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The Woman in the Yellow Dress

When I was in my freshman year at UC Santa Cruz, I was heavily involved with the dominant campus ministry, our chapter of Inter-varsity Christian Fellowship. I went on the annual urban ministry trip over spring break, that year it was in some of the worst parts of San Francisco. While I was there I saw my share of criminals, drug addicts, prostitutes, and homeless people. The one person that stands out in my mind the most though, was the woman in the yellow dress.

We spent the week sleeping on the floor of a Mission District church, and in the middle of the week we were afforded the luxury of a shower. As the church itself had no facilities we sojourned down the street to the local YMCA. The building was on one of the most statistically crime-ridden blocks of the city and to be honest, was a bit scary itself. As we entered the building and our group leader paid our admission to use their shower, I kept wondering if this was the YMCA that inspired the song. Being shy, I kept my query to myself.

The males and females of the group were separated and led to different floors, each with its respective gender’s shower room. The men followed the signs that eventually led us to a large locker room area. In the back of the room we could hear the distinct echo of a shower. To my chagrin, the shower area was not what I hoped, a row or two of individual showers with privacy doors, like I had used when on a mission trip to Mexico some years prior. The shower area was one large tiled in room with shower heads protruding from the walls at standard intervals. It was like what you might see in a prison movie, or in a school much older than any of those I attended. I had never been naked with other men before, and my anxiety began to rise.

I disrobed with the half dozen other men in group; I say men in a legal sense, the eldest was 22 and the rest of us were 18. We placed our clothes in lockers near the shower and coyly entered the room. Already there were about a dozen other men, all totally nude and several eagerly looking us over. One such man stood in the corner and stared at me the entire time, He was tall with neat brown hair and a handlebar mustache. He kind of looked like the biker from the Village People, so I therefore assume this was the YMCA they sang about. I cleaned myself as quickly as I could and nearly ran back to my waiting towel. As I dried myself off, I felt scared and vulnerable. I tried my hardest to expedite the process as much as possible.

While still in a state of total undress my worst fear was realized, another fully nude man walked directly up to me and reached out toward me. I was startled and paralyzed with fear but before I could react his extended arm moved past me to the locker directly next to the one I had chosen minutes earlier. The man, a slighter framed middle-aged man with a receding hairline and a tamed mustache that reminded me of the one my dad sported, stuck out his free hand and offered it to me.

“Hi, neighbor,” he said as if we had run into each other in a shared front lawn as we both returned from work.

“Hi,” I timidly responded.

He was very chatty and friendly, and he made small talk as we both toweled ourselves off. He asked me why I was in San Fransisco, and upon learning my purpose began to ask me all kinds of questions about the ministry I was there with. Again, perfectly normal conversation between two naked strangers.

Being in such proximity, I will admit that caught a glimpse of his “private area.” The first passing glance alerted me to something out of the ordinary and I tried as nonchalantly as possible to look a second time for further investigation. My first glimpse was not mistaken, there was a clear oddity about this man. He did have a penis. What he had was a gaping hole where it should have been, directly above very normal testicles. My mind began trying to figure out what I had just seen while I did my best to simultaneously keep up with the small talk. I naively came to the conclusion that he was just born with one so small, that in the cool air it had receded inside of him. Granted, this wasn’t a great theory, but it was the best I could formulate on such short notice.

Trying not to think about, I focused on drying and clothing myself as quickly as possible while entertaining his conversation. He matched my pace and as began to put on my underwear, so did he. But wait, that’s not underwear he had pulled from his locker. It looks like, yep, it is pantyhose.  He gently pulled them up his legs and continued dressing. Next, he pulled a yellow sun dress from the locker and slipped it over himself like he had done it his whole life.

“Well, now I’m just damn confused”, I thought silently to myself. Just I was finishing pulling down my t shirt until it met the top of my jeans, he pulled out a blond wig. It was short, with pronounced bangs like the ones people would wear when dressing up as Hillary Clinton (when she was First Lady) for Halloween. He turned to the mirror and carefully straitened it, as if to make sure he was a presentable lady, albeit one with a bushy brown mustache. I stood there waiting for my friends to finish dressing so we could leave when he told me that he was a woman, and he had been all his life. He said that he had lived as man since his birth and even got married and raised a son, but he knew in his innermost core that he was a woman. Abandoned by his wife, he found solace in his local church just outside of this then home of San Jose. One night, after a night of heavy drinking, he told me, he summoned up the drunken courage to grab a pair of bolt cutters and cut off his penis.

I’m going to let that set in for a moment.

He told me that he then drove himself to the hospital so that doctors could stop the bleeding, but not before discarding of his penis (he did not say how) so that there was no chance of reattachment. After he recovered he went shopping and bought a new wardrobe fit for a queen. When he returned to his church a few weeks later, he told me that people starred at disbelief over his new appearance, which I assumed bared a resemblance to the person who stood before me. He said that he had prepared himself for the looks, and assured himself that they were still his friends, but they would need time to adjust to his big change. Unfortunately, his optimism was never realized, as a few days later he was visited in his home by the pastor and a few people he had called friends. Without seeking explanation, they informed him that he was an abomination and was no longer welcome at the church. After they left, he convinced himself that they couldn’t possibly speak for the whole church, and he would return the next Sunday. When he arrived the next during the next service, every head turned toward him, most of the people with scowls, some seething with visible anger. The pastor shouted at him from the stage his earlier declaration and several other voices rose up from the congregation telling him to leave.

He told me that his only response to the crowd was that he was a sinner before and a sinner now, and after all, weren’t we all? A voice rang out from the crowd, “You’re a pervert, get out!” He left and never went back.

The man in the yellow dress told me that he wished more than anything that he could go back to his church. But he knew that it would never be.

Not knowing what to say, I simply told him I was sorry for his pain. He looked down and I looked to see that my friends were preparing to leave, a walked away and never saw him again.

I thought about that encounter for the rest of my trip. While it’s doubtless that other people from my group saw the exchange, none ever asked me about and I did not volunteer a word but it was etched into my mind nonetheless. I don’t know what was going through his mind when he cut off an appendage. I don’t know what his thoughts were growing up and raising a family in the “normal” fashion. I did know that he was sincere in his self-understanding. In his mind he was a woman and always had been, he was just born with a penis for some unknown reason.

If I woke up tomorrow and to my surprise found a vagina where my penis had once been, I would still be a man. No matter what you tell me, you would not dissuade me from that fact. I was born a man and will always be one.  I will always be attracted solely to women, as I have been my whole life. My self-identity doesn’t come from any physical attributes, but rather an indefinable knowledge that resides in the very depths of my soul. I would hope that my friends and family would understand.

I never saw her again, but she occasionally occupies my mind. I know that she knows she is a woman, and you could not convince her otherwise. Her physical being relented to her inner being one drunken night, and her life has been filled by pain ever since. No sane person would ever put themselves through so much pain unless they knew the stakes were that high. I am sad that a church of sinners could not accept  a sinner in her greatest time of need. I am sad that they did not seek to understand but only judged. Her answer to the greatest question, “Who am I?” was not what they wanted, so she was cast away. In their minds, her humanity was apparently tied to her gender, and the abandoning of one meant the forfeiture of the other. I am not as wise as them. I cannot believe that I could know someone as much as I know myself, and even that is a knowledge I have yet to master. I am strong enough however to say, I don’t understand, but that’s okay.

This then is my prayer: that I meet her again one day, and that she is happy and joyful and loved by people as much as she is loved by God.

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  1. October 20, 2012 at 10:15 pm

    You came away from an experience that a lot of people would just write off as ‘that crazy cross dresser!”. You see the issue of gender so clearly from your experience. Even as a “regular straight person” one can see that some people’s gender identity has little to do with their actual gender or their sexual preference. If more people were more open to the struggles that people that are different from them, the way you are, the world would be a better place. You do your religion proud and i hate to say, i rarely have many chances to say that in secular life. Bravo.

  2. caitlin
    October 22, 2012 at 9:15 am

    I love this post and I love you.

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