‘I’m Not Les’

Throughout my research I’ve come across countless documentaries and stories about young transsexuals. But what about those whose transition comes later in life? What is it really like for them? For me the older generation of transsexuals quickly became my main area of interest and subject I was most intrigued by. I find it astounding how in some cases the individuals don’t do anything about their conflict for centuries! Those who have successfully established their gender role within society who have good jobs, friends, have become parents and formed life long partners through marriage, all very convincingly. Suddenly, for whatever reason, they can no longer deny or repress whom they really are for any longer and decide to take action.

In some respects I think this delay in sex realignment or ‘coming out’ could be due to the period of time these older individuals were born and raised in. They may have come from a time where there was not much information on being transgender. As a result, they were forced to believe it was only a phase and maybe something every person has felt at some stage. In modern society being transgender and SRS has become more understood and accepted so maybe this has impacted on the older generations decision to change. Either way, deciding to transition at a later stage in life is inevitably more challenging and difficult as opposed to those who are younger. The identity, physicality and gender role of these individuals have already been cemented within every aspect of their life, thus the individual risks losing and impacting on everything. They must be ready and willing to rebuild their entire life, learn how to be the gender they have always felt they were, begin to tell others, all in order to become the person they really are. I find is completely admirable and inspiring but envy them I do not!

I began researching people who were older transsexuals and found a heart-wrenchingly sad documentary on YouTube titled, “I’m Not Les” created by Emmy Award winning writer, director and producer Daniel Kopec. “I’m not Les,” tells the personal account of Sherri who was born biologically a man and hid her true identity from the world for nearly 70 years. Coming from a small community in America, everybody knew Sherri as a stocky typical manly man named Les. Les was known as a welder, a husband and a father. However, Sherri’s physical gender never aligned with how she truly felt she was inside.

Sadly like many who have gender identity disorder, Sherri was abused, bullied and harassed throughout her life. Statistics show that more than half of transgendered people attempt suicide at least once. The documentary highlights how just like everybody else transgendered people are just trying to find their place and identity in the world. For Sherri this didn’t begin until she was 69 years old, “My transition took a long time. It was a lifetime.”

The documentary begins with Sherri recounting her childhood. And through my research on GID in children, it is evident that Sherri did present GID behaviours as a child. Studies show that in relation to parental factors, the GID child would be closer to its mother, insist on wearing the mothers/sisters items of clothes and play with girls toys as soon as they were able to communicate so. For Sherri this was very much the case. She began wearing her sisters’ clothes and her mother even left a silk dress in her sons’ wardrobe for Sherri to play with. One day Sherri even ordered breast enhancers! “Mum was my supporter not Dad”.

This hostile and cold paternal relationship is quite common in transgender people. Sherri describes her father as having a bad temper and beating her with a belt when she was a young boy. Sherri was confused and so were her parents by her behaviour, “There was no information out there”.

I feel that maybe the reason Sherri’s father beat her was because of social feelings toward homosexuality in that time. Transgender and transsexualism was unheard of. Therefore, having a son dressing up in dresses and acting more female was probably seen as signs of Sherri being homosexual. In that time, post war 1940’s America, there was a strong sense of homophobia, thus Sherri’s father was simply conforming to social ideas on what is right and the ole of a man. Homosexuality was believed to be wrong. Men were meant to be strong, masculine, grafters, create offspring and provide for the family. Homosexual men were challenging and not fulfilling any of these. As a result he began beating Sherri in the belief that he was showing signs of being homosexual. Maybe he thought he could ‘beat’ it out of him, making it clear in the early stages that it was wrong. In reality, Sherri was demonstrating distress of her gender role not her sexuality.

Sherri’s torture continued through school, where her male classmates bullied her. She was however very close to two female classmates named Maureen and Sherri and adopted the name Sherri as her post-transitioned name, “I never did tell Sherri. I wouldn’t like to.” When Sherri was 20 years old she moved into a cabin in the woods and began cross-dressing at home, “It really made me feel good”. She was working as a welder at the time, keeping her cross-dressing hidden from the cruel public, “I couldn’t take Sherri to work because I knew I would lose my job”. Eventually one of her work colleagues found out about Sherri’s cross-dressing and soon enough her whole workplace knew. She was immediately fired from her job, “I’ve had a lot of problems with work”. In fact unemployment in the transgendered community is almost double that of the general population.

During this period Sherri began researching the costs and realities of having sex re-alignment. But waited a long time before actually going through with the surgery. Eventually Sherri went to Thailand as it was the cheapest place for the operation and was nothing but excited, “I knew what I needed”. Sherri was neither overjoyed nor sad by the results of her surgery. I felt particularly sad for Sherri here. I feel that if her transition had been made sooner the results of her surgery would have aligned with how she truly felt inside and would have been happier with having the full sex change. It proves how the transition can be less convincing and satisfying when you’re older, having to compromise and be happy what you can achieve so far down the line of human development. Either way Sherri never believed in the ‘wrong body’ metaphor and instead adopts a more enlightened view that he is simply in the body he has had forever, “I still got the same body”.

A more poignant point for Sherri was when she legally changed her name from Les to Sherri. A moment, which I feel, must be quite relieving and comforting for anyone who is transgender or transsexual. However, not everyone could adapt or accept her new name. Sherri’s next-door neighbor insists on calling her by her birth name ‘Les’, “I don’t like it”. I think this reflects the reluctance a lot of people have when adopting an older trans person’s new name. The subject I hope to focus my project around was married with two grown sons when she made the transition, all of who still refer to her by her birth name or as ‘Dad’ or ‘he’. She too like Sherri doesn’t appreciate it. I feel as the older generation of trans people have already developed their gender identity, their name being counterpart to this and one they have had the majority of their lives, friends, family and other people who know of the transition have more difficulty in accepting the new name as the persons identity.

Sherri found solace in square dancing and eventually a place within its community, “I love every minute of it”. Sherri knew the female routine quite well already and wanted to forget the male routine completely as she was now living as Sherri full-time. Sherri goes onto explain her sexuality. “I was a straight girl, I wasn’t gay” this was at the time of her transition. And so Sherri changed from being a “straight guy to a straight girl”. Sherri met Sonny just before her transition and only became intimate with him once she had sex realignment surgery. Sherri did not tell Sonny she was once a man but soon Sonny discovered her secret and ended their relationship. Sonny was a “farmboy” from Oklahoma, and ex-navy, and somewhat homophobic.

I find Sherri’s change of sexuality interesting. I wonder if maybe Sherri had always just been homosexual instead of transgender. The sex change I feel was impacted by the social conforms in which Sherri was raised, whereby homosexuality and cross-dressing was seen as gravely wrong. This internalized homophobia, which resulted in repressed homosexuality, I feel could have made Sherri think she had to be a woman in order to be with a man.

Overall I find Sherri’s story particularly saddening simply because she does not look convincing as a female. Sherri is noticeable more ‘male’ then ‘female’ despite the SRS, make-up, name and overall persona she puts out to the public. Western society and culture I feel are more accepting of the beautiful, young and more convincing transgender people but have difficulty in accepting the less definitive. The older generations of transgender people are already so well developed in their birth sex and gender that it makes for a more difficult transition and life there after.

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