At 57, Patricia O’Connor trades a badass-motorcycle-racer past for womanhood, finding—finally—congruence in her physical and emotional selves.
Patricia O’Connor, photographed at her home, shares her story of transition from man to woman.
Photos by Pat Mazzera
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Patricia Doyle O’Connor sits in the living room of her West Oakland house, a shabby-chic bricolage of ephemera, castoffs, and handmade furniture either collected or built by her antique-dealer parents. She wears a sleeveless puss-print blouse, black leather miniskirt, and black stockings. Her back is straight, her hands folded ladylike in her lap. A natural raconteur, she speaks voluminously, rapidly, with an East Texas drawl.
“When I came out as transgender,” O’Connor, 57, says, “I was suddenly aware of the tension I had carried on my shoulders since birth. I’d never known life without it.” Once she made the decision, “It was like the last grain of sand trickled through an hourglass of pain.”
In March 2015, Patricia, known until then as Wade O’Connor, came out to her friends as transgender with a Facebook posting. She tossed out Wade’s leather jacket, Levis, and Dingo boots. Started hormone replacement therapy, electrolysis. Studied how to walk, sit down, and stand up like a woman.
A month after coming out, she was hired as a sales clerk at Cole Hardware on College Avenue in Oakland. On Sept. 25, 2015, she legally changed her name to Patricia Doyle O’Connor at Alameda County Superior Court in Oakland. She chose the name as a tribute to her late mother. “I thanked everybody in the building—the secretaries, the bailiff, the judge—and tried not to cry in the elevator on the way down.”
Patricia’s transformation didn’t happen in a vacuum: Transgender awareness and acceptance have grown dramatically over the last five years. The Emmy-winning TV series Transparent and the Oscar-winning 2015 film The Danish Girl depicted male-turned-female protagonists through a sympathetic lens. Early this year, Harvard freshman Schuyler Bailar became the first transgender man to compete in an NCAA Division I sport when he joined the men’s swim and diving team. Andy and Larry Wachowski, co-directors of The Matrix trilogy and Cloud Atlas, changed their gender in the last decade, and since then Lilly and Lana Wachowski maintain prominent careers in Hollywood. According to some estimates, there are up to 2,000 transgender people living in the East Bay.
The world’s most famous trans person, Caitlyn Jenner, is a sore point for many trans people, who see her as privileged and out of touch with the large number of trans people who struggle with homelessness, discrimination, and violence. And yet, the former Bruce Jenner, an Olympic gold medal-winning decathlete, has advanced the legitimacy and visibility of transgender issues more than anyone.
“It’s not an accident,” Patricia said, that she came out shortly after Jenner. Even without impediments to transitioning, she still balked, she admitted, “because I was too old. And then Caitlyn did it. Now I have plenty of reason to be just as disgusted with Caitlyn as anybody. More so, because [her situation] keeps getting put in my face. But I defend her. I defend her as a woman.”
Like the majority of trans women, Patricia lacks the money, resources, and designer wardrobe that Jenner enjoys. She hasn’t yet had facial feminization surgery, like Jenner, or contoured her figure with breast implants. In fact, she wasn’t sure until recently that she wanted to.
Patricia’s journey to womanhood has been long and harrowing. An only child reared in Orange, a Texas town on the Louisiana border, Wade was exceptionally close to both parents. Wade’s father was a “badass motorcycle racer” and furniture maker, his mother a painter and decorator. But from the time he was 4, Wade knew he was transgender. He never told anyone, but his female identity remained the persistent, hidden undercurrent of his life.
In first grade, “I saw the movie Robinson Crusoe on Mars, and that’s how it felt. I could not be any more stranded if I were marooned on Mars,” Patricia said.
Lanky and hyperactive, Wade masked his secret with hypermasculine behavior. Played Army as a kid. Raced motorcycles so hard that he lost the big toe on his right foot. Busted his collarbones so many times they looked like dog’s legs. “I welcomed the scars,” said Patricia. “I was overcompensating my whole life.”
Gender dysphoria is the condition of knowing that one’s gender identity is the opposite of one’s biological sex. As a child, “I was lost in my body, and I couldn’t tell anybody,” Patricia said. “I didn’t know that transgenderism as a medical thing existed, and I didn’t imagine in my wildest dreams that they could ever turn a boy into a girl.”
To cope, Wade got high—a lot. “I smoked more pot than any other pothead—smoked them under the table. It kicks back dysphoria for 45 minutes, but then I’d need to re-amp in about 45 minutes. Been doing that since I was 17.”