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.
The next day, he retrieved the magazine from the trash and took it to his bedroom. Peter kept the article about the man in England in the bottom of a dresser drawer for months. He read it again and again until it became tattered.
The article offered a mirror of self-recognition—“Oh, my God, that’s me”—and held out the promise that something could be done about his desire to be a girl. But in the mid-1950s, for a boy living on Long Island as a son of Catholic parents, that was too far a reach.
Making a Life in Music
Peter carried his secret with him to Washington in 1962 when he enrolled, with his twin sister, at Catholic University. He had an aptitude for music—sharing with his mother a talent for singing—and got a scholarship. He sang in choral groups, both on campus and in area churches, and took advantage of student discounts to see performances of classical music. At a concert by the National Symphony Orchestra in DAR Constitution Hall, he saw for the first time a large frieze painted by his mother’s father, who had been a scene painter in New York.
Though Peter dated women while at Catholic, as he had in high school, there were moments when he realized that others seemed suspicious of his sexuality. He sensed that his father feared he might be gay—perhaps horrified by the possibility all the way back to Little League days. During college, Peter noticed that his father always got up and turned off the radio when Frank Sinatra began singing, “Strangers in the night, exchanging glances . . .”—which his father must have been told was a code used by cruising homosexuals. During a summer job at Catholic, Peter’s boss may have come closer than anyone to his secret, one day passing along a copy of an Esquire story about a center at Johns Hopkins that dealt with transgendered people and suggesting it was something that might interest him. Peter read the story, returned it with the observation that it was fascinating, and left it at that.
Peter graduated from Catholic in 1966, spent another year there in graduate school, then decided to stay in Washington and make his living in music. He spent a year teaching music in a junior high in Hyattsville, then got a job at the Dale Music store in Silver Spring selling sheet music to high-school band and choral directors as well as instruction books to adults who wanted to teach themselves to play the piano.
In the fall of 1967, he was set up on a blind date with a young woman from Scotland who was working as a psychiatric nurse at Washington Hospital Center. Margaret was staying with friends at his apartment complex in Silver Spring, and they went to an Italian restaurant in downtown DC. They hit it off, continued dating, and a year later were married in Scotland. Within a little more than a year, they had their first baby.
Peter didn’t tell Margaret of his feminine feelings. They were married more than 25 years, and not once did he speak of his affection for that flowery wallpaper or of the magazine in the bottom of the dresser drawer. After his e-mail announcement last fall, they met for coffee. Margaret told him she had never suspected, that he must have been a terrific actor.
An Extra Dimension
Peter’s secrecy also derived from a sense that he had reached a workable accommodation with his dual nature. He would look and behave as a man as he engaged the world but would reserve a part of his interior life for expressing his femininity. He found doing so satisfying and energizing—a richly complex perspective that allowed him to play the male role as a husband and father while empathizing with women. Often he considered it his “secret treasure.”
It was as if he’d been granted an extra dimension, one that could be helpful in nurturing children. The first baby, born in 1969, was a girl, and he fathered three more children, all boys, over the next seven years. As the kids grew up, the family rented in Kensington and Bethesda before buying homes in Chevy Chase DC and Potomac. All four children graduated from public high school in Montgomery County. Peter enjoyed being a father—adoring the kids and cheering them on at games and performances.
Peter’s professional life took an important turn in 1970, shortly after his marriage. He got a job as a reference librarian in the music division of the Library of Congress, a perfect place to stay connected with his artistic interests and to work in one of the city’s great buildings, the domed Thomas Jefferson Building on Capitol Hill. He loved tracking down materials for scholars, and he jumped at the chance in 1978 to transfer to the Kennedy Center, where he became head of a new Library of Congress branch focused on the performing arts.
Music was one of the escape valves that allowed Peter to deal with his secret life. It opened up every realm of emotion—making men weep, people fall down in fear, others rise up in exultation—and he could explore it all. With a strong baritone voice, he earned extra money singing in church and synagogue choirs, often as a soloist, and appeared with the Washington Bach Consort and Washington Opera. He also served as a choir conductor and composed dozens of pieces of religious choral music. He sat on the boards of arts organizations, and he lectured and wrote essays on subjects as diverse as Mozart operas, Gregorian chant, and jazz.
Peter got a shot at mini-celebrity in 1986 when he won an audition to appear on an arts talkfest called Around Town being introduced by WETA television. He was the music expert in a five-person roundtable where the repartee showed off his wit and intellect. The other seats were filled over the years by such arts figures as Peggy Cooper Cafritz, Robert Aubry Davis, Bill Dunlap, Joe Barber, Bob Mondello, and Jane Horwitz. He did this weekly for two decades until shortly after the show’s 30-minute format was discontinued in 2004.
Beyond music, Fay found another anchor in the Catholic faith. During his years at Catholic University, he’d thought of becoming a priest, but several days in a Benedictine monastery convinced him it was not the life for him. A big reason: There were no women to talk with.
Even if his wife and children and friends knew nothing of his interior life as a woman, there were no secrets between him and God. Perhaps God had chosen him to have “this thing,” so he had faith that God listened to him with unconditional love, even when God didn’t always make the road ahead clear.
One Bright Spot
Not even God could save Peter’s marriage, which began deteriorating after a number of years for reasons that he believes went beyond his secret gender ambiguity. He and Margaret went to marriage counseling but separated in 1986. Peter got a small apartment for a couple of years, then moved back in with his wife to give it another try in 1988. In 1993 they split for good, and the divorce became final in 1996. She later remarried.
Given the duality of his own nature, Peter took an acute interest in differences between women and men. He believed that men tended to be competitive—they never got over Little League—while women were more collaborative. Men often seemed reticent in talking about private matters while women often talked with each other in an intimate way. He always gravitated to smart, outspoken women who liked to talk.
One of his long-running conversations was with Beth, a woman he’d met after joining the choir of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, the Catholic cathedral in Northeast DC. After rehearsals, they’d sometimes talk for an hour or more sitting in a car in the parking lot, and they’d sit together on the choir’s out-of-town bus trips, including one eight-hour round trip to Pittsburgh. Almost ten years younger than Peter and Jewish, Beth had been educated at Oberlin and Johns Hopkins, wrote poetry, had been an actor, and served in synagogues as a cantorial soloist. Peter was back with his wife when they met, and his choirmate was married—so the relationship, he says, was limited to friendship.
Over a couple of years beginning in 1992, as Peter was approaching 50, he was shaken by a series of upsetting events. He was rushed to the hospital with chest pains, though he recovered without heart surgery. The migraines he’d experienced as a teenager returned, sending him to a headache clinic. The reconciliation with Margaret failed, and he moved out with the realization that his marriage was finished. The Library of Congress closed the arts branch at the Kennedy Center, leading him to take early retirement. And his 79-year-old mother, in ill health and a widow since his father’s death in 1980, gave a voice lesson one Friday at the house in Port Washington, went to St. Peter’s for Mass on Sunday, then came home and died.
Amid all this, there was one bright spot. What had started out as friendship with Beth continued, and the fact that her marriage also was headed toward a breakup offered the possibility of a romantic relationship.
In the spring of 1993, Peter and Beth traveled with the choir to sing at the Vatican, and both of them took up the offer of a side trip to Florence. There Peter sat down one night at the hotel and told her his secret,
He knew Beth to be an open-minded person, but among her questions was the obvious one: Was he planning to live as a woman and have a sex-change operation? No, he assured her, he was content to continue being a man on the outside and a woman on the inside—everything was in equilibrium.
Beth wanted to be certain before proceeding with a romantic relationship—otherwise marriage would be impossible. She asked the question again and again over several years. Each time Peter told her that his gender ambiguity was resolved. Today those old assurances make her angry and resentful that she was misled, though she also allows that Peter himself undoubtedly believed he was telling her the truth.
So they got married at the Comus Inn in the spring of 1997. They wrote their own vows and had their wedding rings made by an artist.
They lived in a house in Brookland, not far from Catholic University, and at age 52 Peter became stepfather to her four children, ages 6 to 12. Peter’s life was entering a new phase with the old accommodation about his gender apparently intact.
Having left the Library of Congress, where he’d usually worn a coat and tie and short hair, Peter adopted a more androgynous style. He wore his hair longer, allowing it to hang down in graying curls on the back and sides in contrast with the top of his head, which was bald. He got his ears pierced—about the time his youngest son had his done—but he pushed the edge with dangling silver loops that went beyond the masculine norm.
He also began carrying a black leather shoulder bag and buying more colorful shirts, which he wore under a long silk Japanese jacket called an haori. It wasn’t like slipping on a dress, but the outfit did attract attention both on the air at WETA and when he was out doing reviews at the Kennedy Center or Arena Stage. Peter drew lots of stares. Occasionally at intermission, standing in line at the men’s room, someone would whisper that he wished he had the courage to wear something like that. But many of the looks suggested that most people thought he was out of his mind.
Peter didn’t much care: “The older I got, the less important this reaction became. If they had a problem with the way I dressed, it was their problem, not mine.”
Finding a Sisterhood
Years at the Library of Congress as a reference librarian had made Fay a skilled researcher. With access to millions of books and documents, he had at his fingertips much of what had been published on transgenderism, and over the years he had furtively looked up a few things about the subject. He didn’t find too much of interest, though he did discover the autobiography of Christine Jorgensen, a former American GI whose sex-change operation in Denmark had created a sensation in the early 1950s.
With the arrival of the Internet, there was a flood of transgender Web sites available in the privacy of Peter’s home. It meant sifting through lots of sensationalism, erotica, and poorly written memoirs to find serious medical and psychological studies. He was looking for insights from transgendered people who shared his experience, but there wasn’t as much available as he’d hoped.
One of the most useful overviews of the subject that he discovered was The Riddle of Gender by Baltimore science writer Deborah Rudacille.
She made clear that transgendered people have existed in most cultures for a long time—in ancient Greece and Rome, among Native Americans, in India, Africa, Siberia, and Eastern Europe. Gods were often androgynous or able to transform their sex at will; transgendered people were sometimes thought to have psychic power and assumed ceremonial roles. All of this was long before medicine offered sex-change surgery, which meant that the transgendered had to be content with cross-dressing.
Rudacille tells of a French solider and diplomat in the 18th century who lived 49 years as a man and 34 as a woman and whose ambiguous gender was the subject of speculation on the London Stock Exchange. A deathbed examination in 1810 confirmed that the diplomat possessed the sex organs of a man.
The earliest scientific work on the transgendered was done in Germany and paralleled advances in psychiatry, endocrinology, plastic surgery, and other medical fields. German physician Magnus Hirschfeld published a book in 1910 that examined cross-dressers, or transvestites, revealing that most were heterosexuals and not homosexuals, as was widely assumed. By 1920, Hirschfeld was referring transgendered patients for “sex reassignment” surgery. But his Institute for Sexual Science was attacked by the Nazis in 1933 and its files burned in the streets of Berlin.
Scientific interest in the United States didn’t begin until after World War II—partly, Rudacille says, because doctors didn’t want to run afoul of state statutes that prohibited surgical removal of healthy organs such as testicles. Many of these laws derived from 16th-century English common law intended to prevent people from amputating trigger fingers to escape military service.
The pioneer in the United States was Harry Benjamin, who became Christine Jorgensen’s doctor when she returned to the United States and who treated more than 1,500 transgendered patients over the next 25 years. His book The Transsexual Phenomenon was published in 1966. Work with the transgendered gained some academic respectability through the Gender Identity Clinic at Johns Hopkins, which was created by John Money, a psychologist, in 1966. It was shut down amid controversy in 1979.
Under the Knife?
Though many transgendered people do not undergo sex-reassignment surgery, an increasing number do. The Internet has graphic pictures of the results of the procedure, both male-to-female and female-to-male. Male-to-female surgery involves the removal of the penis and testicles, with tissues saved to fabricate a vagina and labia that allow for heterosexual relations with men. Female-to-male operations usually involve a mastectomy and the removal of ovaries and uterus; construction of a penis is possible too, but it lacks urinary and sexual function and is an option less chosen. Rudacille cites an estimate that about 1 in 30,000 males in the US will seek sex-reassignment surgery in his lifetime and about 1 in 100,000 females.
A limited number of surgeons in the United States perform the procedure, though some patients go abroad to such popular destinations as Thailand. Many doctors won’t do the surgery without a letter from a therapist and until a person has dressed and lived for a period of time in the gender role he or she hopes to assume.
Transgendered people are distinguished from several other sexual minorities. Some are heterosexual, but others are gay, lesbian, or bisexual. Fay, who bears a resemblance to the late gay actor Paul Lynde when he laughs, tells of having been mistaken for gay many times. Transgendered people also aren’t just cross-dressers or transvestites, who may be either straight or gay and may engage in cross-dressing only occasionally. And the transgendered are not “intersexed,” a rare condition in which a person is born with sexual organs of both male and female—“hermaphrodite” being the older but now abandoned term.
Many transgendered individuals, at least those born as male-bodied, are very much like Fay. They have male sexual organs, engage in straight sex, and father children, but they have a psychological sense that they’re really women. Nearly always these feelings emerge, as they did for Peter, at a young age. The condition is known among doctors and psychologists as “gender-identity disorder.” Street slang has many names for transgendered people, some derogatory, with “trannies” being one of the most common.
The causes of transgenderism aren’t fully understood, Rudacille says, though the consensus is that it begins in the womb and may be linked to genetic or endocrine anomalies. There also are those who think that a documented rise in transgendered individuals since World War II is related to the use between 1945 and 1970 of a synthetic estrogen called diethylstilbestrol. It was prescribed for pregnant women in a misguided attempt to prevent miscarriages and also was used in vitamins and livestock feed. It’s related to other “endocrine-disrupting” compounds that are suspected in the recently documented increase in the Potomac River of male fish producing eggs.
The first big media coverage of transsexuality goes back to the 1950s and surrounds the sex-reassignment surgery of George Jorgensen. He had grown up with some of the same experiences that Peter Fay would have later, including migraines, a lack of interest in sports, bouts of crying, and an interest in feminine things: Jorgensen’s mother was once summoned to school when horrified authorities discovered a needlepoint piece in his desk. After several hard months in the Army, he eventually went to Denmark, where he took estrogen and underwent a series of surgeries in 1951, changed his first name to Christine, and prepared to return
The parents blessed the transformation, saying, “We love you more than ever.” But a relative sold the story to the press and 300 reporters and photographers showed up at the airport for Christine’s arrival. With the headline ex-gi becomes blond bombshell, America had its first transgendered celebrity, who later had a career as a nightclub singer.
Other famous sex reassignments followed. James Morris, a British historian and travel writer, had surgery and became Jan Morris in 1975, publishing a memoir called Conundrum. An American ophthalmologist and amateur tennis player named Richard Raskind had surgery and became Renée Richards in 1975, then won the legal right to play professional tennis against women. She ranked as high as 20th in the world.
Cross-dressing performers—who take up the wardrobe and hairstyles of the opposite sex for laughs rather than fulfillment—have long been a staple of boisterous celebrations and pop culture. Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis in Some Like It Hot and Dustin Hoffman in Tootsie are examples, along with Flip Wilson’s Geraldine, Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo, Dame Edna, and Washington’s own Hogettes. Movies with transgendered characters are more recent, including Boys Don’t Cry, starring Hilary Swank, and Transamerica, with Felicity Huffman. Both actresses won Oscars for those roles.
Peter Fay took careful note of such films, along with all of the books and Web sites he discovered. Compared with the 1950s, when boys like Peter were isolated, the Internet made it easy for transgendered people both young and old to connect with one another and to find advice and services they could use. There were entire Web sites devoted to transgendered success stories, describing men who had undergone surgery and emerged as women with happier lives.
But it was also easy to see from all of Peter’s research that transgendered people faced many difficulties. Psychiatrists, who had given up classifying homosexuality as a mental illness in 1973, still kept transgenderism in their official book of disorders. Those who came out of the closet might be disowned by their families and fired from their jobs, ending up in prostitution, where they were exposed to HIV and assaults. Their rates of depression, alcoholism, and drug abuse were elevated. So was suicide.
Something Has to Change
Early in 2004, when Peter Fay was just shy of 60, he was overtaken with a sense that his longstanding accommodation—man on the outside, woman on the inside—was coming unglued. He experienced more health problems—his migraines were less easily controlled, and he was diagnosed with neuropathy, in which he lost feeling in his extremities. Doctors were able to quell that, but one test revealed that his body had almost stopped producing testosterone, a deficiency for which he briefly took a low dose of the male hormone.
Beth had noticed a drastic change in him a year before. Peter had always cried easily—a sentimental Hallmark-card commercial could make him weep—but he cried even more now and became upset and angry. On a vacation in the Canadian Rockies in the summer of 2003, he became livid that a store clerk seemed to be treating him as a man instead of as the woman he felt he was and wanted the world to accept. It was a revealing moment that Beth found to be a disturbing shift away from the assurances she’d received before they were married. At the same time, Peter admitted he was envious of the fact that Beth was a female.
To Peter it seemed as if the woman inside was suddenly no longer satisfied to be bottled up in his male body. Maybe, he thought, God was hitting him with “a divine two-by-four,” telling him he needed to do some rethinking.
Peter didn’t consider himself suicidal but was worried enough that in the summer of 2005 he decided he needed to get professional help. He consulted a therapist whom he’d seen several years earlier and who had experience working with transgendered people. He told Beth he was going to these appointments, but he wasn’t candid about the extent of his distress. And she sensed he was becoming more secretive and uncommunicative, even as she noticed his behavior becoming more feminine.
The prospect of coming out and living as a woman was terrifying to Peter, inducing months of indecision and delay. He had friends who lived openly as gay men or lesbians, but he anticipated that going public would be far harder for a transgendered person. The stares and comments from strangers—“Mommy, look at that man dressed like a woman”—would be hard to take.
Peter also worried about the reaction of his family—his wife, children, stepchildren, and siblings. He imagined a reaction that would be devastating: “Okay, go ahead. But do it without me. Have a good life.” It was painful to contemplate the end of his marriage to Beth, which was the relationship he’d always dreamed of.
He found some of the courage to reveal himself as transgendered in an unexpected venue of rugged masculinity. One night, while reviewing a play called Beyond Glory, which dramatized the battlefield stories of Congressional Medal of Honor winners, he sat taking notes in the dark and thinking about his own predicament. All of the battle-hardened veterans described an overwhelming fear that accompanied their actions. It made him realize that his own fear of public contempt and private loss didn’t have to be debilitating.
Transgendered people are so few, and so many are closeted, that Peter didn’t know a single one to confide in. But a Google search turned up a couple of local groups that offered the possibility of decreasing his isolation. They always met in secret—both to protect the privacy of those who attended and to avoid harassment—so Peter first had to be vetted by a member in a public place, which turned out to be a Starbucks.
The meetings were usually at night in a church, with about 20 people in attendance. Some of the people were closeted—with unsuspecting wives, children, parents, and officemates—and they would change into women’s clothes only after they arrived. Peter went online and ordered a woman’s wig for the meetings, but he removed it once he headed back to the parking lot to drive home. The atmosphere of the meetings was welcoming to all, including both cross-dressers and the transgendered, some of whom had had sex-reassignment surgery and some of whom hadn’t. There was practical advice on makeup, fashion, hair removal, voice therapy, and harassment as well as invitations to the annual Halloween costume party and summer cookout.
Peter had revealed to Beth only that he was going to therapy, but by the summer of 2006 he finally told her he’d made up his mind to begin living as a woman. The moment came on a trip to a family reunion on Long Island when they were alone in the car together for several hours. It was a tumultuous encounter. “She got angry, and I got angry,” he says. “She cried, and I cried.” She made clear that the marriage couldn’t survive. This, in her words, was a “deal breaker.”
Later, when he told Beth one day that what he was about to do was “an 8.5 on the weirdness scale,” she had her own retort.
“No,” she said, “it’s an 11.”
Finding a Good Wig
The public change from man to woman is known as “transitioning,” and Peter Fay had no illusions that he would become a bombshell like the young Christine Jorgensen. He was 63 years old and had recently become a grandfather. He was a big man—nearly six feet tall and 220 pounds, with broad shoulders and a paunch. And he’d been bald, except around the sides, for years.
He needed a better wig than the one he’d bought online, so he found a shop in Alexandria said to be trans-friendly and took an older female friend with him for advice. He was surprised at his fear as he walked in, and he began crying as he approached the counter. The clerk picked out eight or ten wigs to try. He chose the first one, partly because it matched the brown of his hair before he’d gone gray in his forties.
A younger friend volunteered to help him shop for women’s clothes, taking him (now in his wig) to a couple of consignment stores in Bethesda. He didn’t have much luck—most things on the racks were suited for a 25-year-old with a nice figure—but the outing foreshadowed a situation he would encounter later. Hearing the voice of another shopper, Peter thought it was someone he knew—realizing later it was a woman he’d worked with at the Kennedy Center. But she didn’t recognize his new persona; she merely smiled and walked away.
Makeup was baffling. Though he’d worn makeup on stage and at WETA, he found the things that women
Feminization of Fay’s body would involve a couple of ongoing treatments. Facial hair was removed through electrolysis, and breast size was increased by ingesting the female hormone estrogen. Synthetic estrogen, developed in the late 1930s, has been a feature of male-to-female transitions ever since and is commonly an expensive part of a transgendered person’s regime for the remainder of her life. One effect for Fay, beyond breast growth, would be an increased tendency to cry in emotional situations.
Fay decided to make no extravagant efforts to change his mannerisms. He’d always been demonstrative with his hands. He would walk in a less manly way, navigating in flats or two-inch heels. He wouldn’t need training to raise the pitch of his voice, which had gone up some with the estrogen therapy. And he ruled out “facial feminization” surgery, which some transgendered people undergo.
He put himself for the time being into the undecided category when it came to having sex-reassignment surgery. But he did explore the possibility on the Internet, learning about the procedure, identifying doctors who did it, and reading memoirs of those who’d had it. He also knew that some transgendered people never take that step, which costs about $17,000 and wouldn’t be covered by his federal-retiree health insurance. For now he would reveal his identify only by dressing and acting as a woman—“divesting the secret” was the point, not the sexual mechanics.
Peter John Fay—with a new wig and wardrobe—also needed a new name, and for that he reached back to his Gaelic roots. He picked Colleen, which had a lyrical quality he liked and rhymed with the name of his twin sister, Eileen.
By last summer, Beth felt she was in a strange limbo. She still wasn’t sure if Peter intended—as he’d told her the previous summer during the car trip—to transition to womanhood. He initiated construction a new deck for the house as if the marriage would continue and he expected to go on living there. But when Beth discovered a vial of hormone tablets prescribed to Colleen Fay, he finally admitted that the time for coming out fully was growing closer. He decided on September.
There are few precedents for announcing to the world such a transformation—no engraved formal notes or Hallmark cards to send. Some transgendered people prefer to fade into their new lives as quietly as possible—rumor, shock, and bafflement are common reactions of friends—and Fay briefly considered adopting a “stealth mode” and moving to another city to start afresh. But with more than 40 years invested in Washington, he decided to stay—and to devise an up-to-date way of telling everyone.
He alerted most of his family members that he’d soon be sending along some big news—a few of them were relieved to hear he didn’t have a terminal illness. But most friends learned abruptly of Peter’s decision in an e-mail sent out in September. About 50 people got the e-mail, including children, stepchildren, and siblings as well as friends and associates in the music world, at WETA, and at the Library of Congress. As they forwarded the e-mail to others, word spread.
The e-mail, three single-spaced pages when printed out, began by hinting at “something new and exciting that is about to happen in my life.” One paragraph focused on Beth, who was described as supportive but not pleased: “I cannot overstate how difficult this has been for her.”
At the end was a plea for understanding and acceptance: “I want to have a relationship with you based on honesty and openness. I would love to hear from you. I’m happy to answer any questions. Please know that I love you very much.”
A few weeks later, an even more public announcement came on WAMU radio’s Metro Connection. Fay had been offering recommendations on arts events there since 1995, so the host put aside a few minutes to talk about Peter’s transition to Colleen Fay. Transgendered people sometimes lose their jobs when they go public, but that wouldn’t be the case here. Fay would be back—same time, same station, new name.
“I’m Not a Vegas Showgirl”
On the Tuesday before Thanksgiving last year, Fay made his final public appearance as a man. He delivered the last of six lectures on music and politics for the Smithsonian Associates in the S. Dillon Ripley Center on the Mall. He focused on a work by Russian composer Sergei Prokofiev, concluding with questions from the audience. About 50 people were there—none of them aware that Peter Fay was about to disappear.
The next day went smoothly as Colleen Fay navigated the aisles of the Whole Foods on P Street to pick up ingredients for the pearl-onion dish she’d promised to take to Thanksgiving dinner the next day at her daughter’s home in Baltimore. In the natural-cosmetics aisle that Peter had self-consciously steered his eyes away from many times before, Colleen felt comfortable perusing the offerings. Elsewhere in the store, she found a female clerk who was helpful with recipes in a chatty and collaborative way some women have.
Colleen’s debut as a woman—walking around in her wig and new clothes—was met with more indifference than expected: “A part of me wanted to hire the Goodyear blimp to fly over, taking a shot of the stadium below, with me alone in the middle of the tiny patch of green field proclaiming, ‘This is day one.’ ” But after a while she grew resigned to the ho-hum of the shoppers and clerks: “Okay. I’m not a gorgeous-looking female. I am nearly six feet tall. I am 63 years old. I don’t have a figure that is gonna knock ’em dead. I am not a Vegas showgirl. Fair enough.”
Thanksgiving dinner with her daughter and husband in Baltimore was cordial—Colleen had dressed up a few days earlier for her daughter so she wouldn’t be shocked to see Dad in a wig. The pearl onions were well received, and Colleen couldn’t resist playing with her daughter’s six-month-old son.
At Christmas there was another family gathering in the same house, this time joined by a couple of Colleen’s sons and by their mother, Margaret, and her husband. The daughter gave her dad a woman’s watch.
Colleen also began a new life living alone. Beth and Peter had decided not to divorce immediately, but they began amicably disentangling their finances. Beth as well as Peter’s therapist insisted that he move out of the family home in Brookland, and he found an affordable apartment in nearby Mount Rainier.
But Beth and Colleen would continue seeing each other almost daily. Colleen sometimes helped transport Beth’s children to and from school, though one of them initially asked her to leave her wig at home. They went out to dinner on Beth’s birthday; Colleen cooked dinner for her at the apartment on Easter. But Beth refused to go out to celebrate their anniversary, seeing the invitation as a sign that Colleen was becoming too emotionally dependent and in denial that their marriage was over.
Colleen’s apartment is small, but there’s room for the antique Steinway grand piano Colleen’s mother used while teaching voice lessons on Long Island. It sits next to an electronic keyboard that Colleen uses in composing. There are photographs throughout the place of her four children—all of whom live outside the Washington area—and of her parents, Beth, and the new grandchild.
The bookshelves are filled with copies of the Bible, religious commentaries, novels, and books on music and history as well as some 700 CDs of Bach, Verdi, Mozart, Brahms, and dozens of other classical composers. All this suggests intellectual sophistication, and Colleen’s conversation is laced with references to Aristotle, James Joyce, and Dylan Thomas. Religion has its place, too: On the wall over the bed hangs a crucifix.
It has taken time getting used to answering to “Colleen” or being referred to as “she,” and it has required tolerance for friends who don’t have the name and the pronoun mastered. People start out with “Colleen,” then switch to “Peter”; they go back and forth between “him” and “her.” Family members face the same adjustment: One son still begins e-mails “Dear Pop,” and the daughter tells her baby not to pull off “Granny’s” wig but at other times uses “Dad.”
Colleen, who sometimes signs notes to her children with “Colleen/Dad,” takes it all in stride: “No need for the pronoun police. Everybody is getting used to this. You have to remember that this is old news to me, something I kept secret for 63 years. It’s brand-new to everybody else, and it packs an emotional wallop.”
The transition from man to woman has been a lesson in how gender affects daily life. Colleen is still experimenting with makeup, playing with shades and techniques that many women mastered as teenagers. She has donated some men’s clothes to Goodwill and is still putting together a collection of women’s clothing, shoes, bracelets, earrings, and necklaces that give her a matronly look. She also now uses women’s restrooms.
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.