Born Again

It’s her hands that will always give her away.

Strong and broad and coarse with wide nail beds, they’re folded daintily across her lap, fidgeting and smoothing the fabric of her tan skirt. She doesn’t try to hide her hands. Doesn’t dress them up. No nail polish. No French manicure.

Just hands.

They are Clinton Edwards’ hands. They are also Nova Edwards’ hands.

Those hands had been used to hide things. They helped Clinton hide Nova. Tried to cover up all the little things that might have given her away. That might have revealed her true nature to the world, to her family, to the people that both she — and he — love.

Now they’re a reminder of Clinton and his sometimes painful past, but they’re nothing that Nova needs to hide from any more.

“My first memories of my life are of me identifying as a little girl,” says Nova, who stopped hiding from herself about three years ago. That’s when she began the rocky transition from a full-grown man — with a life and a woman who loves him — to the woman that she hopes soon to be.

She says she’s a much happier person than she was living Clinton’s lie, but there are some things from Clinton’s life that Nova doesn’t want to lose. Such as “Elizabeth,” Clinton’s girlfriend of 17 years, the woman who might have been his wife if life had turned out differently. The woman Nova still hopes might have a change of heart.

“I don’t want to say goodbye, because when I do, she’s not going to want to see me and she’ll consider me dead,” Nova says softly while sipping coffee in a booth at Perly’s on Franklin Street near her apartment.

Clinton and Elizabeth got together in 1990, when both of them were students at Virginia Commonwealth University. Clinton was 22 and had discovered only four years earlier as a freshman with unfettered access to a university library that there was a name for the way he’d felt all his life.

He told Elizabeth everything about his secret. He told her that at 19, he’d nearly begun the process of gender reassignment, but had held back for the sake of his mother.

Elizabeth didn’t like the truth, but she accepted him. Although Clinton wanted to be a woman, he was still sexually attracted to women — and to Elizabeth. They could make it work.

Now, their solid friendship is months — maybe days — away from the end.

While Nova gets closer and closer to the day that her transition from male to female will be complete, Elizabeth can no longer accept Nova as part of her relationship with Clinton.

And Nova can no longer accept Clinton.

Once bottled up inside Clinton, Nova is as honest as can be about who she is. She is a transgender woman — a T-girl, a TG woman — who as a man came to the decision to accept her true nature as a woman lost in a man’s body.

She’s not unique, but whether her condition is part of the natural range of human sexuality or the manifestation of perverted thoughts or a personality defect remains a public debate.

While the debate continues, so does the social stigma. It’s much more complicated, and less accepted, than being gay in today’s society. To want to change your sex is something else. Jobs are lost. Families are lost. Friends are lost. Few can — or want — to understand. Psychiatry still views transgenderism as a disease, classifying it as an aberration and recommending treatments in its official literature.

People like Nova often gather the courage to make the transition to living as women late in their lives, long after their duties and social ties have become well-established. It’s ironic that courage comes only with time, when an earlier transition might have made for a simpler reintegration into society as a woman. Hormones can do a lot for a teenager not yet fully endowed with the masculine traits of a middle-age man.

Often the decision to risk losing girlfriends, wives, children and extended families is one of desperation. Living for decades in a body they feel is not theirs and trying to play the role in society assigned by their gender, the transgendered desperately seek a way out. Years of depression — of contemplating or attempting suicide, or sometimes just the simple inability to continue in a lie — eventually take a toll.

Some transgender women commit suicide; various medical community statistics put suicide rates among TG women as high as 25 percent. That’s regardless of whether they are still living as men, are beginning a new life as something between man and woman, or have made the full transition to surgically achieved womanhood.

“All my life I’ve felt uncomfortable in my own skin,” Nova says. “I’ve felt like I’m someone different on the inside than what I was portraying on the outside.”

Nova thinks of Clinton as the false identity and is ready to leave his life behind.

But as difficult as it was emotionally to live as Clinton, it’s just as difficult in some ways to live as Nova.

In Clinton’s life are so many people for whom Nova still cares dearly. Like Elizabeth, not all of them are willing to allow Nova simply to step in as understudy for the departing Clinton.

For a TG woman, accepting who she is can mean crippling loneliness. And it’s the personal relationships that matter most to Nova. First among those she wants to salvage from her past life are with her mother, father and brother. It’s an uphill battle, Nova says, and her family doesn’t deny it.

“I pretty much feel like he’s developed a psychiatric disorder and he’s learned this,” says George Edwards, Nova’s father. A practical man who, despite the stress of the past few years dealing with the potential loss of a son, still laughs easily and often.

But he has little patience for his son’s claims of being a woman inside, believing the idea is largely a fabrication by Clinton to get attention from family. It’s an attention grab that pulls hardest at George’s wife and Clinton’s mother, Joy.

“This was her only baby for eight years,” he says. “She was very close to him. Clint has gotten to where he’s more standoffish with her. I’m sure that he’s worried he might hurt her.”

The impending devastation that Nova fears for her mother is a tough cost for fulfilling her own dreams of self-fulfillment. Hurting her mother is something Nova worries about nearly as much as losing Elizabeth.

“You’ve come a long way with this,” says Chris McKenney, a licensed professional counselor who’s helped Nova sort through her feelings, but also has provided signatures on the needed psychological evaluations for Nova to begin her medical transition toward eventual gender reassignment surgery.

It’s September and it’s the first time Nova’s been here in a while. She needs it. McKenney’s office near Carytown is everything you’d expect from a mild-mannered counselor who wears heavy leather sandals with his chinos and an orange-striped polo shirt. The walls of his office are a comforting and nonjudgmental beige. The grey-metal file cabinet clashes with the deep wood grain of Mission-style tables bookending an overstuffed loveseat. An unhappy spider plant wilts on the hearth of a long-dormant fireplace. Framed pictures with inspirational phrases in calligraphy provide little encouragement for the spider plant. McKenney doesn’t provide much water.

Nova is recounting a recent conversation with her brother, Kevin Edwards, occasionally dabbing at the corner of her eye with a tissue: “He says my mom says the first time she sees me this way will kill her.”

“You didn’t start out to hurt anyone,” is McKenney’s soft reply. He’s a good listener, skilled at inserting thoughts that give Nova encouragement to reflect. “They want you to be who they know you to be,” he says. “I think she’s making this a reflection of herself. That’s a very human thing to do. You may not get the support you need.”

Nova, in her own soft tone, lashes back: “My mom hopes I’ll watch the right Billy Graham crusade and everything will be OK. My mom goes to a counselor, but I think she goes to a counselor who tells her what she wants to hear — that I can be rehabilitated and I can become a productive member of society again.”

Nova shifts in her chair. “I think if I told them I was gay … I think it’s hard for them just because they feel like I’m a different person, that I’ve changed my identity. I don’t feel like I’ve become a different person. I’ve just become me.”

It certainly doesn’t help that Nova — Clinton — grew up in a home where strict religious views dominated. A Methodist, he attended a nearby private Baptist school until 10th grade. He says he was sent there because his parents suspected he was gay even when he was very young. They wanted him to be in an environment that would “cure” him, Nova says, but they unknowingly encouraged him.

They told him God answered prayers.

“I used to pray that I’d wake up a girl,” Nova says. “They’d tell me with faith, you can accomplish anything.” As a frustrated but faithful third-grader, Clinton did just as his teachers had told him. He recalls finally asking the teacher why prayer wasn’t working. “She said what I was asking for was very sinful.”

George Edwards denies ever having suspicions about his son’s sexuality.

“That’s why we’ve had a real problem with this because he … didn’t have any feminine traits,” he says, recalling Clinton as “all boy,” big into Spider-Man and “Planet of the Apes” movies. A competitive baseball player and a damned good pitcher. “He always wants to say, ‘Well my classmates in high school always thought I was gay.'”

George Edwards remembers girls calling, coming by the house — his son was a hit with the ladies. It’s an impression that’s not inconsistent with Nova’s continued attraction to women, even as she’s admitted an equal attraction to men. If anything, the teenage Clinton was eccentric, artistic and tended toward the punk or goth crowd. Heavy eyeliner, new-wave hair, lots of music by the Cure.

“We’ve got some pictures around here of some of his hairdos,” George says, acknowledging that the hairdos were hard to overlook, but “they really weren’t feminine at all — just outrageous.”

Paradoxically, there’s not much outrageous about Nova.

She typically wears her auburn hair — which is augmented by various wigs — in a conservative bob. She applies makeup and perfume sparingly. Her clothes are nothing if not conservative. Most days, she looks the part of a West End soccer mom who’s lost her Volvo in the Ukrop’s parking lot. Her apartment is neat and modern, scattered with antiques and framed iconic posters.

Running an SUV-load of kids to soccer games is about where Nova imagines herself. She’s never been intimate with a man. It’s easier for her to see that happening once she’s completed her transition to womanhood — but certainly not until she’s gotten over the pain of losing Elizabeth.

“I can’t be with anybody,” Nova says — “can’t be involved with anybody else while I still love Elizabeth. I’m probably considered the biggest prude in Richmond.”

She talks of eventually meeting someone and settling down, doing normal things like going out to eat and playing Scrabble. Traveling, like she and Elizabeth used to do, all over the world. “I don’t want to be alone,” Nova says.

She may hope for a West End suburban home life, a happy husband by her side. But in the world of a TG woman, alone is a very likely outcome. The intimate relationships that occur often are fleeting — and for the wrong reasons.

By her own observation, Nova knows that in the community she’s joined, many of the men who will go with transgender women are one-night stands, seeking deviant sexual encounters behind the backs of unsuspecting wives.

She introduces one whom she’s befriended. “Steve” asks not to be identified. Middle-aged, neat, with a $40 haircut, expensive chinos and a pressed dress shirt, he doesn’t look like someone with aberrant sexual needs; he looks like a lawyer.

He says he’d always been attracted to “biological females” until a chance viewing eight years ago of “one of those wacky talk shows” like Maury Povich or Jerry Springer. He was fascinated. Did research on the Net. Began traveling widely to sate his desire for sexual encounters with TG girls. His particular craving: women whose male equipment remains intact.

Nova’s not interested in his type. But she likes Steve for his honesty.

The sexual appetites of the T-girls themselves run the gamut: Some like men, some like women, some like both — and some are attracted exclusively to other transsexual women. Many prefer others like themselves, trapped between sexes.

“Transbians disturb me,” Nova says, giggling, using the slang for these transitioned women who find safety — or danger — in their solidarity.

The lifestyle choices at those extreme ends of the spectrum don’t interest Nova. There’s still a lot of Methodist upbringing that helps influence how high her skirt hem goes. She wants Giuliani for president (socially liberal, fiscally conservative, her dad explains with a glimmer of pride — or maybe hope).

“It does worry me,” Nova says of her long-term relationship prospects. “I’m not looking right now — but if I were, I wouldn’t look where I am now [in gay bars and after-hours clubs].” Rather, she says sniggering, she imagines finding her mate “in the fruit aisle at Kroger,” obviously pleased with the double entendre.

The joke fades quickly to seriousness. “There’s a lot of sadness in this lifestyle,” Nova admits.

Which is why her brother simply doesn’t understand the choices Nova has made. Kevin Edwards steadfastly maintains that the road Nova follows is to some extent by choice, not driven by an innate natural need or an inner female soul.

A psychologist by profession, he’s done his fair share of reading up on transgender studies since his brother began talking of becoming his sister. Kevin professes to be the only immediate family member who’s seen Clinton as Nova (“The pictures, they’re all over the Internet,” he says), and he’s the one who’s perhaps tried hardest to see his brother’s point of view.

“At this point in his life, I don’t think he’s just purposely doing this,” Kevin says. “Now, whether or not he’s developed some sort of … perversion growing up, I don’t know. That’s the confusion about it.”

Kevin rationalizes his labeling of the Nova side of Clinton a “deviance,” noting his use of the term doesn’t “get into a judgmental or moralistic view of this”; rather, it denotes a behavior that deviates from the norm.

Kevin places much of the weight of the burden Nova carries squarely in her lap.

“I do believe that things that you do or situations you put yourself in can prime you,” he says, not buying entirely into a study that links transgenderism to a natural state, in which a male brain exhibits certain structures and functions more common to a female brain. He says that experimenting with “sexuality is an area that is especially prone to cause a deviation from the norm.”

But there’s his own upbringing that colors even his professional attempts to understand Nova’s plight. “We’ve always ascribed to a pretty fundamentalist view on Christianity,” he says of his family, and “we’re perceiving this through that lens.”

Religion aside, Kevin’s scientific views are certainly at odds with Nova’s therapist, McKenney. They’re also at odds with Dr. Linda Kendall, a nurse practitioner who has a Ph.D. in nursing. She is one of the health care providers who work with transgender clients at the Fan Free Clinic.

“It’s the most marginalized population I’ve ever worked with,” says Kendall, a statuesque blond with short-cropped hair and glasses. Today, both she and her patient have painted toenails peeking out of open-toed shoes. “All of these patients have more stress than any of us ever will — just in how they live, where they work, even where they go to the bathroom.”

“Nova’s one of the first patients we had in the clinic,” Kendall says, referring to the four-year-old transgender clinic program that Nova and 125 other T-girls and T-boys (women who want to be men) participate in. The program aims as much to help patients with transgender health concerns as it does to improve the health and safety of a group of individuals whose lifestyles often put them and others at risk.

By risk, Kendall says, she doesn’t even necessarily mean risky sexual encounters. “Even among the medical community there’s a lack of compassion,” she says. The medical community sometimes has a hard time treating TG patients with dignity. “People who are transgender, they have one or two bad experiences [with a doctor] and they never come back.”

Because of that, the Fan Free Clinic sees people who haven’t been to a doctor in years. They suffer from a host of undiagnosed illnesses common to the entire population, like diabetes or heart disease. “They’re just ordinary people, just like us,” Kendall says.

But they do have extraordinary problems.

As a population, they suffer a 30 percent positive rate for HIV, according to statistics, compared with 1 percent for the general population. Many transgender people, because they fear going to a doctor, don’t know they’re infected. And because many of their partners are married men on one-night stands, the greater population suffers too.

Through its grant-funded program, the Fan Free Clinic provides Nova and others with various prescriptions for hormones in exchange for their participation. This allows the clinic to treat the patients’ otherwise neglected health issues.

“We’re here to help you be who you are,” Kendall says. That philosophy necessarily rises above judgments of lifestyle or character, she says, “but we do it from the safest medical perspective.”

She knows that treating transgender people is controversial. But she says she firmly believes these are sincere people with no other option (the clinic does not assist with gender reassignment surgery).

“TGs are seen as freaks in society, but there’s so much physiologically involved in this,” she says. All of the patients she’s seen in the clinic have coped with their feelings since childhood; often their earliest memory is of identifying themselves as the other gender. But there’s nobody to whom they could explain their feelings.

When they try, they are often told by family or peers that those feelings are wrong, or that they must be gay.

“Once they realize what gay is, they realize, ‘Well, I’m not that,'” Kendall says. “This is beyond Nova’s control or anybody’s control — this is who they are.”

When Nova revealed herself to Mark St. Ours a few years back, Clinton’s longtime friend took the news much differently than many of his family members and past acquaintances.

St. Ours, who was Clinton’s best friend in high school, is married and works as a firefighter in Newport News. He and his wife had gone on globe-trotting trips with Clinton and Elizabeth.

“He actually told me by e-mail,” St. Ours says, chuckling. “I believe that he was concerned that if he told me, we wouldn’t be friends anymore.” But after a lifetime of friendship, he says, “there was no way I could turn my back on him now.”

That’s not to say it wasn’t a shock. “He attached a photo” to the e-mail, St. Ours says, of Clinton. “I remember telling my wife, ‘You’re not going to believe this.'”

Then St. Ours did what few of Nova’s — Clinton’s — other old friends and family members have done: “I went and met him in Richmond and we had lunch and everything, and talked about the situation. He seemed really happy and explained all the difficulties he’s had over the years.” St. Ours calls the revelation a long-missing piece of a puzzle.

“Looking back on certain things … Clint — I guess we were in 10th grade — he was one of the first people to wear the eyeliner and dye his hair black,” St. Ours recalls. “Things we thought were weird. But that was Clint — and he played baseball, he was a pitcher.”

Seeing his friend the way he is now is not easy — but not because of the dresses and acutely female mannerisms.

“He really loves Elizabeth, so that’s a struggle,” St. Ours says. “It is almost like a part of him has to die, but at the same time he’s being reborn. This is like a rebirth for him.”

Even in the gay community — the group to which transsexuals often gravitate for lack of a more obvious place to find acceptance — transsexuals don’t find absolute understanding.

They may find tolerant acceptance, but understanding why anyone would want to change his or her sex baffles gay men and women just as it does their heterosexual counterparts.

“I stopped trying to figure it out a long time ago,” says Mike Love, general manager of Fielden’s, a gay after-hours club on Broad Street where Nova works. Nova, who once wore the crown of “Miss Fieldens,” has become a protected member of the club’s in-crowd. Love, a stocky man with close-cut salt-and-pepper hair, a mustache, and a hint of a particular twang, calls Nova “the sister I’ve never had.”

Love explains it this way: Gay men are just that, men who like men, liking each other as men. Transgender men and women are complicated, he says, and most of their sexual menu is simply not appealing to most gay men.

“In the transgender community, there are TG girls who only date other girls — we call them transbians — and there are others whose only aspiration is to get married and have a normal life and ride off into the sunset,” he says. Between the two extremes, there’s lots of room for confusion.

Oddly, it’s people like Nova who seem to see themselves as the most oddball of the TG bunch, he says. Other T-girls sometimes have a problem with Nova’s perceived prudishness. Perhaps it’s simply because she and others like her are so normal in most respects, and because they crave the normalcy of the life of a real woman rather than a life among other transgender women.

“Once they fully acclimate, they often try to distance themselves from this culture,” Love says, believing that the gay community — only two decades ago largely discriminated against socially — provides a safe haven for transgender girls. But the gay community isn’t necessarily a perfect fit for them, says Love, because of gay culture’s own inherent prejudices.

“Of course, back [in the 1980s] folks thought all gay people dressed up in women’s clothes anyway,” Love says, shrugging. “I guess in our community, we try to accept everybody — even if it doesn’t always work.”

For now, that’s good enough for Nova and other transgender people.

“Some people consider this transgender thing an obsession,” Nova concedes. “I don’t know about that.”

That seems to her a convenient explanation for people too uncomfortable to confront something they don’t want to understand. Despite her own obvious closeness to the topic, Nova is comfortable with the argument over nature versus nurture — Lord knows it rages even in the TG community she’s part of.

“The debate’s still out: It’s either something you’re born with or something you develop at an early age,” she says. “I think that I would tend toward the genetic [theory] — that is, before birth. That’s how I’d feel about homosexuality as well.

“I don’t think I try to rationalize it — I just consider it part of the diversity of people.”

Her own struggles are personal proof that nobody would willingly and purposefully chose a TG lifestyle over peace with family — and a storybook life with Elizabeth.

“I still love her, and I was hoping we would still somehow stay together … and that I could somehow convince her,” Nova says, pausing at the implications of what convincing Elizabeth would require. Elizabeth would have to somehow alter her own sexual identity to be with the woman Nova’s eventual surgery will make her.

“Elizabeth is very upset because she doesn’t have children,” Nova says, guilt playing at the edges of her words. “I feel responsible for that. She’s being put in a very tough bind. She stands by what she says — she doesn’t want to be friends, she doesn’t want to have contact once it’s over.”

It tempers the joy Nova feels over her own rebirth.

“I’m not trying to prove a point,” she says. “I’m just trying to be myself and not be ashamed. I’m just getting to the point where I’m happy with myself — and it’s shocking.” S

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