Transitioning early in life: Calpernia's experiences

In 2002, I had the opportunity to read an advance copy Mark 947 and make comments. I was also given the honor of writing a foreword. Below is my review of this important memoir.

A story of survival

Anyone who struggles with gender identity faces a difficult challenge in this world. Imagine how much harder that is if you are raised in a religious household so strict that you never stepped foot into a movie theatre until you left home. Imagine never learning to swim because most pools are sinfully "mixed-sex." And imagine knowing that your female identity, the essence of your being, was a guarantee that you will rot in the agonizing fires of hell forever, according to those who brought you into this world.

As I was reading this autobiography, I began to feel as if my own problems in transition were a walk in the park. Here is a story of survival, where at several points you're wondering if our narrator is going to overcome obstacle after near-insurmoutable obstacle.

Yet somehow she does, and that is where what could be a very difficult story to read becomes an inspirational one.

Calpernia began writing when she was very young. For her, it was one of the few escapes from the deeply religious world into which she was born. Her childhood was spent in a working-class household on the run-down outskirts of Nashville, where loving parents and fond memories intermingled with the terror favored by fundamentalists: the ever-present threat of an eternal punishment for the wicked, one that takes terrible forms in young minds and colors their responses to everything they feel and do.

Yet despite the attempts of her parents and their church to crush her spirit and efface her true self, we see Calpernia taking fate into her own hands: writing journals in secret codes, sneaking off to the library for the forbidden fruit of knowledge, forging her way into the high school for gifted students (and later being pulled out by her parents), joining the Navy after not graduating, just to get away.

After Desert Storm and a stint on a remote Naval base in Alaska's Aleutian Islands, she returned home a stronger person and a hero in her parents' eyes. Soon, this pride would again turn to shame as she began her rise in the Nashville club scene as a showgirl. It wasn't long before her parents confronted her about her "lifestyle," and she was again on her own in her own home town.

As her fame as an enterainer spread, she had the chance to meet a young soldier who had heard from a friend that he had to see Calpernia's show. The soldier's name was Barry Winchell, and the friend who accompanied him was one of the soldiers who would later be convicted of Barry's murder.

Barry and Calpernia hit it off right away and were enjoying what was shaping into a wonderful romance until the weekend of July 4th, 1999. While Calpernia was at a pageant being crowned Tennessee Entertainer of the Year, Barry was killed with a baseball bat as he slept. Calpernia would learn of the murder from the local news when she got home. This part of the book is just devastating to read, but it's a story that everyone should hear.

The whirlwind of unwanted media attention following Barry's murder was yet another crushing blow, as the media tried to paint her in a sensationalist manner, and as some activists tried to portray her as a man in order to strengthen their arguments about gays in the military. The incident was the subject of an excellent New York Times article and a new film by Showtime called Soldier's Girl, which premiered at the prestigious 2003 Sundance Film Festival.

Stylistically, this book has a descriptive prose as dense and dark as the Tennessee woods: there are painful and lonely moments that make you cringe, and beautifuly-wrought moments describing the joys of solitude and the joys of intimacy with friends and family. Interspersed are some truly hilarious stories, such as a Naval drill instructor forcing her to play his accordion or adolescent lustmanifesting itself at a fundie church camp. My favorites were the foul-mouthed quips of jaded drag queens, which had an ironic counterpart in the fat sweating preacher's unintentionally funny fire-and-brimstone condemnations. Positively hateful, both.

This book gives the backstory to the dramatic retelling in Soldier's Girl. It shows that even in the face of religious intolerance and the murderous violence that grows out of religious intolerance, our stories will be told, and we will survive to tell them.


Purchasing information

Pre-ordering now available online at amazon.com or through the publisher, iuniverse.com

Celpernia will be offering signed copies on her site Calpernia.com when she returns from Sundance, so stay tuned!


Send me your thoughts, links, and advice!

If you transitioned in your teens or twenties and have any advice you'd like to share, please contact me , and I'll give it a permanent (and anonymous) home.