77 Years Young, Transitions

Here is an article I wrote in 2009. It never found a home in the LGBT press, so I am sharing here as a blog post. I wish I had shared it sooner, rather than ten years later. I enjoyed my visit with Renee. I hope she is well, we have lost touch.

The Renee Ramsey Story

Some of us wait a lifetime to make a change.  We wait for our mothers to bless us.  We wait for our spouses to love us.  We wait for our country to say we have answered the call of duty.  Renee Ramsey waited a lifetime for all of these, to then give herself permission, to live the life she always wanted.  At 77 years of age, her dreams finally came true, to live her life as a woman.

Renee Ramsey, Wallington New Jersey

She was born in 1932, the year Aldous Huxley published his earth-shaking novel “Brave New World”, which anticipated futuristic developments in reproductive technology.  It was a time when the word transsexual had yet to be coined.

“Nobody knew anything about [sex changes] back in the day,” said Ramsey, who lives in Wallington, New Jersey, which is just northeast of New York City.

Ramsey was born a year after Danish woman Lili Elbe completed a series of five operations to become the first recorded person to undergo gender reassignment surgery (GRS).  She later died of complications from the uterine transplant that would allow her to be a mother.  (Incidentally, Nicole Kidman is cast as Elbe in the upcoming film “The Danish Girl” to be released in 2010.)

Ramsey underwent a modern day GRS in June of this year and was originally reported to be the oldest woman in the world undergoing transgender surgery.  Her surgeon, Dr. Sherman Leis of Pennsylvania, said it was only later they discovered that the late Dr. Stanley Biber of Trinidad Colorado had once performed the same surgery on an 80 year old.

Still, that is quite an accomplishment.

It should be no surprise that Ramsey was still in good physical condition to undergo such a major surgery.  She served her country both as a boatswain in the U.S. Navy and a Green Beret in the U.S. Army.  She can’t talk about her assignments because they were sensitive Special Operation Force orders.  But her tour of duty took her to both Korea and Viet Nam and into military retirement.

In one way, she followed in the footsteps of her father as was expected.  He had gone off to fight in the war against Hitler in the Forties.  During that time, Ramsey took care of the home while her mother worked.  She was then called Richard, but wanted to be a girl.

“I tried to crossdress,” she said, “but I would hear about it.”

Ramsey’s mother took her to a psychologist and was told that it was just a phase.  They thought she would grow out of it.

“It was what I had to live with,” said Ramsey.

Ramsey said her mother scolded her so she would no longer dress up and wear makeup.  She was told, “If you keep it up, we’ll take you back to the psychologist again.”

Ramsey said that “the funny part is she taught me how to sew, cook and do lady things.”  She said she preferred to read and help her mother as opposed to playing rough sports.

In 1954, Ramsey married a minister’s daughter who had a strict religious perspective – one that didn’t include a belief in crossdressing.  Ramsey said in jest that even though “I could pick out clothes better than Erline, she couldn’t understand it.”  They eventually divorced.

Ramsey remarried a second time in 1982 and found a wife that enjoyed a crossdressing husband.  Ramsey said she often wore her wife’s clothes and they teased each other about who looked better and who had a bigger chest.

Sadly, Ramsey’s wife Vesla developed Alzheimer’s disease a few years ago and passed away in March of this year.  Ramsey says her ashes are at home now.

“I talk to her every day,” she says, “and I miss her.” 

Ramsey never thought she would transition, but as Vesla became unable to recognize her as her partner, she decided to begin hormone treatments to become the woman she always dreamed of being. 

Ramsey had both GRS and facial feminization surgery with Dr. Leis at the Philadelphia Center for Transgender Surgery.  Though Leis has been a surgeon for over 30 years, he has only had his center open since 2005.  He studied with Dr. Marci Bowers, who was in turn an understudy of Dr. Biber.

Early in his career, a young female to male transgender man had approached Leis to perform chest reconstruction, but he was concerned that his practice would be controversially damaged.  So he declined to operate.  He says even today, Catholic and other hospitals regularly deny surgeons from practicing transgender surgeries.  “It is grossly discriminating,” he says.

Leis said that 80% of his surgeries are now transgender surgeries and he says that the population is largely underserved.  Leis, who is also a Director of Residency Training at Philadelphia College of Plastic Surgery, is now training plastic surgeons to help, because there is an explosion of transgender individuals coming out of the closet. 

Dr. Leis said that there is “more awareness today about transgenderism, not more transgender people, but more media.”  He said that the number of people having surgery now is growing exponentially and “doubling every four years”. 

He believes the reason is simple, “Transgender people are seeing that transition is possible”.

Indeed, Ramsey says she is happy that she transitioned and goes out as much as she can.  She does live alone, but keeps busy working around the house and with arts and crafts.  Ramsey is handy with leather work and makes purses, wallets and belts.

She says she has had to learn quite a bit on being a lady, from trying to keep her voice tone down to handling fresh men.  Ramsey recounts visiting the local pub one time to find a man groping her all over. 

Ramsey laughs, “I forgot my manners and sounded off like a First Sergeant, but while wearing a dress.” 

Ramsey, who has a sense of humor, says that normally she sits outside in the backyard and sips a nice glass of beer, rather than having to “dump it” in some fresh guy’s lap.

Ramsey encourages transgender people to learn to go with the flow and be patient with others.  She advises, “Roll with the punches, because others just don’t understand what we go through.” 

Leis says that age really has nothing to do with whether one can have surgery or not, but it is one’s health.  He says, “It is never too late to be happy.”

And of Ramsey, he adds, “She feels like the lady she always was.”

For more information on gender reassignment surgery with Dr. Leis, go online to www.thetransgendercenter.com.

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