‘I’m more than a pronoun’

Richmond Times-Dispatch
June 5, 2005
By Robin Farmer

Sexuality today: An occasional series on sexual attitudes among the young

The day before her high school graduation, Laurie Petrone took clippers to the curtain of blond hair hanging halfway down her back and buzz-cut it to less than an inch.

As with most young adults leaving high school, she was eager to start the next chapter of her life on her own terms. She was already out as a lesbian at James River High School. Shaving her locks was just an exclamation point. The military haircut was a shout to the world that her life, like her hair, was hers to shape.

Now 21, Petrone is contemplating more cutting, this time of the flesh, to feel complete.

Petrone did not realize until 18 months ago that she is not a
lesbian, but a man living in a woman’s body. Whether to take
hormones to become more masculine or undergo surgery to remove her
female parts are among the issues the Mary Baldwin College senior
grapples with.

Years after she came out as a lesbian, Petrone finds herself coming
out all over again as a female-to-male transgender person.

Petrone’s story illustrates the complexity — physical, mental and
emotional — of sex and gender identity in a society that tends to
identify people as gay or straight and male or female. Petrone’s
conflict over where she fits in mirrors society’s unease about those
who eschew traditional roles.

“When I was younger, I didn’t hear anyone talk about being
transgender. It’s like 90 percent of transgenders come out through
the gay community. Then they realize this is the person they are,”
said Petrone, who sports the tattoo “gender” on one ankle
and “queer” spelled backward on the other.

As a female-to-male transgender person, Petrone has a male name,
Ayden. But only her best friend, also female-to-male transgender,
and her girlfriend use it.

“I’m not ready to be called Ayden all the time. It’s another whole
coming-out-of-the-closet process,” said Petrone, who often passes
for a slightly built man. She dresses the part: jeans or khakis on
most days with button-down shirts or T-shirts and Doc Martens or
Puma sneakers. She wears ties when she dresses up. Her hair,
naturally darkened to a light brown, remains short on top, tapered
in the back.

More important, Petrone identifies with men.

“Everybody says I think like a man. I’ve always been a huge tomboy.
I’ve done things like a boy. Instead of playing with girl toys like
dolls, I’d play with race cars. I never wore dresses, I hated them.
I always played all kinds of sports, from pole vaulting to soccer.”

She prefers to identify herself as transgender. She bristles at the
word “transsexual” because “it’s a harsh word . . . with a stigma.”

In the world of sexual minorities, self-definition is crucial.

Generally, she isn’t wedded to a male or female pronoun. Most
customers at her pharmacy job as well as strangers she encounters
daily think she’s a guy. But the few who call her “ma’am” or “miss”
aren’t corrected.

“I’m Laurie, I’m more than a pronoun,” she says with conviction.

“There is nothing saying I am male or anything like that. . . .
until I decide or don’t decide to make that change.

“I’m 50 percent sure I will have top surgery, less sure about taking
hormones. I won’t do bottom surgery.”

If she opts for “top surgery,” her breasts would be removed and her
chest reconstructed to look masculine.

“What person who feels like they are male inside wants to have
breasts? I sure don’t.”

Hormones would deepen her voice, cause her to grow facial and body
hair, add muscle and stop her periods.

But she’s worried about the health risks. She would have to take
testosterone the rest of her life. That would increase her chance
for stroke and heart diseases, health problems common for men. She
hasn’t started counseling, which is required before taking hormones
or having surgery.

She’s glad “bottom surgery” exists, but she is not interested in
having a functioning phallic organ created, one that can become
erect. Doing so can require several surgeries, including a

“I can work with what I got.”

. . .

A sociology and political-science major, Petrone did not know with
certainty about her gender identity when she transferred in the fall
of 2003 from Virginia Commonwealth University to Mary Baldwin, an
all women’s college. Not that it would have mattered.

At the quaint campus on a hill in Staunton, Petrone controls an
intense schedule with precision. She has maintained a 3.4 grade-
point average while juggling six classes, working about 25 hours as
a certified pharmacy technician, serving as a resident adviser and
logging up to 10 hours a month interning at ROSMY, the Richmond
Office for Sexual Minority Youth. She also speaks to area students
and faculty about transgender issues several times a month. She
carries this load on six hours of sleep.

When life gets overwhelming, she jumps into her black Ford Ranger
pickup and drives 20 minutes east to her special place to think. It
is a boulder on Skyline Drive overlooking the Shenandoah Valley.

For the past seven months, Petrone has had company on her rocky
perch. She often gazes at the spectacular views with her girlfriend,
Elle, 20, whose real name is not used here at her request.

Elle, a petite, outgoing brunette, sees Petrone as a man and
considers herself straight.

“Laurie sees herself as a male and I respect that. I believe you
fall in love with people and the person they are,” said the Mary
Baldwin junior.

The couple met in a “Women in Philosophy” class last spring. Petrone
had a crush immediately. It took Elle awhile longer to reconcile her
feelings for the boyish-looking Petrone, who she initially thought
was a male day student. Elle had never dated a woman before. It took
time to accept that her first real love came in an unexpected

For Valentine’s Day, Elle made 200 white, pink and red hearts and
covered Petrone’s dorm room floor and bed. Within minutes of seeing
them, Petrone, a self-described neat freak, picked them up.

Petrone’s need for order, from tidiness to detailed daily schedules
and emotional control, is lessening with Elle’s influence.

The couple initially were hesitant to tell their college friends
about the relationship. “We didn’t want them to think we were four-
year queers,” Petrone said with a chuckle, as she sat on her dorm
bed with Elle. The term refers to girls who “date each other while
they’re at Mary Baldwin and then after graduation date men and get

Their campus friends accept the couple, but the relationship remains
a secret from Elle’s parents, although she suspects her father has
an inkling. That Petrone must hide her affections for Elle while
visiting Elle’s home pains her.

Petrone said her mother, who declined to be interviewed for this
article, accepts and likes Elle. Petrone’s two half-sisters, 10 and
11, “know I date girls.” But Petrone said she’s never had the
conversation she always wanted with her mom about who she is.

“We’ve talked vaguely about it. But it’s not like, ‘Hey mom, lets
talk about me being queer.'”

Getting her mom to even acknowledge her interest in girls was a long
time coming. At 9 and again at 12, she told her mom she was gay.
Each time her mom dismissed her comments.

“The first time she said I was too young to know. The second time
she said it was just a phase.”

But her best friend, Allison Unroe, listened when Petrone told her
at age 12.

“At the time she was dating a boy, and my reaction was, ‘I don’t
understand,'” said Unroe, now a junior at Virginia Tech. “She
explained she did care about this guy even if she didn’t care about
him in that intimate way. I had been exposed to homosexuals. My mom
had gay friends, and I knew gay friends from church. It wasn’t a big
deal to me; I was like, OK.”

But Petrone had another secret she initially hid from everyone, a
secret that nearly killed her.

. . .

Between age 11 and 18, when despair robbed the laughter from her
chocolate eyes, Petrone cut her arms and legs, usually with
scissors. The last time she used a box cutter.

She cut herself because “I was numb and wanted to feel something.”

Petrone said she craved attention, especially from her mother, who
had remarried and had two more daughters after a bitter divorce from
her father. Petrone is estranged from her father and hasn’t spoken
to him since winter.

Petrone grew up in Princeton, N.J. She and her mom moved to
Chesterfield County on Jan. 1, 1993. Soon after her mother’s
remarriage, she said, she and her stepfather began to bump heads.
She soon felt she was an afterthought for her mother, who she
believed made her new family a priority.

When Petrone began cutting herself, her mother demanded she give her
the items she used.

Counseling over the years, which Petrone started at age 5 after her
parents’ divorce, had little effect because she resisted it.

Like many sexual minorities, Petrone knew early which gender
attracted her. Still, she fought herself. She went through a period
of dating guys, including one she dated three years until her
freshman year in high school.

Much of Petrone’s self-assuredness about who she is came from ROSMY,
an organization for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people
ages 14-21.

“It was a place I didn’t have to be scared anymore. I could go in
there and be uninhibited.”

ROSMY not only gave her a mentor in Chris Carson, then the program
director, it helped her develop her leadership skills and find her
voice. Petrone founded the Richmond area’s first Gay Straight
Alliance Club at James River High School in 2000.

Petrone asked Ann Reinke, the school’s head librarian, to be the
club’s adviser. Reinke recalls that even then Petrone
was “incredibly mature beyond her years, direct, bright and

Petrone was invited to speak at a faculty meeting. “I remember how
she got everyone to really listen when she said words can sting like
a slap. She thanked a teacher who stopped someone who had called
someone else a faggot.”

. . .

Discussing gay and lesbian issues was easier at school than at home
for Petrone.

At 16, Petrone brought home her girlfriend. Even then her mom didn’t
want to talk about it.

“I said, “Mom, if it was a guy, you would want to know if I slept
with him. Don’t you want to know if I slept with her?'”

Her mom didn’t want to know.

By the middle of 11th grade, she was openly gay and making history.
She brought her girlfriend to the junior prom, giving the school its
first gay prom couple. When Petrone walked in with her girlfriend,
students cheered.

Four days after high school graduation, she moved into an apartment
with a friend. Her bleakest period soon followed. She was attending
VCU full time while working three jobs to pay for tuition, rent, a
car and other bills her income couldn’t handle. Exhaustion and
depression pushed her to the brink. She decided to end her life on
Dec. 6, 2002, by slicing her wrists with a box cutter.

Carson, her friend from ROSMY, had noticed Petrone’s cuts over the
years and often talked to her about problems at home. Carson noticed
the angry marks on her wrists that December day, too.

The two met for coffee at Petrone’s request. “Laurie almost seemed
kind of numb. That was one of the indications that keyed me in she
wasn’t doing well.”

Petrone is thankful Carson knew her well enough to realize she was
distraught and a danger to herself.

Carson called a psychiatrist, who recommended she take Petrone to a
hospital. They went to St. Mary’s.

“The doctor who examined my wrists said I was damn lucky. He said if
I had cut a quarter-inch more I would have been dead.”

She was admitted to the psychiatric unit for more than a week.
Petrone credits Carson with saving her life. The two remain close
friends. Petrone hasn’t considered suicide since that December day.

. . .

Today, she said, she has never been happier. Her move to Mary
Baldwin and “away from home” allowed her to bloom again.

There have been some unexpected surprises along the way.

At Mary Baldwin, Petrone, baptized as a Catholic, started attending
church to join the choir and “to see if I could rekindle what I
thought my faith was.”

But two months later “the priest said gays are damned to hell.” She
stopped going.

But childhood pal Allison Unroe goes. She said she loves God by
loving Petrone.

“I feel like our job is to embrace people for who and what they are
unconditionally. That’s what I feel Jesus would have done,” Unroe
said. “I can’t believe the Christian community doesn’t embrace

Another unexpected discovery for Petrone was learning that tensions
exist between gays and lesbians and the transgender community. It’s
an issue she talks about at forums.

Perhaps the biggest surprise of all is learning, with Elle’s help,
to act more her age, to relax, to go with the flow more. She is no
longer mapping out every goal.

“I like the fact I’m in limbo because it never happened before. I
want to go to grad school but I want to take a year off. I don’t
know what I want to study. I want to live each day as it comes, not
as a schedule written for every hour of the day.” She eventually
wants to work with children.

She finishes college next year, and she’s leaning toward leaving
Virginia, described by some gay-rights activists as the most anti-
gay state in the nation.

“In Richmond, Patrick Henry said ‘Give me liberty or give me death.’
Everyone deserves their pursuit of happiness. . . . Why is it I can
not have my life, my liberty and my pursuit of happiness? What makes
me so different?”

Fighting for equal rights is a constant battle. She has marched,
gone to news conferences, worked with organizations such as Equality
Virginia and the Human Rights Campaign.

“I’ve done my fighting. I just need a little break. I don’t know if
I will stay in Virginia. I want to go and explore. If I leave, it’s
partly out of the political climate. But there are other reasons,

Also unknown is how her family will react to her publicly stating
she is a female-to-male transgender person, a fact she hasn’t shared
with her mother or any other relative. But the truth will be a
release and, she hopes, the first step to a meaningful conversation
with her mom about who she is — a conversation she has longed to
have since she first told her mother she was gay at age 9.

“I’m not asking for acceptance. Acceptance is the end result. I want
her to realize that I’ve been the person I’m becoming all of my
life. Me dressing the way I did and beating the crap out of boys
with sticks was not just a phase. I want her to see the timeline and
how things have progressed.”

She paused, saying she wanted to reflect further on the reaction she
wants from her mother.

A day later, she added this:

“I just want her to see the same person she’s always seen — not
gender but the person inside. I’m not changing my personality or my

“My inner appearance,” Petrone said, “doesn’t match my outer

Contact Robin Farmer at (804) 649-6312 or rfarmer@timesdispatch.com

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