Leaving Mars

At 57, Patricia O’Connor trades a badass-motorcycle-racer past for womanhood, finding—finally—congruence in her physical and emotional selves.


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On her road to becoming a woman, Patricia has had a series of electrolysis treatments.

Gender identity is often distinct from sexual preference, and Wade was always attracted to women. He married twice, each time for 10 years. In his early 20s, he moved to Atlanta to work in the film industry and spent 30 years as a theatrical rigger. Lifted cables, ropes, booms, and hoists so heavy he developed long, rubbery Popeye arms and a 6-foot-2-inch wingspan. Took on crane work, the most dangerous aspect of rigging. “You go up 140 feet on a construction crane, and point one or two 12,000-watt lights back at the set. You just sit your ass there for 12 hours.”

After his mother committed suicide in 2004 and his father died eights months later (“of a broken heart”), Wade spent two years liquidating their 200-year-old French château near Opelousas, La. Hauled out furniture, statuary, antiques. Drove back and forth from Louisiana to Atlanta so often that his second marriage—“to Ellen, the love of my life”—fell apart. Hurricanes Rita and Katrina arrived in the midst of all that unraveling. Wade fell into a deep depression.

Wade never told his parents about his gender dysphoria and delayed coming out, “because I never wanted them to have to defend that.” Patricia regrets the decision. “I should’ve told them. They would’ve been wonderful.”

“After they died, I almost committed suicide. But instead I found a little doggie. She was dying in a pile of leaves on the day I intended to hang myself. Rosie absolutely saved my life.”

Rosie came along when Wade moved to Oakland in 2010. He bought a house several blocks west of Pill Hill and met an art teacher on the dating website OkCupid. Saw her for three years, then lost her when he revealed his secret, and she called off their engagement. Once that relationship ended, there was no longer any reason to not come out.

 

Patricia booked an appointment with a doctor in Berkeley. “I said, ‘I’ve been holding this as a secret, trying to hold my femininity back and my mannerisms back my whole life. I think I’m transgender.’ ” The doctor sent her to Lyon-Martin Health Services, a San Francisco health clinic with a large number of female and male transgender patients. Lyon-Martin assigned Patricia a psychotherapist and enrolled her in weekly group therapy sessions with other trans people. The clinic prescribed hormone replacement therapy and counseled her on a path toward sexual reassignment surgery, or SRS.

Dawn Harbatkin, medical director of Lyon-Martin Health Services, said there are no state or federal laws limiting access to SRS, but that several factors are required before surgery is approved. “Some are insurance-based and some are surgeon-based. There’s an organization, WPATH [World Professional Association for Transgender Health], which put out a set of standards of care both from the patient perspective and the provider perspective.”

A diagnosis of gender identity disorder, medical evaluation, a letter from a medical provider saying the patient is healthy to have surgery, and a full psycho-social evaluation by a mental-health provider are all required, Harbatkin said.

On her road to becoming a woman, Patricia has had a series of electrolysis treatments (“They zap you for 15 minutes and you go on your way smelling like bacon”). Hormone replacement therapy is making a difference. She takes Estradiol, a form of estrogen; Spironolactone, a testosterone blocker; and Finasteride, a testosterone receptor blocker.

When she started hormones, “I first noticed my breasts starting to bud. After that they grew, as did my hips.” Beyond that, “I feel mostly calmer. Foods are different; smells are different. If I get mad now, I want to cry. My body is also under the delusion that I’m pregnant. I get hot flashes, cold sweats and PMS without the menstrual cycle at the end.”

Patricia currently wears a 36B bra but expects her bust to develop. “Tits will cause even the people who knew you before to treat you like a know-nothing,” she said. “That’s puzzling to me.” Another side effect of hormones: “My libido is very off and on. Sometimes I crave sex like a 13-year-old boy.”

Feminizing her body language is an ongoing project. “The girls at work remind me to close my legs. When I first transitioned, I watched videos and practiced something called ‘the Kardashian.’ When Kim Kardashian walks she, like, paddles one foot directly in front of the other, which brings the hips around. Part of the problem with that is you need the right body parts to pull it off. ‘The Kardashian’ makes no sense with a lanky stringbean boy body.”

Patricia said that when she walks down the street, “I’m thinking, ‘Don’t throw your chest out like a lumberjack; don’t swing your arms.’ You’re not supposed to make yourself big as a woman; you’re supposed to make yourself small. You need to be aware that there is such thing as ‘manspreading’ and not to do it.”

 

Among her friends, the first person Patricia came out to was Aislinn Harvey, an artist/musician who rented a room in her house for five months in 2015. What knocked her out, Harvey said, was Patricia’s “willingness, despite waiting so many years, to fling herself whole-heartedly into it. She was very excited to start the hormones.”

When she got the job at Cole Hardware, Patricia was jubilant. “We’ve had other employees in the past who’ve undergone gender transitions while working at Cole Hardware,” said Adriana Karp, the store manager who hired her, “so it’s not really something that would faze us one way or another.” Patricia, she added, is “pretty open about discussing her transition with customers and staff. So it’s cool that anyone she chooses to share with gets to learn more about the experience.”

Customers are mostly fine with Patricia, but given that she’s tall and bony with mannish facial features, she gets a lot of double takes and occasionally a rude aside. “I had a kid running around behind his dad’s leg at work. He went, ‘Daddy, what is that? A girl?’ And I said, ‘Yes, I’m a girl.’ And he went, ‘But the voice is wrong.’ ”

On the street, reactions are 80 percent positive, 20 percent negative. “I get stared at a lot,” she said. “Women pass you and say, ‘Love those shoes,’ or ‘Girl, you gotta give me that coat.’ Just throwing you a compliment, because that’s what women do.”

Others are cruel; earlier this year Patricia was riding her bicycle on Telegraph Avenue when someone spat on her. “An old guy was hobbling on the sidewalk, looked
at me and scowled and shook his head. And as I go rolling by he hawked a loogie at me.”

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