Mike Hernandez's father hates the beard. Not because it grows from the
chin of the person he once called daughter; after 10 years, he and his
wife have long since accepted Martha's decision to live as Mike. "You're
a grown-up, you're a lawyer, you always made good decisions before" were
words at the time.
But the beard is another thing. Long, dark and luxurious, it is a lovely beard, but every time Mike visits, his father threatens it with the garden shears. The Hernandez family is Cuban, and although they've lived in the United States for almost 40 years, the sight of a man with a Castro-esque beard still has a rather dramatic effect. "It's a problem for many Cubans," Hernandez says.
For the beard's owner, it is also a symbol--of masculinity. It is also an attempt, he jokes, to compensate for the lack of hair on his head. "One of the drawbacks of testosterone," he says. "If you've got the bald gene, it all goes south."
That hair loss is an issue marks a decided shift in Hernandez's life.
For many who transition from female to male, baldness, like facial hair,
is considered a blessing, especially in the early years after transition.
After a decade of life as a man, however, Hernandez says, his gender identity
is no longer constantly on his mind. "Whole days, weeks go by without me
about it," he says. "Now I tend to brood about other issues, like aging."Yet the one time the 39-year-old Woodland Hills litigation attorney shaved off his beard, the aging issue took on a whole different twist.
"He came to work looking like a 17-year-old boy," says Darcy Mullen, an attorney who works with Hernandez. "I laughed so hard, and I told him that he had to immediately grow it back. I was concerned that he wouldn't be taken seriously by defense counsel and the court."
Mullen met Hernandez in 1992, and although she did not for a moment doubt he was a man, she says that when she shook his hand and looked into his eyes, she felt that something about him was "soft." The two hit it off immediately and began working together. Mullen discovered they had a mutual acquaintance who had recently transitioned from female to male. It dawned on Mullen that something similar might account for the softness she had felt.
"I asked him if he was also transitioning," she says. "His response was mostly of surprise. I apparently was one of the only--if not the only--people to question his gender."
Disclosure is a lifelong issue for any transgender person. At worst, it may damage or end a relationship; at best it requires a conversation full of explanation and edification. Hernandez has been with his partner, who is also female-to-male, for nine years, so he hasn't had to have "the big conversation" that precedes a sexual relationships with non-transgender people. And he doesn't feel obligated to open up to every acquaintance and co-worker. But, he says, "if you get intimate with someone, at some point you have to have a chat."
He has had that chat so many times that it has begun to bore him, although he knows that telling the truth, over and over again, is the only way the transgender community can dispel the myths that surround it.
"For folks who are used to black and white, this is disconcerting," he says. "Just as many people didn't think women could be pilots or lawyers. Any time you shake up a system, there is turmoil. Internal and external turmoil."
His story, he says, is not the standard transsexual tale in that he
does not remember longing to be a boy as a child. He was, however, a very
masculine girl and then a very masculine woman. He tried to be straight
and failed miserably, he says. Working as an attorney in San Francisco,
he decided he was gay and lived as a lesbian for five or six years but
never really felt like he fit in. Then, at a gay and lesbian conference
in Portland, he heard a female-to-male speaker at a workshop. "My stomach
hit the floor," he says.
Back home in San Francisco, Hernandez began hanging out at female-to-male support groups, meeting transsexuals and cross dressers and other masculine women. "I was afraid lesbians wouldn't accept me [if I transitioned]. And I didn't know if I could do it. I hadn't been socialized as a man."
In the end, though, his concerns did not matter. "This is what I had to do," he says. "The conference had been in October; I started taking hormones in March."
His lover agreed to keep an open mind, but after six months, the relationship ended. "Not surprising, since she is a lesbian and I was now identifying as a man."
Hernandez continued to work as a woman until during one trial the judge was clearly quite confused. "She kept asking who I was again until finally she figured it out. But even then, she thought I was going from a man to a woman. So the next day, I grabbed a friend and went shopping for some suits."
The firms he worked with, he says, were very accommodating; one lawyer even pointed out that Mike was much nicer than Martha. "And I think she's right. As a woman, I was very angry. Now I'm much more at peace with myself."
He also sees that many of the stereotypes regarding social expectations are true. "People now do assume I understand auto repair," he says, "and the hardest thing has been was realizing that I can't tell [a stranger] how beautiful their kids are, because I'm a man and so might be a threat."
On the other hand, wardrobe issues are simplified. "My clothes last
forever now," he says. "And my shoes, man, it really is scandalous how
much better men's stuff is than women's."
Go to Page 3 of 'Fitting Into Their Own Skin'