I moved to Austin late in 2000. Actually, I didn't really move to Austin "proper" - I moved to a small town just north of Austin in Williamson County named Round Rock (there really IS a round rock there). And although it is only 20 miles north of Austin from a distance perspective, it's 20 thousand miles away from a mindset point of view. I didn't know that at the time, but it's really true.
One of the reasons that moving to Austin appealed to me was the opportunity to start fresh - with a clean slate. I envisioned living my life as Donna, totally accepted for who and what I was and not based on the stigma of where I'd been. It seemed so simple - after having set the groundwork so carefully. So as my career became less and less satisfying for me in Rochester and I looked for what to do next in life I sent an email to my recruiter at Dell, who had offered me a job several months before that I had initially accepted, but subsequently turned down. I asked if the opportunity was still open to me. I explained that my own life situation had changed and I'd be willing to reconsider the offer. They had it out in the mail the next day.
The term our community uses for people who live totally under the radar is Stealth. As far as I knew, nobody at Dell was aware of my situation. It certainly hadn't come up in the interviews, and they didn't do anything to indicate there might be an issue (which is as it should be). And although I didn't feel as though I were hiding anything or doing anything wrong there was always an underlying pressure to remain stealth. Later, I'd analyze the situation and realized that I seem to have traded one closet for another - originally hiding/denying my secret female nature for all those years, and then later having to hide my male past. That's another conversation for another day.
I initially traveled to Austin at the end of October 2000, a few weeks before actually beginning my career there, to look for a place to live. I remember arriving there and getting to my hotel - it was mid-afternoon on a Friday and the traffic was just awful. The landscape looked and felt different - dark and unwelcoming. It all suddenly seemed so foreign and cold to me, and the reality that this would soon be home and that I'd be all alone here, came crashing down on me. I got to the hotel and cried for hours.
Over the course of that weekend I decided that my first few months there would be a "test". I owned a home back in upstate NY that I just loved, and I didn't want to sell it and move away only to find out that this new relationship with Dell wouldn't work. At that point, though, the logistics of the month of November seemed too crazy to comprehend: I had a couple of weeks to settle affairs in Rochester before heading back to the operating room for my labiaplasty, and then less than two weeks later - the day after Thanksgiving - I had to load my car with as much "stuff" as it could hold for the 2,000 mile drive. And then I'd be starting my new job and moving and all that stuff. Not fun.
To make things worse, I was still very swollen down there from my second surgery - I had more stitches than a softball - and over the course of 14 hour days behind the wheel I became very swollen and uncomfortable. When I got to Austin I found my brand-new apartment complex hadn't actually received it's Certificate of Occupancy as planned due to some abnormally wet weather that put them behind schedule so I had to move into one of those extended-stay motels for a few weeks. And then there was all the anxiety/apprehension around starting my new job. It is not a time I remember fondly.
Over the course of a few weeks, though, things straightened out. I got into a routine, and I threw myself into my job with everything I had. For those who have never been part of corporate America, know that it's like a gas: it expands to fill any container it's in. It will take every hour you're willing to give it. And I found that being all alone meant that I really didn't have any reason to go home so I found myself in the office early and I stayed there until late in the evenings. It certainly didn't provide much opportunity for social life, but my career at Dell sure took off. The project I was managing was swallowed by a larger project, which became part of a larger effort, and before you knew it I was managing one of the largest projects underway in the entire company.
Friends from around the country used to ask me how I liked living in Austin - that they heard it was a nice place to live - and I half-joked that I really had no opportunity to experience Austin. My world consisted of a little triangle between my apartment, my office, and the store. That's it. I was at work upwards of 12 hours a day. I had nobody to go out with - it's hard to meet friends outside of work when you spend all your time AT work.
Anyway, as I became more comfortable that I'd actually be in Texas for a while I started looking to establish connections there. Anyone who moves will agree that one of the most difficult and frustrating parts of the move is to find new people - hairdresser, dentist, doctor, mechanic - all the people we become comfortable with and rely on to take care of us in one capacity or another.
Some of these endeavors were frustratingly unsuccessful. I'll share part of the story of my search for a new doctor; someone in the area who had experience working with our community and would understand the unique considerations. I figured the best place to find out about local trans- resources was from a local support group so I found one on the internet and made a call so I could attend their next meeting. I was told that the group was full, and that they'd get back to me when there was an opening. Full??!!! Are you kidding me? What the heck is going on here? A tranny epidemic?
The more I thought about that, the angrier I got. What if I had just been coming out - a newbie - and this was my very first call? Full? You've got to be kidding me! So, I decided to start my own local support group for others who might not be able to get in. Rediculous...
Anyway, I finally did get the name of a doctor. I called him up and told his receptionist about my situation that that I'd like to make an appointment to see him to discuss hormones and general wellness stuff. She told me he wasn't accepting new patients without a referral from a psychologist. So, I did as she suggested - I found a local psychologist, met with her, asked for a referral, and called his office back. The receptionist said that she had received my referral, but that he couldn't accept me as a new patient because the doctor wasn't accepting new patients with my diagnosis. Wonderful.
Looking back on it, this was probably my first taste of discrimination and prejudice. It was the first time in my life that I can remember being refused something or being treated unfairly - not because of something I had done but because of what I was. It's a tough pill to swallow, but I assure you you'll come across it sometime. Just prepare yourself...
Anyways, there were good things too. I'd have to say that the best decision I made at the time was to find a local hair salon. I had been going to my stylist in Phoenix during trips back there, but I decided that it was an expensive proposition to have to travel a thousand miles to get a hair color. I remembered a short article in the Austin Chronicle where one of the reporters ranted about her experience at a local salon, and I decided to give them a try. So begins my association with Avant.
I called and shared that I was new to the area and I needed a colorist. I explained that I needed someone fun, with personality, and they immediately set up an appointment with Theresa.
The first time I met Theresa we hit if off. She was very pretty - she really reminds me of Xena the Princess Warrior in lots of ways - and had the spunkiest personality you can imagine. She's a wild child (I can still hear her yelling "IT'S A BIG 'OL TITTIE COMMITTEE!!!" at the top of her lungs in a crowded bar) and grabbed life with both hands.
As I'd sit in her chair she'd share her experiences with me....how she liked to go to Saba Blue Water Grill on 4th Street on Tuesday nights because that was the best night to meet men. She likened it to fishing, and going to the best fishing hole at the right time of day to catch a fish. She was full of all kinds of girlie pearls of wisdom that I hadn't been exposed to, and I just loved going to see her. She was great, and the entire salon just seemed to be full of a wonderful free-spirited energy.
During those first few visits we never discussed my unique background. In fact, I never discussed it with anyone. There actually seemed no reason to do it, and I figured everyone could tell, anyways. Theresa and I talked about the fact that I had been married and divorced, that I had a teenaged son, that I was a single career-woman, about dating and Austin and any number of other things. But never about that.
In all of our conversations, I never lied to Theresa. Although I assumed that she envisioned me as my son's mom and in ways that I knew weren't accurate, I never said anything that wasn't true. When I referred to my ex-wife I simply referred to my "ex-". When she asked about my ex-husband I never corrected her. So although I never really actually lied, I never corrected her either. Those are decisions we each have to make as we come across people in our lives.
Eventually I decided that needed to tell Theresa (I can't remember exactly why, but that's not the point of the story). I brought some old photos to do it. Theresa looked through them, but didn't make the connection. I told her to look closely. She still doesn't see. "What? Is this your husband?"
"No. It's ME!!" Theresa thought about it for a few seconds, looked back at the photos, and back up at me. "You??? That's you??? It CAN'T be! You've got a son!!"
It was so great to watch her face as her mind tried to wrap itself around this. And the second she realized that I DID have a son, but that I was my son's father and not his mother - she put both hands over her mouth. "Oh my GOD!!! Why didn't you TELL me??!" she asked. I told her I thought she knew, that I thought it was just obvious.
She replied, "I just thought you were German or something!" So funny. We still joke about that today....
Anyway, once Theresa learned about me her thirst both to learn more and to teach me new and interesting things, were unquenchable. And suddenly, through Theresa, I became adopted by the entire salon. They invited me to their Christmas party (I was Theresa's date). We went to Happy Hour. We did all kinds of wonderful, fun, decadent things together. They helped to teach me things I can't imagine learning in any other way.
I remember going to the dance club downtown where Theresa had her own sofa and sitting area that was always waiting for her. She seemed to know everyone in town, so there was a constant parade of pretty people coming by to kiss kiss and say hi. She was a dancing machine, and dancing with her was more fun that I ever told her. One night she demonstrated the art of flirting - it was truly amazing to see her in action. And, there was that memorable discussion on "The Power of the Pu**y" (her words, not mine).
At my book release party in May 2003 I spoke briefly and thanked any number of people. I singled out Theresa for the role she has played in my life. I don't thing she was ever aware just how significant it was for a poor soul like me. I doubt many of us realize how powerfully we can affect the lives of the people we come into contact with, sometimes with just the simplest of things. Unfortunately, that knife cuts both ways and simple things sometimes done with good intentions can be devastating. But that's the delicate balance we each need to maintain, and that we each need to live.
I can't thank the gang there (Heather, you too!) enough for taking me in and making me feel so wonderfully accepted. I say without hesitation that Avant is one of the best things that happened to me during my years in Austin.
I'd go into more detail, but it would probably get me into more trouble than I need right now....
There are several messages in this story: