We’re all different things to different people. We’re not the same at work as we are at home. People view us in a variety of ways depending on how they know us. But what would it be like to have an actual second identity? It happens in the movies. Clark Kent steps into a phone booth and becomes Superman. This year, actress Glenn Close was nominated for an Oscar for portraying a woman disguised as a man in the film Albert Nobbs. What would it be like to have an alter ego, to live between two worlds in everyday life, doing your best to fit into both scenarios? The four Utahns interviewed for this story have been there. They’re about to tell the inside story of what it’s like to live two lives.
Don’t Call Her a Cross-Dresser:
Phoebe Berrey, Comb-Over Artist
Waking up with a comb-over hairstyle might be the worst day in any woman’s life—any woman except Phoebe Berrey. Several influences led to the semi-bald look she’s worn intermittently since a gay friend helped her create it in 2004. He said, “I don’t know of any man who would do this, let alone a woman.”
Despite assumptions of some people who encounter Berrey, she says her comb over has nothing to do with her sexuality. “It’s not about cross-dressing, either. I consider it a world within my mind—a different world that I can pull off. I’m an artist, and I love to have fun with people. Comb overs are funny like farts are funny.”
There are also life events involved, Berrey explains. “I’ve always been called out because I’m fat. I think I was born fat. Growing up as the fattest kid, I was judged harshly, sometimes brutally. It was natural that I would want to mirror that back to the people who I felt represented my oppressors.” As part of that process, Berrey wanted to challenge herself and take it to the next step. Wondering if there were a status that men experience that is equally impossible to hide, Berrey thought: baldness. “It was like my fat equated with the guys’ baldness. I wondered how they handle it. They go to a comb over or the ball cap.”
Berrey, 58, first shaved her head in 2000, an event she found liberating. “I got through being a prisoner of my hair, trying every style in the book. I thought, what the heck, why not try it out? Everyone should see what their head looks like bald. And when it starts growing in, it’s like carpet. When you rub it back and forth, it gives your head a sensation that you can’t describe.”
Describing things artistically is Berrey’s life’s work. After living in Salt Lake City since fourth grade, she moved to New York City for her art career. She freelanced for clients including Marvel Comics and Penthouse. She continues to freelance in Salt Lake City and works from her studio at her Avenues home. She found that men’s clothes were conducive to both her vocation and her plus-size physique. “I can’t fit into women’s clothes. And men’s clothes are cheaper.”
When she shaves her head for the comb over, she often maintains the character for several months. She’s a landlord and her current tenant—who is also bald, knows about the comb over. “He has a condition where he is completely bald with no eyelashes or eyebrows, and he knows I do the combover thing. He says people judge us bald people wrong.”
She shaves for special occasions or performances, such as in 2011, when Roseanne Barr came for the Pride festival. Berrey currently works on Roseanne Barr’s campaign art. (Barr is campaigning to become the Green Party candidate for president in 2012). Berrey also does illustrations for Barr’s boyfriend, Johnny Argent, who lives with Barr on a 40-acre macadamia nut farm on Hawaii’s Big Island.
The comb over is Berrey’s preferred style in warm weather. “I often shave it for the summer, because I’m not into hot flashes. The cooler you are on top, the better. I might as well be as undateable as possible. Sometimes I shave it every other day, and other times I go a month without shaving it and then shave it again.”
She’s created several YouTube characters—a spoof on the Old Spice guy, a doctor, a playboy and a cowboy. Berrey even appeared in a “separated at birth” shot on Dr. Phil in 2003. She submitted a tape to be considered for his Ultimate Weight Loss Challenge, telling him she was a good candidate, and adding, “Besides, I kind of look like you.”
If Berrey is perceived as just a “guy” in public, she’s basically ignored. “As a ‘fat old man,’ I notice that children don’t give me much eye contact, and women don’t really look at me either.” It gets fun for her when strangers must first make up their minds whether she is male or female. “If they decide I am a man with no funny business going on, I’m totally accepted as macho, straight and manly. But if they get a clue that something is not exactly right, some think perhaps I’m a very effeminate gay man, or, to them, more frightening. From them, I get a flash of what it feels like to be judged negatively by homophobic, confused or possibly frightened men or women.”
When folks realize she’s a woman, they want to know why she does this.
“Am I woman cross-dressing? Transitioning? Is it sexual? Am I a lesbian? A drag king?” Her answer: none of the above. “I do this for entertainment, artistic expression, greater awareness and something in my nature that makes me want to make people question their own identity.” She adds that many are delighted she was able to fool them and much laughter ensues.
Men, more than women, admire her courage. Bald guys and those with comb overs seem the most amused. “Men are more receptive to enjoying the deception although some are very, very repulsed. Women have a much harder time trying to figure out how I could betray my ‘femininity’ and not have any sexual or identity issues involved.”
Friends generally want to hang out with her to see how the whole thing plays out. “If you get it, it is hilarious fun. If you don’t, it really creeps you out. Most people don’t get it, but this does not deter me,” Berrey says. “I think I have invented a whole new Crying Game.” She’s also shamed a friend into losing his own comb over.
Chandler Burr’s entire left arm, shoulders, back and right arm to the elbow are inked with panoramic, full-color, highly detailed tattoos that reflect his life’s journey and defining moments. His visual adornments belie the reality that 38-year-old Burr is a lifelong and still-active Mormon, belonging to a faith that strongly discourages tattoos. The late LDS President Gordon B. Hinckley admonished the faithful in 2000, “... the time will come when [your tattoo] will be an embarrassment to you. Avoid it.”
Other members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints often assume there was a dark episode in his past that led to his skin art. “They will say something like, ‘We all make mistakes in life, and everybody goes through a hard time,’ thinking that it was a stage, and I regret it and have now come back to church,” says Burr, who served an LDS mission in Madrid and currently attends the LDS temple once a month. “I do get interesting looks in the temple. People will think my hand is dirty, and they do a double take.”
Despite growing up as “the perfect LDS child who was a leader in all my quorums and never drank or smoked,” Burr was fascinated with tattoos for years and had some of his designs drawn a year and half before the actual tattooing began. He researched tattooing and tattoo artists before sitting down with Mike J at Big Deluxe in Salt Lake City. “The day Mike did the first one, I was already deciding what else I wanted done,” Burr recalls.
The first tattoo Burr got was a skull on his right forearm—its veins are his five children’s names written in cursive. That tattoo extends down into his palm, culminating in a rendering of vertebrae. The final “bone” commemorates the date—Sept. 7, 2006—of his 10th wedding anniversary. “If you take our skin away and see a skeleton, you don’t know what color the person’s skin was or if they were male or female—it’s my way of saying that we are all the same.”
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.”
Two Lives Become One: Craig Steiner, Former Closeted Gay and Active Mormon
For years, the stress of living a double life as both an active Mormon and closeted gay man haunted Craig Steiner every minute of every day. Since only celibate gays can be active church members, he felt he was always on the edge of being discovered if he even blinked wrong or said the wrong word. “I watched my voice, my gestures, my mannerisms,” he says. “I looked in the mirror to see how ‘gay’ I might appear to others. When you are deeply closeted, every single second of your life is spent in the most agonizing fear. It is relentless and literally in the back of your mind every conscious moment. It doesn’t matter how long you are undetected. One false move and your whole life falls apart.”
Steiner vividly remembers his first crush on another boy in first grade. “I remember the kid’s name and what he looked like. I didn’t know the word for it, but I knew I wasn’t supposed to tell anyone,” he recalls. He’s emphatic that, “Not only did I not choose to be gay, I chose to not be gay a million times. Every morning when I prayed, I chose to be straight.”
While serving an LDS mission, he kept all the rules. In his exit interview, the mission president said, “You are by far the most faithful missionary we have seen.” He recalls, “I had lots of spiritual experiences, but on that one topic, there was a silent, empty blank.”
He understood the mechanics of dating. “I had seen guys holding girls’ hands and did what they did. I was very romantic and would write poetry and give flowers. The caring part came very naturally to me.”
All the while, he wished he could tell someone he trusted about his problem. When he eventually confided his struggles to his LDS bishop, he says the man told him he needed a proper outlet for his sexuality and added, “I promise you in the name of the Lord, if you marry a righteous girl in the temple, you will never again have a problem with this. You will be cured.” After those words, “Nothing was going to keep me from getting married,” Steiner recalls. “I wanted to be just like the other Mormon people.”
His mother lined him up on a blind date with a woman with whom she worked. On their second date, they seemed to have a lot in common. As they continued dating, friends commented on her beauty. “I thought it was great that I picked a beautiful one—because I honestly didn’t know. There was no girl that I was attracted to any more than any other. They were like a row of cereal boxes.”
Steiner appreciated the fact that his fiancee was a generous, loving person. He says he took his bishop’s advice not to tell her about his struggles with sexual orientation. “Much later, into the marriage, she began to wonder, saying, ‘We are more like brother and sister than husband and wife.’” He was determined to live out his marriage, no matter what. “I totally, absolutely believed every word of Mormon doctrine. I wanted to be worthy and it tore me apart.”
The layers of fear felt endless. “Everything you stand for, everything you believe, everything you are or wish you were, everything your family thinks of you, everything your pioneer ancestors did for you, everything that Joseph Smith and Jesus mean to you, the entire universe will blow up if anyone finds out. You live with that, your finger on the trigger, knowing if you fall asleep and so much as twitch, it’s all over and you’ve blown up your entire world.”
He once felt that if he were outed, he would kill himself by driving off a cliff. “There was no question that would be preferable to having my double life exposed.”
When his wife ended the marriage, “It felt as if God had opened the cage and said, ‘You can leave.’” But, he says, “I was determined not to be enemies. I told her I needed the car and computer for my work, but she could have anything else she wanted.” He adds that he cares for his former wife deeply, “just not in the way that a husband is supposed to. We are the best of friends who talk daily and see each other several times a week.”
After his divorce, he felt he couldn’t ignore his situation any longer. Over a two-month period, he fasted and prayed and read everything the church had published on the subject, as well as all of the clinical research and studies he could find. He eventually felt that “the church had no answer for me except for me to turn into someone else.”
Steiner says he later received a strong spiritual experience in which God told him that that he could be accepted as a gay person and that God did not expect him to overcome his homosexuality. At that time, he trusted both the spiritual feelings of his LDS testimony and the equally strong feelings of his recent answer to prayer. While he had friends who thought he should just write a letter and have his name removed from church records, “I didn’t feel that was right. I felt strongly that I needed to fully face up to myself and tell the whole truth.”
An LDS Church court is held when a member “commits such serious sins that they might be kicked out of the church. In my case, the sins committed surrounded homosexual behavior. Yeah, I had messed around with guys and did not believe it was possible for me to ‘go straight’ or be celibate for the rest of my life, so I was a prime candidate for church court.”
Attending his church court felt like attending his own funeral. “My stake presidency and my bishop were there. For the church court, you can prepare a statement. It was one of the few times where I was very direct and pulled out all the stops, mentioned all of the sins and where I was. I laid it all out there,” he says.” After that, they asked insightful questions. I felt like they really did love me and were trying hard to do the right thing.”
At the end, he says his stake president’s expression turned dark as he told him that the presence of God would leave him after he left the room and was then excommunicated. “I had no choice but to leave,” he recalls. “I walked outside, and it was like the unbelievable burden of my two lives fell off. There was an unbelievable sense of relief and release, like all of my problems vaporized and I was starting off as a whole new person. There was a sense of hope that was completely foreign after living with hopelessness and despair and knowing my life was a dead end.”
When people ask if he would do it again, there’s not an easy answer. “The misery was so intense, but if it was the only way to end up with my two kids again, I’d do it—with a great deal of hesitation and trepidation. My kids are worth it—no question. They are the greatest joy in my life.”
Now 47, Steiner has dated here and there, but still seeks the long-term relationship he hopes to have someday. “I am so driven to be with someone. Maybe I will and maybe I won’t, but even if I never do, I am so much happier than when I was living two lives.” In his marriage, he had always slept against the edge of the bed. He says it wasn’t until his first gay relationship that he “felt inclined to snuggle up with someone and sleep with them in my arms. I never knew I was supposed to have those instincts.”