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[whitespace] Jeannie
Photograph by Craig Scaffone

My Dinner With Androgeny: At Carla's Salon in San Jose, clients can pick from the gender menu, choosing to become the girl they never were. The author's mother, Jeannie (left), says, 'I love telling people, "You know what I do? ... I transform men into women."'

Crossing Guardian

My mom, the tranny mechanic: She makes men into women, the perfect antidote for her divorce

By Paula Gilovich

A PURPOSEFUL CHAOS fills the cosmetically perfumed air of the small beauty salon, managing to overpower the scent of the fish market next door. It is the evening of the Trans Cotillion Ball, and I sit still on an unsteady stool in the corner and watch Jeannie work. Jeannie is the stylist supreme, a master magician, highly sought after in these parts. She is also my mother. With the fierce concentration of a surgeon, she sculpts the cheeks before her with blush and scrupulously lines the eyes. One by one, the faces around her transform.

The preprom salon appointment is one of the sacraments of feminine culture, often caricatured. But for the clients of Carla's Salon, the transformation is especially dramatic: most of these women started the evening as men.

The ones who didn't started their lives as men. The Trans Cotillion Ball, a yearly event in San Francisco, is a celebration of the MTF--male to female--lifestyle, and these women, newly minted, want to savor every moment of their female lives. For all of the MTF cross-dressers, transvestites and transsexuals in the salon, dressing for the Ball--even more than the Ball itself--is one of the great experiences of a lifetime. For them, girlhood and womanhood is like a play, and going to the Ball means having won the prized part.

Located on Race Street in downtown San Jose, Carla's is the only trans club/salon of its kind in the Bay area: here one can get made up, electrolyzed, read a TV/TG magazine, attend talks on feminine gestures and mannerisms, or simply come to dress and chat with other transgender individuals. There are lockers for the many clients who can't take their clothes and makeup home because they haven't yet told their wives. Essentially, Carla's Salon also functions as a trans community center for those just beginning to cross-dress, for MTFs coming through town, and for those who are generally associated with the trans community. The only rule at Carla's is "ladylike behavior." And Carla means it.

Hard to find and hardly marked, the salon sits on the back half of a large pink building right near the famous Race Street fish market. Carla's itself is not a glamorous affair, but what happens inside apes glamour in the most elemental way. This club is the hub of these women's lives, so birthdays and all manner of special events are celebrated at Carla's. Carla Blair, owner and founder of this community space, loves to organize. "As girlfriends, we try and go out to dinner together at least once a month," Carla declares.

Jeannie and Carla are both G.G.s (genetic girls; pronounced "Gigis"); both women are highly feminine--or, known in this community as "high femme"--women. They look like sisters; both are tiny and charismatic, and flash big smiles. My mother's hair is dark; Carla's is blond, worn soft and loose. When the two go out to their monthly dinners, there is often a striking difference in height between them and their transgender girlfriends. Invariably, they are seated in the center of the restaurant.

Jeannie

ONE OF ESMERALDA'S false eyelashes keeps falling off. My mother, in high heels, scuffles back and reassures her, "OK, OK, I got it this time." She adds another line of glue and then straightens the eyelash and tersely instructs Esmeralda to close her eyes. "I'll glue this spider right to your eyeball," my mother threatens. In one slowed-down moment in the frenzied salon, my mother places eyelash to eyelid like a diamond to the center of a gold band.

My mother invited me along to the Ball because, she insisted, it was "going to be a blast." She uses language like this; she wears platform flip-flops and miniskirts. She's always been youthful, but she hasn't always been a tranny hairstylist and makeup artist--no, her career has taken this shift in the absence of my father. After the divorce bankrupted her, she had to go back to work. Presciently, she'd kept herself licensed as a beautician since 1952; the license itself is framed and significant.

These days, my mother will only contend with a man if he agrees to wear a dress. The men she works with cross cultures as they cross dress, and my mother is there as a sort of shaman figure, one that appears to hold all of the secrets and rituals of womanhood. The irony is that her own daughter is not particularly feminine. For the Ball, Jeannie feels the need to caution me to dress to the nines. She says the girls will expect a G.G. to dress up. "They look to you to know what to do. So you better look very pretty," my mother said, elongating the word "very" and emphasizing the two t's in "pretty."

Many in the queer and transgender communities believe we are witnessing the beginning of a gender revolution. Gender is now the centerpiece of our culture's current progression. This may be the era in which the threads of gender and sexuality are allowed to stand separate from one another, and when gender is permanently desimplified, finally truly mutable. From my perch in the corner, watching the room packed full of trans women, it feels like I'm witnessing some very, very old ritual. I can feel the riot of excitement in these women, and it accents my own confusion. I feel shabby in my dress. My jewelry embarrasses me and my feet hurt and the night has yet to begin. I cannot--I cannot--muster the obsessiveness it takes to effect the transformation. Sitting there, I'm not even sure I am a woman.

Esmeralda

ESMERALDA KNOWS she is a woman. She started going to Carla's after meeting Carla herself at a Rainbow Gender Association meeting, a support group for both transsexuals and transvestites. Going to Carla's marked the beginning of her self-discovery. "If you feel like you have nowhere else to go, you can go there," she says. "For a long time, that's what it was for me. It was a community center that I could go to, be with my friends and talk. That was back in the days when I was deluding myself into believing I was only a transvestite." In the early '90s, when Es was a man named John, he started writing a novel. What came out were raw tales of gender and sexuality.

"I remember telling my writer friends at the time, 'I have no idea where this stuff is coming from, but I'm not worried about it,'" says Es. "I firmly believe, now, that my female person was writing the novel. What astounds me is how much simply came through."

The novel is about a 54-year-old guy who wakes up one morning to discover his life is, as Es says, "square in the middle of the crapper." His wife has just left him and he's been fired. "He embarks on this unconventional search for redemption," says Esmeralda. "In the second chapter, he meets a very sensuous Hispanic woman--a large Hispanic woman. I think that was part of the image of what I was to become. And in the third chapter, he meets a gay transvestite. I can remember the transvestite story coming to me at like three in the morning--you know, when you're awake and not awake. And the next night, when I sat down to write it, God, it just came pouring out of me. The sweat was all over my neck, all over."

"I had a writing group that I would go read stuff and they would critique. I remember reading from that novel just one time. Everyone thought it was very amusing. But one woman said to me, 'But you know, it's not realistic.' To me, it felt very realistic."

John's next novel was a piece of "transvestite fantasy literature," according to Es; she also insists that the man who was writing did not suspect that these were thoughts of his own rather than his characters'. But John was gripped with incredible fantasies of cross-dressing. "I never had anything like that before," says Esmeralda. "They were so powerful! I would be driving home on the freeway and I'd be hanging onto the steering wheel so tight because I was afraid I was going to drive off the road. And I would come home very horny and I would make love to my wife on the kitchen table. She loved it, but I couldn't tell her what was generating this."

At some point, Esmeralda's fantasies began to wane. "The next thing that happened was my manager at work [Hewlett-Packard] talked me into taking a portable [computer] home from work to surf the Internet. I went to this search engine, and without any thought about it ahead of time, the first two words I typed were 'Cross Dressing.' And then I couldn't stay away."

The Internet was a crucial link between John and Esmeralda. "In my case, if the Internet wasn't there, I don't think I would have taken this any further," she says. Meaning Esmeralda would not be Esmeralda; there would be no surgery set for October 4.

"There was [a] site called Mrs. Silk's Cross-dressing Website; one of things you could do was undress Mrs. Silk," she says. "There was this color spectrum and it asks you where you fit on the transgender spectrum. I kept looking at that and thinking, 'Well, what do you know, I'm one of those colors.'"

John started wearing panties (items of clothing I call merely underwear). Then she took one more step and bought some clothes; one of the first dresses she bought was from Carla's salon. John's wife was nonplussed. Their marriage began to get seriously complicated. Finally, "In January of '98, I told her I was going to stop cross-dressing," Es says. "I had tickets to the Cotillion at the time. I told her I was going to go to one more thing. I went to say goodbye to people at Carla's. That's when I felt like I was at my own funeral and no one had come. I knew I couldn't walk away from it. But the next time we had a therapy session all of this stuff came blaring out about how everything was OK." Es sighs heavily at the retelling. "When we had separated and she had moved out is when I realized how little control I had over it."

In February 2000, while she was working at Hewlett-Packard as an engineer, Esmeralda transitioned: she began to live completely as a woman. In March, HP offered her an early buyout. "When I transitioned, one of the things I thought was that work was the one steady place I can depend on. I can build my new relationships at the same time I'm working. I was using it as a crutch," she says. "But by the time they announced the buyout, I knew that I didn't really want to work and I had already proven anything I needed to prove. I was living fine outside of work."

Esmeralda was the second MTF to transition in her department at work--both a rare coincidence and a sign of how much more common transitioning has become. "We have 34 people in our department, so I knew exactly what people thought about it," she says. "For me it went very smoothly. I knew who thought negatively about it ... well, there weren't a whole lot of people who were favorable about this. I was guaranteed my job legally. I had legal protection at HP as long as I did my job. I knew that, and I was very grateful for that. I wouldn't say that it offered me emotional support, but it gave me legal protection."

Now retired and living comfortably as Esmeralda full-time, Es rarely attends Carla's anymore. She lives within the mainstream, working to feminize her life and spend time, as she says, "building relationships that will sustain me the rest of my life." If she goes to Carla's, she goes to get her eyebrows done by my mother. She tells me, "She does a beautiful job, girl." Sometimes, she goes simply to visit my mother. Although, in the course of this interview, Esmeralda dished me some gossip about my mother's boyfriend, my mother found out, and a disastrous squabble ensued.

The Girls

ABOUT THE SQUABBLE, my mother says easily, "I could have killed her. I could have strangled her right there in the beauty salon." Even from the moment she started her new career, my mother has had no problem with her pronouns. To distract her from her pleasure of being frustrated with Es, I ask her about Carla's other girls.

Jessica, she tells me, is Korean. Jessica does her own makeup now, which means Jeannie rarely works on Jessica at the salon anymore. She is a very unattractive man, according to my mother, but she is a very attractive female. She says, "This is very interesting to me--that you can take an unattractive guy and they end up being a very attractive female. And it's really interesting to witness the transition back to the unattractive male. Sometimes you don't know who you're talking to."

Angela is 6 feet 7 inches tall. She's always asking Jeannie, "Do these earrings go with this dress?" Mostly, they don't.

Cynthia is a cop in San Francisco. She's beautiful as a woman, until she opens her mouth; then, she's a straight male. "But," my mother exclaims, "she's so pretty!"

Deborah, who lives with her mother, recently came out as a woman. Deborah had already taken clothes out of the house, because she thought she was going to have to go live with Caroline. But when told, Deborah's mother simply said, "Well, now I have a daughter."

My mother counters this story with an unhappy one. "Belinda's wife found out," she says. "First, she thought he was having an affair. When she found his clothes, she cut them all up. Then she beat him up! She got a stick and she beat him! She forced him to tell her his email password. So I was putting on her makeup and I said, 'She cut up all your clothes? Well, where did you get this dress?' She said, 'It's hers. She's out of town.' He would like her to understand that he can't really do anything about it. He would just like to have a few clothes and lock his door so his children don't come in."

Then there are the two brothers who are now sisters.

"A lot of them make very good money--or did--in the tech industry," my mother says, slyly. "But often when they transition over to women and go to work as women, they lose that top salary that men get over women. I've had so many tell me this. I'm serious.

"It's not always an easy job," she says. "It's a fun gig, though. I love it. I love telling people, 'You know what I do?' I told my doctor the other day. I said, 'I transform men into women.' I think he's gay, but I'm not sure."

Then she stops and sighs, saying, "When you are doing their makeup, they kind of drain you. They want to know in 45 minutes what we've been learning all of our lives." And for the first time, I'm completely thrown and overwhelmed by the pronoun: Having made it through a dozen conversations in which "he" and "she" are creative constructions, it's my mother's "we" that shocks me. I had almost forgotten the feminine we, the simple solidarity in the fact that Jeannie and I are both women.

It's ironic that these new women, the ones emigrating from masculinity, have found and founded a feminine clubhouse; certainly I never had a similar establishment. But speaking with my mother in these interviews, it dawns on me that she is my club. When we speak over the phone or in person, womanliness is addressed, though it is never as overt as at Carla's. While somewhere in the back of my mind I've known Jeannie has always been a source of feminine inspiration, her transgender work has caused me to reconsider her. As she helps these new women clarify their own emerging identities, her identity asserts itself more and more strongly. Jeannie, whose feminine battles I have watched my whole life, has surprisingly taken refuge in her femininity. She has built herself into the forefront of the gender revolution/gender struggle that will define my own generation. My mother's identity as a woman is clarified.

Francesca

IT IS A CALM TUESDAY night at Carla's. Jeannie is the only stylist working. She tells Marie, who is getting her eyebrows waxed, to sit still or risk losing the whole eyebrow. Somebody is reading a magazine. Another waits for electrolysis. A new girl is looking through the dresses (dresses only a transvestite would wear, according to Esmeralda--Esmeralda shops at Jones of New York).

The lull in conversation perpetuates itself until no one has said anything in 20 minutes.

Suddenly Jeannie pauses, holding tweezers. "My new name is Francesca," she declares. "I want you all to call me Francesca from now on."

Everyone speaks at once. "You can't do that!" "G.G.s can't change their names!" "But your name is Jeannie!" "You can't just up and change your name!" The flood of resistance makes my mother stand up straighter, feel stronger. She starts back in on Marie's eyebrow.

"Oh yes I can," she says. "You want your brows waxed? Well then, they're going to be waxed by Francesca. If you don't call me Francesca, I don't answer. That," she says to these girls as she has said to my sisters and me forever, "is final."

The night settles back into quiet. There are other conversations, and more eyebrows and a haircut, but nothing more interesting or controversial occurs. At last, as Jeannie steps out of the salon that evening, Marie calls to her: "Good night, Francesca."

My mother smiles, as Francesca. In that moment, she glows for me the way she must glow for all of the girls at Carla's: her wrists, her hips, her stylish black skirts, her bare feet. The motion of her capable hands.

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From the date-date issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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