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Fitting Into Their Own Skin

For some, the emotional freedom gained by gender transition has been worth the complications.

February 28, 2001|MARY McNAMARA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Lynda Bengtsson realized there were some drawbacks to a successful transition the day she had an automobile accident. She could see quite clearly what damage had been done to her car, but the CHP officer on the scene dismissed her opinions. "He treated me like a second-class citizen," she says, "like it was impossible that I would understand anything about cars."

Very frustrating for a former Marine who has rebuilt more than one engine. But it was just one of many revelations she had during her first year as a woman.

"I [had been] a white male, at the top of the totem pole," says Bengtsson, 34, who lives in Eagle Rock. "I had no social issues, no perception of prejudice, I could do what I want, walk down any street. As a woman, it's very different. There are ATMs I would never go to now. I do feel much more vulnerable."

She is, however, happier than she's ever been in her life, and blessed with the kind of support from colleagues, family and friends that she never dreamed of during the years she tried to pretend she could live her life as a man. "I keep waiting for someone to have the reaction I was so afraid of," she says. "And it really hasn't happened."

For many of the hundreds of transgender men and women in the Los Angeles area, recent social and medical changes have lightened the burden of living outside the mainstream. Bengtsson found support where she assumed she would meet rejection; Mike Hernandez, a lawyer who transitioned from female to male 10 years ago, has watched the emergence of a true community with increasing hope and serenity; and for Mona Rios and Boe Randal, parents of a 10-year old daughter, the discovery that they were not alone has profoundly changed their lives.

Throughout history, there have been men who lived as women and women who lived as men, but it wasn't until 1952 that the well-publicized "sex change operation" of Christine Jorgenson brought the concept of transsexualism into the American consciousness. For subsequent decades, transsexuals were considered shocking figures--at best, mentally conflicted; at worst, morally corrupt.

But in the last 10 years, as treatment of gender dysphoria has evolved, the once closeted and isolated population of transsexuals in this country has become more open and unified. In the wake of the gay and lesbian liberation movement, this newly dubbed "transgender" community has grown in number, diversity and social presence. Brought together by the Internet and emboldened by alliances with the gay and lesbian community and their own increasing numbers, transgender people are forcing society to reconsider, once again, its definition of gender, sex and civil rights.

"They're following a fairly standard arc," says USC adjunct professor Vern Bullough, a historian who has written many books on sexuality. "First, people come out, break the silence, then they overcome their own differences and unite, then they demand their rights and acceptance from the mainstream. The transgender community is now becoming united and very visible for the first time ever."

For historians and activists, the narrative of the transgender experience is a chronicle of social change; for Bengtsson, Hernandez, Rios and Randall, it is simply the way life occurred.

Since childhood, Bengtsson had known she was not really a boy. The only son in a family of four children, she had waited patiently for something to happen that would make her feel different from her sisters, and that something never came.

"It's impossible to explain," she says, "like trying to describe the color blue to a blind person. When my eyes were closed, I was this one person, and then I would open them, and there was this other person instead."

Although they had no words to explain it, Bengtsson's family also knew something was wrong. "When Dave hit puberty, something happened," says Holly LeMasters, Bengtsson's older sister. "He just seemed so unhappy; something was just off."

The family, she says, was completely shocked by Bengtsson's decision to join the Marines. "It was so not him," she says.

"I was running from myself, from my family," Bengtsson says. "I was looking for a place to get lost, to fit in."

On leave after boot camp, Bengtsson seemed even more distant than before. "It was like no one was there," LeMasters says. "And after that we hardly ever heard from him. For years."

Bengtsson spent almost 12 years trying to will herself into being male, drawing on the discipline and order of the armed forces to quell her true feelings. As she approached 30, however, she realized that this was not a permanent answer. Her research had transcended episodes of "Donahue," and she knew all about hormone treatments and sexual reassignment surgery. She also knew she wasn't going to be able to do either in the Marine Corps.

"It's really too bad," she says, "because in a lot of ways, the Marines would be the perfect place to transition. Because really you are not judged on how you look or sound, but on how you perform."

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