IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

A woman's quest to erase a past that won't die

/ Source: The Associated Press

Catherine Carlson threads through the discount store, her hiking boots clopping against the linoleum. She is numb to the shoppers who glance curiously as she plucks a pair of long underwear from a sales rack.

Cold sneaks through the walls of her trailer home, but this is the only remedy she can afford. At checkout, Catherine writes a $15 check. The clerk with the "Deb G" name tag examines the signature and runs her eyes over Catherine — the side-swept, faded blond hair, large knuckles, blue jeans and plaid work shirt.

Under the harsh fluorescent lights of the Bi-Mart, Catherine's narrow face is mapped with fine lines and abandoned by cosmetics. She ignores the unwelcome survey of her appearance.

Catherine, 52, leaves the cocoon of her trailer about once every 10 days. Payette, a tiny community of farmers and ranchers in southwestern Idaho, did not know she existed until a year ago when she decided she could no longer hide.

On that day last winter, she climbed into her silver 1993 Plymouth Voyager and drove down Main Street to pick up a friend whose car had broken down. A police officer pulled her over and found that her driver's license was suspended. He wrote her a ticket.

Catherine stared at the citation. It was issued to both her and to Daniel Carlson.

Nearly three decades ago, she underwent surgery to become a woman and took legal steps to remove her male name from public records. The ticket triggered memories of a man who, as far as she was concerned, no longer existed.

In her mind it was clear: She would have to fight to be Catherine.

And so, she mounted an impossible campaign to erase her former life, a yearlong battle against every slight and indignity — real or perceived.

Catherine would not accept that the past, no matter how painful and imperfect, is always with us, no matter how we might try to escape it.

Payette County had resurrected a ghost she laid to rest long ago. She decided the men and women who live and govern here should be the ones to bury it.

The past, however, turned out to be just as stubborn as she was.

The home anger built

Broken pavement winds through the rows of white trailers that residents describe as a transient camp. No one stays for long, except for Catherine, who has lived here for three years.

Her 1971 Broadmoor RV sits close to the entrance. The newspaper box is broken. White paint is peeling off the rickety wooden steps where a welcome mat reminds visitors to "WIPE YOUR PAWS."

Inside, the odor of dogs and tobacco lingers in the living room where Catherine hand rolls cigarettes and dotes over two black Pomeranians, Shadow and Teeny Tiny Tina. Blankets draped over the windows keep the morning sunlight from spilling in. Camping gear and fishing tackle are stacked against the walls.

She brews pot after pot of weak coffee in a kitchen where the plates are paper and the curtains are old dish towels.

This is the home anger, frustration and mistrust built.

She keeps her reasons in a silver briefcase, where court documents from nearly 10 years ago detail a dispute between Catherine and her mother, who revealed during the case that her daughter was born male. That cemented a place for Daniel's name in public records.

Catherine lived in the shadows for years, protecting herself from scrutiny — until Dec. 3, 2007, when the officer pulled her over and found both her legal name and her birth name, listed as an "also known as," in county records.

He scrawled both on the citation. She was fined $841.

"It's not just a ticket," Catherine said. "It destroys my ability to be me."

Her driver's license was first suspended in 2006 when she refused to pay a fine for driving without a seat belt. As in her teenage years, when suicide seemed a viable option, she was pleading to be heard but going about it the wrong way. Seat belts stir troubling memories of institutions and their inflexible rules.

As a matter of principle, she refused to pay the citation and failed to appear for court-ordered community service and a hearing.

In Payette, old battles became new again and she fought the authorities with a rage they did not expect. She was not physically attacked here, her home was not vandalized, yet she seemed to want retribution for every indignity lurking in her tortured past.

Payette just wanted her to pay the ticket.

By emerging from seclusion, she forced questions the county had never considered: where to house a transgender in a jail with separate cells for men and women, which courthouse bathroom she should use, whether her old, male name should be stricken from records.

She went to jail four times in her fight to be recognized as a woman.

"It's frustrating," said Chad Huff, the county sheriff. "We certainly don't want her to spend time in jail, she just continues to find a way to get here."

'I was an abomination to God'

Catherine was born Daniel Steven Carlson and raised by a strict Mormon mother in Wyoming and small towns across Idaho and Montana before her family moved to California. From the age of 5, Daniel believed he should have been a girl.

He was beaten for cross dressing in middle school, and tried to castrate himself with a razor blade. At 18, he nearly jumped from the Golden Gate Bridge after his stepdad told him he was no longer welcome in their home and his mother had him excommunicated from the church.

"I could not deal with the fact that I was an abomination to God," Catherine said.

Those pleas for help landed Daniel in mental hospitals, where infractions like refusing to take medicine were easily dealt with: Daniel was strapped to a bed and injected with sedatives.

He was in his early 20s and broke when he found Dr. Stanley Biber, a former Army surgeon who was one of the first to perform gender reassignment surgeries in the United States.

A confused boy began the lonely journey. He went alone to Colorado to finish it on Thanksgiving Day 1980.

"That doctor gave me life," Catherine said.

The transition can take one year, or several, as patients undergo hormone therapy and cosmetic surgery. They relearn how to walk and talk, and they become experts at blending in.

Catherine was married, divorced — and, at one point, beautiful. In an old photograph, a young Catherine with short blond hair and denim skirt poses in front of the bridge where Daniel tried to die.

An estimated 35,000 Americans have undergone gender reassignment surgeries. They are doctors, government workers and activists. They have families, children and serve on their local parent teacher associations.

They do not live under the blanket of fear Catherine and other transgenders experienced in the 1960s and 1970s as they clung to their secret. The alternative, in some cases, meant death.

"You carry this with you for your entire life, a profound problem that other people find incomprehensible," said Jennifer Finney Boylan, a 50-year-old novelist and English professor at Colby College who was born a male.

"Often you end up in some sort of crazy argument where you have to defend who you are," she said.

A mother's confusion

June Bowman gave birth to Daniel in 1957. There were six children altogether. Six mouths to feed. Six constant challenges. Bowman was poor, and squeezed what she could out of the welfare system. She found work for her family on local farms where they dug up onions and beets and were paid in milk.

She married five times, leaving three of the men after claiming they abused her children. She wonders if this is why her third son started dressing in his sister's clothes, why he told her at 18 he was supposed to be a woman.

"I had never heard of such a thing," Bowman said in a telephone interview from her home in northeast Texas.

She digs for reasons, but they are locked in a part of her memory the 78-year-old rarely visits. Her mind reaches back and then recoils at what it finds.

Catherine did have a hard childhood. She says she was abused by one of her stepfathers when she was 15. And June Bowman recalls the time she beat her "awful mischievous" child with an electric cord — in that moment she could barely contain her anger and it scared her.

Catherine and her mother lived together in southeast Idaho through the 1990s; they fell out in a dispute over the deed to the house, and it was then that her mother revealed in court that Catherine had once been Daniel.

Bowman insists she meant no harm. She says her attorney did it so there would be no surprises in court. But the two have not spoken since.

Catherine, shamed by the revelation, retreated even farther into her own world. She stopped wearing dresses and starved her 5-foot-7-inch frame down to about 105 pounds.

"That's when I think she really just gave up," said her younger brother, Patrick Carlson, the only sibling who still talks to Catherine. "When the courts did what they did, allowed that name to come into play, it's almost like they killed part of her."

Catherine offers no clemency to the mother who never fully accepted Daniel was gone and never truly embraced her as a daughter.

Almost 29 years after Catherine's operation, Bowman is still trying to reconcile her deeply held religious beliefs and her distress over this boy she gave life to and this woman she has so much trouble understanding.

"I do not approve of transsexuals, I believe the way the Lord created us is the way we should stay," Bowman said. "But he was my child and I supported her."

Legal trouble

The old minivan eases down State Highway 201, past acres of frozen farmland and naked trees covered in snow.

On a bitterly cold day in January, Catherine drives 10 miles from her home, crossing a bridge over the Snake River into Oregon, to shop at the Bi-Mart where no one will recognize her.

This Catherine bears no resemblance to the attractive blonde she nearly died to become. This Catherine will not be defined by whether she wears a red blouse or a plaid work shirt.

This is a new Catherine, defiant yet hopeful.

In the last year, she emerged from hiding not as a woman, but as a transgender fighting for the same rights granted to everyone else. She called the local newspaper. She wrote a seven-page letter begging the court to drop the ticket and abolish Daniel for good. This was not about the law, she argued.

During an arraignment hearing, the judge verified Catherine's legal name, promised to treat her with courtesy and respect, and pledged to address her how she wished to be addressed. Then Magistrate Judge A. Lynne Krogh called her "sir" eight times within a span of 10 minutes.

Across Catherine's handwritten plea to the court, the letter asking that Daniel Steven Carlson be stricken from public records, the word "DENIED" is stamped in giant red letters.

She was jailed four times. She failed to appear for court-ordered community service, drove without her license and was held in contempt of court because she was "semi-indignant" to the judge, the county sheriff says.

Finally, a stranger settled the dispute.

Elizabeth Barbour, a bookkeeper in Redwood City, Calif., read about Catherine online. Barbour paid the reduced fine of $510 in October after Catherine spent three days in jail.

"I couldn't imagine how difficult it must be for a transgender person in Idaho," Barbour said.

Fighting her past to have a future

Every snub fuels Catherine's strength of purpose.

In a county without decent public transportation, she still drives without a license, knowing Daniel will emerge again if she is caught. He haunts her, yet he is part of her, a permanent reminder of a time when she felt helpless.

She will do whatever it takes to get rid of him.

She is convinced this is no longer about Catherine. This is about people who take painful steps to embrace who they see in the mirror, only to have society summon their past to glare back at them.

Her short trip to the Bi-Mart behind her, Catherine pulls the van into the trailer park, one of the few places in this world where she feels safe, normal.

She carefully makes her way across the icy road to the solace of her trailer. She can hear Shadow and Tina barking, vying for her attention. She grins and climbs the creaking steps.