At 57, Patricia O’Connor trades a badass-motorcycle-racer past for womanhood, finding—finally—congruence in her physical and emotional selves.
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.”
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.”
When I first spoke with Patricia in April, she said she wouldn’t have facial feminization surgery, a radical, expensive procedure in which any or all of these adjustments are made: the jaw and chin are tapered, the forehead bone contoured, the brow lifted, the Adam’s apple minimized, and the nose bobbed and curved slightly upward. Sometimes the lips are augmented with dermal filler, and sometimes the cheekbones are reshaped or enhanced with implants.
By August, Patricia had changed her mind about the surgery: “When I decided to transition I went, ‘Pat, you’ll never pass in a million years. No one will ever think for a second that you were born this way.’ I just decided that’s OK.” Today, she says, “I want to give Pat every shot.” When she goes in for facial feminization surgery, “I want them to break my jaw and narrow it, give me a more feminine jaw line. Take down this Kirk Douglas-looking chin. I’ve also got a big old honking nose, but it fits my face right now. When I do all that other stuff, it’s going to be too big.”
There isn’t any one way that transgender women express themselves, Patricia said. “You can be transitioned and have a beard; you can be transitioned and not take hormones. But I want all of it. I want boobs, hips, vagina. The basic parts of womanhood. I want to work on my manners and my voice. I want to conform.”
Although some trans women never go through with gender reassignment surgery—vaginoplasty—Patricia believes it’s necessary for her long-range relationship goals. Her vaginoplasty is scheduled for August 2018.
“I lost my fiancée when I transitioned, and when I’m finally ready, I’m gonna want as close to a normal lesbian relationship as possible. I think a vagina is probably a requirement for giving me the best shot at that.”
Each time I met Patricia, she was wearing a new outfit and reacted with girlish satisfaction if I complimented her look. One day it was a high-necked, form-fitting Chinese gown called a cheongsam. Another day, a leather miniskirt and fake-fur black jacket. “It’s Muppet fur,” she joked. “They killed Snuffleupagus.” She’s obviously playing with looks, having the fun she deferred for so long. “They already lectured me at work about my skirts being too short. I’m not too floozy, but I might show a little skin.”
It’s a huge undertaking, changing one’s gender at 57. Patricia said it’s all worth it: the cold stares, the high cost of surgery, the loss of old friends, and the occasional adolescent-like awkwardness of becoming a woman. None of that is too great a price, she said, for feeling that her physical self and emotional self are finally becoming congruent.
“With every tip of the hat, every ‘after you’ and every door that’s held, I am happier, and I look forward to more of this. I love my life now, and I never had that before. The things I find beautiful are deeper to me now. It’s hard to explain, but it’s a little like blue is bluer.”
When I asked if she missed anything about Wade, Patricia said “no.”
“Every once in a while, I miss racing motorcycles. But I don’t miss trucks, tents, coolers, or gas stations. I don’t miss blowing $1,000 a weekend to get to some place and race for no money. But I do miss the moment when the flag drops. I could still do that as Pat. I could still stomp ass on a bike.”