The queer community in Monterey County finds common cause – and new common meeting grounds.Bodies and SoulsBy Jessica Lyons
Nickolas J. McDaniel was born with a birth defect: “My physical sex was female,” he says. It was 1972 in Salinas, and McDaniel’s family had strong, Southern Baptist faith and conservative family values. His mother, who worked retail and other odds-and-ends jobs, was delighted to finally give birth to a daughter; she already had two older sons. But while McDaniel’s family looked at him and saw a little girl with brown curls and dimples, McDaniel’s body seemed foreign to him. So at the age of two, standing in his crib, McDaniel prayed for a penis.
“I’d seen them pray,” he remembers, “but I never really understood it.”
It must be like asking Santa for a gift, he thought.
“I knew what I was lacking: what my brothers’ had, their physical bodies. That’s what I asked for so that my parents would love me.”
But God isn’t in the business of handing out sex changes, so McDaniel’s prayers would have to wait about three decades.
Today, the 36-year-old sits engrossed in Brisingr, book three in Christopher Paolini’s adventure/fantasy series about dragon riders. His short brown hair recedes at his temples, and a goatee frames a frequent, wide smile. The therapist-in-training, who lives in Salinas, wears a black t-shirt that reads, “What if the Hokey-Pokey is really what it’s all about?” and baggy basketball shorts – he’s got to wear lose-fitting pants as he heals from his most-recent “bottom surgery,” which transitions his physical body from female to male.
McDaniel’s a gamer, and most comfortable hiding behind his laptop – or playing with his golden retriever, Miley, and his custom muscle car. But he’s also become a sort of envoy for the trans community in Monterey County, speaking about his experience at schools and colleges, churches, hospitals and professional associations. When a transgendered person moves to the area, or a teen questions his sexual identity, often they seek – or are directed to – McDaniel.
Salinas was a tough town to grow up in, and kids were cruel. McDaniel wanted to join the Boy Scouts and play football. He dreamed of becoming a fighter pilot or a defensive end for the Raiders when he grew up. He looked like a tomboy, and the other kids didn’t know what to make of this masculine girl.
At the age of 6, McDaniel began cutting himself. He thought he could peel back his skin and people would see the boy trapped inside of a girl’s body. He started sniffing airplane glue and became bulimic. He rarely changed his underwear because he didn’t want to see the offending female parts. Then he stopped showering, too.
“If you don’t change or bathe, you don’t have to see what’s underneath.”
It got worse when puberty hit. “That’s the day I became a thing. An It. Like a chair or a table. Something that was OK to kick or spit on or abuse, physically and mentally.”
In the spring semester of McDaniel’s freshman year of high school, his female P.E. classmates gang raped him. He didn’t like being in the girl’s locker room, so he developed a ritual: Be the first one in, throw his books in a locker, grab his gym clothes and hustle to a bathroom stall where he would put them on over his street clothes. After class, he’d do it in reverse. One day, however, it didn’t go as planned.
Eight girls pushed him to the floor in the shower room. “I wasn’t going to hit them back because they were girls, and you don’t hit girls,” McDaniel says. He didn’t tell anyone about the sexual abuse until he was 34.
After graduating from North Salinas High School in 1991, McDaniel started taking classes at Hartnell. A year later, he dropped out because he was spending more time on psychiatric wards than in class.
Shrinks diagnosed McDaniel with gender identity disorder. He says he doesn’t like the term “disorder.”
“It’s a physical incongruence: what’s been between your legs, and what’s between your ears,” he says.
Gender conversion therapy didn’t work. Wearing high heels and makeup didn’t make McDaniel enjoy being a woman. Psychotropic drugs didn’t take, either. So McDaniel made a promise to himself: If, by his 30th birthday, his life didn’t improve, then he would kill himself. “I was going to give myself the gift of never having to hurt again. All I wanted to be was dead.”
Hillary Swank – with help from McDaniel’s brother – saved his life.
In 1999, McDaniel’s brother, Shane, then a UC-Santa Cruz student, took McDaniel to see Boys Don’t Cry. For many, the true story of Brandon Teena, a transgendered teen, is a horrific movie about hate and violence. But McDaniel had a different reaction. “It was a very hopeful movie because it was someone I could relate to,” he says. “I also realized someone might love me and care for me. After this movie my life started to change.”
McDaniel found a therapist who specialized in gender identity, learned about hormone treatment and gender reassignment surgery, and reconciled with this mother, who supported McDaniel’s choice.
He also returned to school, creating his own major, transgender studies, at UC-Santa Cruz where he graduated, with honors, in 2006.
He found a San Francisco surgeon who was willing to accept Medi-Cal payments for removing McDaniel’s breasts, but Medi-Cal refused to foot the bill, saying the surgery was cosmetic. McDaniel’s doctor – and pro-bono attorneys at the San Francisco-based Transgender Law Center – argued the radical bilateral mastectomy was medically necessary; McDaniel suffered chronic back pain, a loss of sensation in his arms, and sores on the undersides of his breasts. “I was an early bloomer,” McDaniel says, cupping his arms out in front of his chest. “I was one of the, quote, ‘lucky ones.’”
In 2002, McDaniel won the legal battle. A few months later, his gurney rolled into the operating room for “top surgery,” the first of many procedures he’d undergo between 2003 and 2009. He says he wasn’t scared. “I was right on the table. C’mon, cut them off!”
Surgically speaking, it’s easier to transition from male to female. The technology’s better, and success rates are higher – physically and aesthetically – to remove a penis and create a vagina, compared to a phalloplasty, which creates a fully-functioning penis from forearm or leg skin grafts, a prosthesis and clitoral nerve endings, removes female sex organs and implants testicles. The female-to-male procedure is painful and expensive (McDaniel’s surgical costs total more than $100,000 to date) and requires many separate procedures with three – or four-month recovery time between operations.
McDaniel heard about a surgeon who did “beautiful work” in Nashville, and in 2006 traveled to Tennessee for a consultation. “I felt like I could trust him,’’ he remembers. “It clicked. It was right.” He scheduled his first “bottom surgery,” and about a month ago underwent his most recent procedure, his 18th all told.
“Right now, my life is pretty darn good,” McDaniel says. He’s finishing a master’s degree certification as a therapist, and plans to pursue a Ph.D. in transsexual studies. He also works as a professional speaker, and recently appeared in Boyhood Shadows, a documentary on male sexual abuse. Legal documents – his drivers license, birth certificate and the like – all identify McDaniel as a man.
He’s starting to date, but it’s a difficult process. “Once we have ‘that talk,’” he says, “the women never call again.
“Some people see being transgendered as an identity, and that’s cool. For me, I see my own situation as a medical condition. I got medical assistance for it, and now my body works like it should, like a dick should.
“When someone shares that with you, they’re the same person they were 10 minutes before. The person who has changed is the one who’s listening, not the one doing the sharing. It pushes my comfort zone. It makes me a better man because it challenges me.”
For those who fall under the alphabet-soup umbrella – LGBTQQI (lesbian, gay, bi, trans, queer, questioning and intersex) – there aren’t a lot of options in Monterey County. Apart from the occasional LBGT night at some venues, there’s one gay bar, Franco’s/Norma Jean’s, located in Castroville and it’s open only on Saturdays. And while the showroom boasts a top-notch drag show, it’s not a prime meeting place for the non-Spanish speaking crowd.
This isn’t to say a large queer community doesn’t exist, but it traditionally has operated in semi-silence, and resources and acceptance levels become rarer as one moves inland from the Peninsula, to Salinas – and all but invisible as one moves south down the Salinas Valley.
“Monterey County can be a lonely place if you are a member of any one of the LGBTQQI communities,” says Stephen L. Braveman, a licensed marriage and family therapist. “As a sex therapist and a gender specialist, I work a lot with these communities, and even in my world, over the years in Monterey County, I’ve discovered that we have a dire need for a place for people to get information. If somebody is just coming out they need somebody to talk to, or if all of the sudden you, as a parent, found out your kid is gay or transgendered, we need a place for people to get information.
“People come in my door and say, ‘I’m gay. I’ve been living in this community over a year, and I can’t meet anybody. There’s no place to hang out. The gay bars have closed. We can’t have a gay bar and a lesbian bar and a transgendered bar – this isn’t San Francisco – but it would be nice to have someplace to hang out. And what if people don’t want to be around alcohol?”
The answer, he says, is a diversity center, modeled after one in Santa Cruz, with a lending library, resource guide, meeting space – and comfy chairs and possibly a dance floor. The plan includes two centers – one in Monterey and one in Salinas. The group has yet to find two spaces for rent – in addition to working on the 501(c)(3) status, locating visible storefronts is the top priority. “So people can see us, and know we exist,” Braveman explains. “Someplace people can just jump in, talk to somebody. We’ll have support groups. We want to have a place for youth to come and hang out with other youth, maybe host a dance.”
Proposition 8 may have divided the state, but it united the queer community, which has its own politics and internal bickering as does every other group of individuals. And the California Supreme Court’s recent decision to uphold it may have further strengthened the bond, giving gay-marriage supporters additional common cause as they turn out en masse at rallies and vow to launch a ballot initiative to overturn the ban.
Locally, Proposition 8 sprouted at least one new homegrown group: Salinas Valley Equality (salinasvalleyequality.com), which started as a handful of people doing phone banking. “After the election,” says Toney Barber, “we got more determined to get organized once we realized we weren’t in the place we thought we were in terms of acceptance of LGBT people.”
Barber married his long-time partner, Steve Scott, on Oct. 30, 2008. (Although the justices upheld the gay-marriage ban, they said that the 180,000 same-sex marriages performed before the election will remain valid.) The two have lived in Salinas for the past 13 years; they originally moved to California in 1989 “to escape Oklahoma,” Barber says.
Barber started SVE’s website in November; it now has some 250 subscribers, and it’s on Twitter and Facebook. It hosts community town-hall style meetings and monthly bowling nights. SVE will sponsor its first annual Pride Picnic (along with the support of other groups including PFLAG, Marriage Equality USA, Pride of Monterey County and Monterey County Dykes on Bikes) at Toro Park on June 13.
“One of our primary objectives was to establish a diversity center,” Barber says. “Right now, people travel to San Jose, Santa Cruz, San Francisco to socialize. And once most of the kids get old enough, they move away.” With Braveman, whose office is based in Monterey, SVE “saw the opportunity to join forces and get a diversity center in both locations,” Barber says.
“With Obama in office,” Braveman adds, “I think our country as a whole – and especially our county – is ready to be more accepting and open to diversity of all kinds; whereas, a few years ago if we opened a diversity center in Monterey, it might be OK, but in Salinas? Oh, boy. And, unfortunately, if we tried to open one in King City right now? That could never happen.”
Pronouns are important to Sara Meuse. The statuesque 51-year-old has an earth-goddessy, boho-chic quality with her long blond waves, flowy, sequined skirts, and beaded, ethnic jewelry. She speaks softly and wears platform sandals and pale shadow that matches her blue eyes.
“I hate to sound cliché,” she says, “but I always knew I should have been born a woman. And, I was completely sure I was the only one in the world who had this little problem. I thought I could suppress this, and I suppressed it for years, but the more I suppressed it, the stronger it became.”
Meuse married a woman and the couple had two daughters. Seven years ago, they separated. “I thought, OK, maybe this is the time. But I still didn’t think there was any hope for me – my voice, you know? My big feet. Then I discovered facial feminization surgery and I thought, ‘Oh my God, I could do this!’”
First she told her ex, who wasn’t surprised, and then she told her two daughters. “They were shell shocked, but it was relatively painless,” Meuse remembers. “My oldest daughter, who was 17, thought it was kinda cool. My youngest daughter wasn’t so happy about it. You have problems of your own at 13; you don’t need your dad saying, ‘I’m going to become a woman.’”
Next, she called her parents. “My mom thought it was a very brave thing. My dad said nothing whatsoever, so I didn’t know how he reacted. But when I became Sara, if someone called me by the wrong pronoun, he would correct them: ‘No, it’s her. It’s she.’
“Hormones are really interesting things,” she says. “They’re very powerful. After being on hormones for four or five months, I would have huge bouts of weeping. Almost on a daily basis, but it felt really good, like I was getting something out, decades of something out.”
Meuse flew to Thailand in December 2006 for 13 hours of facial feminization surgery, hopped up on hormones, weepy yet ecstatic. Upon arrival, she changed her clothes, put on Victoria’s Secret jeans with rhinestones on the back pockets, “and I became Sara.”
After the procedure (and a side trip to Cambodia), Meuse came back to her Aromas home and career at Specialized Bicycle Components in Morgan Hill.
“I drove to work, and I thought, ‘This is going to be so nerve-wracking.’ I got there, and I was calm. Everybody said hello, and called me by my new name, and proper pronoun. They did the right thing, which was basically make it a non-issue.”
Two years later, Meuse returned to Thailand for sexual reassignment surgery, which, she says, “is like getting kicked in the stomach.” But after it was over, she felt content.
Meuse, who is transgendered and a lesbian, got involved with Salinas Valley Equality and the diversity center by way of Proposition 8.
“It’s a new world for me: I used to be so introverted and shy,” she says. “I went through my transition. I got involved in the No on 8 campaign. We became SVE, and then next thing I knew, I was standing on the courthouse steps with a bullhorn in front of my mouth. All the local TV stations came. Oh, God, it was scary, but cool. This has been a really exciting period in my life.”
I first meet Danielle/Kyson Willis at a diversity center planning meeting – the group’s second – with girlfriend, Ashley Simmons. Willis, a 22-year-old CSU-Monterey Bay coed majoring in English, introduces himself as Kyson, and says he’s transitioning from female to male.
About a month later, she still wears men’s jeans and t-shirts, and styles her cropped hair into short spikes. But she’s using female pronoun and calling herself Danielle.
“I think I moved too quickly,” she says. “Ashley told me I was becoming a different person. I’m an extrovert. Ashley said I became an introvert. I’ve backed up to gender queer, where you identify with both genders or neither. Some gender queer will go through hormones, and surgery, but still consider themselves as both or neither. But first I have to find out who I am and I have to like who I am before I change my body. I still dress in guys’ clothing. I chopped my hair. But right now it’s back to ‘she.’”
“We still slip up and say ‘he’ from time to time,” Simmons, 22, adds.
“I still get the urge to introduce myself as Kyson,” Willis says. But at the same time she doesn’t want to alienate her family. Her dad’s got a weak heart, and she’s afraid the stress would kill him. And after coming out as a lesbian to her parents, her mom didn’t accept her for six years. Oddly, it was Willis and Simmons’ engagement on Dec. 20 that brought Willis and her mom back together. “My mom said, ‘Where I am weak, Ashley is strong.’ [My mom] said, we complement each other perfectly.”
The two met in a science class at CSUMB in the fall of 2007. Willis saw Simmons enter the room, was instantly attracted to her long brown hair, and silently prayed, “Please, don’t let the hot girl sit at my table.”
The hot girl did sit at her table, the two started dating, and Willis proposed five days before Christmas.
Less than two months later, on Feb. 15, Willis woke up crying.
“She had this dream – a reoccurring dream – she had cheated on me with a faceless man,” Simmons says. “I said, ‘Maybe this faceless man is you. Maybe you’re struggling with yourself, and this is something you need to do.’
“I’m going to be here to support her the entire way. The person inside is the person I love – just don’t lose that person.”
None of this made it easy on Simmons, who says she cried a lot. If Willis does have sexual reassignment surgery in the future, Simmons says she’ll support her decisions, but admits she’ll miss Willis’ female body, too.
They both wear engagement rings; Willis’ original one is a blue, heart-shaped stone in a silver setting. “It’s kinda girly,” she says, and it was the thing Willis says she missed the most after becoming Kyson. At that point, she started wearing a more masculine Claddagh ring. “I really missed playing with my engagement ring,” she says. Now she wears both.
“Sometimes I feel like a guy trying to be a girl, and somedays I feel like a girl trying to be a guy. It’s very confusing to me.”
The two plan to marry on April 1, 2012, the same day as Simmons’ parents and grandparents’ anniversaries. Simmons has her eye on a long, white dress with green lacing up the back. Willis says she’ll wear a tux, maybe a zoot suit with green stripes.
“But now we’ll have to get plane tickets to get married in another state,” Willis says. “And even when we do that, our marriage won’t be acknowledged back here.”
Throughout the conversation over iced Starbucks drinks, the conversation returns to Willis’ gender identity, and the couple talk only to each other, sorting their thoughts out.
Simmons: “You need to find you.”
Willis: “I really think transitioning will be a step for me sometime in the future.”
Simmons: “It may be, honey. Here’s the spectrum with male at one end and female at the other. You’re gonna sit on that spectrum. You’re gonna take steps towards being a man and once it doesn’t feel right anymore, then stop. It may mean transitioning. It may not.”
Willis: “I don’t know who I want to become yet.”
Simmons: “I’m saying you need to love yourself, not your body – that’s the shell.”