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Denise and I met in a closet the size of my living room. We sat on a sofa, sipped coffee, munched on pizzelles, and chatted about our lives as women, both of us in male mode. The closet was my living room. The closet was her and it was me. Odd thing about closets, we carry them with us, and when they meet up with one another, they become bubbles…they join, forming a prison-sanctuary for two, for three, for ten, for a thousand, for everyone, for a while. And for this while, we are safe in our seclusion.
"They called me gay, queer, faggot, beat me up, pushed me around a lot."
This is a story of fear, one of sheer terror, but not one of impending violence. Denise's fear is one of recognition. Like the great majority of transvestites, she lives only for a few hours at a time, and she lives in constant fear that those she depends on for her well-being, and those closest to her will one day find her, and when they do…kill her.
Her story begins in a closet, that of her older sister at their parents' house in Meriden, Connecticut. Small and slight of frame, "Henry", as we'll call her while in male mode, (though I've been asked to withhold all real names), was encouraged by his mother to wear his sister's things.
• • •
"Denise is something probably held under the surface for years and years. My mom made it very clear to me that she wanted another girl when I was born, even though she said she loved me just the same. Wouldn't let me play football or anything rough. We were poor, and my brother was a lot bigger than me. I got my sister's things when she grew out ofthem…her underwear, her jeans. She said no one would notice that they were girls'."
At the age of fourteen, his mother had him wear a pair of his sister's purple hip-huggers to school.
"Everyone knew, and they beat the crap out of me."
Incidents like that occurred throughout his childhood and early adolescence, and brought out a curiosity in him. In his sister's closet, he would wear her clothes in secret…her skirts and dresses, her panties, being careful to always put them back exactly as he found them.
"I don't know…maybe I had feminine tendencies I just couldn't see. I mean, I never felt like I belonged anyway. I was always a loner. It was easier to be alone than to be with people who would give me a hard time."
Denise existed only as an idea at that time, and did so in this form for thirty years. Henry would occasionally indulge Denise. Mostly, he would hide Denise. Sometimes he would try to kill Denise off altogether, but she would always reappear in one way or another. Five years ago, twelve years into his seventeen year marriage and well into his career as an emergency services dispatcher, Denise rose again.
Henry's sister-in-law, Aileen, was over one day. She told Henry, "I'd like to see you dressed up as a woman." It was as simple as that. The idea was for Henry and Aileen's husband to dress in drag and the four go out together and see what happened. The plan never came off, but the resulting turbulence awakened Denise, flattered by this surprise recognition.
"Aileen is like my best friend. There's just no fazing her. She believes if it feels good and it's not hurting anyone, just go for it. She helps keep me grounded."
Denise has been a force and a presence in Henry's life ever since. He can go sometimes for months without wanting to become her, but each time she reappears, as powerful as before.
"Sometimes it's months, but it could be days. It all depends on God knows what. I could be sitting at work and all of a sudden…Denise is there. I have to work very hard to hide it."
In Henry's mind, he and Denise are two separate people, each with their own needs, each in their own worlds, they are worlds which Henry's wife, Amanda, does not want to see joined.
"She says, 'I'm dealing with it in my own way'…deciding not to decide. She definitely doesn't want Denise to be a part of our lives."
Amanda, the oldest daughter of an alcoholic career soldier and a domineering mother, knows what it's like to keep skeletons hidden from prying small town eyes. She wants to give the outward appearance of a typically happy American family, one with no idiosyncrasies or dysfunctions to draw attention to it, a family to emulate rather than to criticize. To secure this appearance, Amanda keeps silently vigilant, shouldering her burden of supposed shame, keeping Denise's appearances confined to their house, keeping news from the neighbors, keeping hope that it will all just go away. Henry is keeping appointments at the local medical center, where he is being treated for depression.
"When I first told her, all she could say was 'How could you?!' She didn't go on from there."
Henry is bisexual, with submissive feminine tendencies in a world he believes despises people like that. He told Amanda about his bisexuality a year before telling her about Denise. At the time, they had been married for over ten years and had one daughter, Ellen, now seventeen. The news of Denise set Amanda on her present course of constraint.
"Ellen does the laundry, and one day found some of Denise's things in my hamper. She asked me about it. I just told her that this is just something Daddy does to feel better. She's been OK with it ever since."
It was just last year, two years after coming out to Amanda, that with his sister-in-law's help, Henry finally found the opportunity to dress completely, with a wig and a complete outfit. He had brought some clothes, make-up and a wig over to Aileen's house and was finally able to see the woman he'd felt inside for so long. Both of them were amazed.
"You know how it is when you really hate somebody, and you're finally able to smack him across the face…that release you feel? That's what it was like. It felt very natural…very right."
In some way to compensate for Denise, Henry has built around himself a world of machismo. As an emergency services dispatcher, he lives in a constant state of emergency-level tension in a world where violence is always near, and where his colleagues are always ready for it. It is primarily a world of men, a world where gender is twofold, separate and unique, where femininity is a woman's domain, where this domain is to be kept out of the workplace, and where crossing the lines is forbidden and punished severely.
"They issued a new dress code at the station recently. One of the rules says that male personnel are not to wear cosmetics. No one ever has, but, I mean why write that down in the rules?"
Regardless, Henry often wears panties, panty hose and a bra under his regular clothes while at work. It allows Denise to be satisfied, but also feeds her desire to be seen. It gives Henry a sense of control.
"If you asked me to describe myself, I'd say I'm a person, not a man, not a woman, but a person. Sure there are times I wish I could just snap my fingers and be a full woman, and then snap them back and be a man, but unfortunately, I wasn't endowed with that little bit of magic."
Denise is shy, aloof, and very quiet. When Henry thinks of her, he does not see her doing anything other than sitting quietly at home, watching TV, or perhaps having coffee with Aileen at a local diner, smoking cigarettes and chatting for hours. It's a safe, tranquil place, the closet, and as we talk, as the level of coffee drops lower in our cups, I find its cool serenity drawing me more deeply into it for a while.
"Society will never accept it. I could lose my job, Amanda, my family, get beat up again, maybe killed. I would say that eighty percent of the guys who feel like I do are afraid to show any sign of their femininity in public. It's seen as weakness. Women are the weaker sex. Men are there to help them. You can't hurt them. People don't like it when a man acts like someone who needs their help."
Copyright © 2005 Jeanine Berry and Darrell Bain, Diana Hignutt, Thomas Farrell, Dallas Denny, and Mike Reynolds
Posted January 15, 2010
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