After 20 years talking about the arts on television, Peter Fay was a recognizable face to many Washingtonians. He’d been a regular on WETA’s Around Town, a weekly roundtable of critics reviewing music, theater, film, and the visual arts. He’d been the longtime head of the performing-arts library at the Kennedy Center and sung as a soloist with local choirs, and his voice could be heard on the radio on WAMU’s Metro Connection.
Today the voice is the same, but he is not.
Last fall, sitting at his computer in the house he’d shared with his second wife for the past ten years, Fay revealed his deepest secret in an e-mail to friends: He was transgendered and had decided after 63 years as a man to transition into another life in which he felt free to live, dress, and act as a woman. He didn’t say whether he would undergo sex-reassignment surgery, nor did he reveal a new name.
But he did try to explain a journey he had begun as a boy. “Bear with me a little,” he said, “since this is delicate in nature and has a good bit of history behind it.”
A Boy Out of Sync
Gender seems to be one of the most hard-wired aspects of human existence, and there was no anatomical doubt at birth about the sex of Peter Fay. He imagines the doctor at the hospital announcing, “It’s a boy.” It was June 17, 1944—11 days after D-Day foreshadowed the end of World War II—and his parents chose old biblical names for their son. The name on his birth certificate was Peter John Fay, with the sex marked as male.
The family lived in Port Washington, a town on the north shore of Long Island that was soon to be engulfed by postwar subdivisions. Peter’s father, Thomas, who had been born in Port Washington, came from a line of Irish who had emigrated during the potato famine of the 1840s. His mother, Signe, of Norwegian extraction, had been born in Brooklyn, then moved to Port Washington, where she and Thomas met.
The Fays brought up six children in a middle-class home that typified much of American life. The eldest boy, Tom, was born in 1943, then came Peter and his twin sister, Eileen, followed by two boys and a girl. They attended public schools—walking home for lunch—and every Sunday the family went to Mass at St. Peter of Alcantara, a short distance from home. They got around in a Chevrolet station wagon.
The Fays conformed to the zeitgeist of the 1950s. Signe, a striking blonde who had studied voice at Juilliard and started out as a concert singer, gave up her career to stay home with the children and offer voice lessons. Thomas, who had an engineering degree from Stevens Institute of Technology in New Jersey, worked for IBM, commuting to its Madison Avenue headquarters on the Long Island Rail Road. Conformity was the prevailing value of Peter’s boyhood, and he eventually came to see his father as a man like those described in the 1950s classics The Organization Man and The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit. His father, who wore the white shirt and dark tie of IBM, was so upset by variation that he once sent an employee home for coming to work in red socks.
Peter grew up knowing that boys were supposed to look and act a certain way. But he often worried that he was out of sync with rough-edged male norms. And he soon began to realize that many of his feelings were common among girls.
Peter cried readily—which boys weren’t supposed to do. Tears would start if he became angry or if danger loomed for Lassie or Bambi. His older brother served as a protector against teasing. As a teenager, Peter would take to his bed three or four times a year with migraine headaches, an affliction more common among girls than boys.
He wasn’t very good at baseball, suffering from poor eyesight that limited his ability to hit and catch the ball in Little League. He always made sure to cock his arm back to avoid throwing from the shoulder like a girl. Peter wasn’t very competitive—he was the kind of kid who was sent to right field late in games. He could hear the coaches and fathers yelling to talk it up out there, but he preferred to gaze at the sky and trees, thinking the idea was to enjoy the sunshine and have fun rather than to catch a fly ball.
Peter envied the looks, style, and possessions of girls. When his parents bought new bicycles for him and his twin sister, her girl’s model was the one he really wanted. In junior high, he was attracted to girls, partly in a sexual way but also because he loved their dresses and their hair tied with ribbons. He fantasized in a Walter Mitty way about how nice it would be to look like that, but he also knew that such thoughts ought to be banished from his mind.
When Peter was about three, he and Tom moved into a bedroom that their parents had decorated with wallpaper depicting cowboys throwing lassos. Peter wanted to like the Wild West masculinity, to be the son his parents wanted him to be. But what he really liked was the wallpaper in Eileen’s room—green with pink and white flowers.
Peter’s feelings seemed so strange—so different from those of other boys—that he couldn’t imagine anyone else in the world feeling as he did. He had no vocabulary for describing who he was or what he might become. He experimented with different ways of coping. He secretly tried on his mother’s clothes a couple of times but found no fulfillment, and one summer he had the barber give him a buzz cut in hopes this might exorcise his feminine thoughts.
Talking about his gender ambiguity to anyone was unthinkable. It wasn’t something to bring up with a priest in the confessional booth, partly because he didn’t think it qualified as sin. Therapy wasn’t something he or his parents knew much about, and there was no way he could sit down with his father or mother and explain that he felt like a girl inside and wanted to play with dolls.
For a Catholic boy schooled in the life of Jesus, one way of coping was to think of his gender confusion as his own cross to bear. It was something that was unalterable and that he’d have to live with. But his most important resolve was that it forever remain a secret.
Just how secret became apparent one Sunday when Peter was about 12. The Fays usually stopped by a store on the way home from Mass to pick up the New York Times and New York Daily News. His father had first crack at the papers, sitting in his chair in the living room reading some sections and putting aside those that didn’t interest him. Those included, in the News, the magazine section and the comics, which carried Blondie and Dick Tracy.
It was in the magazine that Peter found a most amazing article. It told of a man in England who felt he was a woman trapped inside a man’s body and who was intending to have a sex-change operation. Peter was thunderstruck—so there were other people like himself—but he quickly turned the page lest someone notice his reaction.