall we say? The more money you pay, the better the quality. Well, that’s why Toby Meltzer was number one on the list. I did see his work, and it was so biological my mouth dropped. That’s what I wanted. But, like I said, he kept raising his price. It took me a long time to save up what I had for the surgery, [and] it was difficult in my transition to even find work. That made it doubly as hard. And no insurance coverage. This is something out-of-pocket, because it’s cosmetic surgery. It’s becoming not so much now, but [at the time] it was out-of-pocket. Because Meltzer kept putting his price up, I had to look somewhere else.
In 2000 I had all my surgery all at once. I didn’t break it out. I was a hurtin’ pup. [Laughs.] I had four different procedures performed all at the same time. There was about three different doctors in Thailand at the time. I went [there] because it was in my budget. Everything was done ahead of time. The money was wired ahead of time. I had lots of e-mails with the doctor. We had discussed prices ahead of time. It was through a hospital there. There was some convalescence there, where I needed somebody with me, so I paid the airfare for a friend to go. I had to time it, because it needed to be during her break. She was in school to become a nurse. I thought it was an appropriate choice. [Laughs.] Once we got there, there was somebody to meet us at the airport. I checked into an apartment that’s used for folks that are in recovery, pre- and post-[surgery]. There was a liaison, a little Thai guy named Eddie. He was cute. I wanted to marry him. [Laughs.] He spoke English and the Thai language, so he was able to be the interpreter for us, got us hooked up with the hospital, the doctor, and all the things that needed to be put together. That was relatively trouble free. All I had to do was basically go there and check in. I had to have some pocket money for some incidental things, you know, like the cab fare.
Once I was checked into the hospital, I went and saw the doctor, had my pre-op appointment, [and] had to work out a little discrepancy in the cost of surgery. [Laughs.] When it was the day for my surgery, I think I went to the hospital and checked in. I remember after the anesthesiologist, I went to the operating room, and it being very cold. The next thing I knew, I was waking up in my room. [Laughs.] The breast implant, I remember being a heck of a lot more painful than any other surgery that I had. I think that was because I had the implants put underneath the muscle rather than on top of [it]. There was probably some stretching going on. That really hurt. I had pain medications and things that I took. I was there three weeks.
When I took the flight back, I had this donut cushion pillow thingy I sat on, to relieve any stress from the pelvic floor. But it was still hard. I was squirmy. I’d get up and walk. Sitting on the toilet was hard. It was just all very hard. Very painful.
To me, it was corrective surgery. I say, “If you had a big old wart on the end of your nose that made you look ugly, would you leave it there your whole life? Or would you have it removed?” “I’d remove it.” That’s corrective surgery. And that’s what I did.
Most people take me on the way I am. I present as a woman, so I’m a woman. Deep voice, maybe, but that’s kind of just how it is. I’ve really had it really easy as transitioning in Spokane. There’s other people who’ve had it way harder than me. I’m grateful. I always say that my transgender life has been a Cinderella life, because it’s been really smooth. I took it step-by-step. I went through all the hoops I needed to go through. I did everything the way I was supposed to do it. It worked out just real fine. Some people are in a hurry, and they take shortcuts . . . I think the whole reason for the Harry Benjamin standards to be in place is so that when you do transition, and you do something that’s really irreversible, that you don’t, after the fact, say, “I made a mistake.” You know, it’s kind of hard to put things back. There’s some things cut off and discarded—like the testicles would be discarded and cut off. Breasts would be removed. You can’t put them back. Certainly once the penis is rearranged into a vagina, that can’t be put back to a penis again which is the same. [People who change their minds after surgery would] have the same difficulty that Females to Males have—the fact that you didn’t start out with that. It’s harder to construct. It might explain why there are so many more Male to Female, because it’s more doable.
Dawson is referring here to the Harry Benjamin standards of care for transgendered individuals, which required her to live as female for a year before going on to further treatment.
Sources: Interviews with Maureen Nickerson on 18 November 2006 and 9 December 2006, held at the Museum of Arts and Culture; Interview with Laura S. Hodgman on 16 February 2013.