Autobiography: Paradise Glossed.

Following is an excerpt from my memoir-in-progress. All names have been fictionalized, but all the people are real. Suggestions and other feedback are welcome!

“What can you do about arm hair?” someone asked. Looking back from today, across the stretch of so many years, I don’t remember which of the seven or so people in attendance that evening had posed the question. In my mind’s eye, I look around the tiny living room of Rochelle’s high-rise Waikiki condominium and try, and fail, to attach a face to the question.

It's really hard to find public-domain photos of the streets of Waikiki.

It’s really hard to find public-domain photos of the streets of Waikiki.

The condo was a snapshot of 1970s Hawaiian kitsch; more like a room at Graceland than a fin de siècle home on Oahu. Paintings of plumeria and birds of paradise adorned the walls. A floor lamp wore a hula-skirt shade. The furniture was wicker, dominated by the corner papasan where Rochelle held court. The coffee table was a cross-section of trunk from a koa tree. Whenever I visited the place, I half-expected McGarrett to knock on the door and ask us which stairwell led to the roof.

Maybe “Dani,” the tall, sad-faced, thirty-something Japanese-American, had asked the question. I probably spelled her name wrong; she pronounced it like the standard diminutive of the man’s name, but she used an affected, feminized spelling: D-A-capital N-I, or D-A-N-N-I, or D-A-N-N-I-E, or some variation like that. Actually, maybe her name was Gabby.

It definitely hadn’t been Frieda who’d asked. Frieda, young and pretty, was a “local,” which I understood to mean her ethnicity was multifarious; a blend of all the Asian peoples, plus Portuguese, who’d been brought to the islands as plantation labor over the centuries. Frieda was cheerful, funny, always dressed to flaunt her figure, and effortlessly feminine. She had begun her hormonal and surgical transition when still a teenager. Hairy arms had never been a concern, and a female presentation held no mysteries for her. In her early twenties, she was already an actual beauty pageant winner. She “passed” invisibly, and in this support group, she was a bright ray of possibility, however remote, to the rest of us.

And Margaret hadn’t asked. In fact, in hindsight, it was probably Margaret to whom the question had been put. A haole like Rochelle and me, she claimed to be content in her maleness, but was still more comfortable and happy to dress and act as a woman. And unlike most of the rest of us, she was able to do so at all times—even at her job as an accountant, where her request to begin presenting as female had been met with assent and a shrug by her employers.

Mos Burger is a Japanese ripoff of McDonald's. Its Honolulu location was popular because Japanese tourists were plentiful.

Mos Burger is a Japanese ripoff of McDonald’s. Its Honolulu location was popular because Japanese tourists were plentiful.

Huh, I’d thought, when she’d told me that. The famously easygoing Hawaiian workplace goes a long way beyond aloha shirts on Fridays.

Come to think of it, maybe I myself had been the one who asked about the arms. This was only my first or second meeting. I’d found the group, Honolulu Transgendered Outreach, through a classified ad in Honolulu Weekly. That had led to a phone conversation with Margaret, then a one-on-one meeting with her in person, and now this.

I was not attending en femme. The very thought of dressing in women’s clothes and trying to put on makeup filled me with terror. I was ignorant of most of the practical considerations inherent in placating the dysphoria I’d known myself to have since hitting puberty. I knew nothing about shoe sizes, hosiery, leg shaving, concealing my Adam’s apple, padding my chest, hiding my beard shadow, seeking a medical diagnosis, hormone treatments, or any of the hundreds of other things I knew I would need to learn. I was a baby transsexual. “What can you do about arm hair?” was just the sort of question I would have asked at one of my first meetings. I’m fair-skinned and dark-haired, and while I was never what anyone would call swarthy, there was enough hair on my arms to belie any attempt I made at passing as a girl.

Today, when I refer to “transition,” people assume they know the era in my life I’m referring to. It’s the transition from male to female that began here in Georgia in the middle Naughties; the one that led to the loss of my job, a federal lawsuit, Congressional testimony, a groundbreaking legal precedent, and fame (in certain circles) and notoriety (in others).

Usually, that’s the correct assumption. In the ways that matter in the narrative of my life, that span of years was my Transition (very much with a capital T).

This wasn't my ship, but I think we were in this dry-dock. Once the gate closed, it was like draining a bathtub. I expected to find a giant mat of hair and shampoo left behind.

This wasn’t my ship, but I think we were in this dry-dock. Once the gate closed, it was like draining a bathtub. I expected to find a giant mat of hair and shampoo left behind.

But over a decade earlier and half a world away, I’d begun another transition, one that I eventually abandoned. I was a Navy ensign stationed on a ship undergoing overhaul in the Pearl Harbor Naval Shipyard; our dry dock can be seen in some photos of the aftermath of the 1941 surprise attack, holding two devastated destroyers lying alist on their blocks.

Away from the base, I lived a lonely existence in a bare Kalihi apartment. For various reasons I’ll elaborate on later, I’d decided this was the time to explore whether I had the moxie or chutzpah or fortitude or spunk (“Mr. Graaant!”) I would need to become the person I—knew? suspected? hoped?—I always should have been. That decision had led me to this cramped living room on this night.

“Well, I don’t recommend Nair,” Margaret (it was probably Margaret) answered to whoever had asked. “It smells awful, and it kind of burns. You could shave, I suppose, but the stubble is prickly, and I don’t know how that would fly on your ship. Your fellow sailors might notice.”

They would definitely notice, I thought to myself. When I pulled duty every fourth day, meaning I was bound to the ship area for at least 24 hours, I showered in the officers’ head on the administrative barge that was our crew’s workplace during the overhaul. I already lived in fear I’d have to explain to someone, least preferably our dictatorial XO or the captain himself, why my toenails were painted Parisian Pink.

Obligatory shot of Diamond Head that by law must accompany all narratives about Waikiki.

Obligatory shot of Diamond Head that by law must accompany all narratives about Waikiki.

“But you can just wear long sleeves when you go out dressed,” Margaret assured me. That was certainly true. Although Oahu is in the tropics, most of the outings I would be able to go out on in this furtive guise would be at night, to the drag clubs or gay bars here in Waikiki. Long sleeves wouldn’t be uncomfortable or suspicious after sunset, and obviously I wasn’t going to be basking at Ala Moana Beach in a bikini.

Rochelle broke in. “Or you can just wait until your arm hair turns white, and no one can see it anymore,” she said cheerfully, demonstrating by pulling back the sleeve of her own long-sleeved, age-appropriate frock. Rochelle, the owner of the condo and our hostess, was at least in her sixties. I gazed at her arm with a mix of perplexity and despair.

“That would be a long wait,” I said.