A changed man: Lisa Hartley looks back on life

Transgenders are nothing new. The ancient Greeks had a goddess, Venus Castina, whose sole purpose was to sympathize with those tortured, feminine souls cursed with the possession of male bodies.

Then there's the story of Tiresius of Thebes, who found two snakes copulating and killed the female. He was turned into a woman as punishment; upon discovering that having sex as a woman was 10 times as pleasurable, he was changed back to a man– as punishment.

It's even said that the roman emperor Nero pioneered gender reassignment surgery– known more commonly these days as the "sex change operation"– when he ordered his physicians to transform Sporus, a slave who resembled his slain ex-wife, into a woman, of sorts, whom Nero went on to marry.

And yet, millennia later, the idea of transsexuality is still often met with a cocked eyebrow; despite its prevalence and persistence, it remains, to many people in many cultures, taboo, somehow deviant.

After all, while thousands of transgenders receive encouragement from mental health professionals, the latest edition of that bible of the American Psychiatric Association, The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, continues to describe strong and persistent cross-gender identification as a "disorder."

Perhaps transgenders can take solace in the fact that homesexuality received the same sobriquet until 1974. But the tide may be turning.

In a landmark article published in Nature in 1995, a team of Dutch doctors revealed that gender identity really may arise during brain development in utero.

For now, even the most accepting individuals can find transgenders perplexing– how could biology have been so wrong? Why can't they be content with their own bodies?

Dr. Jeffrey Fracher is a Charlottesville-based clinical psychologist who's worked with about a dozen transgenders from Charlottesville and the Valley in the last five years.

"Basically, it has to do with a strong and persistent cross-gender identification– the desire to be the other sex," says Fracher.

This is more than just the occasional desire to slip into a dress. Transgenders are a rare, stigmatized, and deeply conflicted breed, to be sure. "There's a lot of ignorance out there," says Fracher. Transgenders, he says, deserve the utmost respect.

"The folks I work with are the bravest people I can imagine," says Fracher. "They have the courage and willingness to do something that anyone else would run from."

*****

Lisa Hartley was once a man named Bruce. When you meet her, it's hard to reconcile that fact with what you see. She dresses well and has the figure to pull it off; while she hasn't had facial alterations, her features are delicate and her breasts, thanks only to years of estrogen therapy, are significant. Her natural, shoulder-length hair is well styled and her manner is soft-spoken– in a phrase, nothing gives her away.

She's known that she should have been a woman for a long, long time. "The time that it really comes into play is in puberty," she recalls. "Your body's changing, but not the way you expect it to. It's about what's in your mind, not what's between your legs."

Hartley grew up in Mapleshade, New Jersey ("the town was exactly as it sounds– idyllic little place") and lived for a stretch in North Carolina before moving to Virginia, ironically enough, "for the love of a woman"; she's since become a devout Stauntonian.

"I love this town," she says. "It's small enough to get to know people and big enough to support diverse businesses. I've got a home here, and I helped my son find a home here– this is it."

Her family and friends have, for the most part, welcomed her change of gender. "When it came time for the surgery, my two sons were both very supportive."

Dawn Pryor, manager of Staunton's Bell Grae Inn, has known Hartley and employed her painting and carpet cleaning services for 10 years. Pryor wholeheartedly approves of Hartley's decision to have the surgery.

"I thought it was great," says Pryor. "I thought it was great because I'm a firm believer that people should follow their hearts. The only change I've seen, besides the obvious, is that she's a lot happier now."

While Hartley says that the community has been largely supportive of her decision, she's come to find that being a woman isn't always as easy as some guys might imagine. "It's a lot of work," she says, "both in terms of looking good and maintaining the surgery." Regular hygiene rituals are required to ensure that... er... certain cuts don't heal.

Hartley, who's been a full-fledged female since February, stays in regular contact with those who helped her through the transformation and hopes to assist future transgenders considering surgery.

"For me to get where I am, someone before me had to go the extra mile," she says, "and I want to help provide that support to people by opening my life up to my counselors and surgeons."

Hartley took below-the-belt photographs to document the entire process, and the results aren't for the faint of heart– particularly not the "day after" shot, graphic enough to send shudders through any frontal-urination-loving fella. But a week later, things look markedly better. By the third week, it's starting to look like the real thing, albeit eccentrically spread open (a second surgery, labioplasty, tidies things up to the point that only a gynecologist could spot a fake).

"It really speaks to the recuperative and regenerative powers of the human body," she says.

It also speaks to the magic of modern medicine. Everything works– it's all there. The only difference between Hartley and someone that was born a woman is reproductive capabilities– well, that and the fact that it took a good bit of surgical rearranging to get there.

*****

Hartley's road to womanhood was a taxing one, and her outing came from the unlikeliest of sources.

In September 2000, back in the days of being Bruce, he was arrested in Staunton's Montgomery Hall Park on charges of sodomy during a police sweep that netted eight others.

Hartley continues to protest her innocence.

"I was up there eating my lunch, minding my own business," she says. "When I was Bruce, I wasn't gay or bisexual. They exaggerated it all like I was wearing drag or something– I was wearing regular women's work clothes."

"When I was arrested, they said they had it all on video. They said, 'we've got a condom.' Because I had faith in the legal system, I took a blood test, and it's my belief that they used the blood to get my DNA."

Virginia still considers sodomy so heinous that it is a Class Six felony and can be punished with up to five years in the pen. Hartley says she spent approximately $10,000 defending herself from the charges, but ended up plea-bargaining for a three-year suspended sentence and probation. "It just wasn't worth going to jail," she says. "I had nothing left to prove."

Any lingering bitterness over the episode is all but undetectable. Her business, a popular valley carpet-cleaning venture, still thrives; and her friends and family have continued to support her, although he believes it contributed to the end of his most recent marriage.

She even believes that there's a silver lining to the dark cloud of her felonious court record.

"My case brought out a lot about prejudice against transgenders and gays in the community, and I think it did some good to shed light on it."

Moreover, it was the final straw that made her realize that she needed to put the past– the days of Bruce and manhood– behind her. She needed to become, in most every sense of the word, a woman.

"It pushed me over the edge," she recalls. "After the legal troubles and my separation from my wife, I thought, 'this is my time! I'm out! Here I am!'"

*****

Sara Anne Sherrard, who spent years living as a married man in Forest Lakes, is a newfound woman. After almost half a century of life as a male, she too elected to undergo gender reassignment surgery.

"Like most of us, I pretty well figured it out early on," says Sherrard. "When I was seven or eight, I asked for a dress, and my mom said, 'Whoa...' It was off to private school and psychiatry for me."

When Sherrard discovered her own sexual misalignment, open transgenders were even rarer than they are today. "There wasn't a very supportive community for a long time," she says.

"A lot of transgenders decide they might as well get on the bandwagon and go. Many of them overcompensate by doing something masculine. They join the Army or the Rangers or something."

Sherrard, who went to electronics school in part to avoid the Vietnam War, did her best to settle down to a normal domestic life.

"I got married in '78 and stayed married for 20 years. My wife knew I had this side to me, but there was a lot of tension about it– it was a good marriage in other ways."

Then one day Sherrard found himself going through a divorce. "It was the collapse of my world, really. My life was centered around her."

It took some time, but Sherrard finally decided that it was time to entirely accept her transsexuality and seek help. "It took me until February of 1999 to make contact with a psychiatrist who took me seriously," she says. "I began hormones and intensive therapy in 1999; I got divorced, bought a house, and used equity to finance the surgery."

As with many sexual incongruities, coming out is the hardest part.

"I had to tell my mother first. She said, 'You come over as my male son until I'm okay with it.' But it didn't take her long," she recalls.

Sherrard announced her intentions to become a woman to her friends by throwing a coming-out party at everyone's favorite gritty, good-times watering hole, Dürty Nelly's, and wrote her employer a letter, explaining her situation and the basics of transsexuality. She arranged to take two weeks of vacation and come back as Sara.

"You have to give people space on this," she says. "They're not as up on it as you are. They don't have a clue."

Since her operation, Sherrard hasn't looked back. "It makes you more of a whole person," she says. "You don't have to hide your particular avenue of life, your way of being."

Hartley's post-op perceptions are much the same. "I've got no regrets. You wake up in the hospital when the anesthesia wears off, and that's when you have the realization, 'Oh my goodness– this has really happened.' Guess what– dreams do come true!"

Sometimes making dreams come true requires a significant investment, and gender reassignment is no exception– the surgery typically costs between $12,000-$30,000 and requires seven days in the hospital, not to mention the mental process it takes to prepare. And don't think you can just head to UVA Medical Center. While UVA was at the forefront of gender reassignment for several years, the surgery was discontinued in 1990.

"Choose your surgeon carefully and wisely," warns Dr. Eugene Schrang, one of the nation's leading surgeons for male to female transformations. "You must live with the outcome of his craftsmanship and artistry for the rest of your life!"

Schrang, based in Neenah, Wisconsin, performed Hartley's operation at Theda Clark Medical Center. While outsiders might imagine a male-to-female operation as a nightmarish farewell to the ol' one gun salute, the only thing that actually gets removed are the testicles. Schrang and other such surgeons specialize in the creation of what's called a neo-vagina. The remaining nerves and tissues are all turned inward and rearranged– the longer the penis was, the deeper the neo-vagina can reach. Mucosal glands are preserved and reattached, so that the final product is both orgasmic and self-lubricating. (For more information on this one, send the kids outside, and point your web browser to www.drschrang.com).

Equally, if not more miraculous, is the fact that scientists have the ability to construct penises for the ladies, although they're significantly less in demand– at a ratio of ten to one, according to Dr. Jeffrey Fracher.

"Some of that has to do with how we handle gender stereotypes," he says. "Women can get away with more gender ambiguity than males can– they can exist in an androgynous no-man's land and be okay there."

For those that want one anyway, the female-to-male surgery is called "phalloplasty," and it involves using skin from the inner forearm (non-dominant side, thank you very much) and existing nerves and arteries to create a member with full urination capabilities. The labia are reused to create a brand new scrotum, and erectile implants, much like those for impotent men, can make a neo-penis intercourse-ready.

But don't think you can just pick up the phone and arrange one– there's an intensive screening process that can take years.

"The most important thing is to establish whether an individual is truly a transsexual," says Fracher. "They might be a transvestite, they might be confused, they might have had some trauma. There's a lot of exploration that happens."

After extensive evaluation, which often takes about a year, Fracher recommends that his patients try what's called "cross-living," which entails a public coming-out, a change in wardrobe, and possibly hormone therapy.

"That's the acid test," he says. "As you can imagine, coming out is a difficult thing to undertake, especially if you're established in the community."

*****

Transgenders and transvestites are very different things, a point that becomes clear with a visit to Club 216. The occasion is a benefit drag show and silent auction put on by the AIDS/HIV Services Group; Hartley has an extra ticket and thought it'd be a good thing for me to see.

She's a well-known regular here. She comes in on Fridays, has a few drinks, and shoots some pool ("I'm something of a shark," she confides).

The drag show itself is a spectacle of karaoke, costumes, and dancing; the queens and audience alike are eating up every second of it. I head backstage during the second half of the drag show and spend some time with the queens of the evening as they primp and preen in the dressing room. I talk to Ryan Colby, D.D. Damiano, and Sabrina B., who's unemployed but instructs me to say that she's in retail management.

I find myself distracted by their... um... padding. "Want to feel it?" Colby asks. I take a few pokes at her prosthetic posterior– it's a firm kind of foam, custom built into ladies panties. Her breasts are much the same, except wrapped in pantyhose and duct taped (duct taped!) to her chest.

"We make them all ourselves," she says. "Some girls use birdseed and rice to give them that extra jiggle, but I just stick with foam."

"I used to be big into drama," says Damiano. "All through my younger years, I was on stage. I just love entertaining people."

Colby, the reigning Miss Gay Virginia Commonwealth, concurs. "I definitely do it for the attention," she says. "You get treated like a beauty queen."

Herein lies the crucial difference between transvestites and transgenders.

"Transvestite's modus operandi is that they're sexually aroused by wearing women's clothing, or that it's part of a persona," says Dr. Fracher. "True transgenders aren't turned on when they cross-dress."

Hartley concurs whole-heartedly. "These girls are strictly interested in performance. I didn't want to impersonate a woman– I wanted to be a woman."

*****

While Sherrard and Hartley are both exceptionally upbeat about the experience of adapting to female life, not every transgender tale has the happiest ending. Post-op transgenders have lost jobs, lost friends and families, lost everything they had in the name of sexual realignment.

While most churches and civic groups embrace transgenders with open arms, individual hatred still abounds. On October 3, 2002, transgendered teen Eddie "Gwen" Araujo was murdered in Newark, New Jersey, and on December 22 of the same year, an African American transgender woman named Nizah Morris was found dead from head wounds in downtown Philadelphia.

While these are the extreme examples, intolerance has been known to emerge in both Charlottesville and Staunton.

"I can relate to what it feels like to be a minority here," says Dawn Pryor, the Belle Grae manager, who's African American. "It's hard being different in a small community. People still have a hard time accepting the reality of gays and lesbians, even blacks."

Most problems that transgenders find themselves faced with have more to do with personal relationships than anonymous hatred, however.

"There are people who have drifted out of my circle," says Sherrard. "They start out okay with things, but then they get to thinking about it and get weirded out. A lot of my friends have come along for the journey, but not everyone made it."

"When I was going through the beginning stages, people said it'd ruin me," says Hartley. "But I've found that people are open, accepting, and tolerant."

It's a rocky but ultimately rewarding path that Sherrard and Hartley have chosen, and there are thousands of transgenders across the country who've gone through much the same. It might just be the most drastic human re-invention imaginable, but transgenders remains a thriving, if miniscule sector of society's sexuality spectrum.

Hartley never wants to forget that she was a man once. "I was Bruce– Bruce the male," she says. "It worked then, and I don't want to throw away that part of my past."

But for now, she's looking forward to building a new set of experiences as a woman. "I'm relearning life," she says. "It's a new world out there.