For the first 48 years, Shelley was Jim.
Shelley Emerson
Photograph by Lara Rossignol

This article originally appeared in our April 2004 issue.

There was a winter in between. There was November, and the gray evenings fell cold and took the life from everything. The city was dead. With autumn, Atlanta gave into this: Outside the people were gone from the streets and the trees had not been spared by the wind; the sun couldn’t warm the sky.

It did not change. She held a hope that it would, but each day she looked out from behind the curtains of her apartment window and each day it all looked dead. Into December, and January, the nights didn’t escape the gusts of her past. As they drew on, in the darkness of her bed she lay alone and wondered. She had not expected this. She had certainly expected something, but not this. Not her red face and aching breasts, which had suddenly begun to grow; not the 5 mg doses of estrogen and progesterone twice a day, nor the hot flashes and migraines afterward; not the sharp pain and tenderness from the laser burning hairs from her body; not her mood swings, nor the stranger who looked back from the mirror.

She had expected to be beautiful. Shelley Emerson let her graying hair grow long and brushed it down her back and put on lipstick and smoothed eye shadow soft below her brows and used foundation to cover the places where the facial hair had been seared away; she picked all the dresses and shoes and outfits that she would wear to work.

But she was not beautiful. No—she was 48 and tall with rough skin and large hands and a 5 o’clock shadow, a wide jaw, thin hair, and small breasts that rose meekly from the baggy clothing she wore in public to try to conceal them. Clinically, she was no longer a man, but physically, she was certainly not yet a woman. She was somewhere in between. And in public—after she had given up and tried to say the hell with it and would throw on a dress without shaving her face or put on makeup while wearing men’s clothing; after she decided that it was at least worth it to try to function as a normal person—well, in public it was bad.

She had waited so long. She expected the blessing of change, and now she wanted it to be over. But people stared. She was “Ma’am,” and she was “Sir,” and always it fluctuated. At the mall, at the grocery store, at the bank, at the drive-thru window and while she stood in line at the theater. She went out during her “transition” (the time period during which she would adapt hormonally, physically and socially into womanhood) and that’s the way it was, and strangers would get it wrong.

“What are you?”

“Who do you think you are?”

“What’s wrong with you?”

“C’mon . . . guy or girl?”

And people were cold. People were inhuman. They were animals and they saw that she was different and went after that difference like a scent. They would confront her and raise their voices while she would do her best to ignore them.

She would tell them to mind their own business, to leave her alone; and she would turn away as they passed. She learned to muster resilience, but—it did not get any easier.

She did look different. But the reaction was not fair. In her lifetime so much had been soured by merely one thing: She had grown up and lived for almost five decades with the unbearable fear that she was somehow the wrong person; that whoever was at the switch had somehow made a mistake and put her in the wrong body—and now, upon entrance into the second half of her life, she had come to an understanding of that confusion and an acceptance of it and a psychologist had said, It’s okay, there are people like you, and that’s why Shelley started the transition. Changing—physically transforming—would begin to amend the mistake, and it was the biggest decision of her life. It was a decision that might finally afford her at least the possibility that she could live out the rest of that life peacefully. So she made the choice, and now she was frozen in the dead winter of its consequences.

She thought about death. Not death as an option so much as death as an absolution. She guessed death would not be dark, and she guessed it would not be painful; she would just be gone. She would be gone and there would be no more people; there would be, thank God, no more cold; there would be something else—perhaps nothing—and whatever it was would be better than what she had now.

“I’ll drive north.”

That was her phrase.

It was short and she knew what it meant and she used it in the low depths of those months.

“What do you mean Shelley?” would be the reply.

“I’ll drive north.”

The North held nothing. Her parents were dead and her son was living overseas, and Tina* (*name has been changed), the woman in Virginia she still loved, had decided to be with her no longer, and so when she said “I’ll drive north,” she knew she would be leaving not to come back.

She had thought about Tina.

Tina had asked her to stay living as Jim. Shelley loved Tina but she had made the decision that she could no longer be Jim, the person who had met Tina. She could no longer pretend. And so she did not lie to this woman with brown hair and brown eyes and a laugh that now haunted her memories. Tina was . . . Tina was The One. They had shared good years and lived together and at one point they had talked about marriage.

Tina had accepted her—had accepted Jim—as a man who lived with a secret need to dress up at times as a woman, but had been unsure if that was all. Near the beginning of the relationship, she had asked, “Is this all? Or do I need to know about something else? Because if this is all, I can live with it.”

And the answer then, truthfully, was: Yes, this is all. So Shelley (the name Jim used while dressing as a woman) would come out after work or on the weekends or at night, and Tina would look her over; Tina would say that Shelley looked pretty and the two of them would go out, two women in dresses and boots. They were in love, and a part of love is acceptance.

But when dressing was not enough and Shelley’s needs evolved, they had argued about her decision to transition and now, when Tina phoned, the voice on the other end of the line was distraught:

“I love you more than anyone I’ve ever met. But I can’t be with you if you do this. I can’t make the journey with you.”

With Tina it had been special—it had been time during vacation on a white beach with the water over their feet; it had been dancing on the floors of clubs under the lights and at home with their shoes on the carpet to soft music followed by a passion with heat like they were teenagers; it had been taking her son and Tina’s daughter to show them, over the course of a week, Manhattan; it had been Maryland to meet her parents and Maui with the 10,000-foot mountains. With Tina there had been a happiness, and it had not always been a fairy tale, but there had been something between the two of them—they had a life together. They planned on always having a life together.

Now Tina was merely a voice. On a phone. In an apartment that looked out onto a city that slept in the gloom. And, unlike a great many people who hear the word “transsexual” and fall completely deaf to explanation, Tina listened and tried her best to understand.

Sometimes, it’s hard to understand. The human heart is nothing more than a tangle of complex wiring, after all. And if, for example, a man were to live more than half his life and then realize that he’d been trapped in his body as a wrong person, that he should’ve been living life as a woman all along—and you were the child of this man, or his mother, or his best friend, or the woman who he had spent a good many years with—well you can imagine how Tina’s heart became broken. But to imagine what he was going through? It would be nearly impossible.

For a transgender person, or “T” person (an umbrella term that can range from anyone who dresses in the clothing of the opposite sex to someone who has had sex reassignment surgery) there is, alongside the possibility of hope, the unfathomable chance of loss. Often, the loss of a lifetime and even more. When a woman or man makes the choice to transition—and in our city, as well as in our country and all over the globe, more and more people are self-identifying and starting to do something about it at an earlier and earlier age—trying to open the door to a new life means also risking the inexorable possibility of shutting it completely on all that was a part of the life they already had.

She had been an actor in her own life; she had played the role of a man for so long that she had become incredible in the part. She had played Jim as a guy’s guy with a ruddy face and short hair and Jim had been a great guy, a great success story; but Jim had only been a character. She had tried to convince herself, and in doing so had thus convinced everyone else. But she was never a “he.” Jim was a name, assigned to a body, and under the weight of that body she did her best to fulfill social expectations.

While living in that character, the only time she had been able to muster the courage to step out of the role and ask herself if she indeed was not Jim, as she had often suspected—was to strip off her suit or shirt and pants and dress in women’s clothing.

That’s the way it worked. From the beginning—as far back as she can remember, in her very first recollections—dressing had been a curiosity that matured into something like a craving.

For instance, when she was a child, at around age 3, she found her mother’s high-heels and put them on—her tiny feet swam in the tall shoes—and paraded around their house in El Paso. Her mother and father got sort of a chuckle out of it. But they stopped laughing when they found her, their middle son, called James back then, continuing to do it as he got older. To her parents, catching James in a skirt and hose was not a joke anymore. So dressing became something that she tried to conceal. She came home from school, made sure her two brothers were not yet home and made sure her parents were not at home, and then she went through her mother’s closet and searched for a dress, for shoes, for whatever she could find, and after she was fully clothed she would look in the mirror: A skinny boy, wearing a big dress; a bit awkward; and at times, she merely walked from room to room, balancing on high-heels. She did not understand. All she knew was that, for whatever reason, it felt good.

Her father, who worked for Southern Pacific Railroad, caught her one day after she had come home from her all-boys Catholic high school and he said, “Don’t you ever do that again. Boys don’t do that.” She was scared. Scared but not deterred. Just more secretive, in the afternoon and at night and when no one was home, and she cried because why she did this was something she did not understand . . . and there was no one she could tell.

As James, she was good at basketball and played football and was good with music and dated girls—she was always attracted to girls—and James had a temper, and if someone scored a goal on her in soccer; on the playground, she would lose control of it . . . just because she was confused, perhaps—and angry that she did not understand why; angry that she felt like a little girl, and that she should’ve been a little girl. Angry that she was a son instead of a daughter, and that when she had started puberty her penis didn’t shrink and go away and that her breasts, like other girls at that age, had not grown.

When she went to college, dressing became ritual, like a bulimic’s binge and purge, something she would overindulge, then try to eradicate. At the University of Texas she would meet women and befriend them, and after awhile—after awhile she would ask them to buy clothes for her, then give them the money to do it. Dressing never stopped being a freedom. But there were times when she could not stop and she bought so much clothing that she told herself, finally, I have to stop. So she would force herself. In the trash dumpster outside her apartment she would take all of it and toss it, or she would light a fire and burn them. She would tell herself it was over, and not owning any women’s clothes would force it to be over. But it could not be forced.

Once, after college, when she was back at home, living with her mother, she climbed in her car at about 3 a.m. and threw some of her mother’s clothes in the trunk, and then set out for the desert; and in the secrecy of nightfall she drove, following the headlights over the empty road, and pulled off, stopped and got out in the middle of the night; in the middle of the desert, where there was no sound except for wolves, a steady echo that cut the dry air; and as she stepped out of the car onto the ground she could hear them, calling; it was black, and so in that desert her white face became the moon—and she put on the dress and the shoes and turned off the car lights, and she stood frightened in the desert; and there, in the clothes of a woman, she found freedom.

Even when she married young at 25, she kept coming back to it; to dress was, in fact, a necessity. Nothing stopped it. Even when, on January 2, 1976, Gene Emerson was born and Shelley became a father.

At work, they understood. At least, they seemed to. Shelley told them in 2001, after she started taking hormones. There had been a series of meetings and for her employers it was a bit shocking, but they seemed to understand. In that bad time, it was one good thing.

Her coworkers had seen Jim go through some gradual, if interesting, changes around the Atlanta offices of Norfolk Southern—there was his long hair, which shone with blonde highlights and was tied into a ponytail below his shoulders; and he won an office contest to see who could lose the most weight, which seemed to draw some idle suspicion for whatever reason—and Shelley figured they probably thought Jim, the database administrator, was gay and coming out.

Before Shelley met privately in the office of Diane, her manager, to explain that she had made the decision to transition, she had gone over what she might say—what Jim might say—during that meeting; she had braced herself for what might be Diane’s response during the course of the conversation. Basically, she had prepared to discuss the terms of her being let go. So she had said to Diane, calmly,

“I’d love to transition here. But if you don’t think this is good, if you want me to leave, then fine, but I want a reference, and I want that reference to be for Shelley.” And, to her surprise, Diane did not want her to leave. Diane had said, with complete understanding, “Well, that won’t be necessary—what you’re doing or what you’ve done will not affect your work. If someone doesn’t like it, then they should just get over it.”

Shelley did not apologize for what she was doing—for what Jim would be doing—and had pointed out, “You know, I’m very good at my job.” She told Diane she didn’t know when she would start—that is, she didn’t know what the date would be when she would begin transitioning at work.

It took a little less than a year. In that time, management changed—Diane went from being her manager to another group, and a new manager—a woman named Mary Jane—took over Jim’s group. It was troubling, at first. For Shelley, it was like, “Oh great, something else on top of everything.” She and Diane got together and took Mary Jane out to lunch and hoped for the best. Two weeks into her first management role, Shelley thought, and this is what Mary Jane gets.

“I have something to tell you,” Shelley said to Mary Jane during that lunch. And after she had spoken, Mary Jane became certain that this meeting was to announce Jim would be leaving the company. When she had found out that wasn’t the case, a relieved Mary Jane said simply, “Let’s figure out how to make this happen.” A week later, the two of them met with the director of IT operations at the company—another woman, named Lajuana—and took her to lunch. Her reaction was similar: “I thought this was going to be about you leaving.” They all agreed: For Jim—rather, Shelley now—there would be an infrastructure of support in the company, and she could turn to them and the coworkers would be instructed and given only the option to accept it. Shelley was glad to be there, dealing with women. If there was one thing she learned living her life as a woman trapped in a man’s body, it was that women, in general, were a lot more understanding. During the meeting they agreed that she would transition at work (wearing women’s clothing, earrings, etc.) in July of 2002.

After that, more meetings within the company. Mary Jane took on the task of speaking to various groups while Shelley was gone, and she made it clear that Jim Emerson’s coworkers would not harass Shelley when she arrived. It was emphasized, by management, that under any circumstance, harassment would not be tolerated; and if it happened, those persons would be subject to the appropriate actions, including termination.

Shelley was not there to see those meetings. She was on a plane to Thailand, on her way to get her face changed.

There is something baffling about gender.

Indeed, gender is what we are. It is regarded as something we have forever been assigned, and so when a person’s gender identity (what they perceive themselves to be) does not match the sexual organs they’ve been granted and they search for an explanation, we just assume that there’s something wrong with them, a mental defect. Or that something bad happened to them during childhood. A common perception is: What you’ve got down there tells you all you need to know about yourself.

Psychologists have rendered that perception defunct. As confusing as it may seem—and this must be understood as fact—gender is not the same as sex, and gender is not binary. Yes, it is man and woman, but not always. While physiologically based, gender is not merely about the genes, or the genitals, or hormones—psychologists say it is largely about the mind and not the body, and since a person has little choice but to be what their brain tells them to be . . . well, for Shelley, life became a daily fight against her mind’s voice, which endlessly talked, and what it said, very loudly, was: You are not a man. You are a woman.

Certainly, society has not embraced this confusion. Whatever science says about gender and the way it works in regard to the mind, society has not taken a liking to it; when someone is talking about a transgender person, you might hear them say the word “freak.” Even medical companies have long seen sex reassignment surgery as ridiculous, and thus it is labeled a cosmetic surgery, something insurance will not pay for, which is why, in many instances, when some T people would like to permanently eradicate parts of the body that have given them only psychological upheaval, they are simply financially unable to move on with their lives.

The surgeries—she had wanted them. Had needed them. Had talked about them and prepared for them and read about their effects—she had even seen computerized pictures of how she might look after having them and how much money they would require.

Facial feminization surgery: A doctor would shave her forehead bone, and tug the skin of her scalp down to make the top of her face appear shorter and more feminine; an intrusive process, medically. The whole forehead, whittled like a wooden figurine. The eyebrows would be raised. And the nose– Shelley had a good nose for a man—not prominent but just a man’s nose, strong and thin. It would be shortened and pushed up as well. And afterward—with the hope that everything went well—afterward, with this new face, she would no longer be a woman wrapped in a man’s skin. She would finally appear as a female on the outside.

Coupled with the hormones—with her breast growth and the gradual, if minute, expansion of her thighs—facial surgery would mostly complete the physical transformation. The only thing after would be SRS: Sex reassignment surgery, formerly called a sex-change operation. Which was big. Which was a final goodbye to being trapped in the wrong body. At least, if she looked down . . . if she looked and what had been down there before was not down there anymore, then it was certainly a major type of goodbye.

She was willing. The pictures were a bit dispiriting—the faces covered in bandages, as if the people had been pulled in wrappings from a tomb; and it was so much money—more than $30,000 altogether—but she was willing.

Tina accompanied Shelley for the facial surgery. Tina decided she loved Shelley too much not to be by her side during transition, and when Shelley scheduled the surgery, and as the people at work prepared for a woman to return in Jim’s place, Tina and Shelley and Tina’s daughter, Alice* (*name has been changed), bought tickets to Thailand.

There are only a few surgeons in the world who specialize in male-to-female transsexual facial feminization surgery. Dr. Suporn in Chonburi, Thailand, is one of those. Shelley had chosen Dr. Suporn because the surgery there would be cheaper than the same type of surgery done in the states, in places like San Francisco and Houston and even in Atlanta.

Shelley shook on the plane with images of what might become of her face. When she arrived, the night before surgery she was not allowed food; the morning of the surgery she was given an enema. They wheeled her to the operating room on a gurney, with an IV dripping into her arm. She was draped in a white smock. Surgery, at 9 a.m., was led by the main doctor, Suporn, an assistant doctor, an anesthetist and four nurses. Breathe, they assured her. Breathe. She counted backward from 99 . . . 98 . . . 97 . . .

Six hours later. She had been scared but confident before surgery and she knew she wanted it but when she woke up—when she opened her eyes once and the fog of the room dissolved, that confidence was gone. Her chest rose but it seemed she could not breathe even with the air from the tubes in her mouth. Her face was a plaster of gauze and breathing was like suffocation.

At each temple, under the bandages, a needle drained the plasmatic fluid that leaked from her face; then tubes connected to the needles and bags connected to those tubes, and the bags were full. Ice, on her face and forehead. Limp hands too heavy to lift, resting motionless on the bed. Her face, which was now the size of two faces, seemed ready to give up and explode; her body took on the pain of being repeatedly slammed against a wall. Thoughts of screaming, but . . . screaming required energy.

Again, it was not as she expected. When enough time had elapsed and she had gained total coherence . . . when her eyes fought to see from the bandage holes . . . when the only sound from the bed was the rasp of her breathing . . . it was then she decided that surgery had been the wrong decision.

So when she could move—when her mind lost its haze and when her body was able to stand and feel the floor beneath its feet—one of the first things she did was get on the Internet in the room and e-mail some friends in her transitions group in Atlanta and tell them not to have facial surgery. She wrote that it was a bad idea, that in the haste of her desire to change perhaps she had made an error. And it was an error she would now have to live with forever.

But after three days passed and her face shed much of its swelling (It took a good year for it to recover completely), she began to reconsider her regret. She had a private suite in the hospital, and Tina and Alice stayed on a couch and a cot and were there to cheer her up. After a week she was moved to a hotel in Pattaya and the doctors and nurses visited and brought flowers and she could see the resort city out her window and it was, as the doctors had promised, a place to warm in her new world.

When her son was born, she did still not understand why she dressed as a woman. She lived by the assumption that whatever it was would just go away. But she still dressed. She would hold her son and sing to him at night and rocked him while she—his father—wore a nightgown. It did not bother Anne*(*name has been changed), her wife.

When they got divorced in 1977—due to irreconcilable reasons that had nothing to do with Shelley’s dressing—baby Gene was a year old, and Jim was granted custody. She switched jobs at the same time—from a high school math teacher to a computer programmer for a larger insurance company—and moved to Houston. She was a single man, raising a baby. It was just the two of them. She would go to work by day and put him in the daycare center and then come home exhausted; she changed diapers and she was still dressing and it was hard, being a single parent. The baby was sick, all the time. He coughed and had allergies; they had moved from the desert to Houston and they both had allergies. It was almost impossible to take care of herself and the baby and then work.

So she gave him up. It was the hardest thing she ever had to do—if you do not count going through transition—and she handed Gene back to his mother at the Houston airport and watched them disappear into the sky. She thought: As a father, I’ve failed. And, despite her success in the role of Jim, she felt as Jim she’d failed, too. She went to see her first psychologist later that year, when she was 29. She read about someone in Galveston who performed sex-change operations, and went seeking answers.

The psychologist asked her to complete a test, which asked questions such as: Do you hate your penis? Do you hate men? Do you love men? Do you want a vagina? Do you masturbate often? Do you masturbate in women’s clothing? What’s your sexual gratification?

The questions freaked her out. She answered “No” to the “Do you hate your penis?” question and therefore the doctor said, “You’re a transvestite.” Transvestism, the adoption of the dress, manner and, frequently, the sexual role of the opposite sex, was a definition that seemed to fit Shelley.

The psychologist recommended her to a shrink in Houston who worked with transsexuals. And she went, and they worked together. During one discussion, the shrink gave her an assignment: “I want you to go dress up this weekend, and then tell me what you feel,” the shrink said. When Shelley was given the assignment—when someone asked her to go dress up—she couldn’t do it. She tried, but could not. She had lost her son, and even for dressing she had no motivation.

It was during this time that she made a discovery, although not about who she was—that would come later. She made the discovery of spirituality. Not spirituality from God, but spirituality of the self. She had the idea that it would help answer the question of who she was.

“As long as you’re still the same person on the inside, it doesn’t matter,” her son said, after pausing to think a minute when Shelley told him. Of course, to him, it wasn’t Shelley saying anything. It was his father, Jim, and Jim was making a very important phone call.

She told Gene while she was planning the transition, in 2001. She said, “You need to know about this, because I’ve made up my mind and I’m going to do it.” His response was only, “If you need to do it, Dad, do it.”

It had been a tough decision to make the call, but she made it and was scared but something told her he would not turn away. She went to see him. Her face was thinner, and her brow had been lifted, and she arrived in a dress, and she did not look like dad anymore.

“It’s amazing how your personality fits you,” Gene said. “It makes sense—it fits you better now than when you were a male.”

They had a conversation, then, and during its course Gene admitted, “Well . . . when I was living with you, I saw some pictures.”

When Gene was 12, after living with his mother for 11 years, Shelley got him back, and raised him through his teens. They lived in Reston, Virginia—near where Shelley would eventually meet Tina—and when she got her son back she stopped dressing. She knew he would find out, if she did. So she did not buy clothes. But when he was 15, in that third year, she could not take it anymore—could not temper the compulsion of needing to dress, and so she sought an outlet—and that outlet came in the form of the Transgender Education Association of Washington, D.C. She became a member of the group and the group held monthly meetings where its members (some transsexual, some transvestites, all transgender) were allowed to dress up. She would make sure Gene was out that night, and she would rush from the house and dress and go to the meetings and then come back and try to beat him home. If he was home, she had to find a way to sneak into the house so he wouldn’t see her, which was tough. She was in her early 40s, and had already faced the world as Shelley; she had already faced the lens of a camera, which she had set up on a timer, and posed in front of it to see how she would look—and in the pictures, which were taken in the late hours of the night when her son was asleep, when she had the time and could not be found, and in those pictures she looked like a middle-aged man wearing pantyhose and a dress and a wig and makeup, a middle-aged man with a ghost face, and—yes, she had faced a part of the world as Shelley. She had already picked the name with the first three letters s-h-e, and had thought that Shelley and Emerson had been two great writers, as she aspired to be; and she had been a fan of Shelley Long on Cheers, who played the character of an independent woman; she had already thought about that.

But to face her son as Shelley was a different story. She had feared that he would find those pictures she kept stashed and see her face caught in the frames, a face with the eyes of something captured and terrified—and he would see and deride her, and reject her. So dressing became like a game. But her son claimed he did not know—even after he left, when he was 19, to go overseas and be in the military and she had asked him, “Are there any questions you need to ask me; is there anything about me you want to know?” He had not asked.

After he left, when the fear that he would find out about that part of her life was no longer an issue, she had gone to the Southern Comfort Conference in Atlanta, the world’s biggest week-long congregation of T people. Around the time she also met Tina, at a dance hall, and they had fallen for each other; and after a little while Tina asked her, when she found out, “Is there anything else I need to know?” and the answer had been no. Tina went to meetings with Shelley at the TGEA of D.C. and those meetings helped her understand; Tina even helped start a “significant others” group for partners of TGEA members, so they could all talk about relationship issues.

But in the conversation Shelley had with her son, in that first meeting after facial surgery, he seemed to know. He had, apparently, gone through her room when she was not there, and, being a curious teen, found those pictures. But—he had never asked. And now, he was not completely surprised. But unlike then, now he did have some questions: “How else are you going to change?” he asked. He wanted to know if she would have sexual reassignment surgery, and she said yes.

He wanted to know what her new name would be.

It was a hard thing to find out she was more than a transvestite—it was a hard thing because half her life was over, and when she came to the realization that she wasn’t dressing to embody Shelley but that she actually was Shelley, it was difficult to come to terms with.

That realization had come when a spiritual counselor asked her, “So . . . are you really Jim, or are you really Shelley?” And that question was borne out of a question that she had asked the counselor, which was: “If I’m so spiritual and everything’s going fine and I have a girlfriend that I live with and her daughter loves me and my son loves me and everything’s going fine, and I have a good career, then why am I so miserable?”

It was a simple question, but an honest answer could mean to have lived almost an entire life that would now end for the purpose of starting over—completely over. And something Shelley realized is that she had acted as Jim and in that acting had never let herself be Shelley, which made transition not only a period of physical change but indeed a length of time in which she would gradually learn to finally be herself.

Shortly after this realization, Shelley came to Atlanta having landed a new contract at Norfolk Southern. She joined a transitions group of eight people who were identifying themselves as someone different, like she was. Alicia, and Becky, and Pam, and Michael; women and men who were about to all go through transition. Led by a psychologist and reverend, who had transitioned from male to female and kept her ordination as a minister—the group would meet once a week in an office at a Presbyterian church in the city and everyone could talk about their lives, and what in their past life had led them to the group.

These people had been asked the same sorts of questions, or had asked those types of questions themselves. Questions which, when posed, led to an impossible decision—the decision to answer.

She returned to work as a woman.

In a red blouse, a dark blue pant suit, earrings, makeup, brown hair and low-heel dress shoes, she walked into the office as Shelley Emerson. It was July 31, 2002, and that morning someone from her systems department stepped in the elevator, and as the doors closed and shut the two of them in on the way up to the office, he turned to her and said, calmly, “I admire you for what you’re doing, and I just want you to know I’m okay with it.”

Her cubicle in the office looked out onto the gold top of the Georgia state Capitol, and to get to her seat by the window she had to walk through a cluster of coworkers, and as she had taken a few deep breaths and stepped out of the elevator, the first woman she saw smiled and welcomed her as “Shelley.” The second woman she encountered, who had been her best friend at work, immediately became visibly shaken. She wouldn’t even look at Shelley, and she was tense; when Shelley addressed her, she would not turn her head to reply. They had been good friends, directly across from each other in similar cubes, had liked to share gossip and had been open about each of their lives and Shelley had confided in her only months back that transition was something she was going to do, and the woman had then been only compassionate—but now this woman looked upon Jim and only saw his new face. After an entire day of tedious silence between the two of them, Shelley said, “I considered you my friend,” and the woman replied, “I don’t know what your definition of ‘friend’ is, but it’s not mine.”

During that first week back someone said to her, “Look . . . we’re just trying to get past this problem.” When she met with her bosses and planned out things at work, this type of reaction was something they hadn’t thoroughly discussed.

Generally, however, the reaction was positive. The reaction was a lot of, “You go, girl,” and “You’re an incredible person,” and even though she still stung from the shock of losing a friend, the atmosphere at her workplace hadn’t changed and she came to the office each day as Shelley, and felt comfortable in doing so. It was, basically, business as usual. In her life outside the office, she told her brothers, and they visited Atlanta to see her and were happy for her; when she came back to work, there no longer seemed to be the burden of losing anyone else, which made her decision to have sex reassignment surgery seem less difficult.

She thought: I’ve gone this far, why not go all the way? In March of 2002 she scheduled the date—there was not the outright fear of scheduling for facial surgery—and went back to Thailand by herself. It was not a long surgery (four and a half hours) and unlike facial surgery, SRS was merely the rearranging of tissue, without the cutting of bone. The doctors would be creating something in the process of taking a piece of her away. When it was over, she had the working genitals of a woman; the only things she did not have after surgery were ovaries, fallopian tubes and a uterus. She was not allowed from her bed for five days and she had to let the packing inside of her solidify.

The recovery room was quiet, and those nights were full of long sleep. There were two sets of windows in the private room and as she lay there the windows allowed a clear view out into the Gulf of Thailand and she would wake up in the blue light and the sound of the bogs headed slowly out into the ocean.

A voice . . .  

“For months, I tired to bury that part of me. Rapidly burying me, throwing dirt on top. It didn’t work.”

. . . and another . . .

“I fear the loss of my children more than anything. It’s been a constant struggle within me; I’ve dealt with it every day of my life. What would life had been like if I’d lived it in peace?”

. . . while a faint pulse of candles keeps the room alive in red glow.

“It was hell . . . for a long time, it was hell.”

Voices quiet, and loud, and unexpected, soaked by exegetic strains of tears—the collective sound of 30 women who form a circle in foldaway chairs, holding hands in an upstairs corner space of the Sheraton Midtown Atlanta during the Southern Comfort Conference in September.

“I don’t know life at all. It’s like a Joni Mitchell song: I’ve looked at life upside down and it’s still life’s illusions that I’ve found.”

“T people, in general, have benefited from the struggle. They have a perspective. Every one of us has looked and thought and obsessed over the human condition, more so than the average person, and that’s been very hard, but rewarding. ”

“There were dark ages . . . I admitted who I was . . . I decided that I had a masculine side of my life, and a feminine side of my life . . . I wouldn’t trade all the hell that led to me making that discovery.”

A tall woman, with red hair and glasses; a woman with wide hands; a woman in a satin dress; and a woman in long boots and a woman with a stuffed doll in her lap and a woman in a blonde wig curled out near the temples; none of them asking for much—just to be listened to.

In the miracle of this dark space, with her arms out on each side, hands connected, and eyes shut, Shelley Emerson, a 52-year-old woman with short, strawberry hair, green eyes and a high, feminine laugh, takes a deep breath and says, “I trust people more now, because I let them see who I really am. Honestly, how many people can say that? ‘I know who I am.’ Well, I can.”

Along with the roomful of women, Shelley stands to dance.

“Oh, sisters,” the song begins, “at the end of a knockabout day . . . the moon sets its sails to carry you to sleep . . . and I will sing you a song that no one sang to me . . . and may it keep you company . . . you can be whoever you want to be.”