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My first transvestite

The red-haired giant from Tennessee was showing me his gowns, trailing his fingers in a reverie along the satin and feathers that hung in his closet. “This is my favorite,” he gushed, pulling out the hem of a silky blue number. A photo of him wearing that dress and ten pounds of wig and makeup sat on his bedside table. His slow accent, his friendliness, and his interest in what I thought was quite touching.

It was Christmas break 1969, and I was visiting my boyfriend’s gay friend Richard in San Francisco. We’d hitchhiked for two days from our apartment in Isla Vista a few months after rioters had burned down the Bank of America. I remember wandering over to the bank several days later with my dad’s check to deposit, then looking up in shock when I realized that it was my bank that had burned down. Reality on the news doesn’t always immediately translate into your reality.

One of our hitch hiking rides in a van ended up spinning into a ditch, the group of us suddenly sprawled on the floor. A nearby farmer hooked up chains and winched the van out of the ditch. I don’t remember anybody yelling, “Damn hippies!” or anything like that. It was almost as if the farmer was expecting it. The van driver gave the guy some money, but I don’t remember that the rest of us were asked to contribute.

This friend Richard was a “royalist,” and had photos of kings and queens on his walls. He was also having sex with a lot of sailors. How ignorant and sad that all seems now. None of us talked about safe sex or appropriate behavior or good health practices. AIDS was something quite far off. When my boyfriend and I had arrived, Richard had handed us a stack of index cards with hand-written itineraries carefully planned for each day. We took the N Judah bus back to his apartment each night for five days.

Richard had taken us to the red-haired giant’s apartment which he shared with Bill, a gay man who’d recently come out. Bill had just grown a mustache and was telling us how much more he got noticed when he went to bars. They were having a small dinner party with gay and straight friends, and I remember how cut off from their families all these gay men were. It was near Christmas, and one man was telling us how he was preparing the gift of an antique table for his wife, sneaking down into the basement late every night to add another coat of varnish. The gay men appreciated the love and labor involved.

I was a new child of divorce, my mother having recently told me, “Your dad isn’t going to live with us anymore,” when he’d finally moved out with his girlfriend for good. The pain and confusion of that situation I couldn’t even articulate until many years later. I really needed the perspective of these damaged, worldly men in my life.

I helped prepare the salads for the party, and Bill and I stood in the kitchen talking about relationships. Though he was sure about coming out as a gay man, he was despondent over his breakup with his wife and the separation from his little boy. “I lied to myself for a long time,” he said. “Now I have to pay the price for coming out.” We discussed proper salad-making techniques and how we both liked to slice lettuce up with knives instead of tear it with our hands like Richard had asked us to do. Bill didn’t cross-dress, but he admired and accepted that the red-haired giant did. “He makes himself look so beautiful,” he said. I had felt so inadequate with these men, but, away from Richard’s bragging about his aristocratic knowledge and sailors, just the two of us talking in the kitchen relaxed my wariness. I wasn’t the only one with relationship problems.

That visit cracked my armor of denial that my life was falling apart. It really was falling apart. Hearing Bill talk about trade-offs and Richard talk about loneliness showed me how pain is everywhere, and that there’s room on this planet for everybody to share stories, friendship, and beautiful gowns over well-cut salads.

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