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Bosom Buddies

Robin and Kate are men, they're women, and they're best friends.

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The sassy young waitress at Father & Son Pizza in Jefferson Park distributes the dinner menus and soon returns to take drink orders. Katie, who's blond, statuesque, and wears a floral print dress with a lace collar, asks for decaf. "That'll be decaf--for Betty White," jokes the waitress, reminded of the old sitcom star. Robin, Lynne, and Carole laugh heartily.

There's a pause. "They say that I look like a matron schoolteacher," says Robin. Robin's tall, with russet hair and bangs, and is wearing a black blouse and jeans.

Betty White and the schoolteacher exchange a knowing glance and a giggle.

They're a lot alike. Professionals in late middle age, they've married, raised their children, and today, as empty nesters, have decided to live exactly the way they want to.

Each is the other's best friend. "There's tremendous worth in their bond," says Barbra McCoy Getz, a social worker who has been seeing Robin clinically. "It's the concept of here's another human being in the world who understands you, who can see you for who you are."

Now Lynne is saying, "A year ago a teacher at Lake Forest High School had an operation to become a woman. The district wrote a letter to the parents, and it was OK."

Carole mentions a teacher switching sexes at another high school.

"It's a shame all those parts can't be donated somewhere," cracks Katie.

Lynne turns to Robin. "If you're not a teacher, what do you do for work?"

"I'm a vice president for a picture frame company," says Robin, slowly smoothing the side of the red leatherette booth.

Lynne, who's in marketing, wears a dark teased wig and black eyeliner and resembles the late British actress Hermione Gingold. "We're the greatest actresses," she says. "To present an image, we need to be on all the time."

The waitress returns with two sausage pizzas. Robin admires Carole's blouse. "It's not silk but polyester," says Carole. Lynne and Katie reminisce about the leisure suits they wore back in the 70s. Everyone agrees that Father & Son is a much more pleasant place for pizza than Chuck E. Cheese. "Oh, God, I hate Chuck E. Cheese," Katie says. "If the pope would spend a Saturday at a Chuck E. Cheese, he'd change his views on birth control."

"So how are you holding up?" Katie whispers to Robin between bites. "Have you heard from your daughter?" Robin's daughter lived with her father for two months after he moved out of the house to begin life as a woman. But now the daughter and her fiance are living in Florida. "We talked on the phone last Monday," Robin tells Katie. "Thanks for asking."

At 7:30 the occupants of the red booth leave Father & Son and walk across Milwaukee Avenue to the Stardust banquet hall. They're headed to the monthly business meeting of the Chicago Gender Society, a support group. There's barely a glance from passersby. They're taken for what they want to be: four women out for a night of fun.

"Some of us, like Robin, are what's called primary transsexuals, and they want nothing more than to be girls," Katie explains. Katie, on the other hand, calls herself "a secondary transsexual." She dresses in women's clothing several times a week, yet enjoys coming home to a supportive wife. "When I was a kid, cross-dressing would have gone over like a lead balloon with my parents, obviously," she says. "For years I had a pastime on the side. But I've raised my kids, and now it's my turn. That's really what this comes down to."

Katie Thomas (not her real name) is a retired salesman who lives in a western suburb. When she first began cross-dressing in public a year and a half ago, she named herself after Kathy Levine, a QVC home shopping network host. "Kathy Levine epitomizes my idea of a feminine woman," she explains. But she met so many Kathys at the Chicago Gender Society and at the Society for the Second Self, or Tri-Ess--a group for heterosexual cross-dressers--that in the end she settled on Katie.

Two or three days a week Katie, who's in her early 60s, goes out as a woman. Some effort is required. She shaves her beard with a Gillette Mach3 razor. She also shaves her legs and upper chest and tweezes her eyebrows. To create a bust, says Katie, "you can use anything from sweat socks to old panty hose--just so it won't be rock hard when somebody bumps into you." She favors silicone forms designed for women who have had mastectomies--she's found they pick up the warmth of the body.

It takes Katie about an hour to get ready. There are nails to attach ("Contact cement works best as the adhesive"), makeup to apply, and a woman's watch, a crystal-encrusted tennis bracelet, rhinestone wedding bands, and a fluffy blond wig to put on.

The clothing comes from Field's, Carson's, and Nordstrom's. The shoes are from Payless ShoeSource and DSW Shoe Warehouse. "I believe in sales," says Katie. "In my business life, I never paid $1,000 for a suit. I made sure I grabbed one for $300. It's the same today. Paying more just isn't necessary."

She favors slacks, blouses, and blazers, having noticed on a visit to the mall that women out for the day generally avoid dresses. When she does wear a dress it's a size 14. For special occasions she has five sequined cocktail frocks and a full-length nutria fur. All told, she guesses she has $4,000 worth of women's clothing in her closet and spends $100 a month to maintain herself as a woman.

"This is not a cheap hobby," says Katie.

Leaving the house, she gets into her late-model sedan, which is parked either in the attached garage or out on the driveway. "If the neighbors know, they know," she says. "Now I assume that the lady across the street must have an inkling, but what are you going to do? I made up my mind that I'm not hiding anything. If a neighbor came up to me and asked I'd say, 'Yes--it's me. This is the way I am.' Actually, I'm fairly sure the old lady does know. She's a sweet lady. I'd love to have lunch with her."

To Katie, nothing much beats a chatty conversation over a light meal. "What interests me are personalities and relationships. To talk about the Bears, and who's up for a trade, bores the hell out of me. The only thing that separates me in personality from a natural-born woman are my genitalia."

On her days out, Katie hits the suburban malls, does lunch, and sees a movie. So far as she knows she's never been recognized as her male self or even picked out as a cross-dresser. She's worked hard to adopt feminine traits--mincing steps, fluttery hand motions. It also helps that she's not especially tall. "With heels on I'm still under six feet," she says. And she avoids one common mistake--the thick makeup, high hair, and short skirts that make some transsexuals look trashy. She learned her lesson the time she pulled into a gas station wearing a tight blue blouse over a leopard-skin skirt. A galoot came on to her. "He said he wanted to talk," says Katie, "when all I wanted to do was get to the ladies' room."

As a man, she applied for a credit card in the name Katherine, supposedly a daughter. Along with a driver's license that pictures a pleasant-faced bald man, she keeps an identification card with a photograph of herself and an explanation on the back: "Katherine A. Thomas is a male to female transgendered person who presents as a female. This is a natural expression of her personality and a requirement of her ongoing transgender therapy."

She's never had to show the card. For that matter, she's never had any therapy. "For 100 bucks an hour, I can buy an awful nice outfit," she says.

"Am I lucky?" she says one noontime that finds her attired in gold hoop earrings, a yellow plaid blazer, white blouse, and slacks as she downs an omelette in a coffee shop. "I don't know. I'm of the mind-set that I'm not doing anything wrong. No one has the right to judge me. I'm not hurting anyone, I'm not embarrassing anyone, and when I'm dressed as a woman I feel like the real me. If you get your nose out of joint, so be it."

She grew up in a Catholic household on the south side. "As far back as I can remember, when I was a little bitty kid, I was interested in being like a girl," Katie says. "I would dress up in secret. To my knowledge my father, who was a cop, was never aware that I did it, though once when I was 13 my mother caught me. After that there were no more instances, as far as she knew--I got smarter."

She says, "I can't tell you why I was born this way, whether it's physical or psychological." Katie's wife, Roberta (not her real name), thinks it goes back to her husband's relationship with his mother. "He always admired her," says Roberta. "She was a beautiful woman with beautiful manners, and he wanted to be like her."

They married barely out of their teens. Dressing up as a woman for a Halloween party, Roberta's husband confessed to her how much pleasure it gave him. "I guess I loved him enough," says Roberta, "and it was something he wanted to do. It didn't hurt anybody. People think it's bad, but I never have."

"Roberta has been wonderfully, wonderfully understanding over all these years," says her husband. "This has never been brought up as an issue, or thrown in my face during an argument."

Roberta has bought Katie bras and other articles of clothing. When Katie retired last year, Roberta gave her the tennis bracelet she now wears. In August she and her husband actually purchased the same outfit, a skirt and sweater combination, at J.C. Penney.

"If I were a woman," Katie muses, "maybe I'd be attracted to a man. But as it is I love women, and I always have. In having sex, sexuality takes over and you enjoy it--though sex has diminished with age, like everything else." She and Roberta maintain an active social life. They love movies, favoring comedies and love stories.

While they raised their three children, Roberta's husband would don women's clothes when the kids were away, or late at night when everyone was asleep, or in his hotel room when he was on the road selling. Once the kids were gone, he focused on Friday nights. "I would sit around the house and watch TV in drag," Katie says.

He hit 60 and realized this wasn't enough. Two years ago he spotted an ad for a Tri-Ess meeting in the Woman News section of the Tribune, and with Roberta's permission decided to attend. When Katie drove up to a Holiday Inn in a western suburb, "I was very, very scared," she says. "Terrified would be the better word. Remember, I had never been out in public before."

Tri-Ess meetings draw 50 or more people (including some wives) for an evening of socializing, panel discussions, and presentations on electrolysis, cosmetics, and false hair. Wig and corset shops display their wares. Katie arrived early and headed to the newcomers table. Immediately she felt embraced. "Everyone talked about themselves, about how they came out, and I did too," says Katie. "It was quite nonthreatening, and I stayed for the rest of the evening."

The next month Katie attended a Chicago Gender Society meeting at the Stardust. Seated at a round table in the mirrored banquet hall, she noticed Robin, who was wearing a smart black skirt and sweater outfit. They got to talking. "We were just chatting back and forth, and a nice connection was made," says Katie.

In August of 2000 Robin and Katie met again at Tri-Ess. That night a couple renewed their wedding vows--"except the groom was a cross-dresser," says Katie, "and he came all dolled up in a wedding gown. His wife was the bridesmaid. A Jesuit priest officiated at a mass, complete with communion. The deejay said, 'They never covered this in disc jockey school.'"

Katie and Robin fell into an intense conversation. "After that we were back and forth on the phone," says Robin, who's in her mid-50s. "I used to have 'Robin Tuesday,' when I became Robin, not Bob. I wouldn't go to work, but would sit in the park and read or else go shopping. On one of those Tuesdays Katie called, and she joined me."

They met for lunch in front of the Field's store in Woodfield Mall, Bob in drag and Katie in "drab"--argot for "dressed as a boy." They sat on a bench for two hours and never got around to lunch. "We talked about our lives--my story, his story--and how we felt when we were kids," says Robin. Robin persuaded Katie to come with her that night to a CGS social gathering at Temptations, a lesbian club in Franklin Park known for its pool and darts. Even though Katie doesn't drink, she went home, changed into women's attire, and hit the club.

Robin grew up in Rochester, New York, as Bob Heinzman. "My mother owned a dress shop," says Robin. "As a kid I was responsible for cleaning up. When I was 10 or 12, I would go in on Sundays to run the vacuum, and I would put on dresses. At that time and in that environment--in the 50s--I didn't know what it was. But by high school I figured something was going on. I wasn't all that attracted to women. Oh, I took a girl to the prom, but mentally I couldn't get into it. Whereas another guy might lust for a woman, I admired women. For me it was a study--I looked at what they wore and how they lived. But though I had mixed feelings about my gender, the safest place to be was as a boy. To have been anything else back then would have been unacceptable."

It was 1952 when George Jorgensen, a former soldier from New York City, announced in Denmark that he'd undergone hormone therapy and a series of operations to become a woman. "Bronx 'boy' is now a girl," headlined the New York Times, as the concept of switching sexes entered the general consciousness. Jorgensen returned to the U.S. as Christine Jorgenson, where she was ridiculed by the public and condemned by mainline physicians. She went on to a life of lectures and nightclub appearances.

After college and a tour as a military policeman in Vietnam, Bob Heinzman married a woman he'd met while playing billiards and then dated a year. "I wasn't conflicted about getting married," Robin says. "My hormones were raging, and sex is sex. Besides, my wife was a good kisser." Heinzman worked in accounting for Xerox and was transferred to Chicago in 1967. Five years later he left for a career as an information-technology consultant.

Unable to have children of their own, he and his wife adopted three youngsters. "I tried to be normal," says Robin. The Heinzmans settled into a wooded estate with a pool, a greenhouse, and a horse barn in Wayne, a town in western Du Page County. Bob became a Cub Scout and Pony Club leader. "We had a lot of good times together, but there was always something going on inside me," Robin says. "I felt shame. The feeling is, you're different, and you fear that if your friends and family find out you'll be rejected. I couldn't relate to the stereotypical male interests or activities. I didn't knit or crochet, but I was always more comfortable sitting around talking to the girls, who were more supportive and protective of each other."

Bob dressed up in secret. Fifteen years ago his wife found a stash of women's clothing in a bureau. She confronted him, and made him attend a sexual behavior consultation program at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore. "They said I was a transvestite, and that I should stop cross-dressing and become a normal man," says Robin.

He tried. But abstinence was immensely frustrating. About four years ago, when Bob's consulting work had him on the road a lot, he took to leaving home a man and changing clothes in the car. "One day I drove to the south side and just kept on going, and by the afternoon I found myself in southern Illinois." The more depressed he became the more he stayed to himself, and the less he communicated with his wife.

He kept fighting his own nature. In 1999, after four months of not dressing up, he reached a point where "I couldn't stand it any longer. I started to do research on transgenderism, and by the end of December I'd had an epiphany. It occurred to me that the only way I could get rid of my urges was to change myself. Still, I knew there was lots to lose. You build your life, you develop more and more relationships, you've got kids and a better job. You're closer to retirement. Still, you know you're running out of time, and so you panic."

Bob called the Tri-Ess hot line, and over lunch a member of the group referred him to social worker Barbra Getz, whose office is in her home near Elgin. In February 2000 she opened her door to a balding, bespectacled, five-foot-ten man. "I'm a woman," Bob said. "I can't live like I am anymore."

According to the American Psychiatric Association's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fourth Edition, people like Bob are suffering from "gender identity disorder." The transsexual community often uses the phrase "gender dysphoria." The idea of there being primary and secondary male transsexuals is credited to New York psychoanalysts Lionel Ovesey and Ethel Person. Getz, who's treated transgendered clients for 20 years, subscribes to it.

Ovesey and Person introduced their theory in the American Journal of Psychotherapy in 1974. Transsexualism, they wrote, arises from "an unconscious wish to merge with the mother in order to alleviate early separation anxiety." In a primary transsexual, the drive to become female is "insistent and progressive from the beginning and throughout the course of development." Secondary transsexuals are either homosexual or heterosexual transvestites. Their impulse to womanhood "may be either a transient symptom, or it may harden into a full-blown transsexual syndrome."

Getz also leans on the more recent work of Richard Docter, a psychology professor now retired from California State University, Northridge. In his 1988 book Transvestites and Transsexuals, Docter posited a continuum. On one end are periodic cross-dressers (such as Katie), who ally psychologically with females. "Theirs is the view that girls have it better in many ways," Docter wrote.

On the other end of the continuum are men who live as women out of a strong, persistent desire to become one. In these men--described in much the same way that Ovesey and Person described primary transsexuals--"the cross-gender self forces a reorganization of their self-system. A new (feminine) self takes charge."

In an interview, Docter says that 15 percent of periodic cross-dressers "seem to migrate into full-time living, whether they receive anatomical surgery or not." He ascribes hard-core transsexuality to "a neurological bias that takes place within the first 24 weeks of life." In 1995, Dutch researchers writing in the journal Nature linked transsexual tendencies to an enlargement in a region of the brain's hypothalamus. "Gender identity is determined by the brain, not by the genitals," says Randi Ettner, an Evanston psychologist who specializes in transsexuality.

No reliable data tell us how many Americans are transsexual, but figures from Europe cited in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders indicate that one in 30,000 adult males (and one in 100,000 adult women) seeks sex-reassignment surgery. Transsexualism may surface with age, says Randi Ettner: "Typically men get married and are locked into an existence. But when the children are gone, they say to themselves, 'It's now or never.' So a person who might have been able to put the condition on the back burner at 25 at 42 or 58 can't wait any longer."

There's no consensus on what to do about it. "There are some doctors who think that you should get used to the gender with which you're born," says Dr. Jack Drescher, who chairs the committee on gay, lesbian, and bisexual issues for the American Psychiatric Association. "But the medical establishment hasn't come down with guidelines."

Professional opinions differ on the quality of transsexuals' lives. "It's getting easier now for people," says Richard Docter. "There are fewer laws against it, and there's less perception that this is a deviance." Barbra Getz thinks transsexuals today receive about as much respect as gays did in the 1960s. But Randi Ettner points to the movie Boys Don't Cry, about the real-life murder of a young woman who passed for a man. Ettner calls transsexuality "the most difficult obstacle a person can face."

"I invited him to tell me his story," says Barbra Getz. "I challenged him. 'You've been married a long time. You have kids. Do you realize you may lose your children, your marriage, and your job?' After a series of sessions with Robin, who came dressed as a woman, it was obvious that he was who he said he was. He was Robin, and Robin sought to be a woman, no matter the cost."

The late Dr. Harry Benjamin, a Berlin-born endocrinologist practicing in New York City, coined the term "transsexualism" and distinguished it from homosexuality. Benjamin helped pioneer sex surgery (he treated Christine Jorgensen), and he laid out widely accepted preoperative guidelines. These required Bob Heinzman to live one year as a woman, undergo hormone therapy, receive psychotherapy ("if required by a mental health professional"), and obtain letters recommending surgery from a social worker and a psychologist or a psychiatrist.

A few days before he met Getz, Bob had begun taking hormones he ordered over the Internet from overseas. She eventually referred him to Dr. Fred Ettner, an Evanston family practitioner (and Randi Ettner's husband), and last year Ettner prescribed Premarin, a popular estrogen supplement made from pregnant mares' urine, and an antiandrogen to suppress testosterone. This drug therapy softens the skin, develops the breasts, broadens the hips and thighs, decreases hair growth on the body and increases it on the head, reduces muscle mass in the upper body, and diminishes erections; furthermore, says Fred Ettner, it calms the person taking the drugs.

As he began to experience these effects, Bob, counseled by Getz, wrote his wife a letter. "I said that after talking with my counselor and doing research, there were conditions that I couldn't live with. I laid out my goal of being a woman for the remainder of my life."

A year ago Bob moved out of their house in Wayne and into a studio apartment on Chicago's northwest side. Today Bob and his wife are discussing divorce, primarily by E-mail.

"Some spouses can be horrendous," says Getz. "But you have to realize, their whole world has been turned upside down. They see their femininity being taken away from them. They fear their sexual identity is being attacked, that they'll be taken as a lesbian. Yet other people stay together. They just do. Their love is more profound than gender. Their closeness is just very deep."

Neither of Bob's two sons has found it easy to deal with what their father's going through. Bob's 19-year-old daughter has been more understanding. When Bob took his daughter and one of her brothers for a walk in the park and told them what was happening, she said she didn't care. "I was just glad he was happy," says the daughter, "and I gave him a hug." Robin has already been outfitted with a mother-of-the-bride dress for her wedding.

Bob's sister, a Washington lawyer, offered grudging support. "If this is OK with you," she said, "it's OK with me." Their father, an 89-year-old retired car salesman, and an older son who lives with him in Florida, were both puzzled. "They have turned this into my being a homosexual," says Bob. In deference to his wife, he's broken off contact with their mutual friends.

So Robin's grateful for her relationship with Katie. For more than a year they've seen each other weekly for shopping or a movie. One typical day they parked in the Grant Park garage, strolled happily up Michigan Avenue to the Terra Museum (which intrigued them because of a bitter dispute then being waged within the museum's board), ate at a McDonald's, and ended up at Temptations. Before last June's Pride Parade, Mayor Daley hosted a reception at the Cultural Center, and Robin and Katie attended. "We showed up fairly early and so we went to Boudin Bakery on Michigan Avenue," says Katie. "We sat down as two women. I said to her, 'I think we're dead and gone to heaven.'"

Robin and Katie like to discuss politics. Both are moderately conservative Republicans. "I vote for Henry Hyde and Pate Phillip, but then you have to in Du Page County--they check up on you," says Katie. "I believe you can't let people die in the streets, but we don't need a welfare program for everybody." She does stick up for transsexuals. Back in her salesman days, a customer joked that his hairdresser was going "from Angelo to Angel." Katie responded, "He'd be a brave person to be who he is." The customer conceded Angelo that much, and Katie felt a frisson of delight: "I'd put in a shot for our side."

Robin and Katie also talk a lot about clothes and makeup. "She tells me if something looks good on me, and vice versa," says Katie, though Robin insists that Katie's the one with the fashion sense. Katie perceives Robin's life to be a lot tougher than her own and is generous with personal advice. "I tell him, 'You should try this instead of that,'" says Katie. "I try to be sympathetic." Robin's grateful. "This condition we have can eat you up. You need someone to talk to you, a listening post, and here I've found Katie. She's my big sister."

"When I realized what my transitional goals would be, I knew I couldn't keep on consulting," says Robin. "I needed more stability." In April of 2000, Bob became materials director for Franklin Home, a small, 120-year-old manufacturer of mirrors, picture frames, and other wall decor in Irving Park. It's a firm where he'd consulted for two decades. He worked out a four-day workweek that allowed him his Robin Tuesdays.

But to comply with Harry Benjamin's preoperative guidelines, Bob needed to become Robin at work. Coming out on the job can be risky. According to It's Time, Illinois, a transgender lobbying group, the working rights of transsexuals are protected by law in this state only in Evanston, De Kalb, and Urbana-Champaign. Chicago's human rights ordinance doesn't cover transsexuals. A 1999 administrative judge's ruling does allow transsexuals to claim their condition as a disability under the Illinois Human Rights Act, but "few of us want to think of ourselves as handicapped," says Beth Plotner, the lawyer who chairs It's Time, Illinois.

"Often people who change their sex at work are let go," says Barbra Getz. "Oh, it's subtle. 'We'll talk about it,' a boss will say. 'We'll see.' Then the person is fired." Plotner estimates that half the people who come out as transsexuals at work lose their jobs, though last summer a friend of hers didn't. The principal of Marie Murphy Middle School in Wilmette changed gender, became Deanna Reed, and weathered the protests of some parents. "She has a contract, and to have let her go would have breached the contract," says Plotner.

Katie and Barbra Getz helped Robin map a strategy. In January, Bob made an appointment to see his superior, Franklin Home's president, Steven Kottler. Bob reviewed his performance at work. Oh, he's resigning, thought Kottler; I'll have to find another computer expert to run the materials department. Then he told Kottler about his divorce. "Steve said he was happy with the job I'd been doing, but was sad to hear I was getting divorced," says Robin. "Then I said that I also had a health problem."

He's sick and going to die, Kottler thought. Then Bob began talking about gender dysphoria. He gave Kottler some literature, asked his boss to help him become a woman at work, and left.

"I'm a pretty liberal person," says Kottler. "I was kind of shocked, but I wasn't stupefied, either. This is what somebody wanted to do with his life. Bob was a valued employee, and I thought we should give him support."

Kottler talked to Franklin Home's labor attorney, who explained the lack of employment protections for transsexuals, and he opened a Bob Heinzman file. "But then you'd do that with anybody who has a problem," Kottler says, "so the person can't come back later and say that you messed up."

He and Bob came up with a plan.

On March 16 Kottler convened his supervisors and office staff in the Franklin Home conference room. "I talked a little about where the company was business-wise," says Kottler. Then Bob stood and read a statement that Katie had gone over for typos and misused words.

Bob thanked Kottler for the chance to address the dozen or so people who were present. "I expect that this meeting will be very emotional for me," he began, "so I will be reading a statement rather than speaking from notes, to insure that I cover everything that is important to say." At this point Bob began to sob, and his audience sat in bewildered silence.

"Does anybody have any questions?" Kottler joked.

"I suffer from a health condition called gender dysphoria," said Bob, when he could resume. "For those of you that know about this condition, it may shock you but will not surprise you. To be honest, I hope after I explain it to everyone, it won't surprise any of you."

He announced that he was becoming Robin Ann Hunt, and he said that Kottler had given him permission to be Robin at work. If anyone objected to his using the ladies' room, he said, he'd make other arrangements.

"In closing," Bob said, "I would like to say that I am extremely pleased that I can do this transition with people that I have grown to love for at least the last two years and for some of you as many as 20 years. You are a wonderful group of people, and I enjoy working with all of you." Then he introduced Barbra Getz, who had brought along a video on transsexualism.

"It was all very emotional," Robin remembers. "I'm crying all the way through. Some people got up and gave me a hug."

And some didn't. "Everyone was just astonished," says Deedee Davila, Robin's assistant, who knew what was coming. "Some of us were sympathetic, but others were mean and gave each other looks of disapproval." Davila says a certain manager who'd sparred with Robin over a new computer system smirked and made faces. Davila stood up for her boss. "I don't care where you pee," she told Bob for all to hear.

Robin called Katie afterward and told her, "It went great."

Bob announced that for the next two weeks he'd answer any question Franklin Home employees put to him. "Everybody asked him things," says Davila. "What about your marriage? Your children? Why are you doing this after all these years?" As the two weeks went by, Bob felt increasingly understood and accepted.

He emerged as Robin on March 30. "It was casual Friday," she recalls. "I arrived in jeans and a top and walked right in that morning. Of course, Deedee was overwhelmed because I didn't look anything like Bob. Gradually people came by my office to check me out." On her desk, Robin found a bouquet of flowers sent by the office.

"During the day there was a problem on the plant floor," says Robin. "I had to go out there, so I followed Deedee out to where they make the picture frames. I walked by 20 people. I talked to the foreman and then came back to my office. Then Deedee ran back to find out what everybody thought."

The August business meeting of the Chicago Gender Society at the Stardust begins with a social hour. Transsexuals from all points on Richard Docter's continuum mingle over drinks and conversation. Some are cross-dressers; others have already gone through sex reassignment surgery. There are also a few male suitors, a couple of lesbians, and one unkempt man in black horn-rims who is assumed to be a curiosity seeker. In a corner are the Island Girls, a high-styled group from the Blue Island area who host parties at a bar in that suburb. At a table off to one side, Rachel's Wigs is doing steady business.

"I'll go to a wedding, and the women are in beautiful dresses," says Lynne, Robin and Katie's friend in marketing. "I'll come home tight as a drum, thinking that should have been me." At the bar, Connie, who's wearing an elegant cocktail sheath and a matching shawl, groans about how long it took her to change for the evening. "It was a two-hour time waster." Marie, a shapely cross-dresser many years Connie's junior, celebrates a vacation in Toronto ("I was a total femme on the trip") and then laments her inability to explain herself to her father. "I can't tell my retired firefighter dad that I'm a girl who likes girls," she says, sweeping a hand in front of her face. "It's too complicated."

Founded in 1987, CGS now claims 170 members. President Olivia Connors says it offers transsexuals a harbor. "Here we find friendship and share our thoughts." Connors, who's 54, is in insurance, and she also works at Transformations, a popular suburban boutique. She's had a rough moment or two--she describes being set upon and pummeled at Clark and Diversey in 1993--yet she seems comfortable with her life, about three-fifths of which she says she lives as a female.

"God, it's been a fast summer, and a wet one," says Connors, dressed in black checked slacks and a black blouse and wearing a swept-back wig the color of eggshells.

She likes to begin meetings by going around the hall asking for responses on some admittedly dumb topic. "Tonight I want you to tell us about something you've lost and something you've found," she says. Someone talks about weight loss, someone else about dropping and recovering a wedding ring on a beach. Robin pipes up, "What I found was sex. What I lost was my virginity."

An outlandish figure in a blond wig and red shorts volunteers "my ability to go into public looking like a Barbie doll." Someone else says, "What I lost was between my legs." The room chortles.

Fred Ettner is the evening's speaker. He began taking transsexual patients a decade ago, after a transsexual with a sinus infection who'd been refused treatment by other doctors came his way; now transsexuals account for 10 to 15 percent of his practice. "If a transsexual comes into my office and says, 'I have a problem with my gender,' that's enough for me," says Ettner. "But I can tell you, it's a tough haul for you to get a doctor to listen to you."

He talks about stem cell research ("Imagine if I could create ovarian tissue and put it inside you") and answers questions. How much does Premarin cost? Do I need cosmetic breasts? Will estrogen suffice?

Ettner speaks for 40 minutes, and when he sits down at 10:30, Connors calls a break. Robin and Katie quickly disappear out the door. In ten minutes, Katie returns. She explains that she and Roberta had gathered up a fan, an old television, and some magazines, including Cosmopolitan, for Robin's new apartment, and that she and Robin were just moving it all to Robin's car. "She needs stuff, she doesn't have much money, and so I help her along," says Katie.

Various announcements--a beauty pageant, a Christmas party--take the meeting almost to midnight.

Drawing on her background in sales, Katie coordinates advertising for the CGS and Tri-Ess newsletters. She staffs the Tri-Ess hot line. She's begun giving informational talks at universities. After speaking at Loyola she was taken to lunch at Cy's Crab House on North Ashland. "I winked at the headwaiter," Katie says, "and the Loyola kids said, 'I love your shoes. Where'd you get them?'"

She took a couple of voice lessons from Lynette Venturella, a speech therapist with a transsexual clientele. The $100-an-hour fee made Katie quit, but not before picking up one important tip: speak from the chest--not the belly--to raise your voice a level.

Lately Roberta has been joining Katie for shopping forays and lunch. "We go out and eat as missus and missus," says Roberta. "Sometimes you feel that people are looking, but it's none of their business." Roberta's friends don't know her husband cross-dresses, and if one of them spots her with Katie--it hasn't happened yet--she intends to introduce her husband as her cousin. In July Roberta and Katie attended the CGS garden show together, Katie in a denim skirt unbuttoned to allow some leg to show. A photograph of the occasion shows Roberta, seated, leaning back into Katie, the two of them smiling for the camera.

"I have a very happy life," says Katie. "I have no regrets. I'm in a committed relationship for more than 40 years. There's no job anymore, so I'm not going to get fired, and nobody is going to throw me out of the house. I couldn't be happier to have the release of cross-dressing."

But she makes an admission. If something happened to Roberta, she allows, "I'd live more as a woman. I'd have to convince my kids that I hadn't gone crazy, but yes, I'd proceed down that path--though we're not talking about an operation at this point." Katie's children don't even know she cross-dresses.

Robin describes herself as "a heterosexual woman except without the plumbing." She's halfway through the obligatory year of living as a woman. When Bob set off on his man-to-woman odyssey, he drew up a two-year budget. On it he listed living expenses, hormone therapy, psychotherapy, electrolysis, voice lessons, clothes, wigs ("You've got to have five of them, 'cause they only last a few months," Robin says), breast implants, the legal costs of a name change and a divorce, feminizing facial surgery (that traditionally means an Adam's apple reduction or a procedure to soften the jawline), and the eventual operation to remove the penis and create a vagina. All this came to $97,599.

But expenses so far have been half what Robin expected. She lives simply. Her apartment contains a bed, desk, table, and television but neither a phone nor a stereo. "There are Franklin Home pictures on the wall," says Robin. "They're nice, but they look out of place." Insurance has helped pay for her hormone therapy. (It usually doesn't, says Ettner.) "I'm getting by without electrolysis," Robin says, "though sometimes I have to shave twice a day."

Like Katie, she went to Venturella for voice lessons until the cost made her quit. She gets by with a contrived falsetto that Venturella considers "abusive" because it can lead to nodules on the vocal cords.

On December 4 she legally changed her name to Robin Ann Hunt. Genital surgery is the big event still ahead. Getz urges her patients to choose a surgeon carefully. "They have to build a vagina," she says, "and that can be tricky because you want the equipment to be sensitive. You want a clitoris that has feeling. And some surgeons do better work than others."

Fred Ettner says genital surgery is a two-step process that most plastic and urological surgeons refuse to perform. It runs to $20,000 in the U.S. and to $10,000 if done in Belgium, Thailand, or Montreal. Robin has earmarked $17,500 for her surgery. She hopes it'll be performed by a doctor in Neenah, Wisconsin, Etter recommended.

Robin's frayed family ties have been a constant source of pain, but Christmas brought some relief. She visited her father and brother in South Carolina over the holidays, worrying particularly about her father's reaction. He surprised her. Returning from a hayride, he found Robin standing in her brother's living room. He studied her. "Gee, you've got great legs," he said.

After that, Robin says, "we had some great discussions." They centered on sex. "My dad's questions related to why I wanted my penis cut off," she says. "He was a ladies' man and he knows the value of the thing."

She's feeling more and more comfortable at Franklin Home. Kottler says he thinks of Robin primarily as a female. "What I can for you, ma'am?" the company president said when Robin entered his office recently. "Thank you," said Robin. To her pleasure, Robin was promoted to vice president of manufacturing in August, even as Franklin Home was laying off half its factory workforce after its major client declared bankruptcy. To her added pleasure, the snickering manager was among the many who lost their jobs. Of the remaining 40 employees at Franklin, Deedee Davila guesses that only a half dozen don't accept her boss. She says, "The younger generation doesn't bat an eye."

Robin has lost 25 pounds and a paunch she'd hated is gone. Her personality has also changed. "Bob Heinzman was very quiet," says Deedee Davila. "He didn't laugh or joke. He was serious and sad, very inward to himself. But as soon as Bob came in the door as Robin he's been lively, smiling, and joking. On Saturdays when Robin and I are alone at the office together, we check out the repairmen who come in and we put on music and dance."

Robin is exultant. "I'm outgoing and confident," she says. "It's like I've had a remission from cancer."

The friendship between Robin and Katie endures. "If she moved to South Carolina, say, that would affect our relationship," says Katie, "but I can't see anything else changing things, as we carry our conditions to our graves." Asked about Katie, Robin refers to the novel Anne of Green Gables, which she read last year. "Anne talks about being a kindred spirit to a friend. Katie is my kindred spirit for life."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Kathy Richland.

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