Saturday, May 17, 2008

Finding Themselves

Logging town welcomes transgender group

It would seem incongruous - a weeklong transgender gathering in a small,
isolated town. Sunday marks the end of the 20th annual Esprit Gala in Port
Angeles, Washington
along the Strait of Juan De Fuca on the northern tip
of the Olympic Peninsula. It is a truly breathtaking area.

The television story that profiled my change was titled "Finding Donna".
It is here - in Port Angeles in 2001 that I found Donna. For nearly five
days, I got to be Me. Prior to departing, my therapist had quietly
offered that for some of her clients, attending Esprit was a "life
changing" experience. It was for me indeed...and I notice in this article
it remains that for many to this day.

The host hotel is right along the waterfront. There is an esplanade along
the shore that runs well beyond the boundaries of the hotel itself. And
there is also a small pier extending into water. At the end of the pier
is a viewing tower - about four or five stair flights. The Sunday morning
prior to our final luncheon - and then departure - I scaled the stairway,
stood in the gazebo atop the tower, faced the gentle breeze and said "My
name is Donna!"

There is nothing more spiritually powerful than finally finding yourself.


By Marc Ramirez
Seattle Times staff reporter

[Photo: <>
Becky Benton, left, and Brittany visit before modeling in a fashion
show Friday at the 19th-annual Esprit transgender conference in Port

RAEANN HEWITT threw on a dress and drove 400 miles last weekend to
Washington's Olympic Peninsula with an ear-to-ear smile, starting a
journey toward the person she feels she was meant to be. Now, learning
to negotiate the art of the high heel with several others outside a
Red Lion Hotel, she knows her escape will soon be over.

That's because she is really a he, an internal conflict that
ultimately tore Hewitt's marriage apart. Five years ago, this truck
driver from small-town Idaho gave in to the urges that had chased him
for years and started wearing women's clothes.For Hewitt to wear her
black blouse, smoky brown skirt and sun-yellow wig back home would be
asking for trouble. But in the logging town of Port Angeles, where the
Esprit transgender conference this week celebrated its 19th year at
the Red Lion, Hewitt's cross-dressing is not only tolerated, it's

The conference "has changed my life," she says. "A 10-ton weight was
lifted off my shoulders. I've never felt this good."

For the 165 people at this year's event, life outside the box is what
brings them together. Targeted largely at men ranging from those who
feel more themselves in women's clothes to those who want a full
surgical transition, Esprit offers reassurance, bonding and guidance
in the form of ladies' nights out, wardrobe help and workshops on, for
example, how to better present as the women they feel themselves to

For Hewitt (not his real name), the event is a respite from a closeted
existence demanding to be lived. Like most, he won't reveal his given
name; many men haven't come out to their families, friends, co-workers
or clients, or they fear the stigma could jeopardize their careers.

"I know when I get back, my real life is just gonna suck," Hewitt says.

THE WEEKLONG ESPRIT conference, which wraps up Sunday, is organized by
Emerald City — Seattle's transgender social group since 1982 — along
with Portland's Northwest Gender Association and Cornbury of
Vancouver, B.C.

One of a handful of similar events around the country, it offers the
nights out and seminars, as well as "S.O." activities for those with
wives and significant others comfortable enough to tag along. There's
also a "Big Sister/Little Sister" program linking those secure in
their other skin with those just emerging from their cocoons;
"newbies" are given butterfly pins at their weekending graduation.

Port Angeles might seem an odd choice for cross-dressers to
congregate, but Seattle's Debra Darling and fellow event founders had
a method in mind. The site, with its quaintly shabby country comfort,
is an easy midpoint for the three Northwest transgender clubs and a
safe, out-of-the-way locale for those afraid to "go public" at home.

Aside from the rare incident — an egging one year, or teens shouting
names from passing cars — the town has warmed to Esprit. Local
businesses offer free lattes, cupcakes or 20 percent discounts, and
attendees mix it up with locals at transgender band Nasty Habits'
raucous annual gig at Castaways, one of the local club's most popular

"They're a hoot," says Brenda Brat of the Red Lion's Crabhouse
restaurant. "We have a blast with them, and they bring a lot of money
to this town."

Retired businesswoman Lou Lawrence, who hosts an annual dinner for
event committee members, estimates the economic infusion at about

Says a clerk at Gottschalk's, a popular shopping destination for
attendees: "They buy a lot here. Their credit cards are smokin'."

"And once you start talking to them," a Crabhouse server says, "you
find out that — Jiminy Christmas, they're airline pilots, bankers,
construction workers."

This year's event drew people from throughout the Northwest and as far
away as Toronto, upstate New York and New Zealand. Families or
co-workers might think they're away on business or a fishing trip. But
some newbies never get past the registration area, much less venture

"This is a huge mountain for me to climb," says first-timer Joan, a
gruff, 62-year-old businessman from Victoria, B.C., who paid for wig
repair with a $100 bill. "I've been dressing up since I was
preadolescent, but I never walked out the door until yesterday."

Seminars address everything from feminine speech and movement to
medical procedures and "Blue Monday," which preps attendees for the
letdown that often follows their return to reality. Local salons offer
on-site manicures, pedicures and makeovers; in a makeshift boutique,
attendees could buy dresses, shoes, purses and panty hose.

GENDER IDENTITY can be a tricky concept. How can a man want to dress
like a woman — yet be attracted to women? For a large number, that's
the case. And if you're a family member of a man who, at age 45, has
"come out," is that person still your dad? Or your husband? And what
does it say about you?

Gender, those in the community say, is who you are. Sexual orientation
is who you're attracted to. "To put it bluntly," says Leah, one of
Emerald City's estimated 115 members, "gender is between the ears, and
sexual orientation is between the legs."

As Michelle Murray, a retired truck driver with twin daughters and
hormone-enhanced cleavage, puts it: "I didn't want to just date the
cheerleader. I wanted to be the cheerleader."

Most are older, having embraced their urges in their 40s and 50s when
they tired of societal limits and became financially and sexually
secure enough to pursue a pricey second life. But many say they felt
their urges as far back as grade school.

Growing up in the '50s and '60s, many fought to suppress their urges,
isolated and depressed, coming of age when less was known about such
identity and there was no Internet to link them together.

"For years, we thought we were the only ones in the whole wide world,"
says Seattle's Kelly Hansen (not his real name), a professional

They raided mom's closet, making sure everything was put back just so.
Some got caught, scolded, sent to psychiatrists, and buried themselves
even deeper, overcompensating later by pursuing typically macho sports
or careers.

"I had a whole stash of my sister's clothes," says Suzanne Adams, a
former law-enforcement officer whose outfits accentuate her shapely
legs and whose grandkids call her "Grandma." "I had my own Brownie
uniform. ... It wasn't until my 40s that I thought: I'd better face
this. I don't have to be ashamed."

"Outside of sex, we feel like women," longtime member Karen Williams,
an elegantly styled electrical engineer married to a woman for 26
years, told a Seattle University classroom earlier this year as part
of Emerald City's periodic education and outreach sessions. "... So we
change the outside to fit how we feel inside."

For some, it's as simple as a black dress with matching black purse;
others, like Murray, are drawn to a path that may lead to
sex-reassignment surgery. Some say they'd transition if they weren't
married or so late in life; others aren't drawn to it at all.

They craft new identities, from signature wardrobes and business cards
to credit cards issued in their chosen "femme" name. Few fit the
stereotype of the flamboyant drag queen, choosing less flashy wear
that simply helps them feel feminine.

Pamper yourself with makeup and jewelry, and "it's the greatest
feeling," says Barbara Anne Love, a 64-year-old flight instructor.
"Then, it's like Cinderella — the pumpkin comes back. And I have seven
hours before my beard comes back."

But for a week, they can be the person they want to be.

In the conference boutique, engineer Stephanie Avion of Snohomish
flounced around in a wedding gown — jeweled and beaded, with a
bit of a train — when suddenly, the Air Force vet burst into tears.

Later, she says: "It was as if something that had been tucked away was
finally freed — and embraced. And it was OK."

Copyright (c) 2008 The Seattle Times Company

No comments: