Until her late 50s, Steph James of Maryland Heights lived a life that, from all appearances, looked like the American dream.
But it wasn’t her dream. Raised as Steve, James always felt she was female. After a successful career, 30-year marriage and three children, she divorced, and began living as a woman. Her story will be included in a book documenting transgender people over the age of 50, called “To Survive on this Shore.” James’ saga reveals a life of trying to conform, sinking into depression and, finally, making life-saving decisions.
“It was the biggest gulp I ever took, the biggest gamble I ever made,” James said.
‘Going Full Speed’
The book is the brainchild of a St. Louis couple who’ve already photographed and interviewed two dozen individuals around the country. As James, 64, waits for them on the day of her photo shoot and interview, she fondles a piece of shoulder-length blonde hair with her bright red nails.
Then she hears photographer Jess Dugan and her partner Vanessa Fabbre at the door and invites them into her two-bedroom apartment. Fabbre, a social work professor, begins the conversation leading up to the photo session.
“We like to start by asking how you identify,” Fabbre begins. “I identify as a woman first and then transgender,” James answers. After a few more opening questions, James relaxes into telling her story.
Even as a toddler, Steph felt something wasn’t right. That feeling continued during her growing-up years in Ballwin. But it wasn’t until her late 20s, that she heard about what people were calling a "sex change."
“At that time, only people like Renee Richards and Christine Jorgensen got it done. Reputedly it was millions of dollars to get it done, so it was out of reach,” James said.
Money wasn’t the only obstacle. The pressure to fit in was enormous, so Steph got married to a girl she’d known since kindergarten, and they had three boys. But she was depressed, a condition that worsened with time. She even considered suicide. Then in her 50s, she discovered the terms “transsexual” and “transgender” online, and was relieved to have language to describe how she felt.
“Once I got into counseling and got it confirmed who I was, it was like, ‘Push the throttles way up, we’re going full speed,’ because it was a matter of life and death at that point,” James said.
For James, that meant gender-affirming surgery, as it's now called, and hormones. And a divorce. And a lot of hard work between then and today’s photo shoot. None of it was easy.
“This is like coming out as gay, coming out gay on steroids, to the cubed power,” James laughed.
But laughter is sometimes hard to find in the aftermath of her transition. Her oldest son doesn’t speak to her, and she’s never seen her granddaughter.
“It’s mean, it’s just the biggest slap in the face I could get,” she said.
James also lost her career. She said she was railroaded out of her lighting-sales job. She’d love to work as a photographer and become a comedian, but for now, she’s begun a new profession in home health care.
“I used to make six figures and now I’m living out of a suitcase and make $10 an hour,” she said.
‘As Close As I Can Get’
James’ suitcase is already packed for her next three-day shift. Inside, she finds the tan sweater she needs for the photo shoot, and asks Vanessa if there’s anything else she needs to do before facing the camera.
"Face transplant?” James teased. “It looks like my face was on fire and they beat it with track shoe.”
“I can see you’re practicing standup right now, I can see it,” Fabbre retorted.
But until she hits the comedy circuit, James really enjoys helping people for a living. She’s happy, in spite of the hardships, and she smiles warmly as Dugan takes a series of photos.
“Could you tilt your head just a little bit to the left? Snap, click.” Oh, that’s perfect,” Dugan said.
At one point, James holds a three-foot long decorative peacock she calls Birdie. With her brilliant blue plumage, Birdie is pretty, the way Steph sees herself now. But she still feels “different.”
“It’s as close as I can get and sometimes it’s not enough,” James said. “With what I’ve gone through, what I go through every day, sometimes I get tired. It shouldn’t be this hard.”
James said one thing that would make life easier and better is finding a partner, a soul mate. That’s a goal she’d love to check off her list in the new year.
Follow Nancy Fowler on Twitter: @NancyFowlerSTL