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Becoming Colleen: Why Peter Fay Decided to Become a Woman
Comments () | Published June 1, 2008

She kept her cosmetics in a small Ziploc until a friend gave her a proper makeup bag, and she carries lots of stuff in her purse, getting frustrated when her keys always seem to be hiding in a deep corner. Her wig occasionally slips out of place in public, which she handles with a quick correction and a sense of humor.

It’s been six months since Fay first walked out on the street as Colleen, and she has come to think of her life as following the yin and yang of ancient Chinese philosophy. Opposing emotions coexist: moments of inner peace from no longer lying about her true self mixed with hurt at the disapproval of strangers and resignation about close relationships that have been altered.

There have been moments of despair. Shortly after coming out, feeling overwhelmed, Colleen went to a Catholic chapel in Brookland, knelt down, and prayed: “I have no idea what to do. I am up against the wall. I am on the ropes. I need help. I need to feel your arms around me.”

Colleen saw it as no coincidence that within a couple of days a spurt of e-mails arrived from family and friends filled with understanding, love, and support. One came from the brother with whom Peter had shared the bedroom with cowboy wallpaper: “Blood trumps everything. You are always welcome in my house. Your place in my family is without conditions. Love, Your Brother, Tom.”

Colleen strung the messages together in a computer file, and she rereads them for encouragement. That helps beat the blues, but so do unexpected moments of levity. Preparing for bed one night, she realized she was absent-mindedly humming the old Rodgers-and-Hammerstein song “I Enjoy Being a Girl.”

Other e-mails of support followed the announcement on WAMU. A few were from old acquaintances hearing the news for the first time, including a nurse at a headache clinic and a woman at the Virginia Opera. Others were from strangers who were transgendered, including a fiftysomething person in the Washington suburbs who told of living life as a man but signed with a female name. Most of the e-mails were from women, who seemed more comfortable with Colleen’s new life than men were.

But there’s also been some painful rejection. At a DC Catholic church where Peter Fay had been a paid choir member for several years, he agreed to sing dressed as a man through the Christmas holidays. But when Colleen insisted on singing dressed as a woman, the job was terminated—a baritone in a dress being too much for conservative parishioners to abide, church leaders decided.

Colleen also faces the difficulty of being able to “pass” as a woman in public. Nearly everywhere she goes, she’s vulnerable to The Look from strangers, which often seems to go beyond curiosity to ridicule.

“I am of a generation where parents told children it was impolite to stare,” she says, “but people are no longer teaching that to their children. It even applies to people in their forties and fifties. You walk into a room, and pairs of eyes follow you. You are standing on the Metro platform, and people stand gaping at you.”

Colleen has trouble controlling her emotions as she remembers these moments. “When you put on a dress, wear makeup, put on earrings, and go out and ask the world to accept you as a woman, you are greeted 50 times a day with a slap in the face. How much does this half gallon of milk cost? It’s $3.99—and a slap in the face. How much is the subway fare? It’s $1.75—and a slap in the face.”

Even so, she believes she has made the right decision and that her life, like a musical instrument, is now in much better tune: “The closest analogy in my mind is a divorce. Nobody wants a divorce, but people accept the horrible process in hope of a more positive future. That is the attitude I try to take. It’s hard to take those slaps in the face. It’s hard to go out the door some mornings. But I am hopeful I can build up the muscles to deal with them. Maybe I can’t change society very much, but I am going to face up to it and be the woman I was meant to be.”

This article is from the June 2008 issue of The Washingtonian. For more articles from the issue, click here.

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Posted at 12:00 AM/ET, 06/01/2008 RSS | Print | Permalink | Washingtonian.com Articles