As numerous posts on Facebook, Twitter and other places have informed me, today is National Coming Out Day to raise awareness of gay rights issues. I like to think that the majority of INS readers are pretty aware of gay rights or lack thereof so I’m not going to hop onto the metaphorical soapbox and wave my little rainbow flag in solidarity with my homosexual brothers and sisters. What I will do, however, is share a personal story of someone I knew who is no longer with us precisely because of his sexuality … and how factors beyond his control made his situation so much more heartbreaking.
I first met Russell in 1989, when he was nominally my boss. Russell, at the risk of being politically incorrect, looked like every white man’s nightmare. He was black, six-eight, three hundred and forty pounds. Yes, he did play football, well enough to score a full college scholarship to a well-known football school which fortunately also had a good academic reputation. He majored in special education, taught in public schools for a couple of years, then got on with a private foundation for mentally handicapped adults, where I had gotten a job. We had a similar sense of humor so we got along immediately. About three weeks after I’d started, he invited me out to a nearby bar/restaurant for after-work drinks. He seemed preoccupied and I chalked it up to foundation bullshit, but in a back booth, one of the seats moved back so he could fit, he dropped a bomb.
Or, more to the point, his voice façade. This huge fierce-looking man, when speaking in his normal tone of voice, made Richard Simmons sound like Barry White. He’d taught himself the voice the rest of the world heard, he explained, because his father, just as large, would beat the crap out of him if he overheard the “faggot voice.” Over the years, the “masculine” voice had almost become second nature … almost. His boyfriends heard his true voice, a couple of very close friends … and now me. To be honest, I was flattered that he thought enough of me to confide in me, and saddened that he had to fake his voice. I told him about my cousin who’d come out in the seventies, what he’d had to endure, how my mom had always made him and his boyfriend welcome, and the conversation we had lasted so long we got thrown out of the restaurant so they could close and he ended up dropping me off at my house at dawn. And it cemented our friendship.
Russell maintained the façade at work, but he introduced me to his world outside of the job. He spent a lot of time in New York’s Greenwich Village—one of the reasons he’d gone to work at the foundation was because it had a Manhattan branch and he hoped to move there eventually—and was very involved in the gay rights movement. In those days those in the movement looked with extreme suspicion upon straights trying to help out, thinking they were either being condescending or looking for a cheap thrill, and despite the fact that I’m almost totally unfeminine I obviously gave off the “I like guys, thanks” vibes. Their conversations fascinated me, their stories sometimes made me cry. Everyone told of bullying, getting thrown out of their homes, discrimination at their jobs, legal blocks with partners, etc.. Some had even been married to someone of the opposite sex, had had children with them, which more often than not worsened the situation. “Yes, I just looove choosing a lifestyle that gets my ass kicked on a daily basis,” said one guy. “That’s what all the straights say, anyway.”
In September 1990 Russell began dating a guy named David, and it became obvious pretty quickly they were serious about each other. David was a nurse, also with a wicked sense of humor, and I was so happy that they had found each other. Russell was getting noticed in the foundation, and his dream job, the one in Manhattan, looked like it was going to materialize fairly soon.
In the spring, though, was when everything went to hell.
If there was an occasion for Russell to dress as a woman, he took it. He’d put on a sparkly dress, enormous pumps, makeup and an ashy-blonde Tina Turner wig and prance about much to everyone’s amusement. Towards Christmas of 1990, however, I noticed that his outfits had settled down. Instead of drag queen stuff it was business suits with skirts, smaller heels, lighter makeup, toned down hair. And whereas before it had only been at parties or gay pride things, now he did things like go to the grocery store dressed in women’s clothing. It wasn’t an everyday thing but it was odd, and in March I jokingly asked him if he’d lost a bet or something. He shook his head and took a huge shuddering breath.
“No,” he said. “I’m just being true to myself finally.”
And it all came out. To the rest of the world, Russell was a gay man. What he felt himself to be, and had felt since his earliest memory, was a straight woman. He had found some sort of underground magazine aimed at transgenders and had been writing letters to a few male-to-female transsexuals, and what they wrote gave him hope … and the courage to begin the process. He had money put aside, a surgery fund, and the new job in New York would pay enough so he could live there and save even more money. All he had to do now, he said, his tone confident, was find a psychotherapist and get the ball rolling. “I can do it now,” he said. “I have David and my friends, I have the support I need.”
And I promised him mine, even as I wondered how the hell a six-eight three-forty-pound black man could turn into a woman. Sure, he could lose weight, but unless they cut him off at the knees there was nothing they could do about his height. But he was so obviously happy and at peace with his decision it made me happy, and I swore to myself that I would stand by. “Do you have a name?” I asked.
“Rachel,” Russell said immediately. “I’ve always been Rachel. Rachel Maria.”
And so, in private, I began calling him Rachel. Publicly I called him “dude” but since I called everybody that regardless of sex I got away with it. That month was the happiest I’d ever seen him, but I noticed one thing very quickly—when he dressed as a woman David was never around. He hid his Rachel clothes and wig in the locked-off spare bedroom of his apartment, and when I saw him doing that the doubts I’d always harbored came roaring to the surface. I asked him bluntly who besides me knew of his plans and for the first time since I’d known him he was short with me. “Those who need to know,” he replied.
His cheerfulness began to fade. By this time I was working elsewhere and I found myself making a point to contact him every day, not knowing why, just feeling like I had to. This was, of course, long before cell phones and e-mail. And each day he had less to say. I went over to his apartment one April day; because of conflicting work schedules we hadn’t seen much of each other. After a few knocks he answered the door, dressed in Rachel clothes. He was crying and drunk off his ass—at two in the afternoon–and he almost broke my ribs hugging me. After sobbing incoherently for about a half hour, and me feeling more helpless than I’d ever felt in my life, it came out.
He had written letters to David and his friends in New York detailing his plans to become a woman, asking for their support. He’d left David’s in his car and gone to work; he’d come back to his place to find the stuff he’d had at David’s apartment dumped in front of his door. On the back of the letter David had written “if I’d wanted to be with a woman I’d be straight and you’re fooling yourself if you think you’ll ever pass.” A couple of his New York friends had apparently taken it upon themselves to speak for the group. They accused him of being disloyal to them and echoed David’s statement that he’d never be able to pass. “You’re a great queer,” wrote one, “but you’ll make a shitty she-male.” No therapist was willing to begin the process, telling him the same thing—that he would always look like a man in drag, he would never be able to transition successfully. The physical size that had brought him safety from taunting in high school, had enabled him to get a good education, was now—literally—a huge liability. Not even facial feminization surgery would be helpful, he was told. He’d thought about moving to San Francisco or someplace like that, where he wouldn’t be known, but the few contacts he’d made out there had the same opinion.
“I’m trapped,” he repeated over and over. “I’m trapped and I can’t get out.”
In further talking I’d found he’d only gotten in touch with two people in San Francisco. I said that maybe he should go out there and investigate further. “There has to be somebody that’ll do it,” I said, and found myself repeating it over and over.
The day wore on and he sobered up. He took a shower and I ordered a pizza and we watched “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.” When the movie was over he suddenly picked up the phone book. “I’m gonna go to Cali,” he said. “I’m gonna go there and do just like you said, find somebody.” He called one of the airlines and got a round-trip ticket to San Francisco that would leave the following Monday. He gave me another bone-crushing hug as I left.
He called me once from San Francisco, a couple of days after he got there. He sounded upbeat—he’d found a possible therapist and was going to have a consultation later on in the week. “Stay tight, girl,” he said, his customary sign-off.
He flew back Sunday, April 21, 1991. He called me from Newark airport. “I’m here, talk to you later,” he said on my answering machine. He picked up his car, drove to his apartment, dropped off his stuff, dressed as Rachel, left, got back in his car and got on the Garden State Parkway, heading south. There was construction going on at an exit, lots of concrete barriers around. The police found a large black man dressed in women’s clothing in the smashed Monte Carlo and a concrete barrier split in half. It was estimated he’d hit the barrier going at least 110 miles an hour.
It was called an accident, made snickery headlines for a couple of days about the dead guy found in drag. His family spitefully dressed him in a man’s three-piece suit—the damage had been done to his torso—for the wake. His boss at the foundation and I were the only non-relatives allowed in the funeral home, and I was the only white person. “There’s that little white girl he hung out with,” I heard someone sniff. “What they call them? Fag hags?” The funeral was family only. He was cremated. I never found out what was done with his ashes. I did find out that the therapist in San Francisco had basically laughed at him and said “trust me, it’s easier just to be gay.”
I know there’s a campaign out to wear purple on October 20 to honor gay youths who committed suicide after bullying. I can’t bring myself to do it, for the gay community, who are supposed to be so tolerant, can show vicious prejudices when someone goes against what they believe in. If you’re going to change your sex, you better still be gay. If Russell wanted to be Rachel, she’d better want to date Roberta. Of course I know it’s not always like that but those reactions from almost twenty years ago still linger in my mind. And I hate it when people giggle when a transgender speaks about “being trapped in the wrong body” for Rachel was truly trapped in Russell and he set her free the only way he knew how. Neither of them is at rest or at peace. They are dead because no one allowed them to live.
Russell Marcus/Rachel Maria Beauchamp
June 23, 1962—April 21, 1991