“Don’t be such a girl.” I hear the boys taunt each other at the playground near my house. “Don’t be such a girl.” Nothing could be worse. Most men agree. Sitting on the couch with the remote in one hand and a bag of chips in the other, my husband stares at some effeminate reporter. “Give me a break,” my husband sneers. “He’s such a girl.”
Ask any man you know if he’d like to be a woman, you get an automatic “No.” Too messy. Too emotional. Too hard. Most men can’t imagine going through their lives as anything but male. One San Diego man, born Lebanese, recoiled when asked to consider what his life would have been like had he been born a woman. “You might as well ask me to imagine how my life would have been different had I been born a Martian,” he said.
Some men didn’t find the concept so alien. Six of them agreed to talk to me. They told me about their lives, then imagined how those lives would have changed if they’d been wrapped at birth in a pink blanket instead of blue. Some had long stories to tell: childhood, high school, college, career, marriage, children, grandchildren, 20-plus years of retirement. Others had just begun their adult lives. Their stories and re-imaginings follow.
Men Have the Better of It
David Robitzek didn’t seem 90. Sitting in a small, sunny office in a North County retirement community, Robitzek radiated the kind of energy you find in people who have somewhere to be every day at 8:00 a.m. His white hair combed straight back, Robitzek seemed dressed for an afternoon of golf: light blue flannel slacks, white polo shirt, gray cardigan. He spoke deliberately. When he stopped to remember a particular detail, Robitzek closed his eyes, then blinked quickly for a few moments. Leaning back in an office chair, he clasped his hands and began his story.
“I was born in 1910, March 14, in a place called City Island in the Bronx, New York. The total population was about 1500 people. I was born there. I was baptized there. I was married there. But I’m not going to be buried there. I had four sisters, all older than I. They say I was spoiled. That remains to be seen.” Robitzek laughed.
“After graduating from grammar school, I went to Fordham Prep, which is a prep school for Fordham University,” Robitzek continued. Back in City Island, he met and married his wife Elaina. “After school, I got a job down on Wall Street with the Stock Exchange. I was there during the crash in 1929. As a matter of fact, the morning after the crash, the New York Times took a picture of people standing in front of the Stock Exchange, and I happen to be in the picture.”
Robitzek worked at the Stock Exchange for about nine years, then got a job as a bookkeeper. “When the war came along, I had two children. The draft board said that if you got into what they called an ‘essential industry,’ you would not be drafted. So I got a job at a shipyard along the Hudson River. I worked there until 1945, when the war was over. Finally, we were living in a place called Parkchester. Parkchester is a housing project of 40,000 inhabitants owned by the Metropolitan Life. It has 12,000 apartments. I got a job there as an office manager. After a few years, I was transferred downtown where the Metropolitan had some other housing projects. I was made office manager there. During my last few years with Metropolitan, I went to work in their electronic division. I retired in 1973.”
Robitzek remembered being very involved in his children’s lives. “We have three children. I remember driving them here and there, helping them with their homework,” Robitzek said. “Our children never gave us a bit of trouble. Thank God. They seemed to be born of that generation where drugs were not being passed around frequently. My association with the children is fondly remembered. We’re on great terms. Same with the grandchildren. My oldest daughter has five children. My second daughter has three. And my son has one. Consequently, we have nine grandchildren, eight great-grandchildren, and one great-great-grandchild.”
After Robitzek’s retirement, he and his wife moved a number of times. New York to Connecticut to California to Arizona to Florida and back to California. They had lived in their North County apartment for two and a half years when Robitzek spoke to me early in the year 2000.
“How would my life have been different had I been born a woman?” Robitzek paused. He had clearly given the topic some thought. He ran through the different aspects of his life as if he were an accountant summing up columns. “I have four sisters who are older than me,” he said. “I guess I would have fit in there. They had their arguments, which I would have had if, for example, they had worn some of my clothes. As a child, I don’t think things would have been much different. I got interested in girls when I was maybe 15. And if I’d been a girl, I might have gotten interested in boys around the same age.
“As for my schooling, I would have gone to a girls’ high school rather than Fordham, which was a boys’ school. I’m a Catholic. When it came time for college, I would have looked around for a good Catholic school. I would have gone to New Rochelle college, where my wife graduated. That’s a Catholic college.
“And then when I started looking for a mate, I would look for somebody who was smart, and who was respectful, who had proper manners, and proper deportment. Someone who would like to have a family.
“Whether I would have gone to work or not,” Robitzek said, “probably not. Women tended to stay home with the children and raise them. But then when the children were out of the way, I would probably like to get a job. In an office, preferably. I like good things. I love to go on cruises and things like that.
“Then I would shower love on our grandchildren and those that followed. I’d see them as often as I could. And of course, I’d like to be a neat housekeeper, because that’s very important.”
Robitzek didn’t think his retirement years would have been very different as a woman. “But if I got to the place where I couldn’t keep up with the housework, I would look for a retirement place like this,” he said. “That’s one of the reasons we moved into a retirement place when my wife had her stroke. My wife’s still a little feeble, especially her right hand shakes quite a bit.”
In all his years, Robitzek had never wished he weren’t a man. “Oh, no,” he shook his head. “I think men have the better of it, even though the men hold the seats for the ladies and not the other way around. No, I would never wish that I were a woman instead of a man. And if I were a woman, I would maybe want to be a man. Especially knowing as a man what I have been through. And being fairly happy at 90 years old with a few minor ailments.
“The main reason I wouldn’t want to be a woman is that I would be getting into something unknown. I don’t know what’s in their minds. Whereas I know what I’ve had. I’ve enjoyed it. Right now, I’m the chairman of the council that advises management here in our retirement community. So I must have all my marbles. Otherwise they most certainly would not have elected me.”
Are there any women Robitzek would trade places with? “No. But I admire a lot of women,” he said. “For example, Barbara Bush. George W’s mother. I admire quite a few women athletes. But I can’t think of any right now.”
Oh My God. Who Am I?
You can’t get much further from David Robitzek than Garrett Collins. Perched in a corner office at Cal State University San Marcos, 30-year-old Collins sat in front of an oversized computer screen. “I’m an assistant webmaster for Cal State San Marcos,” Collins told me one winter afternoon soon after I spoke to David Robitzek. “I moonlight, teaching an information superhighway class for the college of business.”
With his sensitive blue eyes, Collins looked like the old college boyfriend you used to hang out with to discuss the meaning of life. He wore one earring in one ear, two in the other. His jeans and long-sleeved T-shirt made him indistinguishable from his students. He seemed eager to talk about his life and engaged in the reflexive self-analysis that distinguishes his generation from Robitzek’s.
“If I had to pick my earliest memory,” Collins told me, “I distinctly remember exploring the forest with my dog. I was about three years old. We lived up in Running Springs, east of Los Angeles. We had a big Alaskan malamute named Shaska. My sister had just been born.
“Elementary school was not a real happy time for me,” Collins said, moving forward in time. “My parents got divorced probably the year I started kindergarten. We’d moved to Escondido by then. There’s a great picture of me wearing plaid pants, tears streaming down my face on the first day of school. There were a lot of things falling apart in my life. I didn’t want to be left with strangers.
“Third grade was a good year,” Collins recalled. “My best friend, who I’m still friends with, started being friends with me that year. We played off each other all through school, sat off alone together during lunch. We were both into reading a lot. We read the Tolkien novels and talked about Middle Earth. It seemed like a much more exciting place, where we could be noble beings instead of being chased around the playground.”
Collins remembers being interested in girls from an early age. “I liked my Boy Scout leader’s daughter,” he said. “I was in fifth grade.” Collins started his first long-term relationship near the end of high school. “We actually lived together,” he confessed, “when she was 15 and I was 17. I was terrified. She called me one day and said, ‘My mom and I had a fight. I want you to come get me.’ I said, ‘Come get you?’ And she said, ‘You said you’d always be there for me if I ever needed you.’ So I said, ‘Okay.’
“We lived in a campground for the summer because neither of us was old enough to get an apartment. When she was 16 and I was 18, we got an apartment. Her mom said, ‘Okay, I’ll co-sign on this, and we won’t send the police after you.’ We were together for three years.”
After graduating from high school, Collins enrolled at Palomar College. He stayed there for six years. “My dad said he would pay for school,” Collins explained. “I took all the philosophy classes they had. I took some photography classes. I flunked a lot of the classes I took. I told myself, ‘I’m here to learn. I’m not here to waste my time writing silly essays.’ ”
During his tenure at Palomar, Collins broke up with his high school girlfriend. When he married a woman who also attended Palomar, he turned his academic life around. “I got straight A’s for two years,” Collins said. “Then my dad said he was going to stop paying for school.”
Wanting to avoid the real world for as long as possible, Collins applied to and gained acceptance at Cal State San Marcos in 1993. “I got grant money to stay in school,” he explained. “They didn’t have a philosophy department, so I picked English. I started as a junior.”
During his campus-orientation tour, Collins ran into an old friend who got him a job in the computer lab. “I started working in the computer lab while taking my bachelor’s,” Collins said. “I did real well as far as school goes. I got out after two years. Then I applied to the master’s program.”
Collins taught freshman composition and continued to work in the computer lab while pursuing his master’s degree. “Then I decided I didn’t want to write anymore. I had philosophical reasons for not wanting to add to the mass of analytical writing involved with literature. I started taking incompletes, getting F’s. Just dropping out. I wasn’t teaching anymore. The Web position opened up. I started working here full-time just about the time my marriage was falling apart in 1997. I’m pretty happy. Workwise.”
Collins said he hasn’t yet sorted out what happened in his marriage. “I was unhappy, and I didn’t know it. I wasn’t being honest with myself. I always thought of myself as a very self-evaluative person. I met my wife and we fell in love and we got married. It was a wonderful relationship. I kept telling myself it was a wonderful relationship right up until the point where I said, ‘I want to be anywhere but here.’ I fell in love with somebody else.
“It was almost like I woke up one morning and said, ‘Oh my God. Who am I?’ My wife was saying things like, ‘Where are you going to get a job?’ And I was thinking, ‘I’m happy where we are right now. I know we’re not saving any money. And we’re not close to buying a house. But this is a wonderful life.’ When we started out, we were hippies. By the time we broke up, she wasn’t a hippie anymore, and I still was. She’s not a bad woman. She’s a great person. I just don’t think she was the right person for me.”
How would Collins’s life have changed had he been born a woman? “I think that my concept of myself might have been more limited if I’d been born a woman. What I was capable of, what was possible for me. My mom’s a nurse. She wanted to be a doctor. My sister is also a nurse.
“I think high school would have been very different,” Collins said. “My perception of what girls and boys did in high school was that the boys chased and the girls were chased. As a shy boy, I didn’t do a very good job of chasing. But as a shy girl, I could have gone out there and not had to be the aggressive one.”
According to Collins, his life path during college depended on which class and instructor he was taking. “After I took my first logic class at Palomar,” Collins explained, “I took a knowledge and reality class. You question your universe, your values, things like that. That instructor was very instrumental in the way I started thinking about myself. I like to tell people that at that point, I was no longer my parents’ child. I became my own person.
“Philosophically, I would have been the same person as a woman if I had taken the same classes that I did as a man. The way I rebelled as a man was that I withdrew from society. I said, ‘This is not the society that I find valuable. People are motivated by money.’ In order to deconstruct society as a woman, I think I might have been more likely to take over. I would have been even more of a feminist. I would have been even more politically active. I might have gotten a degree to prove to the world that I could.
“I still think I would have gotten my degree in literature. Teaching is very close to my heart. I think I would have been a teacher. Which would have been ironic as a revolutionary woman to take the accepted woman’s professional role as a teacher.”
Collins paused to consider his marriage again. “I might not have married as a woman,” he said. “It’s hard for me to imagine a relationship that’s not with another woman. Also, I think I would have been much more interested in maintaining my autonomy.”
During his marriage, Collins and his wife didn’t have any children. “In fact, I can’t have any. I’m fixed,” he explained. “When I was 22, for our anniversary, we decided I would have a vasectomy. My wife had been on birth control since she was about 13, and she was 23. We said, ‘These chemicals [in birth control pills] are not good for you, so we’d like to look into some other form of birth control.’ Surgery for a man is much less traumatic than it is for a woman. And I’m mostly still happy with that decision. If I’d been a woman, I probably would not have gotten fixed. Physiologically, the surgery is so much more traumatic for a woman.”
Unlike David Robitzek, Collins admits to wishing he weren’t a man. “Actually, a lot,” he said. “I think that women are really fascinating. If I were a woman, I don’t know if I would be heterosexual. I don’t know if I would want to hang around with men because most men are jerks.”
Collins finished his interview by imagining he would trade places with the writer Gertrude Stein. “I think Gertrude Stein is probably the coolest woman I know of,” he said. “She lived her own life according to her own rules. She was an amazing writer, just an amazing brain.”
From San Marcos, I traveled south. On an upper floor of a downtown high-rise, I sat across from another man in another corner office. Although his name appears etched in the wide glass doors that lead into the law firm he heads, “Mike” preferred to remain anonymous. We looked out across San Diego Bay to Point Loma and the sea before he began to talk.
“I’m a trial lawyer,” Mike said. “Our practice is almost exclusively business litigation. I don’t do any personal injury or malpractice.” Somewhere in his 50s, Mike had the muscular build and weathered face of an aging athlete. On the afternoon we spoke, winter shadows crept across the room and played across Mike’s face as he shifted or waved his hands or drew pictures in the air.
“My earliest memory?” Mike asked. “I’ve got two of them, and I don’t know which one came first. I grew up on a farm, first in Ohio and then in Iowa. The first farmhouse that my folks lived in was a really primitive place. No hot water. The only running water was a pump that was bolted to the sink. My dad was a veterinarian, and my mom raised chickens. We had dogs. Every once in a while, the dogs would be chasing each other. If the screen door got in the way, they’d go right through the screen. The chickens would get into the kitchen until my dad got around to fixing the screens. I remember my mom chasing chickens around and throwing chickens out of the kitchen. I wasn’t three years old yet.
“The other memory was from a train ride. Every so often, we would take a train to Toledo. I remember a porter in his nice white linen coat coming by and selling oranges. It was the only place I ever saw oranges back then. I remember eating an orange and what a tremendous treat that was.”
Mike was the oldest child in his family. He had three sisters. “My relationship with my sisters growing up was an armed truce,” Mike said and laughed. “That’s an exaggeration. I was quite close to my sister who was just two years younger than I. I was often annoyed with my sister who was four years younger than I. Then there’s a sister who’s almost nine years younger than I am. For some reason, my middle sister and I rubbed each other the wrong way a lot. But never to the point of assault.”
Mike’s sisters all live far away. “One of them lives in Atlanta. The rest of them still live back in the Middle West. If I happened to be in town, I would certainly stop in and see them. They’ve come out here and visited us. Their kids have come out and stayed with us. They enjoy California in the summertime. I talk to them on the phone on holidays. But that’s about it. We’re not nearly as close as, say, my wife is with her siblings.
“My dad was kind of a distant person,” Mike told me. “He spent a lot of his life more or less alone because he’d be going from farm to farm making his veterinary calls. He wasn’t a big talker, although if he had something to say, he’d certainly say it. I wouldn’t say that there was a lot of closeness between us.”
Mike took only a moment to recall his most vivid high school memory. “I saw my first dead guy, somebody I knew,” he said. “It was a very poignant thing. It was this guy who was a great wrestler. He beat me like a drum throughout my wrestling career and was really the guy in our conference who kept me from ever being conference champ. It was my junior year. He was the only guy who had beaten me that year. I’d won all the rest of my matches. It looked like when we met at the district tournament, he would beat me again, and that would be the end of my career.
“So we wrestled for the district championship, and I beat him. It was quite an event, very newsworthy. That was on a Saturday night. The next Tuesday, the wrestling coach came and took me out of math class. I had known there was something wrong with this guy when I wrestled him. He wasn’t anywhere near as fast or as strong. It was like he was worn out. I just figured he’d cut weight and it had gotten to him. It turned out he had some kind of leukemia. He got out of bed on Tuesday morning and passed away. His wrestling coach called my wrestling coach knowing that it was going to impact me. I remember driving over to the guy’s funeral, not even telling anybody. Just going.
“When I heard that it had happened, I was embarrassed. Because all of the celebration about me finally beating this guy suddenly had a real clear explanation. There wasn’t anyone who knew about that match who wouldn’t have said, ‘Well, that explains a lot.’ This guy had never had much difficulty beating me. And then I went to the funeral, and I saw that none of that really mattered. Here were his parents, and here was this guy with all his hopes and expectations. And he was dead. I was a little bit embarrassed. I had qualified for the state meet by virtue of that win, and I didn’t really much feel like going.”
Mike didn’t wrestle in college. “I played some baseball,” he said. “Not well. I remember playing in a baseball game before the conference season started. I was playing left field, which wasn’t my position at all. We were way ahead, and the coach had put guys in positions they weren’t used to. I collided with the center fielder, and the center fielder broke his leg. He was one of our starting pitchers, and he was out for the season. I remember the coach looking down at us and looking at the center fielder’s leg and looking at me and saying out loud, ‘Why couldn’t it have been you?’ ” Mike grimaced at the memory.
Mike got married and went to Duke University law school straight out of college. “The Civil Rights movement was in full swing,” he remembered. “I had a job that summer as a part-time deputy sheriff in this little town outside of Durham, where my wife was teaching Head Start. I was this kid from a Scandinavian ghetto in Iowa down in the South where crosses were being burned and people were committing open atrocities against each other. That was a real eye-opener. That was probably the most educational thing that happened to me during law school. I could see how important it was to change, and how hard it was to change, and how hard it was to step away from your history. I played baseball with some guys down there who were members of the Ku Klux Klan. As part of my job, I went to Klan rallies.”
When Mike came out of law school in 1968, he became eligible for the draft. “I had been getting real regular inquiries from my draft board while I was in college,” he explained. “So I knew I had no anonymity with Leona Van Winkle, the draft lady.” Before law school graduation, Mike had gotten a job with a large firm in Cleveland. “I asked the firm, ‘What would you prefer I do? Just let myself be drafted and have a job that probably has nothing to do with the law for two years and then come back? Or would you prefer I go into the officer’s program and try to get a job as a lawyer? I’ll get a little bit of legal training, but I won’t come back for a little over three years.’ The firm preferred the latter. That appealed to me too. So that’s what I did.”
Mike first came to San Diego during his time in the Marines. He spent four and a half months in Vietnam and another seven and a half months in Okinawa. He spent the rest of his time in San Diego. When Mike got out of the service and went back to Cleveland, “I wasn’t the same person after having been halfway around the world. And so many of the people I’d become really close friends with out here had decided to stay in San Diego. I was in Cleveland for about 15 minutes before I was ready to come back here.”
Mike has practiced law in San Diego since the early ’70s. He’s been divorced twice and has four kids, most of whom are in their mid-20s, one who’s younger. When asked about fatherhood, Mike said, “I don’t know if any divorced dad can really feel like he’s a good dad. Certainly one of my goals has been to try to be a good dad. My biggest ongoing guilt is the fact that I wasn’t there for my kids on a day-to-day, hour-by-hour basis. It’s one thing to be able to put them through college. It’s another thing to be there to tie their shoes. I don’t know if you can really get your chin over the ‘good’ bar if you’re not there for that purpose.”
How would Mike’s life have been different if he’d been a woman? “I never would have joined the Marine Corps,” he started. “I wouldn’t have been a wrestler.” He paused. “Although, now you can be a wrestler if you’re a girl.” He laughed.
“Assuming that the genders of my siblings didn’t change, it would have been all girls,” Mike said, turning serious. “I think I would have built a lot less fence. I would not have been expected to do a lot of the chores that I was expected to do as a guy. Things like cleaning the barn. My sisters had mostly indoor chores.”
Mike skipped ahead. “I would have still gone to college. There was a lot of emphasis in our house on education. It was taken for granted that we would go to college. Some of my sisters took some circuitous routes, but they all graduated. Two of them have master’s degrees.
“My relationship with my dad would have been different,” Mike imagined. “He and I were very different people. He was one of those people who was born with the knowledge of how to build things. That skill skipped me. My dad and I would be building something. I would do my part in the most painstakingly slow, unimaginative way. He would roar through his part and then stand there waiting for me to finish. He was very patient. But you knew that he was done and he was waiting. There was always this sense that in spite of all his help and his instruction you weren’t getting the job done. At least not to his complete satisfaction. I don’t think there would have been that if I’d been a girl because I wouldn’t have been out there building stuff with him.
“There would have been virtually no sports,” Mike said. “I think of my first wife’s situation. She had a lot of athletic ability. But any desire to be involved in sports had been ground out of her by gym classes in high school and junior high, where the only thing that seemed to make a difference to the female gym teacher was whether you’d taken a shower. They all wore these uniforms that self-conscious teenage girls thought looked stupid. And they spent their time doing rhythmic dance because that’s what the teacher liked to do. My first wife loathed it so much. She had the same gym teacher her mother had had. It would have been the same situation with me. I’m sure I would have resented the whole program.”
Mike doubted he would have gone to law school. “Women barely had a toehold in law when I started practicing. I started out at a firm of 125 lawyers. There was one woman. She was one year ahead of me. My incoming class at that firm had six lawyers. None of them were women.
“I probably would have become a writer,” Mike told me. “I wanted to be a writer as a guy, but I was discouraged by my high school counselor. Journalism was something that was opening up a little more readily to women. Only four of the women in my high school graduating class went to college. They all became teachers.
“I’m not a real groundbreaker,” Mike admitted. “I doubt that I would have put my feminist foot forward. I imagine if I’d gotten married, it would have been a pretty traditional home with pretty traditional lines of responsibility. A lot like the home in which I grew up. I don’t see that my life would have unfolded much differently than my parents’ life. If I hadn’t joined the Marine Corps, I wouldn’t have ended up out here in California.”
Mike doesn’t remember ever wishing he were a woman. “I can remember being thankful that I was a guy,” he said and laughed. “In high school and college, if I wanted to ask a girl out, I could at least ask. She could always say no. She could say, ‘Hell, no.’ But at least I was in there pitching. Whereas if I were a girl and I wanted to ask someone out, and I couldn’t figure out some way to make him pay attention to me, it was ‘Sorry, Charlie.’ Girls didn’t ask guys out. It was almost to the level of a taboo back then. I was glad that I had charge of myself. It’s the same with sports. Women just didn’t have that.” Even the thought of being drafted and possibly dying in Vietnam didn’t make Mike wish he weren’t a man. “Even during the war when I was in the service,” Mike said. “Women didn’t have the draft hanging over their heads. But it was never enough to make me wish that I were a woman.”
Mike thought about his children. “My relationship with my sons would have been very different,” he said. “Our relationship has always been a lot of outdoor activities, backpacking. One of my sons has even become a professional outdoorsman. I think some of his interest had its origins way back in that first backpacking trip when they were kids. He carried a backpack that had about 2 pounds in it. I was carrying one with about 50 pounds. There’s a strong question whether or not I would have done all that with my sons if I’d been a woman.
“It’s hard for me to imagine what motherhood must be like. There’s just this deep wellspring of feeling and emotion that is so far beyond — I would have a hard time even putting myself in a mother’s shoes. I have one daughter, and she seems to have a particularly warm relationship with her mother. It’s a mystery.”
One of the Girls
Bill Harris’s aversion to wrestling and family comparisons runs deep. Sitting outside Peet’s Coffee in Hillcrest on a gray winter day, Harris talked about growing up the middle of three children. “My brother is 11 months older. My sister is three years younger,” Harris said. “I was always compared to my brother. ‘Why can’t you be like your brother?’ ‘Why don’t you wrestle like your brother?’ It started early on. My dad’s a physician. He had very limited time for us. I remember vividly in sixth grade, my dad said to me, ‘I only have a limited amount of time. I’m offering to spend time with you instead of wrestling with your brother. So we should only do things that I want to do.’ I didn’t respond to that very well.”
Harris’s clothing matched the overcast day: a gray patterned sweater over a gray T-shirt, and gray slacks. He had a soft face with rounded outlines, soft hands, and impeccably groomed nails. His grayish green eyes gazed out from behind black thin-rimmed glasses. Harris toyed with his large silver watch as he spoke. “I’m a professional chef,” Harris said. “I went to culinary school in Hyde Park, New York, at the Culinary Institute of America. I spent two years walking around in a chef’s toque and checkered pants. It was great fun. Before that I got a bachelor’s degree in business administration.” Thirty years old, Harris managed a wine bar in San Diego when we spoke in early 2000.
He doesn’t have many good memories of childhood. “I think I was very odd when I was growing up. I liked cooking, playing restaurant. One Christmas, I wanted the little manual sweeper that you see at Denny’s. And I got one. That Christmas, I set the table and had the whole family wait at the door. I seated everyone for dinner, and then at the end I cleared the dishes and I took the little sweeper out and picked up the crumbs. I think I was in sixth grade.”
Harris’s grandmother lived with his family for many years. “She was a big influence on me. I always cooked with her. I inherited her cookbooks when she died.” Harris remembers baking a cake by himself when he was in elementary school. “My grandmother was a big cake baker. I remember making meat loaf where you take it out and put mashed potatoes on top and then put it back in the oven and let it brown. I think that was in seventh grade. And then there was always Sunday breakfast. My parents would read the paper, and I’d serve them breakfast in bed.
“My parents are very good people but not very good communicators,” Harris explained. “My dad’s rather overbearing although he’s a very nice guy. It’s amazing how much my parents are like their parents. Their parents never talked to them. Did not communicate. And in turn, that’s how they dealt with us. We’re all products of our childhood. Especially with my dad having very limited time. I think that was a very big, big deficiency in our family life, not having him around.”
Harris said he always felt different from other kids. “It got worse in junior high and high school. I was wrestling with my sexuality. I’m a gay male. I didn’t come out until I was 23 or 24. I was always trying subconsciously to please my mom and dad. Always being the peacemaker. My brother was a star wrestler. My sister was a star soccer player. My parents were so busy shuffling kids around to different activities, they didn’t have time to sit down and talk to us about what we were doing.”
During his teen years, Harris attended an all-boys Catholic prep school in Oklahoma City. “I was aware of my sexuality in high school,” Harris told me. “But, not having communicative parents, I didn’t know who to talk to or where to turn. I played tennis. Played the piano. Did photography. Dabbled in journalism. I always would be friends with the teachers or people who were older than I was.
“Suspicions of being gay were very much a problem in high school,” Harris remembered. “Especially being my brother’s little brother, and my brother being a wrestler. I tried wrestling for ten days. It was too confusing. Wrestling with another man in tight clothing,” Harris grimaced. “That was enough of that.”
For college, Harris went to the University of Illinois. “Beautiful campus,” he said. “Beautiful college experience. My first year, I lived in the dorms. The next year I moved out. I still have a very tight-knit group of friends from college.
“With my business degree, I concentrated on human-resource management. That was the hot topic in the late ’80s. I went to study in Japan for a summer. I stayed with a host family and had a great time. It was like being transformed, going to a different land. Now I kind of understand why drag queens do what they do. They’re in their own little fantasy world. I’m not Bill Harris anymore. I’m [Harris intoned a Japanese accent] Harris-san. The language, the culture, chatting, acting humble. I was thinking, ‘Yeah, this is how it should be.’ ”
After graduating from the University of Illinois, Harris got a job at a software company in the same town where he had gone to school. Four years later, he moved to Japan and set up the company’s branch office. He delved into Japanese culture again. “I took a cooking class. I was the only foreigner amidst 30 male students. The class was Japanese and French, Italian. It was a survey. It was fun. It was all in Japanese. It was a good outlet for me.”
In Japan, Harris experienced another transformation. “I was developing self-confidence, I had come out. I had a Japanese boyfriend who really helped me with my language. I found myself retracting from that huge societal pressure to perform professionally. It’s amazing how much you can actually feel that pressure to go go go, to conform.
“Gay culture is open in Japan,” Harris said. “They actually had their third gay pride parade while I was there. About 100 people showed up. Homosexuality is accepted in Japan but not talked about. They have what they call money boys, prostitutes. And there are fetish bars. In the gay district, there are about 100 bars that are one-room places. And each one would have a different theme. Like men from Kyushu are supposed to be gorgeous. So there’d be a Kyushu bar. And I was reading in a gay travel book that there was this bar, and it looked interesting. So I went up there. As soon as I sat down and ordered a beer, in comes this guy with banana splits. And he says, ‘Banana splits for everyone!’ So the bartender tells me in Japanese, ‘I think you’d be more comfortable at a different bar because this is a fat man’s bar.’ And I looked around, and everyone was fat. The reason they have these fetish bars, or theme bars, is because everything in Japan is escapism. They’re escaping the reality of work. So they create these little fantasies. Even in Japanese advertising, everything’s cute cartoons. It’s all escapism.”
Harris was in Japan for 14 months before he traveled back to the United States for his brother’s wedding and then again for Christmas. During the Christmas season, he traveled to Key West with a bisexual woman friend. “While we were there, I said to myself, ‘What makes me really happy?’ The answer was cooking.”
After going back to Japan and taking the cooking class, Harris got accepted to the Culinary Institute of America. “There’s a big push at CIA to get people out. Turn ’em and burn ’em. I latched on to people like myself who were extremely serious about cooking. These were mainly people who already had a college degree and were coming back because they wanted to. We always looked at each other and said, ‘We have the passion.’ ” Harris laughed. “To this day, I talk to about eight of those people on a biweekly or monthly basis.”
After being at the CIA for two years, Harris did an externship in Florida, then spent a brief time in Hawaii. Several months later, he moved to San Diego. “That was a year and a half ago,” Harris said. “Eventually, I want to own my own place. I think I have a good balance of culinary ability and business ability and people skills.”
Harris talked openly about the difficulty he had coming out to his parents. “I was out two years with my friends before I told my mother. She was pressuring me. ‘When are you going to have kids?’ So I told her, ‘I’m never going to have kids.’ And she accepted it. I wrote my dad a letter. I couldn’t tell him face-to-face. He’s a very religious person. His reaction was, ‘I love you and I’ll pray for you.’ He’s very worried about HIV, especially because he’s a doctor.”
How would Harris’s life have been different if he’d been born a woman? “I think I would not have been as well-rounded as I am now,” Harris said, “because my Japanese employment would not have happened. Japan is a very male-driven society. I would not have been, at 25, the manager of a $4.5 million corporation. It would not have been accepted in the Japanese culture.
“If I were a woman, I think I would be a lesbian rather than a straight woman,” Harris continued. “And I’m not dogging on straight women because I’m a gay man. Straight women, when they’re together, have this very competitive, not bitchy, but just very competitive measuring. Where the lesbians that I come into contact with are more even-keeled and kick-back and ‘I don’t care what I look like.’ It’s been my observation of straight women that they tend to be very superficial or lend themselves to being very superficial. Although I have some very good friends who are straight women who are not superficial at all.
“I’m very close to my mother and to her sister and to my dad’s sister. I identify very well with all women. All my closest friends are women. That was true even when I was younger. I was just really one of the girls.”
Harris thought being a woman would not have changed his relationship with his brother. “My brother is very quiet and very introverted,” he said. “I think nothing would have changed. He just goes in his own direction.” Even though Harris was always compared to his brother, he never felt competitive. “We’re still not competitive,” Harris maintained. “He wants to start his own landscape business. He’s a landscape architect. He calls me up asking for advice. Very elementary questions. I say, ‘Hello-o-o. Call the Better Business Bureau.’ ‘What’s that?’ he asks. I help him out. Had I been a woman, we would not have been compared, but our relationship together would have been the same.
“With my sister, it would have been different,” Harris said. “My sister is very competitive, very much the youngest child. I think our relationship would have been a lot more competitive.”
Harris reimagined his relationship with his parents. “If I were a woman, my relationship with my father would have been much different. When I look at my brother’s and sister’s relationships with my dad, they’re very strong, very much in turmoil. But at least there was a relationship. With me and my father, there was no relationship. I can remember this one time when I wanted my dad and I to do something together that we could both enjoy. Not just me going and helping out with the car or helping him cut down a tree. So we went to see the movie Gandhi. And I vividly remember we both sat there and really enjoyed the movie. I was in eighth grade when that happened. My dad doesn’t enjoy good food. He doesn’t drink. And those are the things I was cultivating an interest in.
“My relationship with my mom, I don’t know,” Harris paused, “because I have such a good relationship with my mom right now. She’s the strong, silent type. There was a time when my parents were thinking about getting a divorce. My mom would come into my room in the middle of the night as a comfort zone and just cry. She would huddle up in the corner and cry. I was the caretaker in that.
“The relationship between my mother and my sister is very strained. My sister always has to have things her way. Being a woman, you have a lot more responsibility for relationships. Being a man, you have the freedom to be more focused on yourself. I could definitely be a woman part-time. I like being the caretaker.”
Harris would trade places with all his close women friends for a week. “All my women friends are distinctly different. I have a Jamaican friend that I would trade places with because she’s into real cooking and authenticity. She’s a no-bullshit person. Then I have another woman friend who’s real gentle. There are no males I would want to trade places with because I love my life as a male. I don’t want to be Donald Trump. I don’t want to be Bill Clinton. I’m really happy with who I am. Why change that?”
The Right Place at the Right Time
Jay Borden was 77 years old when we talked at a retirement home in San Marcos. He spoke warmly and with humor in a low, rumbly voice that sounded as though he might be a retired DJ. “What I do now is volunteer for things,” he said. “I shelve books for the public library. I teach a course about how to get on the Internet and how to send and receive e-mail. That’s about it.”
Dressed in dark slacks and a yellow polo shirt, Borden had the relaxed, well-heeled look of someone who had retired in relative comfort. “My first memory is sitting with my father in a second-story window,” Borden said. “It was a window that projected out from the roof, and it had a window seat. There was a raging thunderstorm going on outside, and my father was explaining to me about thunder and lightning. I have never been afraid of thunder and lightning since. I think I was about four.”
Not all Borden’s memories of his father were so pleasant. “My mother and father’s divorce was very unpleasant,” he remembered. “I was somewhere between 8 and 11. The Depression was on. You didn’t know how you were going to live. I was concerned that we were going to starve to death. We did not. But I missed my father. I thought they broke up on my account because they always used to fight about me.”
Borden’s dad stayed close by. “He lived in Los Angeles for quite a while; then he moved to San Diego County. He died in San Diego County. I must confess, and I feel guilty about it, I was not in contact with him when he died. So I don’t know where he died. But I got a copy of the death certificate. I know when he died, but not what of or where.
“I lived in the Jewish section of Los Angeles,” Borden told me. “Fairfax and Wilshire. I was 14 years old before I discovered my best friend was Jewish, and I was not.
“I was very fortunate. A friend of my mother’s, who had no children and a lot of money, called her up one day and said, ‘Would you like to send Jay to private school on Catalina Island?’ And she said, ‘I never thought of it, but yes.’ So he sent me to four years of Catalina Island School for Boys. Then he sent me for four years to Cal Tech. He obviously affected my life more than any other event that I can think of. I’m eternally grateful to him.”
At first, Borden thought the Catalina school was going to be terrible. “After about two weeks, I decided it was wonderful. And when it came time to graduate, I didn’t want to leave. It really was an island unto itself. We had wonderful instructors, and the headmaster was a wonderful man. I guess he was a substitute father. Having that opportunity to learn was a great influence on my life. I had to take Latin, and I had to take French, chemistry, algebra, beginning calculus. So when I got to Cal Tech, I found that I was probably about two years ahead of my classmates. But they soon caught up and passed me.” Borden laughed.
Borden graduated with a degree in electrical engineering from Cal Tech, then spent 33 months in the Army. “I was probably the worst soldier that the Army had ever seen,” he said. “When I got out, I went back and got a master’s degree. I went on to work at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory for three and a half years. We were successful there. I built the autopilot for the first liquid-propelled missile that they were going to fire. And it worked. They got a large contract and got off the ground that way. Then I got a job working for a company that was supplying JPL with equipment, with parts for this thing. I worked there seven or eight years. It was more mechanical than electrical.
“When I got my next job,” Borden recounted smoothly, “I had a neighbor down the street who worked for a company that was looking for an electrical engineer who wanted to build inverters. An inverter is a thing that turns direct current into alternating current. The inverter we built was a system made up of transistor switches that created the semi-sine wave alternating current. No moving parts. We were fairly successful. We started out building a system for Du Pont. We installed the system and got it running in 1961. I was told about ten years ago that the thing ran continuously from 1961 to 1985 without being serviced or anything.
“Then we got another order from Du Pont. We ended up doing about $400 million a year. We were in the right place at the right time doing the right thing with the right people. I worked for the same company until retirement. First, I became a consultant, then glided down to full retirement. I have to say it was a very pleasant way to retire.”
At the time we spoke, Borden had lived in the retirement community for four years. “We came here because my wife suffers from congestive heart failure,” he explained. “She is doing as well as can be expected. She was getting so that she didn’t want to drive or go get the groceries. And I was tired of not doing much. So we decided to move. We’ve never been sorry.”
Borden and his wife have two children. “We have a boy who lives in La Crescenta and works at JPL. He’s worked at JPL for 20 years. We have a daughter who lives in New Hampshire. They were both born in California.
“One of the worst things that happened was our oldest daughter, Katherine, right before her sixth birthday, drowned in a neighbor’s swimming pool,” Borden said. “I can testify that next to losing a spouse, losing a child is the worst thing that can happen to you. With the help of psychiatry and reasonableness, we got through. My wife kept thinking it was her fault. The kids were always active and interested in things. And if you put them together and you didn’t pay any attention, they’d go in three different directions. Katherine was very inquisitive. She went over to the neighbor’s back yard, and there was the pool. I guess she thought it looked inviting, and she jumped in. That was it. Her brother discovered her. He knew she was dead the second… He came running. He claims it didn’t affect him. But I think it did.”
Borden paused for a moment. “It’s funny how you love them all, but you love them differently,” he reflected. “They’re different persons. They require different forms of attention.”
How would Borden’s life have been different if he’d been a girl? “I don’t think my relationship with my mother would have changed much,” he said. “I think my mother really wanted a girl. I have the feeling I was raised as though I were a girl. It was very subtle. My mother was terribly protective. I remember being at a family gathering where there were other children. My mother leaned over to another relative and said, ‘Do you imagine any of those children over there have some kind of disease?’ As a consequence, I didn’t have any kind of childhood disorders until I got in the Army. I got the chicken pox in the Army. I got German measles. Katherine came home with red measles, and I got them from her.
“If I’d been born a woman, I wouldn’t have gone to Cal Tech,” Borden imagined. “I might have gone in the Army. There were women in all branches of the service. They were largely office types and some nurses.”
Borden thought he might have gone into computer programming if he’d been a woman. “If I were a woman, I’d like to work for Hewlett-Packard. They’ve been a good company to work for if you’re a woman. My son’s girlfriend works for them. Now it’s got a woman CEO.
“There were very few women engineers when I was working, and there still aren’t,” Borden said. “I think it’s not so much that women are discriminated against. It’s just that engineering is a dirty business. If you’re designing something that’s going to be used, the best way is to get your hands in it.”
As we finished our interview, Borden followed the same line as the other older men I’d interviewed. “I can’t imagine what it would have been like to be a mother,” he said. “I can’t imagine what it would be like to give birth to a child. With that comes the hormonal effect that ties the woman to the child by whatever magic it is. A man can never fathom that. I’ve never particularly envied that. I’ve never wished I weren’t a man, and I’ve never wanted to trade places with any woman.”
This Guy’s Good. Let’s Hang with Him
I started my interviews with a 90-year-old man from the Bronx. A year and a half later, I ended with a 19-year-old from a North County suburb. Derrick, who preferred not to use his real name, met me at a Starbucks across the street from his high school alma mater. “I graduated from high school in the year 2000,” Derrick told me. “Right now I’m going to school up at San Luis Obispo. I’m a mechanical engineering major. This summer I’m hanging out with my friends, working, and trying to make some money.”
Dressed in a red Hurley T-shirt, off-white cargo shorts, and flip-flops, Derrick could have been on his way home from surfing. He wore his blond hair shaved close to his head with sideburns that curved out onto his cheeks. His eyes, behind silver-mirrored sunglasses, were small and blue.
Derrick has three brothers: one older and two younger. “My older brother is in the Marines, now stationed out in Yuma,” he said. Both Derrick’s younger brothers attend the same high school he attended. “We got along like most brothers do,” Derrick said. “There were times where you’re hanging out and having fun with them. Then there are times where fights break out. Nothing too serious. I was always closer to my older brother because he’s only a year and a half older than me. We were in the same age group for Little League baseball, soccer, that stuff. And my little brothers were always together. They’re only two years apart.”
Derrick had good memories from elementary school. “I was a pretty popular kid,” he said. “I was the historian on student council. So I got to take pictures of all the stuff we did: drug-awareness things, different plays that the other grades put on. It was pretty cool.
“In elementary school, I was really close to my mom,” Derrick remembered. “I was always telling her things. She bugs me about it now. She says, ‘Oh, you were so close to me when you were younger,’ ” Derrick spoke in an affected singsong. “ ‘You don’t even want to talk to me anymore.’ I wasn’t aware of the change at the time. But looking back, I can see that I did tell her everything. Now it’s totally different. I’m an independent person.”
Growing up, Derrick always played sports. “My whole family did soccer for the longest time,” he said. “Then everyone quit. I’ve played baseball since I was in kindergarten. I played football in high school. I was the starting quarterback my junior and senior years. Actually, I was a three-sport athlete. I played football, basketball, and baseball.”
Derrick warmed to his topic. “I loved high school. Once you start getting into sports, especially if you’re a decent player, all the guys are like, ‘This guy’s good. Let’s go hang out with him.’ You break through, and then everyone wants to be your friend.
“My friends and I were a bit of troublemakers at the end of high school. It was our last chance to do something really stupid before we had to face adulthood. We had a big water-balloon launcher, and we’d bomb anything we saw. My friend Bob works at a grocery store. We used to get the big economy-size rolls of Saran Wrap. We’d go to any street, and we’d wrap the Saran Wrap around poles and stretch it across the street so the street was blocked off. We’d park behind a tree and watch the cars run into the Saran Wrap and laugh our heads off.”
Derrick was happy and sad to graduate from high school. “I wanted to get away from home,” he said. “At the same time, you never know when you’re going to see your friends again.”
According to Derrick, his freshman year of college was too much fun. “My grades suffered for it,” he explained. “I went from a high school GPA of 4.19 to an overall college GPA of 1.91. I’m on academic probation. If I don’t make it this next quarter, they’re going to boot me. Next year I’m not going to screw around as much. Freshman year was a practice year.”
Because his college requires freshmen to declare an academic major, Derrick chose mechanical engineering. “I don’t know what I want to do when I get out of school. But I hope to get into some field of mechanical engineering because I know mechanical engineers make a lot of money. I was thinking maybe the automotive part of engineering. I like cars.”
How would things have been different if Derrick had been a girl?
“I don’t think much would have changed in elementary school,” he answered. “I probably still would have been just as involved. Probably would have had the same friends. Probably still would have been really close with my mom. My dad probably still would have put me in a lot of sports.”
Derrick thought his life as a girl would have been better vis-à-vis his brothers. “I probably would have gotten my own room my whole life. Although I probably would have fought with my brothers just as much, I would have gotten away with more because I would have been the only girl.”
High school would have been very different had Derrick been born a girl. “Definitely with friends,” he said. “I hung out with a lot of girls in high school. If I’d been a girl, it probably would have been switched around. I think I’d be a bit of a tomboy and have a lot of guys as friends. I probably wouldn’t be into sports as much. I’d probably be daddy’s little girl, always begging for money, going shopping all the time, stereotypical female stuff.
“In college, I don’t think I’d party as much if I were a girl,” he continued. “When I started college, I was never really homesick at all. A lot of girls were at the beginning. They missed their boyfriends, missed home.”
As our interview wound to a close, Derrick reflected on the question of changing sexes. “I wouldn’t have thought about being a woman if I hadn’t been interviewed,” he said. “When I thought about the question, all the stereotypes came into my mind of how women act. Would I be like that? Would I go shopping all the time? Would I be clique-y? Would there be drama all the time? Drama’s a big thing with girls.” Derrick laughed. “Everything’s so dramatic. Like the gossip. ‘So-and-So broke up with someone.’ ‘Oh my gosh!’ It’s a big ordeal. A guy’s life is just less stressed, going by the moment, not thinking as much, not analyzing anything.”
Derrick couldn’t think of any woman he admires whom he’d like to be. “If I could, it’d probably be some famous singer, someone who has it easy,” he said. “I’ve got lots of male heroes. I could pick one out from each sport.”
In spite of the lack of female heroes, Derrick admitted to sometimes wishing he weren’t a man. “It seems like girls have it so much easier when it comes to relationships. Most of the time, it’s the guy who has to make the first move. The guy’s kind of confused, doesn’t know what he should do. I’ve gone through that before. If you’re the girl, it’s not as much work.”