It seemed only a brief moment after I told the anesthesiologist I was ready that gradually I perceived a crowd around me, each voice telling me what to do. "Squeeze my hand," "can you lift your leg?", "open your eyes," "breathe deeply," insisted voices from the crowd. A Thai woman leaned over. I recognized her kind eyes. "Now you be woman," she whispered to me. My eyes fluttered through the crowd until they found Dotti’s. She squeezed my hand and I squeezed back. I was complete at last. Dotti shared her joy and tears with mine.
Early on that morning, August 21, I had been rolled into the operating room to travel the last mile on my long journey to womanhood: my genital and breast surgery. It was evening now. The operating room was buried deep within a hospital in Phuket, Thailand, home of Dr. Sanguan Kunaporn, the person I had picked after much consideration to do my surgery. It had been a while before Dr. Sanguan arrived in the room to begin the surgery that morning, but I didn’t feel intimidated by my surroundings — just happy to be there at last! The journey to this point had been a long one. A bunch of Thai nurses joked with me as we communicated in our different languages before they tromped off to their assigned rooms and tasks. These were my few moments to remember, by name, all the good people who were remembering me in their prayers and thoughts as I took my last step into womanhood. It was a magical, spiritual moment, and I cried happy tears.
My journey to wholeness began in desperation twenty-six years ago when I first explored my lifelong womanhood out in a society that had never heard the word transgender. I did a lot over the ensuing years to exile my shame and fears, raise my family, find new and honest relationships, help to build and maintain institutions to serve others like me, and let others in society know who we are. Eventually I let my womanhood take over my being and pretended to be a man only when I needed to. Even that accommodation was too dishonest and I became a woman in all respects but one. I thought that would be enough but it wasn’t, and so Dotti Berry and I had come to Phuket.
Soon after I was wheeled back to our room, Dotti presented me with a pair of breasts molded in clay. A card carrying the Helen Keller quote "Life is a daring adventure or nothing" came with them.
The hospital, believe it or not, is a beautiful place to be. Looking out our window, two bouquets from Soulforce friends frame one of the most beautiful close views you can imagine, beginning with pink-shading-to-violet bougainvillea blossoms to a small pond with fountains and carp, then on to a picturesque road with palms and a few expressive houses (there are no tract houses here), beyond to the immediate lush hills the area is known for, and finally on to the sun playing around the special kind of cumulous clouds seen only in the tropics. On mornings when I was allowed out of bed Dotti and I sat out on our lovely little balcony and watched Thailand get light just as it was getting dark in the US. It’s a hospital and a good one, but also aesthetically beautiful, with a friendly and caring staff, pleasant large rooms, efficient service.
Dr. Sanguan did a beautiful job. I feel great admiration for the man and like him personally too. Pim, his assistant, constantly gave us remarkable support and became a friend. The hospital staff gave great care in a cheerful way, and we came to know quite a few of them in ways that are real, often humorous, in spite of the language barrier. The food, like all Thai food, was hot and good.
My surgery turned out to be an incredibly meaningful experience. I returned from the ICU feeling whole and complete, a reaction I had come to expect but not so soon. It seemed strange feeling this way before my surgery even was complete — while I was still an invalid — sort of like I had not suffered enough (my Calvinistic upbringing, I’m sure). People say that after their body has been changed, it takes quite a while for the changes to be incorporated into their concept of self. I expected to go through such a phase even after changes I so urgently desired, but as I tentatively examined my revised genitals and breasts I felt absolute joy and comfort instead.
Thailand’s major TV network did a major story on people coming to Thailand for surgery. Pim asked me if I would be interviewed from my bed. Of course I told her I would. They came, not just the TV network but a lot of newspapers as well, and the interview lasted a long time. I said nice things about the hospital and the doctor and Thailand because that’s the way I felt. They asked me a lot about being transgender, and Dotti joined in toward the end with more good thoughts. I guess the interview caused a minor sensation because people began coming in and saying nice things about it, all the way up to the Executive Director of the hospital. Later even more TV and newspapers came back and interviewed Dr. Sanguan for another half hour while I looked up at him adoringly from my bed. The story ran on TV and in all the papers throughout Thailand. Dr.
Sanguan came in later, after getting back from a quick trip to Bangkok, and told me he’s been getting a lot of attention, good from those who like the foreign exchange he brings into the country and bad from conservatives who say Thailand shouldn’t be doing such things. Sound familiar?
When Dr. Sanguan let me get out of bed it wasn’t the pleasure you might imagine. I was tethered by a pee line, a suction line, off and on by an intravenous line, and an epidural tap running from my shoulder down my back and into my spine. The pee line was attached to a bag I carried around with me wherever I went, my transsexual identity card. The suction line went into the wall and had to be disconnected by a nurse before I could leave the immediate vicinity of the bed. I wrote to friends who had wished me well while perched on an inflatable donut pillow on the side of my bed, connected by my pee and suction lines and the power and telephone lines for our two computers in the midst of all the stuff a person simply must keep within arm’s reach in a hospital. The smallest motion took a lot of planning, and sudden moves could sting. I was immensely grateful that Dotti was here with me. The pain was not that much, just sometimes when I got up or changed positions, most of it coming from my bigger and better breasts rather than from down below. In recognition of my ultimate womanhood, Dotti renamed me "Vivacious Babelicious" instead of her original "Babelicious," pronounced in either version in her distinctive Kentucky twang that lends a special character to the title.
I hope you’ve had the opportunity, through Dotti’s pictures and descriptions on the Soulforce website, to travel our journey with us. Although I would have taken this ultimate journey alone if necessary, it would have been a chore instead of a profound spiritual experience that has affected both our souls in significant ways. Dotti has been an angel throughout, sending out information when I couldn’t, getting me all kinds of stuff when I couldn’t even sit up, being her usual cheerful self and keeping me charged up, taking care of the computer setup, being a superb friend as always. One Friday morning we called Lexington, Thursday evening there, and got on a speakerphone to greet the assembled multitude of local Soulforce folk who meet every Thursday evening. They became my friends too when I visited there and spoke to them about transgender issues. Some of them contributed to help pay for Dotti’s trip here.
Dotti shares more of the same background with me than one would expect. I don’t really know when her interest in transgender first was stimulated. We began our friendship two years ago and her questions and interest seemed informed and sincere even then. Loving to talk about my transgender community, I was an easy mark for her. We found many commonalties in our interest in social justice and insistence on standing up for ourselves and became good friends, sharing our respective worlds with each other in the process. I think her interest in the transgender community has grown in the process, something I celebrate because she has an amazing potential to rescue many good people from shame and concealment and the damage those evils cause.
The spirituality of the journey Dotti’s helping me take needs to be noted. As you all know, Dotti is a profoundly spiritual woman who has managed to retain her faith against incredible odds. I’m the opposite, having cast off my strict Calvinistic imprinting through great effort in my early teens. I’ve always kept a vague belief in a supreme being that didn’t mean anything integral to me, but that’s all.
A number of influences have brought me to a profound faith in God over the last two years, a faith and communication that affects my daily life in immense ways. Gandhi and my immersion in the philosophy of nonviolence started my journey, augmented by Mel White’s suggestion last fall that we spend and journal an hour each day examining and enlarging our faith in preparation for events that would evolve as Soulforce begins to have more impact on the religions we seek to enlighten on GLBT issues. Starting from ground zero, I pondered my faith and began to realize the outlines of a belief that recognizes harmony among all beings and things as a supreme good, and a God living in each of us who is pleased by harmony and saddened by the opposite. To me, heaven is located right here in our lives when we seek it relentlessly, rather than waiting for us as a reward after death. I don’t wish to offend anyone by sharing my beliefs or to change anyone’s faith. The growth in my own faith has enabled me to become more understanding and appreciative of all others. I simply hope to let you know that it’s a good spiritual path and recognized as such by the many devout Christians with whom I’ve discussed it at length, and with some people of other faiths as well.
My faith has been enlarged tremendously by subsequent events. A mass on a rainy morning with Roman and American friends out in the middle of the Circus Maximus in Rome, where early Christians died for their faith, was where I took my first and last communion and found a profound relationship with God. As I gradually accepted my womanhood over the years, I stopped living a false role and became vulnerable, a requirement for my faith even to exist. Endless conversations with my close Soulforce friends honed my perspective. An American Buddhist Monk, a close friend, contributed insights that brought clarity to my processes of staying with God always and seeking compassion. A wonderful faith community, new to me, contributes ongoing inspiration. But above all, there has been Dotti. Dotti’s unshakable faith inspires me deeply and continuously. Our conversations range far and wide into issues of faith, God, religions, honesty, integrity, openness, true pride, many other topics, and of course, how all these issues impinge on GLBT people as they grow up and seek to be free and proud while they worship in their faith of choice or heritage. She inspires and supports my faith, helps me to find and root out my dishonesties, allows me to test my thoughts and inspirations on her and brings clarity to them. She supports me in so many other ways, and brings clarity and honesty into my lifelong journey into womanhood. Her contributions to my being, my understanding, and my soul, are huge.
Having Dotti along on this culmination of my journey made this trip the most and the best of that process, something that would have diminished each of our lives had we not taken it together. Dotti has been studying the shamanistic roles of "two spirit," (I.e., transgender) people in most of the ancient cultures. Those roles seem to be reemerging in isolated instances. Perhaps her intent to study and teach transgender spirituality will help to bring back the nurturing roles of people who have come to understand intimately both genders, or perhaps her studies will take her into other related interests. Wherever her search leads her, she will make a difference that will help our people and perhaps society as a whole. I have as yet no idea where my two-spirit understanding will take me, but I’ll try to make a difference also.