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Franklin Becomes Flambé

Moira led Franklin into the Promised Land. Where Devon had been his John the Baptist, Moira was his Savior. Slowly, expertly, she coaxed out the woman in him. He would consciously practice how he walked, the way he held his hands, the square of his shoulders or the arch of an eyebrow. He never again sat in a chair with his feet spread; instead, he learned the delicate, graceful way ladies cross their legs. He studied Hollywood stars: Rita Hayworth, Ava Gardner, Audrey Hepburn. Moira taught him the art of applying cosmetics. Within three months, she’d helped him make an appointment with an electrolysist, to remove his chest, facial and leg hair. She took him to the second-hand stores out in The Avenues and along Fillmore, where fashionable women’s clothing could be found, at reasonable prices. Gradually, in phases, Franklin was making the transition to Flambé.

He needed a new name, Moira had told Franklin one night, as they lay in her big bed. Moira, before becoming a woman, had been Marvin Wallinsky. A transsexual’s name, she explained, should be based on the person’s soul, although it also could derive from the old name. Franklin gave it much thought. Then he remembered a time when his cousin Nelson, a chef, had prepared, for the family’s Easter dinner, a delicious dessert, bananas flambé. Franklin had loved the name, so French and romantic, and which suggested flames of passion. Then, too, Flambé began with the same letter as his first name, Franklin, and ended with the same two letters as the first two letters of his middle name, Bernard. When he told Moira he was now Flambé, she clapped her hands exultantly, and then corrected him.

“You’re not Flambé,” she said. “You are Miss Flambé.”

* * *

The physical change from male to female was considerably more difficult to achieve than the mere surface metamorphosis of makeup, wigs and cross-dressing. Moira explained the process. It was a long one, but there was a midway point of no return that every transsexual inevitably reached: the distinction between pre-op and post-op.

Many male cross-dressers are content to live their lives as women without resorting to the permanent solution of surgery. And there were different phases of surgical or medical transition. A man might simply take the hormone estrogen. Some might move to breast enhancement, and even plastic surgery, to soften the contours of the face. Only a small percentage of transsexuals or cross-dressers graduates to the ultimate: sex reassignment surgery, which involves dissecting the penis, throwing away most of the insides but preserving the urethra, and then turning the penile sheath, with its exquisitely sensitive nerve receptors, inside out, and inserting it back into the body, to become a “neo-vagina.”

Moira had completed all but the final step (which she was never to get around to before her death). Flambé, she explained, would eventually have to make all these decisions, but, she cautioned, he should not hurry. These were life-changing choices that must not be rushed, or entered into without the deepest reflection.

By now, Flambé was 26. She’d graduated State with a degree in psychology and was working for the San Francisco Department of Public Health as an information specialist. The pay wasn’t great, so she remained living at home with her mom, JoAnne. And that was a definite headache.

Flambé had kept her female life a secret from her mother as long as possible, but when she started applying makeup, painting her fingernails and wearing skirts, it was no longer possible to hide her other self. JoAnne, predictably, was very angry. The two of them had always had a close relationship, but now, JoAnne couldn’t suppress her bitter disappointment, and Flambé couldn’t conceal her annoyance at JoAnne’s constant disapproval. One night, they had a big fight.

“I can’t go ‘round the neighborhood anymore without someone asking what’s up with you. Mr. Brown, at the barbershop, wonders why you don’t come in anymore. Bishop Washington says he’s praying for you but he don’t know what’s got into you. I tell you, Franklin, you’re making it awful hard on me.”

“Please don’t call me Franklin, momma. I’m Flambé.”

“You ain’t nothin’ but Franklin and that’s all you’ll ever be! Boy, what is wrong in your head? Why you doin’ this to me?”

“I’m not doing anything to you. You’re doing it to yourself. I wish you’d just accept me the way I am.”

“How I’m supposed to accept that”? JoAnne asked, looking at her son as if he were an axe murderer. “God made you a man. Act like a man! Wear some damned pants! Jesus is cryin’ for you, Franklin, sheddin’ holy tears.”

Things got so bad that Flambé avoided being home as much as she could. One night, after carousing on Folsom Street, she returned around midnight, only to find the living room crowded with people: JoAnne, Bishop Washington, Mr. Brown the barber, his Uncles Bill and Amos, his Aunt Beatrice, and a pale, sickly-looking bald stranger, Dr. Arthur, who explained that this was a Christian Intervention and these people who loved Franklin had gathered to try and persuade him to get help for his sickness, praise the Lord.

That’s all it took. Flambé threw some things into a suitcase and stalked out. He had nowhere to go. He walked to Buena Vista Park and spent the night—a cold, foggy one—sleeping fitfully on a bench. The next day, figuring he’d be on the streets for a while, and disliking San Francisco’s chill, he took BART to Oakland, on the sunny side of the Bay–he might as well be warm. There, he began a six-month period of homelessness, which ended only when he met Nicholas Claudio Huff—Nick–who befriended him, took him in, cleaned him up, and loved him.

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