I recently had the privilege to speak with Rachael Booth, an activist, speaker, feminist, and the author of Star Light, Star Bright: The Story of a Wish Come True, the incredible story of Rachael’s early life and process of becoming a woman. Not only is a she an author, but she holds a degree (Cum Laude) in Computer Science and Specialized Foreign Language, speaks Mandarin, Arabic and a handful of other languages, AND she also holds a second-degree black belt in Okinawa Kenpo Karate and weaponry and she sings. In a nutshell, she is an amazing woman. Now you should get to know Rachael”¦
PM: I know we had previously talked about your history, but can you give your readers a description your life experiences growing up?
RB: I knew by the age of 5 in the mid “˜50s that something was wrong. Everyone told me I was a boy but I knew better. I would pray every night to a God who never listened, or sit outside to wish on the first star in the sky that I would wake up the next morning as a girl. I knew I had something different “down there” because I had a baby sister. I just thought that what I had was supposed to fall off at some time because my sister didn’t have one.
In school I had lots of friends who were girls but few who were boys. I thought boys were stupid and gross and didn’t want anything to do with them. This set me up for a lot of taunting and bullying from them. As I got into high school, the taunting got worse. I was called “gay” a lot but I didn’t know what that meant ““ only that it wasn’t good.
When puberty hit, I knew my body was never going to change to be a girl’s body by itself so I thought I would have to learn to live with what I had. I started dating girls. I liked dating girls ““ I was never gay ““ and I did date a few for just a little time. I didn’t know how to be a boy with a girl and always felt awkward. On top of all that I was horribly embarrassed by my body and would never even take a shower with the guys if there was any way I could get out of it. It just didn’t seem right somehow. Of course this just added to the problems I had with the boys in school and the taunting and bullying got more and more vicious. I spent lunch hours by myself in a small room practicing piano just so I didn’t have to put up with the constant abuse.
When I graduated high school I did what a lot of trans-people from my generation did ““ I joined the Navy (during Vietnam) in an attempt to find my place in the world as a man. I thought being around other men in the Navy would show me how. I could not have been more wrong.
PM: You were in the navy for a few years ““ what was it like to have this feeling about yourself and your identity in what could presumably be a very masculine ““ defined and rigid environment? It seems like you exist within two worlds.
RB: The Navy was a double-edged sword for me. I got to get away from small town Ohio to see the world and learn amazing things. I was a Chinese and Arabic linguist while in the Navy and got to travel all over the world, actually living in beautiful southern Spain for 4 years. It was wonderful. On the other side of the coin, the Navy did nothing to enhance my opinion of men. On one tour of duty on a ship we were getting ready to come into port. The guys I was bunking with were all sitting around talking about a little game they were going to play when they got off the ship ““ who could do the most disgusting thing to the most disgusting prostitute they could find. I was appalled. All of these guys were either married, engaged, or had girlfriends back home. When I asked them how they could do something like this, they replied, “Men have needs.” I asked them if they thought their wives, fiancÃ©s, and girlfriends had needs, too, and how they would feel if their loved ones were going to be doing the same thing while their guys were out at sea. They all said, “They’d better damn well not be!” Then they started asking why I was talking like this. Was I a faggot? Anyone thought to be gay on a ship had a funny habit of getting beaten up in the middle of the night and thrown overboard, never to be seen again. I shut up and walked away.
It was also during my time in the Navy that I decided that maybe I’d learn to like myself as a man if I was a husband and father. I met a young woman when we were both 19 and we were married within three months. My first son, Christopher, was born a year later. Of course this was a mistake, too. Making love as a man was just not right. I would imagine how my wife felt when we had sex and what it was like for her. When my own urges took over I felt like an animal and hated it. When my wife was pregnant I was so envious of her I could barely look at her. When our son was born all I could think was that it should have been me in that delivery room having him, not her. This marriage lasted only 3 years and ended terribly badly. My wife and I had discussed what I had been struggling with as a child and she became so angry at me that she made my life miserable, even after the divorce. I didn’t get to see my son again until he contacted me when he was 13 years old.
I did get married once more, though; this time to a woman who knew all about my struggle. We decided that if we got married, she could stay in Spain and then she would help me make my transition to becoming a woman when I got out of the Navy. (I had decided that I was not going to be able to continue living as a man.) Unfortunately what she really meant was that she would “fix me.” Of course that didn’t work but she made sure I wouldn’t leave by not telling me that she wasn’t taking her birth control medication. Our marriage finally fell apart after about 7 years but by that time we’d had two children, a girl and a boy. After my second wife found religion, I was not allowed to see my children or to even know where they were. It was very hard for me.
PM: When did it click for you? What were all the different emotions and thoughts you were experiencing?
RB: I dated for a while after my second divorce, having decided there was no way I was ever going to be able to change who I was. I still struggled with my identity but tried to push it away as I had during my marriages. One woman I met was very special and we ended up falling in love. Before it got too serious, we discussed my ongoing problem because I didn’t want to hide anything from her. But I did tell her that I had beaten it and it was no longer a problem. I wanted to be with her so badly I really believed it. We eventually got engaged. But on New Year’s Eve one year we went to New York City to see a Broadway show, have a nice dinner, and watch the ball drop on Time’s Square. But I was upset during all this time and didn’t know why. It finally dawned on me when I got back home that while we were at the show I found myself gazing longingly at the women all seated around me in their beautiful gowns thinking how nice they would look on me and how sad it made me feel to know that I couldn’t wear them. I sat down on my bed with every pill in the house and started taking them, wondering what it would feel like to finally die and end my misery. I was 40 years old. Before I took many of the pills, I called a good friend, a transgender woman, to say goodbye. She talked me out of taking any more pills.
What I had almost done shook me to my core. I had to decide what to do. In the middle of the winter in southern New Jersey, I packed my tent and sleeping bag and, with some books on Chinese philosophy and a lantern, went out into a State Park and camped for a weekend with no one around. Alone in the wilderness and dead silence of the winter I read and thought ““ something I had long dreaded doing. It finally came to me ““ I had to love myself before I could love anybody else. Simple but staggering. I hated who I was. I hated my life even though I was very successful in business. I hated how I was living. I hated how I’d hurt so many people in my search to be “whole”. I wasn’t going to do this anymore. I had always wondered how other friends that I had in the “trans” community found the courage to make the change. It was then that I discovered it wasn’t courage at all; it was the conviction that if I didn’t make the change I would die.
I went back home and told my fiancÃ© what I had to do. I never saw her again. Then I went to work and told my boss the same. My journey had started for real. There was no turning back.
PM: How did your family and those receive the news of your transition? You had also told me that you were a successful computer programmer working in what sounded like a semi-corporate environment ““ how was your transition received? Throughout everyone else’s reactions, what were thoughts and feelings on them?
RB: My family was aghast at what I wanted to do. My mother thought I was just looking for “greener grass on the other side of the fence” after two failed marriages. I tried explaining why I had to do this but my parents thought I should look for more help first. I told them that I had been to more therapists than I could count. I had also looked to religion but religion has never had any answers for me ““ just more questions. My prayers not being answered as a child had turned me away from religion long ago. I was not to hear from my parents for another twenty years when I fell into a coma and almost died from a tick-borne illness called Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever. My mother and I have always been best friends and losing my relationship with her as a result of what I had to do was almost more than I could bear. My entire family is now back in my life with the exception of my youngest son who is developmentally disabled due to heart problems as an infant and his mother’s success in making me a bad person to him. Because of his problems I’ve had to let go of him, knowing that he’s happy with his mother and stepfather.
At work my manager made an immediate appointment with me and him to see our people in Human Resources. The manager there was a friend and took the news with quite a bit of shock, as did my boss. He asked if this change would affect my work. I told him to imagine that, if they thought my work was good now, how good was it going to be after I didn’t have this crushing weight on my shoulders? My company had never seen anything like this before and didn’t quite know how to handle it. The HR manager assigned a young woman associate of his to work with me on this, who immediately told me she would quit her job before she’d allow me to be discriminated against because of this. Most people in my position were immediately fired.
I took a few weeks off, had a little plastic surgery try to feminize my face a bit and came back to work as Rachael. I was moved to another building in a much less public position as a programmer again, having given up my manager’s job because I didn’t want to cause my company any embarrassment. This is when the fun began.
While I was away from work, my company brought in a woman who was an “expert” on “trans” people to tell the workers in the building I was going to what to expect. I never met this woman and wasn’t allowed to be in the meeting to answer questions. Most people didn’t really care – they were a bit intrigued. But others were outraged, almost all older women who were not especially feminine looking. How could this man come into their workplace pretending to be a woman and they had to put up with it? They were in no way going to share the bathroom with me. The compromise? I had to carry a large red sign with me whenever I went to the bathroom that said “DO NOT ENTER” and place it in a special holder installed on the door just for me. I had to knock on the door and ask if anyone was inside. If there was someone inside I had to stand outside with my sign and wait for them to leave. This was humiliating. I was in no way dangerous to anyone. I came to discover that there were three things these angry women were afraid of: 1) that I would be spying on them while they were doing their business (How? By standing on the toilet seat and peering over the stall divider?), 2) that I might sexually attack them (I had been taking hormones for so long that I couldn’t get excited as a man if I wanted to), and 3) that I would spread AIDS on the toilet seat. I could not even begin to answer the idiocy of that comment.
I finally talked management into letting me use a much smaller sign and found that most women didn’t care if I was in there or not. They thought that I didn’t want to be in there with them. Quite funny. I used the sign until after I had had my surgery and was fully female in every way. After that happened, I ripped my little signs up (I had several) and left pieces of them in each of the three bathrooms in my building.
PM: How old were you when you became a woman? What was the process like?
RB: I was 41 when I had my surgery. By the Harry Benjamin Standards of Care I had to work and socialize completely 24 hours a day as a woman for an entire year before I could have surgery. I also had to have a letter of recommendation from a therapist and a psychiatrist, as well as a letter from a doctor saying that I had been taking hormones for at least a year. The idea is that when a person gets on the operating table the only thing that would differentiate them from the gender they are becoming is what’s between their legs. Once the surgery is done, there is no going back.
I decided to go to Brussels, Belgium to have my surgery. The doctor there was world-renowned, the surgery was cheaper there (I had to pay for everything myself) and I thought it would be a fantastic vacation. On the eve of checking into the hospital I dressed in my best skirt and blouse and treated myself to the best restaurant in Brussels. I checked into the hospital knowing that I was happy and that if something went wrong during the surgery and I didn’t survive, I had died doing the best thing for myself I could do.
The surgery took about 4 hours. The testicles are removed but the scrotal skin is kept for later. The penis is slit down the middle and hollowed out leaving only the skin. The head of the penis is removed but the nerves leading to it are saved and rolled up into a ball to form the clitoris. The penis skin is sewn shut. An incision is made between the base of the penis and the anus and the penis skin is inverted and pushed inside the new opening, forming a vagina with the outer skin of the tube being what used to be the inner skin, allowing it to grow together with the skin inside the new opening. The inner skin of the new vagina is what used to be the outer skin of the penis. This remains open for life but for the first few years has to be continually stretched with a dildo (what a strange feeling!). The nerve ball is sewn into the top of the vagina and the scrotal sack is used to form the labia. The urethra of the penis, having been shortened, is now repositioned and sewn in place. The doctor said this part of the procedure was the most difficult.
When I awoke from my surgery I felt no pain; just a lot of pressure in my lap. I was up walking around in the hospital the next day and left for my hotel room in three days where I continued to see things I wanted to see as a tourist, albeit not quite as quickly as I had before I went to the hospital. The funniest thing about all of this was that I left the hospital still having a catheter in my urethra so that the newly positioned urethra didn’t close up. In all the time leading up to my surgery and even years before I never felt right about standing up to pee. Now here I was, totally female for the first time in my life and I HAD to stand up to pee. The catheter was removed after about 4 more days and then I was able to return home.
PM: You published a book called “Star Light, Star Bright: The Story of a Wish Come True” which chronicled your journey from childhood to your attempts to fit in to transitioning to your life currently. Can you tell me more about why you decided to write this book, what it did for you and what you hope it does for others?
RB: I always knew I was going to write this book. I grew up in a time when being gay wasn’t talked about, let alone being transgender. There was no such word. And I thought I was the only person in the world that felt like this. I knew how lonely my life had been. I can’t remember a day when I didn’t have a thought of committing suicide just to make the pain go away. I was able to put these thoughts away by throwing myself into learning as much as I could and experiencing new things. I stayed away from “crutches” like booze, drugs and religion and was determined to get through this by myself. Most people aren’t so lucky to be able to do that. I wanted to write the book to show them that, hard as my life was, their lives were probably the same in many ways and I was able to transcend all of this and achieve my dream despite the fears of losing my family, losing my job, losing my sanity and losing hope. I short, if my wish could come true, theirs could, too.
I also wrote the book so that their loved ones and friends might be able to read it and understand more about what their loved one has been going through. If there was something I could do to help so that they had their family’s support and love through this, I was going to try. It was horribly lonely to go to Brussels knowing that my family didn’t care.
Writing the book was very cathartic for me as well. It took me twelve years to write the book. I wanted it to be right and I wanted it to be something people would enjoy reading. Most books of this type are either written in flowery language or full of facts and statistics. My book is written as if I’m sitting in the room just talking to a person about it. I tried to keep the book upbeat ““ it’s quite funny in most places ““ but there are just some parts that can’t be joked. When I wrote about my first divorce I had no idea that the pain of that memory was still so fresh in my mind. I put the book down and didn’t write any more for two years. I still have problems reading that part. But the one thing I can say about the book is that it has a really, really happy ending.
PM: You also speak at colleges, particularly in Gender Studies classes, on educating people’s perceptions of transpeople. What are the positives of this experience? Do you feel like you are able to plant little earworms and slowly change people’s perceptions?
RB: Every time I speak in colleges or universities I leave feeling just wonderful. My main goal in these talks is to show the students that trans-people aren’t at all what they see on Jerry Springer. Nor are we drag queens in bad K-Mart clothes. The number of misconceptions is staggering.
I start each class by giving a short, half hour version of my story and then opening the class to questions. I tell everyone that there is nothing they can ask me that I won’t answer, then pick the first timid questioner, usually a girl. No matter what question she asks, I’ll feign shock saying that no one has ever asked me that before. Then I laugh and say I’m just kidding. That makes everyone laugh and breaks the ice. I answer the question and then everyone starts asking. I get questions that run the gamut ““ do I have periods (no, I don’t have a uterus but if they ever find a way to transplant one, I’m going to be first in line). Do I have periods? (see the answer to the first question). Can I have an orgasm? (Not really ““ in a second surgery I had to make my labia look more realistic, the doctor must have nicked the nerves to my clitoris and I no longer have any feeling there. It’s a small price to pay to finally be a whole person.) Did I ever masturbate (usually asked by some smirking boy)? (Sure! I had the equipment. I wasn’t going to waste it. Do you?) I always seem to get at least one question about why I would do this when God made me male. That one is more difficult because, while I enjoy talking politics with people, religion is much more personal. As an atheist, I don’t worry about such questions but I don’t want to seem like I’m denigrating anyone else’s religion. I usually just say that this condition, like other conditions people are born with, is something that happens in the womb where, during fetal development, something goes wrong in the gender development (all fetuses start off as female) and a signal goes to the groin to tell it form a penis but it does not get to the brain to tell the brain to be wired for female. So you get a male body with a female brain. This is the standard belief now and not some psychological development that had gone wrong after birth as scientists used to believe. So it’s not God’s work in this, just nature gone a bit wrong. This explanation doesn’t always help but it’s the best I can do.
My last words to the students is to give them an assignment ““ that they have to go out and talk about me to their friends to pass on that we’re just normal people like them, not some freak of nature to be feared or made fun of. At the end of class I always have at least a few students who come thank me for what I’ve done to help them understand. In one particular class, the professor and I got to class early. The students showed up and we started the class. Afterward a lot of the women in the class came up to me to tell me that they’d known that they were going to have a talk from a trans-person but kept wondering where this person was when everyone sat down. They were amazed to find out it was me. No one has ever paid me a bigger compliment.
PM: How do you think the language on describing transpersons affect social discourse? Do you think the media’s representations on transpeople lack in complexity and actuality? Do you think it affects our language because of this representation?
RB: The media’s handling of the issue of transgender people has come a long way since the days of Jerry Springer. Springer showed trans-people as jokes; something to laugh at. But the media has finally started to come around on this subject and treat it with the respect it deserves. Just recently on the OWN network, Lisa Ling did a one hour “Our America” show on trans-people from a five year old boy who identified as a girl with his parents (devoutly religious) allowing him to live as a girl to a woman becoming a man who was a bodybuilder with the other members of his club looking on in awe. It is very uplifting to see the stigma of being a transperson changing for the good. I am out in my community and not one person in my little town has a problem with who I am. They find it hard to believe I was ever male.
PM: Do you think that the majority of social activistism sometimes marginalizes trans voices? Sometimes it seems like causes such as feminism and the lesbian and gay right movement often becomes exclusive when the message is that would be the most supportive of transgender people. I might be projecting here. What do you think?
RB: In the case of the feminist movement, there are a lot of genetic women who have a lot of trouble with trans-women. They don’t look at us as “real” women. I’m not sure exactly why. Because we don’t have a uterus? Lots of women don’t have a uterus. Does that make them less of a woman? Because we used to be male? That’s blatant sexism and is no better than black people who have been discriminated against for hundreds of years looking down their noses at oriental people or some other minority group. It’s a human thing to do but that doesn’t make it right. I had some trans-women friends who tried two years in a row to go to National Women’s Festival in Michigan, I think, and were told that they had to leave because they weren’t real women. The last I heard was that this festival’s charter was changed specifically to exclude trans-women. After all we’ve gone through to achieve the gender we were supposed to be all along, this is very cruel and small minded. I think this stems from our societal view of men’s and women’s roles in the world.
It’s ok for a woman to have short hair and wear pants but for a man to have long hair and like to wear dresses is not only silly, it is frowned upon to the point where the person’s life can be in danger. It is much easier for a trans-man to “pass” as a man than it is for a trans-woman to “pass” as a woman. The musculature of a man is hard to hide, especially in the face and hands. A trans-man usually passes easily because he looks like a small man. On top of that, the hormones for a trans-man cause his voice to lower, gives him male-pattern baldness, and facial and body hair. A trans-woman’s voice does not change due to hormones, male-pattern baldness does not disappear, and the body’s musculature does not usually drastically change. A trans-woman will often turn heads in public because something is “not quite right”. A trans-man will almost always be unnoticed.
There’s also the “old boys’ club” that exists that is hard to get by. In most societies, a man is supposed to be strong, powerful and successful. A woman is supposed to be soft, not quite as intelligent and need to be protected. For a man to give up his position in the male world and go to the other side is unthinkable. Men often cannot fathom why someone would give up their power. And, just as men look at being gay as some sort of attack against their own masculinity, being a man changing to a woman is just as bad if not worse. It’s personal.
PM: How did you meet your wife? How has she been an asset in your life?
RB: I met my wife through the classified ads in the local newspaper, much to the dismay and horror of her mother when she found out. I had tried dating men but only after my surgery. Trans people, especially trans-women, who date before they’ve had their surgery often end up beaten or dead. As I’d stated before I had never been a gay man. And since gender identity and sexual orientation are two separate things that did not change once I had my surgery. Dating men just didn’t do anything for me.
We hit it off right away with everything in common ““ interests, politics, religion; everything. I didn’t tell her about my past, though. Some people believe in telling a prospective partner right up front but I thought it was better for her to get to know me first and if it turned to love, then tell her. If she truly loved me, my past wouldn’t matter. One night after we’d been dating for several months and had long since fallen deeply in love, she started dropping hints that she knew something but she wanted me to tell her rather than guess. I swallowed my fear of losing her and just told her. I told her I hoped it didn’t make any difference because I didn’t want to lose her. She said she had to think about it. Those were some of the longest days I’ve ever spent, wondering what she was going to say.
She called a few days later and asked me when I was going to come to her place with my clothes for work and stay the night. I was on top of the world. We had a commitment ceremony at our house in 1995 with about 75 friends and family members in attendance. We’ve never looked back. She’s been my rock. She has stood with me through everything, including an illness I had in 2005 from a tick bite that gave me Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, put me in a coma and nearly killed me. I can’t imagine the worry she went through then. I couldn’t live without her. I am disabled now from the brain damage the illness gave me but she helps me keep from being stubborn and doing too much, which drains me and can be dangerous. I have yet to come to terms with my new limitations.
PM: How do you think we can educate our society on being more accepting and supportive of transpeople?
RB: We can have more shows on TV like Lisa Ling’s show ““ a lot more of them. And I have noticed more of them on TLC and Discovery Health and other cable channels. Another way to really help would be to have a trans-person on a regular television series to help people understand the plight of trans-people and humanize us, just as the show Will and Grace did so much for the gay community
Another way is for other trans-people to do what I’ve been doing ““ go to universities and colleges and talk to students. Get them to see you as a real person and not a faceless caricature to laugh at. I’ve also gone to hospitals to talk to doctors and nurses because they don’t know how to handle trans-people, either. When I was in the hospital for my illness before I slipped into the coma, I overheard a nurse at the nurse’s station who had just interviewed me for my personal information talking about me to the other nurses. She was laughing and giggling and just amazed at “what” was just on the other side of the curtain. I took this for a few minutes, then walked out and stared at all of them saying, “I can hear every word you’re saying. If you’d like to come in and talk to me about the hell that my life has been getting to where I am now, I’ll be more than happy to tell you all about it. I’m right across the hall.” I left and went back to my bed, leaving the nurses speechless and red with embarrassment. After a few minutes the head nurse came in to apologize and patted me on the hand, saying, “You did just great out there, honey.” She offered to have the nurse officially reprimanded for her conduct but I didn’t want anything to go on her record. I told the head nurse just to have a stern talk to her and tell her I’d like to talk to her more. I never saw her again.
PM: You mentioned that you currently volunteer as a ski instructor for helping disabled skiers learning to ski. Are you up to any other activities?
RB: A local ski area up here helped me get back on skis after we moved up to New Hampshire following my retirement on disability. That was such a big thing for me that I went back to them and volunteered to help others, especially since I knew well how to operate the adaptive equipment. I love helping people and it makes me feel useful. I tried teaching beginning classes in Chinese at a local college but the strain of it was too much and I had to quit. I feel useless if I can’t be doing something all the time.
When we thought about moving up here before my illness I wanted to either teach in high schools or open a women’s martial arts and self-defense school. I also wanted to hike all the 4,000-foot plus mountains up here. There’s actually a club for that. I can’t do that anymore either. But I can still kayak and hike short distances and I play golf to help my balance and coordination problems. My wife and I go RVing the coast of Maine every summer. I also have a large vegetable garden each year that I tend to. It’s very peaceful.
PM: What is your hope for your future?
RB: As some of my limitations are getting slowly better, I hope to be able someday to at least teach a course in Women’s Self-Defense and Assault Prevention, a special course that I am certified in. I would also still like to teach someday. At almost 60 now I’m not ready to lie down and wither. That’s not my style. I’ll keep pushing my limitations and trying to get back to a closer semblance to my old self ““ my post-surgical old self, that is.
I’m also working on my second book, a history of the little town I grew up in in Ohio called Evansport. It has a rich history that no one has ever written about. Given that the town has no more than 200 people in it now, that’s not surprising. I hope to continue writing, maybe writing a sequel to “Star Light” about my life after surgery. We’ll see. The future is wide open for me, with a few limitations, of course, but that doesn’t stop me much.