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From Mitchell to Michelle: Family, friends and work react

Matt and Tom Smith
Nancy Fowler | St. Louis Beacon | File photo

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, April 1, 2009 - In high school, Matthew Smith busied himself designing websites, taking photos and making pottery. His younger brother, Tom, played trombone in the school jazz band, worked on his Eagle Scout badge and concentrated on honors classes in math, physics and geometry.

Like most teenagers preoccupied with their own pursuits, they didn't really notice anything unusual about their dad. But their friends did.

"They'd say, 'Your dad doesn't have any hair on his legs. Your dad's hair is really long'," said Matthew, 23.

"Or, 'I saw someone driving your dad's car the other day but it looked like your dad in women's clothing'," added Tom, 21.

"We were just like, 'Whatever'," Matthew recalled. But the questions and comments they didn't want to think about took root somewhere in their unconscious minds.

As their dad, today known as Michelle, underwent electrolysis and cross-dressed on the sly, the Smiths juggled the typical family schedule of mom and dad's work and the kids' activities. But beneath their suburban surface, there were differences. At home, Michelle, 49, never took her socks off in front of the boys so her brightly polished toenails would remain hidden. Their mom, Debbie, 50, explained away Michelle's clear-polished acrylic fingernails as an effort to repair the damage from an unfortunate hammering accident.

And to justify Michelle's once-a-month gatherings at the St. Louis Gender Foundation, a transgender support group, Debbie used the fact that Michelle had just earned her law degree. "It's another attorney meeting," Debbie told the boys.

"Avoidance in this family isn't all that unusual," Michelle noted wryly, drawing hearty laughter from her children and wife. But the lies were piling up for Michelle -- and Debbie -- and the deception was taking its toll.

"What's wrong with dad? He yells at me, and he has no respect," the boys complained to Debbie, who now understands the reasons behind Michelle's short temper: "What Michelle was doing was building this isolation in case she lost everyone she loved."

Coming Out To Her Sons

During the decade between 1996 and 2006 when Michelle thought and hoped that cross-dressing was all she needed to express her authentic female self, the Smith household in Cottleville maintained its unspoken don't-ask-don't-tell-policy. Matthew, who had his own secret, toed the family line.

Debbie demanded, and Michelle acquiesced, to waiting until Tom was out of high school to tell the boys about the cross-dressing. But by that time, Michelle realized there was much more to tell: She was now planning gender reassignment surgery and to live full time as woman -- as soon as possible.

Debbie, Matthew, Tom and Michelle Smith have a laugh as Debbie organizes some papers at the kitchen table.
Credit Nancy Fowler | St. Louis Beacon | File photo
Debbie, Matthew, Tom and Michelle Smith have a laugh as Debbie organizes some papers at the kitchen table.

The couple decided to tell Michelle's parents before the boys. At first, confused but determined to love their child no matter what, they tried to make sense of the news through a series of practical questions.

"My dad's biggest concern was that my four college degrees would still be in place after I changed my name," Michelle mused. "My mom was worried about my being able to be executor of their estate."

Matthew was next because he was living at home while working and going to school. Tom had gone away to college. In August 2006, Debbie handed Matthew a letter from his dad. Immediately, Matthew worried: "I thought they were getting a divorce."

After explaining her decision to transition to a female, Michelle's note continued: "My greatest fear right now is that you will hate me and not want to be around me."

That fear was confirmed by Matthew's initial reaction and rush to judgment: "I thought it was wrong [of Michelle] because I was finding religion to try to hide who I really was."

Matthew spent the next six months avoiding Michelle, drinking heavily and sinking into depression.

Michelle and Debbie waited until Tom settled into college life before telling him the news during Christmas break. After being called to his parents' bedroom, Tom thought he was in trouble: "You start backtracking over all the things you've done that week."

After an initial upset over being told so late, Tom became supportive. But Matthew remained troubled: "I didn't know this person," he said, of Michelle.

What Will The Neighbors Think?

"When Michelle came out, it's like we all came out," Debbie reflected. The couple sent heartfelt letters of explanation to other family members, friends and neighbors. For the most part, Debbie's feelings informed their responses.

"Most people said, 'If you're OK with it, I'm OK with it'," Debbie said.

Their next door neighbors, a family with three children, had been the Smiths' best friends since they moved to the neighborhood in 2000. They celebrated every holiday and birthday together.

But the tradition ended on Christmas Eve 2006 after the neighbors made it clear Michelle wasn't invited. Today, Debbie regrets she didn't give her friends more time to adjust before making a stand to stay home, herself. Now, their interactions are limited to quick conversations across the yard.

"I'm out there, mowing the lawn and the children might be up on their trampoline or something and I'll say, 'Be careful in case something comes out of the lawnmower'," Michelle said.

A week after the Christmas Eve standoff, the Smith family threw their annual bash on New Year's Eve -- also Tom's birthday -- which would turn into Michelle's coming out party. Some guests knew about Michelle; others didn't, so the boys' friend Jess took charge as she greeted each one.

"This is the situation going on: Just in case you don't know, their dad is now Michelle," Matt remembered her saying.

Not everyone that night, or since, has been accepting. But Debbie and Michelle have learned to ignore the stares or laugh it off when people assume they're girlfriends.

Transitioning On The Job

Before surgery, but after hormones and electrolysis, Michelle had already taken on an androgynous look. "The only difference between being 'out' at work and the year before I was 'out' at work was I didn't wear jewelry and I didn't wear makeup," she said.

The Boeing Co., where Michelle has spent her entire engineering career, makes coming out as transgender an easier task than most employers. It's one of 572 major U.S. companies (four headquartered in St. Louis) enforcing a transgender anti-discrimination policy, according to the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) organization, the Human Rights Campaign.

Boeing-provided insurance paid for hormones and therapy but did not foot the bill for any of Michelle's surgeries, which cost $30,000 on top of $10,000 for laser hair removal and electrolysis.

The first step toward the company creating a transition plan for Michelle came when she talked with a Boeing global diversity representative. Her plan covered matters ranging from changing her name on human resources papers to designating a restroom (an individual one for the first month, the women's thereafter) to holding informational seminars for all who would work directly with her after her gender reassignment surgery.

"It's about respect," Michelle said. "If the person is presenting female and wants you to use the female pronouns and their female name, you should do that. It's Boeing's policy to treat everyone with respect."

A Time Of Healing

Settling on a new name for Dad was just one of many issues the Smith family grappled with as they adjusted to the transition.

"'Dad' is fine with me. I'm still their father," offered Michelle.

Tom came up with his own combinations: Michelle was Dad-Mom and Debbie was Mom. "Then, after the surgery it became Mom-Dad and Mom," Tom laughed.

"It was hard for me," Matthew said. "For the longest time, I couldn't call her Michelle."

Nearly a year after Matthew learned about Michelle, he underwent his own transformation. In June 2007, Debbie encouraged the boys to accompany her to PrideFest, the annual celebration of the LGBT community, and Matthew reluctantly agreed. Seeing thousands upon thousands of people lining the parade route, Debbie heard Matthew exclaim, "Oh, my gosh, Mom, look at all these people!"

Buoyed by the huge, diverse crowd, Matthew could finally face the fact he is gay. Reminiscent of his father, he wrote in a journal: "I have to be who I am.'"

Today, Debbie sums up their family with love and humor: "As the straight one, Tom is unique. His father is transgender, his brother is gay and his mother is a lesbian by default."

The last part is a family joke, but Debbie is sometimes asked if she's a lesbian because her partner is now a woman. But Debbie shuns labels. So does Michelle, who said, "I've never been attracted to men and I enjoy the company of other women, so if that makes me a lesbian, so be it."

Debbie compares their physical relationship to a honeymoon period: "When you first get married, you don't know your partner well. Right now, we're just trying to figure out what is comfortable for each of us."

The comfort level in their home has spiked dramatically since Michelle's been out of the closet, according to the boys. Now, Matthew talks enthusiastically about the new freedom in their household.

"Before Michelle came to this house, I always felt that, with my parents, they would tell us things and we didn't really question their decisions," Matthew said. "Now it's much more open."

"It was definitely a 'dad' kind of house," agreed Tom.

Their large, two-story home has always served as the go-to place for the kids' friends, and recently four of them moved in temporarily, after their parents kicked them out for being gay. The teens' predicament was created by the same kind of prejudice many have about transgender people, Michelle noted.

"People know about the radical cross-dressers but what they don't see are those like myself who are just everyday people who need to do this to feel whole," Michelle said.

There's no question that keeping a low profile would make life much easier for Michelle. But she feels compelled to speak out to support the LGBT community and educate the rest: "The public's going to get there eventually. But in my lifetime -- probably not."

This is the second of two parts. The articles originally appeared in the St. Louis Beacon.

Follow Nancy Fowler on Twitter: @NancyFowlerSTL

Nancy is a veteran journalist whose career spans television, radio, print and online media. Her passions include the arts and social justice, and she particularly delights in the stories of people living and working in that intersection.

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