Growing up with three brothers in a cramped house just outside Chicago, Michelle Smith delighted in the rare chance to slip into her mother's bra and black wig. As her heart pounded, her excitement was tempered only by the terror of being discovered. Had she been caught, Michelle feared her mother would not be amused by a 6-year-old's attempt to imitate mommy.
That's because Michelle was being raised as a son.
Her parents meant well. After all, at her birth, the doctor didn't hesitate before declaring, "It's a boy!" How could they possibly understand that, inside, the child they called Mitchell was really a girl, when Michelle herself wouldn't be certain for 46 years?
As she got older, Michelle found less and less private time at home during which she could don a dress. In high school, the then-short, nerdy and masculine-appearing student never spoke of her confusion.
"I grew up in the ‘60s," Michelle said. "No one even knew what the word 'transgender' meant. There was no way to find out -- you just kind of conformed."
'Transgender' is an umbrella term encompassing everyone who feels or expresses their gender differently from what is expected, according to the National Center for Transgender Equality (NCTE). Transsexual, an older expression but one still used by the NCTE, is a word for someone who wants to, or who has, undergone gender reassignment surgery.
The feeling of being born in the wrong body is known as gender identity disorder. To those who have the condition, it can seem like an enormous birth defect, a cruel joke. Inside, they think, feel and identify with one gender, but parents, teachers and all of society demand they behave like the other.
"My brain and insides think of me as a girl but my outsides do not match," Michelle would eventually write in a letter to her sons.
At some point, many find it impossible to be true to themselves when their entire lives feel like a lie. For them, surgery is the only relief. It's no exaggeration to say it can be life-saving.
During and after someone's transition, it's proper to use the new pronouns and name when talking about that person -- even when referring to their life before surgery, if that's their preference.
Marriage And A Decade Of Transition
Michelle dated one girl briefly in high school and in college met Debbie, the woman who would become her wife.
After moving to St. Louis, they married in 1982. Michelle's career as a Boeing engineer was taking off and Debbie became an operations manager for a credit union. They had two boys, Matthew and Tom. And they settled into life, moving to Cottleville in 2000.
Their sexual relationship was open enough to accommodate some of Michelle's needs. "Sometimes, while making love, we would switch clothes or I'd have her put lipstick on me," said Michelle, now 49.
In 1996, after 14 years of marriage, Michelle confided in Debbie that she cross-dressed in private and needed to occasionally appear in public as a woman. Debbie, who had long suspected something was wrong, was initially comforted.
"I was relieved she wasn't having an affair," remembered Debbie, 50.
Many cross-dressers are heterosexual men who are happy being male. At that point in her journey, Michelle believed she fit that description. But sometimes spouses know each other better than they know themselves. To Debbie, Michelle's excitement over letting out her secret was a premonition: "This is not going to stop at cross-dressing," Debbie predicted.
Finding Information and Support
While Michelle attended once-a-month meetings at the St. Louis Gender Foundation, a transgender support group, Debbie coped on her own.
"I'm not going to tell you this has always been a smooth sail," Debbie said. "Every time a new progression came along, I couldn't understand why. Looking back, it was my own ignorance -- I didn't take the time to research it."
For years, Debbie blamed the Internet for Michelle's progression. "That is where Michelle got all her information," Debbie said. "So, I wouldn't allow the Internet in the house."
But even as she struggled, Debbie was supportive. She helped Michelle select feminine clothes and jewelry for Gender Foundation meetings and for Halloween. Eventually, they had their nails done together, with Michelle in full female dress. Once a year, they took off work for a Michelle-and-Debbie shopping trip. Michelle had laser hair removal on her face, waxed her arm and leg hair and began taking female hormones.
In 2004, a friend who was transitioning to female posed a simple but profound question to Michelle.
"She asked me when I was transitioning," Michelle said. "And I was still saying, 'No, no, no,' and she said, 'Well you're doing everything you're supposed to do to get ready for a transition'."
After that "aha" moment, Michelle began to see a therapist twice a month. But she kept quiet about what she was learning: "I grew up in a family that wasn't touchy-feely or very emotional. So the fact that I kept everything to myself, to me seemed normal."
Feeling more and more isolated, Debbie waited for updates that usually came every six months. In the spring of 2006, Michelle realized that Debbie's intuition had been right on.
"It was the first time I could admit to myself I was a transsexual and not a cross dresser," Michelle said.
The next decision was clear. What should she do with this new discovery? It's almost impossible for most of us to comprehend the terrible choice that many transgender people must make: Save your own life or risk losing everyone you love. In therapy, Michelle learned that most of the time, families walk away. Terrified, she withdrew further inside herself.
"I had built this huge wall around me to protect myself in case my whole life fell apart," Michelle said.
Feeling completely shut out in the summer of 2006, Debbie pinned Michelle down: "You've got to tell me -- what is going on?"
A Very Final Decision
By then, Michelle knew the answer to that question, and had written it down with equal parts of love, determination and fear in a carefully composed letter. With trepidation, she handed the note to Debbie: "I have decided it is time to take the next step," it read, explaining Michelle's decision to surgically transition to female. "I hope that loving and wanting to continue to be with you and being true to myself can coexist," the letter continued.
"I spent a whole week pretty much in depression," Debbie recalled. But a month later, she'd made her choice: she would stay with Michelle. It's a decision that is perhaps best understood in light of a childhood spent as the middle daughter of nine siblings growing up with an abusive, alcoholic father and a mother who pretended everything was OK.
"Why wasn't I born in a normal family?" Debbie used to ask herself as a child. She vowed then that her own children would have a happy, stable family life, not one spent in the chaos of alcoholism and the insult of denial. Standing by Michelle supported her deepest values of love and commitment.
Relief poured over Michelle when Debbie said she'd stay, and it took her a while to absorb the news.
"I had myself set up to lose everything," Michelle said. "I was awestruck that everyone stuck by me."
By then, Michelle was on a fast track: she had surgery to reduce the size of her Adam's apple in November 2006, breast augmentation in August 2007 and gender reassignment surgery the following November.
"I went in totally confident and I came out with no regrets whatsoever," Michelle says. "I had none of the am-I-doing-the-right-thing moments."
For the entire two weeks of Michelle's recovery in a Colorado hospital, Debbie was by her side. Now, a little over a year later, after 26 years of marriage, their relationship is still a work in progress. But the couple's mutual love is palpable as they sit across from each other at the kitchen table, Debbie displaying perfect pink nails and Michelle flashing bright red ones.
"Why throw love away just because someone looks different?" Debbie asks. "She could have been in an accident and had her whole face torn off. We would still be going through the same thing -- but other people would look at it differently."
This is the first of two stories in this series.
This article originally appeared in the St. Louis Beacon.
Follow Nancy Fowler on Twitter: @NancyFowlerSTL