One Montgomery County attorney’s transition from Boy Scout dad to soccer mom.
Friday night, 6 p.m., Suburbia, Maryland, U.S.A.: Dad’s out on the deck, standing over the grill. Mom’s in the house, tidying. Son and daughter fidget about the rooms, chattering about their first week of school, their weekend plans, the pet hermit crab that’s loose in the house. Dog—Freckles—barks in the back yard.
Then Mom calls the crew to the table. Dad—dressed in long denim skirt, peach T-shirt, and pearls—hoists the grilled roast to the table top. The patriarch of the family stands at the head of the table and starts to slice; cutting into the juicy slab, she splashes a little on her skirt. “That’s why a lady wears an apron,” Mom says to Dad.
Alyson Meiselman, born Alan Meiselman, started taking hormone treatments last year and now dresses in women’s clothing. Her driver’s license, her birth certificate, and all her other important documents say she’s a woman. In the next few months, she’ll take a trip to Canada, where a doctor will perform gender-reassignment surgery—
completing her transition.
It’s a big change, but Meiselman and her family like to say that nothing else, really, about their lives in North Potomac, Md., is different. She remains spouse and “Dad” to her wife and three kids. She’s also continuing a family law practice in Montgomery County, despite snubs from colleagues and a judicial bench that’s hardly greeted her with open arms.
“I shouldn’t have to move,” says Meiselman. “My kids have friends here. I should be able to practice law here. I shouldn’t have to uproot myself.”
The suburbs, where people once moved to get away from life’s traumas, are becoming as complicated as anyplace else. Almost all cultural manifestations eventually make their way out of the city, so transgenderism was bound to end up taking up residence in a split-level. And it makes sense that in this instance, the person at the vanguard of the debate over what constitutes a woman looks like nothing so much as a soccer mom.
“Transsexuals have reached critical mass in society,” says Dr. Anne Lawrence, a Seattle-based transsexual physician who’s working toward a doctorate in clinical sexology. “There’s a kind of support that’s become present in the community that helps people make a decision and get on with their lives. That didn’t happen before.”
“It’s still the same me,” notes Meiselman. “I’m not a child molester or a sexual deviant. I don’t go around in spiked heels or tight skirts. I’m just me.”
Alyson Meiselman can’t pinpoint the exact moment Alan Meiselman knew he should be a woman. Born in suburban Maryland in 1951, Meiselman grew up with four siblings in a conservative Jewish household. His father worked for the Defense Department. His mother stayed at home.
He had a stable family life, recalls Meiselman, but he was a troubled youngster. As early as age 3, Meiselman remembers, he used to sneak into his sisters’ closets and don their clothes—the dresses their mother had made to match her own, a tutu from a sister’s dance class. He used birthday wishes to hope to one day change from a little boy into a woman. But such comforts were fleeting.
“You steal a second or a few minutes,” says Meiselman. “When you get to be older, you add up seconds and minutes, and you don’t have even a full day.”
Much later, in 1979, a therapist diagnosed Meiselman with “gender dysphoria,” a catch-all term used to refer to anyone who has tendencies to want to impersonate or become the opposite gender. At the time, gender dysphoria was considered a defect, something to correct or—at the very least—ignore. Meiselman was told to bury his secret desires even deeper.
By that point, Meiselman had already married Joan, a woman he had met during a jewelry-making class at the University of Maryland. The two eventually had three children, bought a spacious two-story home, and poured themselves into the mold of a suburban family. Joan Meiselman got a job as a site planner at a local engineering firm. Her husband became a well-respected attorney. Alan Meiselman signed on as scoutmaster for his son’s Boy Scout troop and took the family on summer vacations to Maine.
But the Superdad routine was only for show. Meiselman continued cross-dressing in private, using daytimes in the empty house to dress in his wife’s clothing or something he had bought on his own. He was careful never to let the children know. Joan Meiselman recalls seeing her husband cross-dress only once, early on in their marriage. She tried to bury the knowledge away and ignored whatever outward signs she saw later.
The woman-by-day/dad-by-night routine eventually wore Meiselman down. “Being transgendered means there’s a constant conflict between your mind and your body,” she says. “It gets harder and harder to ignore the instinctive draw to not conform to what you know you are….You come to a point where you say, ‘I just can’t do that anymore.’”
After dinner one April evening last year, Meiselman called his wife to their bedroom and told her about his plans to become a woman. “My reaction was one of mourning. I was weepy,” recalls Joan Meiselman. “That went on for a while—a week, a week and a half. Then I started saying, ‘Who died?…I can still have this person in my life as a friend, as a co-parent….’ I asked myself, ‘What’s the loss?’ There is no loss.”
Alan Meiselman then went to the kids, telling each individually. “The reactions ranged from ‘Oh good, we can go shopping together’ to ‘That’s a little weird,’” recalls Meiselman.
“It was, ‘Whatever,’” says 18-year-old daughter Traci about learning of her father’s transition. “It’s different, but it’s not upsetting….There isn’t much different other than my father doesn’t yell as much anymore. She’s much happier.”
Meiselman started taking hormone treatments soon after she told her family. Lupron blocked her natural testosterone. Premarin, a hormone pill, caused her to develop breasts, her skin to get drier, and her body to change shape. This fall, her surgery will permanently alter her body, in a process that costs $15,000 to $20,000.
For the time being, she dresses in women’s clothing and wears a neat layer of makeup. But Meiselman isn’t a picture of womanly elegance yet. She retains the broad shoulders and boxy frame of a man. She keeps a close shave, and she has let her sandy-brown hair grow out to just above her shoulders, but her sparse bangs reveal a receding hairline. Her voice is deep and gravelly and creates contrast with her taste for skirts, soft T-shirts, simple jewelry, and tan stockings.
“Sometimes I don’t look so great—I don’t pass as well,” says Meiselman. “But I don’t care anymore. That’s when you know you’ve changed, when you stop caring if you can pass for a woman.”
Of course, it’s not as if the Welcome Wagon stopped by the Meiselmans’ house to greet the new Alyson. Meiselman says they haven’t heard a peep from some friends and family since the day they told people of the transition. Vandals hit the family car this past August—smashing windows and denting the doors. Police said it was probably just routine robbery, but nothing was taken from the car, says Joan Meiselman, who’s certain it was the work of someone with a beef about her husband’s decision to cross the gender line. “It was hard to sleep after that,” she says.
But some of the more notable incidents happened when the family least expected it, says Meiselman. Like on a trip she and Traci took to visit colleges: The two stopped at a rest stop along I-95 and lined up for the women’s restroom. Apparently noting a manly look under her feminine dress, a security guard pulled Meiselman out of line and told her she couldn’t use the women’s bathroom. “I said, ‘Fine, I’ll go to the men’s room,’” recalls Meiselman. “And he said, ‘You can’t do that, either.’”
And then there’s the Boy Scouts of America—that bastion of traditional American values that, despite repeated lawsuits, still hasn’t opened its doors to gay members and doesn’t, according to Meiselman, want to leave even a crack for transgenders to squeeze through. Meiselman has a long history with the group. A former Boy Scout herself, she served as both cubmaster and scoutmaster in the ’70s and the ’90s. Last year, she was assistant scoutmaster for her son’s troop. But when she told the leaders and fellow parents of her plans to “transition,” they asked her not to come back. Boy Scout officials did not return several calls for comment.
“This is disgustingly discriminatory, and I think it did a disservice to the boys that knew me because it gave the impression I was sick,” says Meiselman. “I think they’ve suffered from losing a knowledgeable camper. It’s petty ignorance.”
As she talks she shows me Boy Scout awards that cover part of a wall in the family’s home—honors for fire-building, knot-tying, and other assorted skills. “I was a Scout. I still feel like a Scout,” says Meiselman. The wall also hosts a wooden placard featuring the old saw: “Sometimes the best man for the job is a woman.” It was actually given to her wife, but Meiselman believes the message belongs to her as well.
Meiselman’s decision to become who she believes she is in her personal life has had profound ramifications on her professional one. She took a break from work the first few months, refusing to accept new clients and referrals for mediation cases from the courts. But last fall, she began asking Montgomery County judges for new referrals. They are not forthcoming; she has zero clients and dim prospects for the near future. “I don’t have a practice,” says Meiselman.
Rebecca Newman Strandberg, president of the Bar Association of Montgomery County, says the courts have simply changed the way they make referrals in the last few months—which may account for Meiselman’s smaller caseload. Take child custody mediation, for example: The courts used to dole out those cases to a pool of independent contractors, like Meiselman. Now they rely on attorneys hired specifically for that type of work, says Strandberg. “She might have received fewer referrals anyway,” says Strandberg. “As far as I can tell, I don’t think she’s receiving any difference in treatment because of her sexual orientation. I think people are treating her as they would have treated her before.”
Meiselman doesn’t buy it. “I got called ‘it’ in a courtroom,” she says, sitting on a bench outside the Montgomery County Judicial Center. Another attorney filed papers to remove her as a guardian for children in a recent case, due, in part, to her transition; the motion was granted in January, she says. Meiselman adds that the discrimination she’s faced from colleagues and the Boy Scouts has caused her to consider legal action, although she’s done nothing formally yet.
As we talk, Meiselman is distracted by another lawyer who walks by and doesn’t even glance our way. “Some people who used to say hi to me now don’t even acknowledge me….That’s a loss,” she says. “I’ve been to bar luncheons where no one’s talked to me….[Montgomery County attorneys] have been prejudiced, biased, and bigoted.”
The pet crab is still AWOL at the end of that Friday evening. Thirteen-year-old son Seth says the critter somehow managed to crawl out of the aquarium where it lives in his upstairs bedroom. He comes downstairs to give an update on the search. I’m sitting on the living room couch with Meiselman and her wife. Family photos fan out across the walls around us—a wedding picture from the ’70s, baby photos of the kids, a corny family shot where everybody is dressed in Old West clothing taken in Ocean City, Md.
As we talk, daughter Traci calls to report on her first week at college. Alyson Meiselman talks with her about a road trip they have planned for the next day. Joan Meiselman works on needlepoint. It seems—if only for a few moments—profoundly normal.
“Ever since [her transition], it’s like things are starting to make sense,” says Joan Meiselman. “She’s very nurturing. She’s got good decorating sense.”
But still, the Meiselmans know theirs is a family history with an unusual turn. “A marriage with a twist,” as Alyson Meiselman calls it, pointing to a wedding ring she’s made for both herself and Joan—a thin gold band with a knot in the middle.
“Did I ever want to be in a marriage like this? No,” admits Joan Meiselman. “Would I trade this marriage for anything else in the world? No.” She passes a tender look at her husband. The two have plans to stay together indefinitely, but have no physical relationship. One day, they may date others. “I wouldn’t mind being the Andrew sisters and seeing other people,” says Joan Meiselman.
Meiselman’s transition is seen as one more step in the development of their family—like the birth of a child, a high school graduation, an elder’s triple-bypass surgery. “Some would react and say what I’m doing is brave,” says Meiselman. “I hate that, because I don’t think what I’ve done is brave. Risking your life to save someone else is a brave act….[My transition] is a lot of things, but I don’t call it bravery….I call it part of life.” CP