Reneka Evans, a 37 year old African American transgender female (male to female), describes her life growing up in Memphis, Tennessee about as casually as she would talk about deciding to wear two inch heels instead of four inch stilettos to a dinner with her fellow divas. “I was never in the closet and being transgender is more of an adjusted way of life”, says Evans. “I never really looked at it as being different. I look at it as adjusting to a situation or condition pretty much.”
While reminiscing about her childhood, Evans says, “In high school, I was very popular. I was able to fit in without being heavily harassed.” Evans says that her experiences growing up differ from many of her transgender peers who often have a tougher time assimilating. “My experience with other male to female (transgender) friends – they usually would drop out of school and were very uncomfortable in public.”
Not so with Evans.
In many respects, give or take a few shades of lip gloss, Evans’ experience growing up sounds a lot like the typical childhood experienced by a person who was born with a gender assignment that gelled with her soul.
“I felt like another ‘average person’ fitting into today’s society without gay friends”, said Evans. “Then there were the other characteristics of my personality; outgoing, friendly, ambitious and not afraid of the public.”
When asked what else Evans was doing at seventeen or eighteen years old, Evans was quick to answer, “Sex”, as she let out a loud burst of laughter that her friends and family have become accustomed to.
“My first real boyfriend was right after high school”, explained Evans. “His name was Alex and it was a very sweet, open relationship – of which both of our parents accepted as best friends. He was about seven years older than I was at the time, so he had all the right moves to make the newly wed part of the relationship last for a very long time.”
Evans describes her inaugural relationship as the kind that every young girlie boy dreams of. “He was sweet and romantic and understanding. At the same time I was looking for my identity….self-identity. I started wearing eyeliner and lip gloss and I had a long, pretty jerry curl – and all the other gay accessories that followed.”
As Evans sashayed from adolescence to adulthood, she took a job at the typical place you would expect to find a southern tranny-bell: the United States military, or the Military Entrance Processing Station (MEPS) in Memphis.
“I remember my first job at the MEPS. My supervisor, or immediate supervisor, was very gay-friendly”, explains Evans. “She [Ms. Tony] was my first role model and she made me feel very comfortable. Without her, I would not have had a position within the company.”
According to Evans, not all were clamoring to jump on the Military welcome wagon.
“My boss’s boss, Sergeant Smiley, was complete opposite”, explained Evans. “He was standoffish and very concerned about the ‘new recruits’. Here I was twirling and in full blossom mode”, laughed Evans. “Not the kind of first impression that the sergeant was interested in giving.”
Like so many others that have gone before, Evans said she painted the town red in her early twenties in full party regalia – with a slight twist or two.
“I was in the party life in my mid twenties. I had two roommates that were party animals – meaning drinking, weed, Sex and clubbing. But for myself, I was still able to party and fit in without smoking, drinking or doing any kind of drugs.”
This is something that Evans seems very proud of. “That’s right”, she exclaimed. “Sober party life and it may seem impossible, or very few people in their twenties were able to do it, but I enjoy knowing where I’ve been the night before and where I’m going.” Evans went on to say, “Most of my friends would wake up with hangovers or blackouts in bed with someone they did not remember from the night before. They would depend on me to tell them the person’s name in the morning. They would say, ‘Girl, what’s his name?’ I was the name keeper. That’s something that I can be proud of.”
It was during this time that Evans became a female impersonator at an all-the-rage night spot in Minneapolis. “At this time in my life, I was working at a popular gay bar – the Gay 90’s in Minneapolis as a female impersonator. This is where I encountered my question mark on my own gender status.”
Evans asked the questions that so many have asked before her. “Hmm, am I a permanent female impersonator day in and day out? Am I a cross dresser? What’s happening here?”
Before long, Evans says she was able to “work as a female and get away with it” during the day and at night impersonate Anita Baker and Tracy Chapman and actually get paid for it.
“Yep”, she explained. “That’s when I first started going like…what’s really going on? So with that in mind, I had to do some homework. There were new terms to remember and labels to fall under, like transgender, transsexual, and Cat boy - when you have the eyeliner, the gloss, the cute little haircut, the backpack…just straight twirling – being a queen out of drag”, Evans said as she chuckled.
Shortly thereafter, Evans says that’s when her “gender crisis” began. Evans said she attended a behavior clinic in Minneapolis to weed out the labels she wasn’t comfortable with. After visiting the behavior clinic, Evans enrolled in a transgender women’s support group at the University of Minnesota where she said she was widely accepted and welcomed into the fold, although there were only two African American female members.
“There were only two African American women, including myself that attended”, said Evans. “We would meet once a month for a three hour meeting to share life experiences and to receive support. A lot of the issues did not apply to me. For example, living a life of being married and ‘straight’ and having kids and at the age of 45 having to come out to their wives and kids that they’re transgender. Having thoughts of suicide because they’re so unhappy with their body and not having an outlet to resolve the problem.”
Evans says that her family accepted her as well as they knew how to in the beginning. Her main concern was making sure she had enough money for the reassignment surgery.
“Over the years, I had learned to accept my body, and have gay sex and accept my male genitalia as part of gay sex. Not hoping that it wasn’t there (penis) just enjoying it while it was here”, explained Evans.
After encountering some health issues at around age 25, Evans said that she quickly learned to appreciate who she was. “I have learned to be more emotional toward other people’s problems, concerns and needs. I am not self-centered anymore. Keeping in mind the self-centered part was only surrounding my appearance.”
On many occasions, Evans enjoyed getting one over on her unsuspecting audience. “Being a male dressed in female clothes, not taking hormones, and being able to convince a lot of people that you’re the opposite gender than you really are. That can be a boost to the ego”, she says with a glittering twinkle in her eye.
“But today”, she goes on to say, “I feel other people’s pain and their victories. I can actually pat someone on the back and say, ‘Hey, great job’, and it doesn’t always have to be about me.”
Evans seems surprisingly comfortable in her own skin. “At the age of 30”, she says with her trademark laughter not to be overshadowed by her bright toothy smile, “I was able to forgive others and allow them to have their personal opinion and be real with who I am today and look forward to tomorrow.”
Evans has attended meetings with doctors, psychologists and been a part of support groups for six years to prepare for surgery.
When asked what advice Evans would give to the generations of women who come after her who find themselves in the same predicament, Evans says, “Get your education, do not put yourself in a compromising situation, be honest with yourself, stand up for yourself, and respect other people’s opinions about you.”
Evans credits her father with being the most accepting person in her life. “My Dad’s motto was, ‘If you like it, I love it. If you love it, then I’m in love with it.’ My dad also bought me my first pageant evening gown. It was black, with white pearls, and red, green and gold sequins – paisley sequins to be exact. I had an Asian wig with short bangs across the front and bobbed in the back.”