'Beyond the Gender Box': Intersex and the city
If you’re thirsty for a tall serving of sassy drag queen, Dieta Pepsi hits the spot.
For nearly three decades, Dieta’s performed all over St. Louis, raising many thousands of dollars for local causes. Whether Dieta — aka Leon Braxton — is calling out bingo numbers or trivia questions, her unmistakable deep laugh and glamorously attired six-foot-three presence are ubiquitous in the St. Louis LGBT scene.
It’s not unusual for gay men like Braxton to do drag (often attributed to an acronym from Shakespeare’s time when women were banned from the stage and men DRessed As Girls). Some straight men also enjoy wearing feminine clothing.
But 26 years after donning his first heels, Braxton wonders whether Dieta springs from something deeper, after getting some unexpected news: He’s intersex.
“I thought, ‘Oh, that explains it all. I get it,’” Braxton says.
A star is born
For Braxton, there was much more to “get” than just his drag queen persona. Coming of age in Kansas City in the 1960s and ‘70s, Braxton began growing breasts at a time when other boys’ genitals were growing instead.
His doctor told him to wait — and he did. But nothing more happened.
“I thought, ‘Well, that’s not going to be my biggest asset,’” Braxton quips. “‘Maybe my personality and smile will be.’”
In a household headed by an older brother after his parents died, Braxton’s condition wasn’t discussed. Neither was his sexual orientation.
“It’s difficult in an African-American family. We never had that Thanksgiving dinner where I said, ‘I’m a homosexual,’” Braxton says. “But after a while, your family knows.”
Braxton dabbled in drag at Drury University, where he majored in theater and business. But his unique appearance made it difficult to get cast.
“I’m kind of odd. I look Mexican, I look Puerto Rican, I look white, I look black, I look male, I look female,” Braxton says.
Trading the footlights for finance, Braxton worked in the mortgage industry and moved to St. Louis in 1983. But his looks still intrigued others, and he was often told he’d make a beautiful woman. One night, his friend Jeff Noble aka female impersonator Mona Desmond suggested, “Hey, girl, let me put some makeup on your face.”
“So he did, and I looked in the mirror and went, ‘Wow!’ and everybody else went, ‘Wow!’” Braxton remembers.
But what about a stage name? Noble, Braxton’s “drag mother,” pooh-poohed his first choice of paint color Odessa Blue, then glanced at a glass of soda, observing, “You’re about the same color as this watered-down Diet Pepsi.”
From Botox to blood tests
Through the years, Dieta’s reputation as fundraising and promotional-events celebrity escalated. So did Braxton’s weight.
His friend of 20 years, Vital VOICE publisher Darin Slyman, worried about Braxton’s health. This past summer, Slyman called Dr. Teresa Knight to help him figure out how to get Braxton into her office.
“Dr. Knight said, ‘Tell him we’re getting him Botox.’ And I said, ‘That’s a great idea — I know how vain Leon is,’” Slyman says.
Slyman announced that he was giving Braxton Botox treatments for his 52nd birthday. Once inside the doctor's office, the jig was up. “It was a ruse to talk about weight loss,” Braxton says.
Blood work was required before starting any weight-loss program. The results indicated Braxton’s testosterone level was 0.01. Most men average at least 600, according to Knight. After more tests and an agonizing two-week wait, Knight delivered the news: your chromosomes are male but your hormones are female. Oh, and something else: You’re in menopause.
Goodbye, bewilderment over night sweats. Hello, hormone supplements and mammograms.
As Braxton would write in a Vital VOICE commentary a few months later, “So in the time span of 15 minutes I went from being an overweight gay male to an overweight, menopausal intersexual.”
At first, Braxton thought he’d never share the news. But friends encouraged him to tell his story, that it would help others. The response was overwhelmingly positive.
“I think Leon was nervous at first, but when he saw, over and over, the adoration from the community, it really put him at ease,” Slyman says.
Getting the word out included an intersex education forum with Knight at the LGBT Center of St. Louis last month, where Braxton is executive director. There, and later in an interview with the Beacon, Knight explained that all fetuses first develop as female, until a gene on the Y chromosome prompts the penis to grow, causes ducts to form sperm-carrying tubes rather than a uterus, and makes testicles descend rather than remain in the body as ovaries.
“Its such a thin line that separates what makes us male or female,” Knight observes.
Braxton’s Y chromosome did its job during fetal development. But at puberty, his higher estrogen levels took the lead.
Understanding that he would have never known any of this, had he not seen a doctor, Braxton’s now kicking off a campaign for LGBT health.
“We have a lot of health disparities in our community,” Braxton notes.
Members of the LGBT community have less access to employer health-care plans and screenings for health conditions, among other issues, according to the American Medical Association.
Catching diabetes and cancer in early stages is a big focus of Braxton's. He plans to shepherd a group of lesbians to get mammograms. His own first mammogram — paid for out of pocket; he has no insurance — was recently followed by an ultrasound, but everything came out clean.
Laughing, he says: “They said, ‘Mr. Braxton, you have some nice-looking breasts.’”
‘Society makes you choose’
Though he makes jokes, Braxton’s still coming to grips with being intersex on top of always feeling different.
“Sometimes I wake up and say, ‘Damn, did I have to have one more thing to push me further down the column of freak-dom?’” he says.
Being intersex raises questions about gender identity and sexual orientation. If Braxton’s intersex, is he still a gay man? Many people have asked if it means he’s transgender, or feels like his gender identity doesn't match his body. He doesn't think so.
Starting to dress like Dieta every day is something Braxton thinks about, but it’s time-consuming, he says. Anything further, like surgery, isn’t in the cards right now.
“But a lot of intersex people do transition because society makes you choose,” Braxton says. “Why don’t we have an ‘i’ on our drivers licenses — “m,” “f” and “i?”
As Braxton comes to terms with being intersex, he's also taking his activism to the national level. He was recently elected to the board of CenterLink, supporting 200 LGBT community centers nationwide. And while helping others reach a better understanding of difference, he’s also experiencing his own enlightenment and peace of mind. For the first time ever, he walks around the house without clothing, and accepts the image of his naked body in the mirror.
“Finally, my mind and body are becoming one,” Braxton says. “I’m happy and I’ve never felt better.”
Oh, and what about that weight-loss program? Braxton’s proud to have already shed 35 pounds on a medically supervised diet. For the first time in years, he recently bent down and tied his shoes while sitting in a chair. But the best is yet to come.
“Dieta’s getting all new clothes,” Braxton says.
See Dieta Pepsi in action in her online television show.
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Follow Nancy Fowler on Twitter: @NancyFowlerSTL