Imagine looking in the mirror every day and seeing a person you don’t recognize — a person that doesn’t match who you feel you are on the inside.

Such was the case for Lisa, who was born a male and spent decades feeling like a woman trapped in a man’s body.

Living as a male led to joining the Army at age 17, becoming an officer for the Los Angeles Police Department, then later a lineman for the Department of Water and Power.

All the while, and in secret, these societal roles forced Lisa to suppress what she believed was her true nature.

“I’ve felt this way as far back as 3 years old. My earliest memory was going into the bathroom and putting on my mother’s makeup. It progressively turned into wearing my mother’s clothes,” said Lisa, 55, of Simi Valley.

 


Lisa and CJ Foster of Simi Valley will be married on Nov. 21.
Photo by: T Christian Gapen

When she was a child, transgender issues weren’t spoken of, Lisa said. She found some comfort when she saw Christine Jorgensen on television, the first person in America to become widely known for having sex reassignment surgery in 1952 at the Danish State Hospital in Copenhagen.

“Christine was my first knowledge of what a transgender person was,” Lisa said. “I thought I was the only one.”

Still, Lisa spent years living a life that matched the male image in the mirror, including matrimony with two women. The first marriage was short, followed by a second that lasted 23 years.

“I thought, if I got married and had children it would cure me,” said Lisa. “I was wrong. It made things worse.”

After the second spouse died in May of 2013 from breast cancer, “I had a lot of soul-searching to do.”

In July of 2013, Lisa started taking estrogen to begin the transition from male to female. On Valentine’s Day in 2014, she underwent breast surgery. The following December, she underwent bottom surgery in San Francisco.

“I was done living a lie and fighting these feelings,” said Lisa, who has two children, ages 29 and 33. “My children were grown so I had no other responsibilities other than to myself. From that day forward I’ve been transitioning to who I am today — who I’ve always been — who the world now sees.”

A month before she underwent breast surgery in 2014, Lisa met her future husband, CJ, at the United Church of Christ in Simi Valley.

“It was an instant connection — love at first sight,” CJ recalled. “I wanted to get to know her more.”

Their instant connection was the result of their shared experience of being born a gender they didn’t identify with.

CJ, who was born female, never felt comfortable living life as a girl.

“From the time I was 9 years old I knew I was different,” CJ said. “I didn’t have a name for it, but I knew I didn’t want to be a girl.”

Growing up, CJ went to a Baptist school, where skirts and dresses were required by the girls’ dress code.

“I was there for seven years,” he said. “I hated getting dressed every day and as soon as I got home I would tear off those clothes and put on jeans, a T-shirt and a hat.”

At one point, CJ had a negative encounter that challenged gender.

“They asked me if I wanted to be a boy, but they said it very negatively so I told them, ‘No, I don’t want to be a boy.’ But inside I was screaming, ‘Yes! I want to be a boy.’ ”

As a teenager, CJ started identifying as a lesbian to eliminate further stigma.

“I knew I was attracted to women so for the next 20 years or so I lived my life as a lesbian.”

Life dramatically changed when CJ saw a documentary called Gender Rebels about three biological females who rejected the traditional concept of gender.

“It wasn’t until 2008 that I realized I could modify my body to feel more like myself,” said CJ, now 41. “Just watching these three individuals, I realized who I was.”

In September of 2013, CJ started taking male hormones. Top surgery for breast removal followed in June of 2014. CJ is currently taking steps to undergo bottom surgery, with plans to complete the process in about a year.

CJ believes all transgender individuals should be treated with the same respect as those who identify with the gender they were born with.

“We want people to accept us as who we are, regardless of where we are in our transition and what we look like,” CJ said. “There are a lot of people out there who can’t afford sex reassignment surgery. To misgender somebody because they can’t afford the surgery is disrespectful. We’re just normal people — whatever normal means.”

Lisa doesn’t ever want to be identified as a “trans-woman” — nor does she expect special treatment.

“In my head I’ve always been female; it’s not my fault I was born with different genetalia,” she said. “I look at it as a birth defect that the doctor fixed. I don’t want any special treatment. Just treat me as the gender that my head feels I am.”

Today, the couple lives together in Simi Valley. Lisa recently retired, and CJ works as a special education teacher at a high school in town.

They officially exchanged wedding vows in Malibu in August. On Nov. 21, CJ and Lisa Foster are having a wedding ceremony in Simi Valley, where Lisa’s father will walk her down the aisle with many of the couple’s family members present.

“I am unbelievably happy,” Lisa said.

CJ added: “We’re perfect for each other.”

Orientation and gender identity
Transgender is a term used to describe individuals who are born with female or male anatomies, but feel their self-concepts do not match the gender identities that have been socially assigned to their sexual anatomies, said Adina Nack, a professor of sociology at California Lutheran University.

Nack noted 66-year-old Caitlyn Jenner, who was born Bruce Jenner and set a world record in the decathlon at the 1976 Summer Olympics. As Bruce, he became a reality TV star in Keeping Up With the Kardashians. In 2015, Jenner revealed that she is transgender and has become a woman, now known as Caitlyn.

“In one of Caitlyn Jenner’s television interviews, she did a great job correcting a major myth: Sexual orientation and gender identity are two completely different things,” Nack said.

The PBS Frontline documentary Growing Up Trans took on another key myth to clarify that gender identity is experienced and expressed by children as young as preschoolers, Nack said.

“This means that parents, pediatricians, teachers and child psychologists all need a better education in the lived realities of transgender children,” she said.

Due to the stigmatization of transgender individuals, there is no reason to believe that we have accurate statistics on the proportion of the population, Nack continued.

“The bullying, physical attacks and high rates of suicide point to the reasons why many transgender people are likely not public about their gender identities,” she said.

On the positive side, younger generations’ higher acceptance and media attention have brought the topic of transgenderism into public conversations and begun to normalize this as a medical and social reality.

“So we are seeing more young and older Americans coming out, identifying as transgender and moving forward with social and physiological gender transitions,” Nack said. “Many scholars understand gender transitions as being key to an individual more fully realizing their authentic self, having their body match their self-concept.”

Transgender versus cisgender
Nack emphasized that as important as it is to know what “transgender” means, it’s equally important to know what “cisgender” means: a term that refers to individuals whose gender identities match their anatomical sex and socially assigned gender roles.

“It’s hard for most cisgender individuals to understand how deeply distressing it must be to wake up every morning and feel that your body and your gender-based social identity do not fit your personal experience of yourself,” Nack said.

Some of the best ways to be an ally to transgender individuals is, first, to learn basic definitions and facts about gender and sexuality, and also to make it the norm to use gender-neutral pronouns, Nack noted.

For instance, “When you meet a person who identifies as transgender, then ask which pronouns they prefer,” she said.

“Also, do not focus on the physicality of transitioning — it’s an invasion of privacy to ask about surgeries, sexual practices and other physiological details. Overall, we should not assume someone’s gender, based solely on what they look like or sound like. Be open to individuals’ self-definitions of gender identity.”

As a society, we are better served by not buying into stereotypes, not pigeon-holing people into narrow categories — whether those categories are based on gender, sexuality, race or other aspects of identity, Nack said.

“Transgender individuals point out the flaws and limitations on our logic about the differences between boys and girls, between men and women,” she said. “We need to see beyond sex-based dichotomies to a more nuanced spectrum of the variety of ways in which individuals experience and express all aspects of their identities.”

For individuals considering a gender transition, local help is available, Nack added.

“This year, Ventura County Public Health opened up an LGBT clinic on Monday mornings at the Santa Paula West facility,” she said. “Those practitioners provide primary health care, regular exams, sexual health care, including hormone maintenance for transgender patients.”

A body you don’t recognize
For Beckett Peterson, transgender is feeling as though your body doesn’t match what your mind believes you are in terms of gender identity.

“It’s like being stuck inside a body you don’t recognize. I honestly didn’t recognize myself in the mirror for the first time until I was on hormones for about four months,” said Peterson, 21, a leader with the LGBTQIA+ Club at California Lutheran University. “In my case, I identify as a male although I was born in a female body.”

The biggest misunderstanding Peterson has faced is that people think transgender individuals want to transition with hormones, and get every type of surgery to change their body into what a cisgender individual would look like.

“Cisgender is the opposite of transgender, so if you are born in a woman’s body and identify as a woman you are cisgender,” Peterson explained. “The reality of this situation is that there are many transgender people who don’t wish to take hormones or get any surgeries in their lifetime, and there are also transgender people who want to take hormones and not get surgeries.”

It is up to the individual and what he or she is comfortable with personally and what he or she feels dysphoric about, Peterson noted.

“For example, I’m really dysphoric about my hips because they’re shaped like women’s hips, but I’m not extremely dysphoric about my chest because it’s fairly small so I don’t feel the need to get surgery right now,” he said.

“We’re literally just like you. We just don’t identify with the body we were born with,” Peterson further emphasized. “We just want to be treated the way you would treat a cisgender individual, with respect.”

Exposure and education
Anne Blakeley started the Trans Alliance Ventura support group in March to provide support and care for transgender individuals to thrive in Ventura County. She is also a member of Diversity Collective Ventura County, which organizes the Ventura County Pride, Annual AIDS Walk and Diversity Gala.

Blakeley, who works at Defense Logistics Agency Distribution in Port Hueneme, openly transitioned as a transgender person, and continues working to improve conditions for the transgender community in Ventura County.

“I am rather lucky. I work for the federal government and they have guidelines as to how to deal with transgender employees,” said Blakeley of Port Hueneme. “However, most other employers in this county are completely ignorant and end up discriminating, harassing or even creating a hostile work environment against transgender employees.”

In July 2014, CNN reported that The Pentagon could lift the ban on transgender people openly serving in the U.S. military. The move was made after Defense Secretary Ash Carter announced a plan to study “readiness implications of welcoming transgender persons to serve openly.”

The White House has been pressing the Pentagon to move ahead to lift the ban, according to CNN.

“At a time when our troops have learned … that the most important qualification for service members should be whether they’re able and willing to do their job, our officers and enlisted personnel are faced with certain rules that tell them the opposite,” Carter wrote in a statement published by the U.S. Department of Defense. “Moreover, we have transgender soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines — real, patriotic Americans — who I know are being hurt by an outdated, confusing, inconsistent approach that’s contrary to our value of service and individual merit.”

The only way to change the culture is through exposure and education, Blakeley said.

 


Lisa and C.J. take a late afternoon stroll down their Simi Valley street.
Photo by: T Christian Gapen

Resources
On Nov. 20, the first annual Transgender Day of Remembrance in Ventura, sponsored by Diversity Collective Ventura County and Trans Alliance Ventura, will pay homage to those lost from the transgender community this past year. The event will take place at Ventura City Hall from 7 to 10 p.m City Hall is located at 501 Poli St. in Ventura.

“If an individual or group chooses not to understand another individual or group, they are ignorant,” Blakeley said. “Ignorance creates fear. Fear leads to hatred, discrimination, bigotry, violence and even murder. Just try to imagine yourself trapped in the opposite gender for the rest of your life. How would you survive?”

“Society still objectifies us. They see us as something less than human,” Blakeley further emphasized. “There have been too many lives lost because of this objectification. Our culture must change. The only way to do so is with positive exposure and education, and I want to be a part of that movement.”

For information about Trans Alliance Ventura, visit www.facebook.com/TransAllianceVentura.

For information about the Transgender Day of Remembrance, go to www.glaad.org/tdor.


Late transitioner
Activist comes to Ventura to discuss gender identity

As an activist for the transgender community, Michaela Mendelsohn is a public speaker on LGBT issues at middle and high schools, colleges, universities, medical schools and the Museum of Tolerance.

She has served as a special consultant on theater and film productions, including the lead character in a Los Angeles revival of the play Returning to Normal. She also assisted with the writing of the transgender character of the hit Netflix show, Orange is the New Black.

On Nov. 20, she will be the keynote speaker at the first annual Transgender Day of Remembrance in Ventura, which will pay homage to those lost from the Transgender community this past year. The event will take place in the performing arts building at Ventura City Hall from 7 to 10 p.m.

“It’s important that we all celebrate our uniqueness,” said Mendelsohn, 63. “My struggles have made me stronger and happier — that’s the message.”

She has come a long way since her birth as Michael in the Bronx, New York. Growing up male, Michael fulfilled all the societal roles expected of gender.

Living a life as a traditional, macho male, Michael kept his gender identity a secret from his friends and family for decades.

“There was this duality going on. My mind was thinking more like I was a girl but my body was filled with all this testosterone so it was confusing,” recalled Mendelsohn, who moved to California at age 9.

“I can remember back when I was 7 years old, I used to love to wear my sister’s clothes — I did it in private. There was no Internet or Barbara Walters talking about this. I wasn’t in a family where we openly talked about stuff, so I kept it in.”

Still, as a boy, he was different from other boys, and was often picked on in school. At age 14, Michael suffered, in front of his peers, extreme humiliation.

“When I was 14 years old, I was urinated on in the boys shower by the school bully in front of all the other boys,” Mendelsohn remembered. “That set the stage for me to turn my life around and it took a different course. I was lucky I wasn’t suicidal, but I was disgusted with myself.”

That summer, Michael went on a physical fitness kick, working out every day and losing 15 pounds. The next school year, he set almost all the high-school physical fitness records in the city of Torrance. He was also an honors student.

“The bullying stopped — I was respected, I was a jock,” Mendelsohn said. “I would date the popular girls but I had really pushed myself deep in the closet to survive.”

In his 20s, Michael launched successful business ventures, including a coin-operated vending and video-game service that was the largest in the state by the time he was 30. He later served as president of the El Pollo Loco national franchise association for nine years, and became involved with state politics in Sacramento on business issues. At 24, he married and, with his wife, raised three children. Michael built a reputation as a superb athlete and outdoor adventure enthusiast. He coached baseball, softball and soccer for his children’s teams.

Nevertheless, his gender identity was always in the back of his mind, and led to a separation from his wife in 2008.

“It got to the point where I tried to suppress it; it just kept getting worse and worse.”

Mendelsohn tried therapy. “Then I started having physical and emotional systems — heart palpitations trying to suppress it. My situation emotionally and physically got so bad. One morning I woke up with a thought in my mind that said: Michael, if you don’t deal with your gender issues, you’re not going to make it.”

At age 54, Mendelsohn went to a gender therapist who prescribed hormones.

“For the first time in my life my mind and body were working together,” Mendelsohn said.

At age 55, Mendelsohn started living life full-time as a woman with plans for surgical transition in the future, which brought more inner peace. But the decision, inevitably, caused backlash in the family.

“The greatest thing in my life was being a father and I was so close to my kids; they were so in tune with that image of me as a hero,” Mendelsohn said. “I expected their support because I gave them so much love. I was devastated. … They didn’t want anyone to know about me. I realized their loss was greater than mine. They had lost that image of me that was so important to them growing up.”

The heartache of losing family support led to a suicide attempt.

“When I realized I was totally rejected by my family and thought maybe they’d be better off without me,” Mendelsohn said, “I went to my therapist and she set me straight. She said, ‘Don’t ever think that you’ll do your family a favor by committing suicide. It’s the worst thing that could ever happen to them. Their lives will never be the same.’ ”

“If I had this to do over again, I would have been more prepared to help them go through this with me,” Mendelsohn said.

Recently, Mendelsohn accepted a position as the first transgender board member of the Trevor Project, a national organization providing crisis and suicide prevention services to LGBTQ individuals ages 13 to 24.

Mendelsohn is also involved with the California Trans Workplace Project and has formed a coalition with several organizations to promote transgender employment opportunity and workplace diversity.

Mendelsohn’s full surgical transition occurred in 2013. Today, she is in a relationship, and together they are raising a 2-year-old son. She remains the owner of six El Pollo Loco franchises, including one in Ventura and one in Oxnard, with plans to open two more in Ventura County.

“We now have six trans-women working for us,” she said. “Three have made it into management.”

Her family has also reconciled to the highest extent she could hope for.

“My ex and I still help our kids together,” she said. “We are together with them at certain family events. We also see each other socially on occasion. That is not to say there are not difficulties.”

Looking back on her life, she is happy with her decision.

“I’m stronger in many ways as a woman than I was as a man and more capable because I’m more myself,” she said. “It was a struggle for me to accept all these parts of myself and now I celebrate and love myself more than I ever have.”

— Alicia Doyle