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Fitting Into Their Own Skin
Part 1 of 3
For some, the emotional freedom gained by gender transition has been worth the complications.

By MARY McNAMARA, Times Staff Writer

Lynda Bengtsson realized there were some drawbacks to a successful transition the day she had an automobile accident. She could see quite clearly what damage had been done to her car, but the CHP officer on the scene dismissed her opinions. "He treated me like a second-class citizen," she says, "like it was impossible that I would understand anything about cars."

Very frustrating for a former Marine who has rebuilt more than one engine. But it was just one of many revelations she had during her first year as a woman.

"I [had been] a white male, at the top of the totem pole," says

Bengtsson, 34, who lives in Eagle Rock. "I had no social issues, no perception of prejudice, I could do what I want, walk down any street. As a woman, it's very different. There are ATMs I would never go to now. I do feel much more vulnerable."

She is, however, happier than she's ever been in her life, and blessed with the kind of support from colleagues, family and friends that she never dreamed of during the years she tried to pretend she could live her life as a man. "I keep waiting for someone to have the reaction I was so afraid of," she says. "And it really hasn't happened."

For many of the hundreds of transgender men and women in the Los Angeles area, recent social and medical changes have lightened the burden of living outside the mainstream. Bengtsson found support where she assumed she would meet rejection; Mike Hernandez, a lawyer who transitioned from female to male 10 years ago, has watched the emergence of a true community with increasing hope and serenity; and for Mona Rios and Boe Randal, parents of a 10-year old daughter, the discovery that they were not alone has profoundly changed their lives.

Throughout history, there have been men who lived as women and women who lived as men, but it wasn't until 1952 that the well-publicized "sex change operation" of Christine Jorgenson brought the concept of transsexualism into the American consciousness. For subsequent decades, transsexuals were considered shocking figures--at best, mentally conflicted; at worst, morally corrupt.

But in the last 10 years, as treatment of gender dysphoria has evolved, the once closeted and isolated population of transsexuals in this country has become more open and unified. In the wake of the gay and lesbian liberation movement, this newly dubbed "transgender" community has grown in number, diversity and social presence. Brought together by the Internet and emboldened by alliances with the gay and lesbian community and their own increasing numbers, transgender people are forcing society to reconsider, once again, its definition of gender, sex and civil rights.

"They're following a fairly standard arc," says USC adjunct professor Vern Bullough, a historian who has written many books on sexuality. "First, people come out, break the silence, then they overcome their own differences and unite, then they demand their rights and acceptance from the mainstream.

The transgender community is now becoming united and very visible for the first time ever."For historians and activists, the narrative of the transgender experience is a chronicle of social change; for Bengtsson, Hernandez, Rios and Randall, it is simply the way life occurred. Since childhood, Bengtsson had known she was not really a boy. The only son in a family of four children, she had waited patiently for something to happen that would make her feel different from her sisters, and that something never came.

"It's impossible to explain," she says, "like trying to describe the color blue to a blind person. When my eyes were closed, I was this one person, and then I would open them, and there was this other person instead."

Although they had no words to explain it, Bengtsson's family also knew something was wrong. "When Dave hit puberty, something happened," says Holly LeMasters, Bengtsson's older sister. "He just seemed so unhappy; something was just off."

The family, she says, was completely shocked by Bengtsson's decision to join the Marines. "It was so not him," she says. "I was running from myself, from my family," Bengtsson says. "I was looking for a place to get lost, to fit in."

On leave after boot camp, Bengtsson seemed even more distant than before. "It was like no one was there," LeMasters says. "And after that we hardly ever heard from him. For years."

Bengtsson spent almost 12 years trying to will herself into being male, drawing on the discipline and order of the armed forces to quell her true feelings. As she approached 30, however, she realized that this was not a permanent answer. Her research had transcended episodes of "Donahue," and she knew all about hormone treatments and sexual reassignment surgery. She also knew she wasn't going to be able to do either in the Marine Corps.

"It's really too bad," she says, "because in a lot of ways, the Marines would be the perfect place to transition. Because really you are not judged on how you look or sound, but on how you perform."

Just as she had made her decision, she was offered a job as a juvenile probation officer in Orange County. Although this might not be the ideal setting for transition either, it offered her a salary that would pay for hormone treatments and allow her to begin saving for the surgery.

After a year of leading a double life, as David during the week and Lynda on the weekends, she began taking hormones in 1999. She was still living publicly as a man, and as the hormones began softening her features, changing her shape, life as a probation officer got a little complicated.

"Way before any of my colleagues noticed, I had kids picking up on me," she says. "I started getting the 'ma'am-sirs.' You know, 'yes, ma'am, I mean sir, I mean ma'am.' The first time it happened I freaked out. I mean, I had this kid up against a wall and I was dressing him down pretty good. I still don't know how he knew. Maybe it was because my hair was getting long, or maybe," she adds, laughing, "it was just all that female energy."

It is hard to imagine Bengtsson pinning anyone against a wall--she is not a big woman, with a gentle manner and a soft, light voice that rises and falls with her restless gesturing hands. She feared she would have to leave her job to take her transition any further, but her Employment Assistance Program representative asked only how much time off she thought she would need.

Around the same time, her parents paid her a surprise visit. Although her sisters were aware of her transition, her parents were not. Greeting them as David, Bengtsson finally asked her mother how she would feel about having another daughter. "They were both very concerned, and my Dad, my Dad," she repeats a little more softly, "he only wanted to know if there was anything he could do to help."

When Bengtsson went home for the following Thanksgiving, she went home as Lynda. "We were all very nervous," says LeMaster. When Lynda first walked in the door, LeMaster says, "it was very weird.

But Lynda seemed so much more present than Dave had ever been. Much more real and happy. Soon it was like 'Oh, hello, there you are after all.' "Their mother is having the hardest time adjusting, LeMaster says. She still calls Lynda "Dave" sometimes and agonizes over what to tell extended family members or Lynda's high school friends. But there is no rejection or condemnation.

"I keep reminding Lynda that although she's had her whole life to deal with this, we've had less then two years," says LeMaster. "For me, it's like a reincarnation, like Dave died and Lynda was born. And it's amazing how different they are--Lynda is so much more open and articulate. Even her handwriting is better."Although her family stood by her, many of her buddies from the Marines have not spoken to her since she told them of her new life. And as her transition proceeded, some of her colleagues in the probation department were clearly uncomfortable. So when a job as a systems technician opened up in another county office, she took it.

"I really miss working with the kids," she says. "Maybe someday I'll go back."

The cost of the transition process is Lynda's biggest worry right now.

She is still saving for sexual reassignment surgery, which costs more than $10,000, and it's slow going, since none of her other transition-related medical expenses, including the hormones, which cost several hundred dollars a month, are covered by insurance, a fact Bengtsson finds infuriating.

"I don't know if I could have done this without the support of family and friends," Bengtsson says. "Sometimes I think I should have done this 10 years sooner. But then, it wouldn't have been like this 10 years ago."

Go to page 2 of "Fitting Into Their Own Skins'