Bonnie and Brenda were born identical, or so it seemed.
Brenda, the little lady, grew up to be a wife and mother.
Bonnie, the tomboy, grew up to be a man.
The Juneau twins will be part of a discussion series on gender transition at the University of Alaska this week.
``This is my identical twin brother,'' said Brenda Shrum, pointing a manicured finger at a snapshot of a bleach-blond man taken in January. ``I'm probably one of the only women in the world that can say that.''
The January photo looks nothing like one taken of the twins 34 years earlier. The brown-eyed toddlers looked so alike that Brenda had to stare at the sepia-toned photo for several minutes before telling herself and her sister apart.
They could easily have passed for each other, if only they'd been able to act the part. When their family moved to Juneau at age 7, their personalities were already well-established. Their mother, Lynne Stevens, called her twin daughters ``two sides of the same coin.''
Where Brenda sashayed, Bonnie swaggered. Bonnie smirked, where Brenda smiled. Bonnie fought with boys on the playground, teased her sister and wore jeans unless forced to change.
At 9 years old, Bonnie realized she was supposed to grow up, be somebody's wife and have a baby, ``rather than be the father, which is what I would have preferred.''
Transgender issues focus of series at UAS
Aidan Key and another man who was once a woman will share their stories in ``Transcending Gender,'' a three-part exploration of gender issues at the University of Alaska Southeast this week.
On Thursday, there will be a two-hour discussion focusing on female-to-male transgendered issues, including hormones, surgery, sexuality and social implications. The discussion will be from 2 to 4 p.m. in the Hendricksen Building, Room 113.
On Friday, two mini-documentaries and a feature-length film about the transgendered world will be shown at 7 p.m. in the UAS Lake Room.
On Saturday, a panel discussion will explore the ramifications of gender transition on family members, friends and the gay/lesbian communities. A potluck will start at 5:30 p.m. in the Lake Room, with the discussion following at 7 p.m.
In junior high, Brenda ``started getting all goofy when some guy she liked walked by,'' Bonnie said.
Bonnie went home and asked her mom why Brenda was suddenly so giggly and stupid. It'll happen to you in six months too, her mom answered.
But it didn't. Instead, Brenda and Bonnie began to diverge. Brenda wore makeup and frilly clothes, and dated boys. Bonnie lettered in basketball and softball - and hung out with boys.
At a slumber party when they were 15, a female classmate kept staring at Bonnie across the living room while the other girls talked.
``Suddenly she burst out to everybody and said `Hey, guys, wouldn't Bonnie make a really cute guy?''' remembers Bonnie. ``I turned beet red and they all decided, yes, I would, and the party went on from that.''
So did their lives. Brenda and Bonnie graduated from Juneau-Douglas High School in 1982. Brenda stayed in Juneau while Bonnie went to Seattle Pacific University. It was there, at age 19, she finally experienced the goofy feelings her sister had in high school, only it wasn't over a guy. It was a woman.
Of course, she called Brenda in Juneau. They chatted for an hour before Bonnie finally blurted out the news.
``Oh my god,'' said Brenda, then asked Bonnie if she'd been drunk. ``She said a very indignant `NO.'''
It took awhile for Brenda to accept her twin was a lesbian.
``I felt this sort of betrayal of `Who are you? I thought I knew who you are and that is my identical twin and this is definitely not alike,''' said Brenda, who never doubted her own sexuality.
Their mother accepted Bonnie's sexual preference more readily, having suspected her daughter was gay from the way Bonnie moped when a close girlfriend moved away.
``I flew to Seattle the next day,'' she said. ``(Bonnie) was real depressed and upset that she'd discovered she was one of these awful people.''
That's what she'd been taught Sundays at the conservative church she attended and it took years to work through the guilt, Bonnie said.
Over the next decade Bonnie settled into Seattle's gay community, happy to find a place where she could have a wife and a baby. In 1990 her partner got artificially inseminated and gave birth to a daughter, whom Bonnie adopted.
Two years later Bonnie passed on baby clothes to sister Brenda and her husband, Dale Shrum, when they also had a daughter.
In 1995 Bonnie's relationship fell apart. A year later Bonnie became more aware that she didn't fit within her own body. Women, straight women, kept giving her double-takes. Bisexual women were attracted by her masculine manner.
Bonnie recalled a chance meeting many years before with a man who'd previously been a woman. She began noticing more people who had gone from female to male. With the encouragement of her new girlfriend, Raquel Rosen, Bonnie began to explore the possibilities. She took lists of questions to a support group of men who used to be women.
``They started calling it `Bonnie's question hour,''' Bonnie said. ``I wanted to know what they liked, how things were different, how it affected their bodies.''
Bonnie discovered transgender situations exist more often than most people realize, though they are rare. She attended a conference for people who've changed genders, attended by 500 people.
At least one in every 100,000 people is transgender, said Rebecca Auge, a clinical psychologist in Oakland, Calif., who has worked intensively with transgender patients for 12 years. That's a small enough number to make her situation almost unheard of in a place like Juneau.
``Since Alaska has a relatively small population, you won't have a very high frequency,'' Auge said.
Each year, 3,000 to 4,000 people undergo sex changes in the United States, said Anne Vitale, a psychologist in San Francisco who has worked with more than 400 transgender clients since 1978. Most used to be men becoming women, but now it's about even, she said.
After a year, Bonnie ran out of questions for the support group.
``What I found was these folks had a lot in common with me and how I felt,'' she said. ``And they seemed happier and more at peace.''
She waited another year and a half before telling her twin what she was considering. This time Bonnie flew to Juneau. The second evening they sat down alone.
``I just said, I'm considering transitioning from female to male,'' Bonnie said.
Brenda burst into tears and laughter at the same time.
``It was very hard. I was very afraid of what it meant to lose a sister and gain a brother,'' Brenda said. ``It was more than just sister, it was twin. Identical twin. That was my identity for a long time.''
Brenda cried herself to sleep that night, but it was the laughter that pulled them through. For a while Brenda and her daughter Olivia referred to ``Uncle Bonnie.'' When they couldn't say ``she'' anymore, but weren't ready for ``he,'' they joked about ``it.''
But Bonnie as a boy also made sense to Brenda. Growing up she'd secretly wanted her sister to be a brother ``because she was so darn tomboyish and macho,'' Brenda said.
``It's very simple. This is still the same person. I just had to change pronouns,'' said Brenda, though she still slips sometimes, forgetting the new name Bonnie chose for herself.
Bonnie sat down with friends and leafed through baby-naming books, choosing her own new name. She chose Aidan, with the last name Key, because the A's and D's sounded good with Brenda. Bonnie and Brenda became Aidan and Brenda.
Later she discovered Aidan means fire, as does Brenda.
``I was pretty happy about that,'' Aidan said, in a voice distinctly deeper than Brenda's.
Becoming a man involved one surgery and some hormones.
Aidan's been injecting herself every 10 days with prescription testosterone for a year and a half, at a cost of $30 a month. The male hormone deepened her voice and squared her jaw. Where she used to spend hours in the gym, she suddenly gained 15 pounds of muscle without trying. Her energy level increased. And her sex drive skyrocketed.
``It's a little overwhelming at times,'' Aidan said.
In February 1999 she had her breasts liposuctioned away for $6,000. Brenda flew down to take care of Aidan after the surgery. Now Aidan can go bare-chested, exposing his defined pectoral muscles and thick chest hair, but doesn't in public.
``You live 33 years as a female, it doesn't come natural to take your shirt off and go around exposed,'' Aidan said.
Even with his shirt on, Aidan attracts attention. Straight girls and gay men hit on him. Brenda's woman friends compare her new brother to Brad Pitt or Fabio, with his long blond hair.
``To change my gender is one thing. To cut my hair, I don't know about that,'' Aidan said. ``I've had long hair for a long time and I'm really comfortable with it.''
Aidan, who has facial hair, now uses the men's room, but not the urinal. When it comes to recreating human genitals, it's easier to dig a hole than build a tree. To change his actual anatomy would be a complicated $100,000 surgery. The result might function. Aidan figures, why bother, when what he's got works fine.
Which brings up some difficult questions. What makes a man?
Despite what every man thinks, it's not the plumbing, said transgender specialist Vitale.
``The hormones pretty much make the man in this case,'' Vitale said. ``He functions as a man, is treated as a man. Essentially that inner sense of being a man is reflected outwardly. The fact they don't actually go through the surgery doesn't really make a difference.''
Aidan is recognized as male by the state of Washington and can get a new birth certificate, with all the rights and privileges of other men.
``At this point I feel my transition has just put me a little closer to my identity,'' Aidan said. ``It's not necessarily a male-female. It's more of an in-between place.''
Even his mother has accepted her new son.
``Aidan is just kind of a natural progression of Bonnie,'' Lynne Stevens said. ``At first when his voice started to change and things like that, it seemed like a real radical change, but now I don't even notice it.''
So far the only one who hasn't accepted Aidan as a man is his ex, who has drawn him into a long custody battle over their daughter, refusing visitation rights.
``It was easily the hardest thing I've ever gone through,'' said Aidan, who was kept from his daughter for a year. ``Transition pales in comparison.''
In September Aidan was awarded full visitation rights as a father, but his ex has refused to comply and they're two weeks away from another court battle.
Rosen, his girlfriend of four years, stuck with him through the change. Where once they'd been a lesbian couple, unable to get legally married, they are now a man and woman. They've talked about becoming man and wife and raising a family.
``It seems kind of weird to think that I could fit into that kind of mainstream life,'' Aidan said.
On the other hand, in many ways their lives are mainstream. During the week Aidan works from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. as a courier in Seattle. On the weekends the couple might go out to dinner at an ethnic restaurant, then to a good, scary movie.
He still talks to his sister every week on the phone. When the twins are alone together, things are the same as ever, if not closer because of what they've been through, Brenda said.
In public, things are different than before. Brenda sees the way people see Aidan and for the first time it seems right.
``It just fits. It's like wearing a frumpled old suit that's too big or too small and then getting one that's tailored,'' said Brenda. ``I had no idea how blessed I would feel by the whole experience.''
``It's a strange world we live in,'' Aidan said. ``Sometimes I feel like I'm the most normal thing in it.''
Juneau Empire ©2014. All Rights Reserved.