There is a place between reality and make-believe where strangers dwell. They are unable to fully integrate into a world of clear definitions but equally unwilling to pretend that they are something they are not. It's in that gray and lonely place that Meredith lives.
She's a transsexual, and although she says she is comfortable with who she is, the loneliness can become unbearable, because she exists on the fringes of a culture that still considers humans trapped in the wrong bodies as freaks.
Meredith isn't her real name, but I will respect her desire for anonymity. She was born a boy, but sensed from an early age that the true person within her, the one she wanted to be, was a girl. She identified with the Sallys around her, not the Michaels.
She has e-mailed me for years, urging me to publicize the plight of those often arrested by the police and beaten by thugs for very little reason, other than the clothes they wear, the manners they assume and the gender lines they cross. She became more persistent in her demand for attention when Times sportswriter Mike Penner courageously announced in print that he was transsexual and would reemerge as Christine Daniels.
So Meredith and I met for the first time in person at a Santa Monica deli, and I've got to say there's no way she could have gone unnoticed in the world. She is 6-feet-4, with spike heels adding at least another inch to her height, and skinny as a chopstick. Her blond hair is frizzy and ponytailed, her red blouse partially open to reveal a tattoo near her navel, her ankle-length pants as tight as paint.
Her voice and mannerisms -- a head tilt, a flutter of brilliant blue eyes, a giggle -- are definitely female, aided by a five-year regimen of estrogen that is altering the nature of her body. She has very little hope of ever being be able to afford the surgery that would make the transition complete.
"I am happy with who I am," she declares without hesitation, showing me a driver's license that identifies her as female. But still there is that loneliness she admits to, an uneasy notion that not everyone else is happy with who she is. "I'm OK with that," she says. "It's all right to be lonely."
At 51, she has been diagnosed bipolar and lives on the edge of downtown's skid row on an $870-a-month state disability allotment. She supplements that, she admits, with occasional sexual encounters. "I'm not a prostitute," she says, with a nervous laugh, "I'm a whore," meaning she's not a professional, she's just an opportunist.
She has attempted suicide by slashing her wrists, and sought to blur her pain through alcohol and drugs. "There were times," she says, "when I didn't even want to get out of bed." In an effort to reestablish contact with an abusive and alcoholic father, she telephoned him. He swore at her and hung up.
It is only now, after hormones and therapy, that Meredith is able to declare who she is and to be respected by those who know her.
Her mother, who died several years ago, accepted her without condemnation.
Acceptance, Meredith feels, is a question of respect. "I find," she adds, "that if I am gracious to others, they are gracious to me."
Why write now about someone in such an isolated state, living on the fringe of a society that finds transsexuals an anomaly? Because, as members of the human family, they deserve identity. Meredith emphasizes that transsexuals are not transvestites, the men and women who cross-dress. Transsexuals make the change emotionally and often physically. They become, in effect, someone else.
"I have a great body, killer legs and a good face," Meredith says with a flip of a wrist, but these are the pleas of a person still not fully detached from what she had once been, a man who fathered a child with a lover who now shuns the woman Meredith has become. Her son screamed, "I hate you!" when Meredith tried to make contact with him.
What some see as a person with a cultural deformity, I see as a vulnerable victim of nature's caprice, a mismatch between the brain and body that confuses the sexuality of an embryo and results in the anguish of indecision. I have admiration for those who, as adults, decide and declare who they are -- even though I know that they probably will always be uneasy with themselves, always a part of the lonely places we create in the world we know.
"This," Meredith says, referring to her own status as a man who evolved into a woman, "allows me to see life from both sides. It's an opportunity that few are granted."
Then she crosses the street to wait at a bus stop, tall and regal in the physiology that will forever set her apart.