When I was a knock-kneed bobby-soxed fifth grader I remember the big deal that my teachers made about the equality of all Americans. It was a kind of innocent strain of nascent American exceptionalism that would reach full flower over 55 years later with the election of Donald Trump. Back then we put our hands over our hearts and pledged allegiance to the flag every day (though that would end soon), even in my Bay Area school; the seamy underside of supposed American equality was tightly buttoned up and out of our history classes and the pages of our textbooks. It was 1960, on the very cusp of the decade that would make that decade as different from its predecessor as modest plaid skirts were from tie-dyed bikinis.
Women could vote, of course, it wasn’t as if nothing had happened since land-owning white men were running the government. But the slicing and dicing of social justice – the questioning of who was part of “We the People,“ and who wasn’t, had begun its one-way march through the U.S. Constitution, Congress, the courts, and state legislatures. Minorities who felt marginalized by the American system of justice began flocking to the courts and their elected representatives to demand redress for what they saw as their own personal restricted access to "Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness” under the laws of the land. One by one, falling like dominoes, discriminatory laws pertaining to race and gender began to fall.
Which brings us today to one of the last bastions of social justice: sex, which perhaps due to its intrinsic prurient nature, perhaps due to traditional, especially Christian religious dogma or teaching, is arguably the newest, if not the hottest button of social-equality issues today. And men who become women and women who become men are part of this recent public focus, lumped together with the gay men, lesbians, and bisexuals touted by and publicly supported by virtually every Democratic presidential candidate in earnest search of their votes.
As a country we cleared a major hurdle on June 4, 2015, when the U.S. Supreme Court struck down all state bans on same-sex marriage, making the United States the 17th country to do so. (Denmark was the first.) This was a surprisingly speedy move away from pure-hetero marriage law, at least in my view. Remember that until 1976 oral sex between heterosexual couples was illegal, though individual states unevenly enforced what now seems a ridiculous law (not to mention a gross invasion of privacy). But ongoing sexual social justice issues still linger, and in the minds of some changing your gender strikes at the very heart of our species: Are we male or are we female? And if we were legally designated male or female at birth in the usual way – by our genitalia − do we have to stay that way? And if we do choose to change the gender we were born into, are we entitled to the same legal, medical and other benefits as non-transgender (known as “cisgender” in the new parlance) men and women?
On a recent cold, blustery late morning in Mendocino, I walked uphill from one of the town’s main drags to Ukiah Street, turned left toward the ocean west of the post office, and made my way to a wood building with gingerbread trim that houses a cluster of small businesses including an upscale organic pet food shop, offices for two therapists, one lawyer, and Sallie’s Video Salon. Proprietor Sallie Brown is a 73-year-old woman who was born Tom Brown (a name she now refers to as her dead name) and lived as a man, including marriage and two daughters, until she formally began her hormonal and physical transition to a woman several years ago. She told me that she began the hormone therapy that would launch her transition on January 20, 2017, the day Donald Trump was inaugurated President of the United States. “It represented the end of the patriarchy,” Brown said.
Brown ushered me into the warmth of her welcoming and tidy video rental shop. Empty boxes (the actual DVDs are stored alphabetically in the back) line the shop’s walls, and there are cozy places to sit and browse, like local bookstores used to be before the internet and its high-speed cyber pathways relegated them to their inevitable slide into obsolescence. Brown told me that Sallie’s Video Salon is trying hard to beat back the same invisible forces that have opened up today’s many options for streaming videos. She said her business fell 45 percent between 2018 and 2019 and that the future of her video shop is uncertain. Brown has lived in or around Little River for most of her adult life, mostly as either Tom Brown, her birth name, or as Obe Brown, her second given male name. She told me that her transition into Sallie was very much her own, unique to her, and that she did not feel, as many transgender people do, that she had been born into the wrong body from the get-go.
“I just gradually started transitioning, dressing differently,” Brown said. “I never felt like I had a sense of myself. I had to find out who I was.” Dressed that day in an attractive, accessorized outfit, Brown looked every inch the professional businesswoman, though her voice is still deep and low. She declined to go into a lot of detail about her physical transition, though she did say that she did not go into the full-bore surgery that would have removed all of her male genitalia. She said she’ll continue hormone therapy for the rest of her life.
When she taught for a final year as Sallie in an after-school program in Mendocino, Brown said that some of the kids who had known her as Obe just “couldn’t accept the change” and were rude to her. Another person asked her if her neat pageboy was a wig. “I’m actually bald on top,” she said. Brown said that the legal steps she made to officially become Sallie otherwise went smoothly and uneventfully and were no big deal to the agencies she worked with. The first step was to legally change her gender, which required various documentation from a doctor (including medical information like hormone levels) and going to court to make it official. She then took that legal information to the DMV and Social Security offices, completing the major legal steps in her legal transition. She said the legal part was easy.
Brown said that a painful break-up with a woman while she was still a man, largely due to disclosing her evolving feelings about her sexuality, was a catalyst in the timing of her transition but that its roots were primarily spiritual. She said she abandoned her Catholic upbringing and has for many years been a practicing Tibetan Buddhist. “Buddhism not a religion in the same sense,” she said. “It’s based on your experience in this world and is non-theistic.”
Reflecting back on her life, Brown said that even in her earliest heterosexual relationships as a man she often took up the traditionally feminine side of the relationship. She also said she hopes that an emerging openness about issues facing transgender people will diminish the mystery and often latent discrimination many transitioned men and women endure even in today’s relatively open social environment. “There’s no transgender community here,” Brown said. “A couple years ago I went to the gay pride parade in San Francisco. I’m glad I went, just to be exposed to so many people of every color and gender. I wish I had that.”
Brown told me she’s sorry she waited so long to make her transition. “When I turned to the feminine in me, I felt like I had been wandering in the desert and had found an oasis – it was a real heart connection.”