He explains that the estimated $15,000 worth of tattoos on his upper body reflect his values in a variety of ways, with “a ton of symbolism” rendered through pictures, numbers and symbols. His full-sleeved left arm shows both him and his wife—she’s shown as an angel, and he’s setting tile. The tattoo reminds him not to get too caught up in his work, and that family is more important than making money. The sun, moon and stars that, for Mormons, denote the three degrees of glory in the afterlife, are all represented. His right shoulder bears a Masonic compass with the name Ahman—one of the names of God according to the LDS Church’s Doctrine & Covenants.
His back is a work in progress. A graveyard scene is complete with an olive “genealogy” tree on his left shoulder, and there are renderings of each of his children. A mausoleum represents his sister, who died in February 2011. He says his bishop asked, “Can I get in on that and have my name on a tombstone?”
Fellow ward members haven’t always been so accepting. When working construction, Burr had long, curly hair he wore in a ponytail. “I cut it off and donated 16 inches. The next Sunday, an elderly woman in the ward came up to me in tears, saying she was so proud of me that I had grown up to look respectable.” Her words irritated Burr, who feels that a person doesn’t need to fit a particular mold or look a certain way to be a temple-attending member of the LDS Church.
When he got married in 1996, Burr says his wife appeared to be the more controversial figure in their partnership. “I served a mission, lived that life and was a 23-year-old virgin when I got married. She had gotten pregnant at a young age, was four years older than me and was a single mom with three kids. There was the assumption that she was a little bit wild. Now, people see us, and she’s blond and clean-cut and doesn’t swear or have tattoos. The kids call her Molly Mormon Mom. Our roles have reversed.”
When he worked with Boy Scouts in his LDS ward, the scout leader “wanted to make sure that I never made any comments saying it was OK to get tattoos.” Burr always tells people who ask him that getting tattoos is a big decision “that definitely changes your lifestyle. You think it only affects you, but it affects my wife, and even my kids have had people ask questions.” He doesn’t believe getting a tattoo should be a rebellious, spur-of-the-moment decision.
He’s thought about his future tattoos, which will include two poems he’s written to be placed on both sides of his ribcage. As one poem states, “So let your story be told, let your tree grow/ And proudly let the flaws and beauty show./ For in the end, it will stand alone/ As a testament to how you’ve grown.”
Burr concludes, “It’s who we are eternally that counts.”
Two Genders, Two Lives: Malcolm and Deborah
It’s difficult to be a woman, and it’s even more difficult when you start out as a man, Malcolm says. He spends a lot of time as his alter ego, Deborah Dean, a persona he named after a woman he once dated in college. Ten years ago, about half the clothes in his closet were Malcolm’s and half were Deborah’s. Recently, when planning to attend a weeklong training as Malcolm, he realized that Malcolm’s wardrobe had diminished over time and he needed to buy more clothes for Malcolm to wear.
While appearing as Malcolm, he often dons simple T-shirts and jeans. Deborah, on the other hand, wears a variety of feminine attire, from elegant brocades to casual Levi’s. “It does take longer to get ready as Deborah—the jewelry, the foundation garment, the knee-high hose, woman’s watch, necklace and earrings. Malcolm wouldn’t mess with all of that. Malcolm is basically no frills.” So, if there were a fire, he might run out of the house as Malcolm.
Does he ever mix the two? “I could wear Malcolm’s pants with one of Deborah’s tops, and no one would ever know. But there’s no reason to go half and half—I’ve never wanted to. I want to be the best Malcolm and also the best Deborah I can be.”
He’s emphatic that he’s heterosexual, happily cross-dresses and will never seek sexual-reassignment surgery. “I’ve done things people consider macho—like riding a bicycle across the country from the Pacific to the Atlantic. I was one who pulled people off rooftops in New Orleans after Katrina. I enjoy my ‘boy stuff’ enough not to give it up.”
He hails from the Bible Belt and, from boyhood, understood that one of the things he wasn’t supposed to be doing was playing with female clothing or jewelry. Like many other cross-dressers, he would buy women’s clothes and hide them. “I thought that I was the only one. I did not know that 1 in 20 people did this to some degree,” he explains. “Some people dress up once a month and that’s enough, others dress up once week and that’s enough, and others dress up every night and that’s not enough.”
There is a still a lot of overlap, he admits. He started going to a series of orthodontic appointments as Malcolm, and now shows up as Deborah. He’ll go to the grocery store as either one, and has danced as both Malcolm and Deborah. He’s the same person inside either way, he says.
At the bank, he hands over Malcolm’s ID. “If there’s a conversation with the teller at the bank, I, as Deborah, might say, ‘I don’t look much like a Malcolm right now, but this is how I prefer to dress.”
He’s usually Deborah at church. He once belonged to a book club where only Deborah made appearances. He owns 20 wigs. Though he’s collected many of them for years, he doesn’t wear all of them, and sometimes he gives them away to other people in Engendered Species (ES-Transgender.com), a group he founded in Salt Lake City that has grown to about 2,000 members in 15 years.
Malcolm never had children of his own, but says he helped raise someone else’s child. “At first, when he was a young teenager, he had trouble with it, because he worried what other kids might think. He is an adult now and totally OK with it. I have been both genders at work, and I navigate society without much trouble.”
When he’s Deborah, he uses the women’s restroom. “If I go in the men’s [restroom] as Deborah, I would get some looks. Men’s and women’s restrooms are really about the same, except …” he pauses, “women are sloppier. You are more likely to find droplets on the seats in the women’s room.” He emphasizes that Deborah handles her restroom visits with decorum, taking care of business and leaving as quickly as possible. “I don’t cause problems. I go in the stall, I do my thing and leave. Showing good manners will work anywhere.”
The only time a cross-dresser would run counter to the law is if he or she were committing a lewd act while cross-dressed. “Even if a male cross-dresser goes into a women’s bathroom, that’s not any worse than a woman who gets fed up with waiting in line in the women’s at a sports event and decides to use the men’s room. It’s what they do while cross-dressed that would make the difference,” Deborah says.
Malcolm has come a long way since the days when he hid under the covers, hoping his mother wouldn’t catch him dressed as a girl. Deborah has appeared twice in The Vagina Monologues. She regularly marches in the annual Pride Parade.
As comfortable as Malcom is with his own situation, he’s just as quick to say this isn’t for everybody. He cautions cross-dressers considering sexual-reassignment surgery to take plenty of time to decide. “I tell them they need to learn how to make friends, get a job and navigate socially as the other gender before deciding if they really want to go through with this.”
Malcolm has also seen many who, like him, remain comfortable with their cross-dressed selves. “Today, I commonly go out as my ‘femme’ self, without incident. I find it not much different than doing the same as my male self. Being out is a powerful place to be.”