Interview With the Hermaphrodite

The many faces of Lynn Harris

Harris began to enter local beauty pageants, despite his mother's warnings that the judges would never pick a padded girl. Much to his mother's amazement, he took home several trophies. Harris was the first Costa Mesa Junior Miss in 1968. He still has a picture of himself in a gown and tiara—looking a bit like a young Shelley Winters—standing alongside A.L. Pinkley, then-mayor of Costa Mesa. Along with the crown, Harris was awarded a college scholarship, something he's still proud of.

"I'm proud of all the things I did as girl," he says. "I earned that crown!"

Harris approached femininity with a jock's determination, and he now attributes his aggressive, competitive edge to the male hormones that were coursing through him. "I was determined to be the best female of any female I knew, and I went over the top," he says.

But no matter how much he fought it, Harris couldn't deny what was happening to his body. Every day, when he looked in the mirror, the face that looked back at him looked less and less female. On the street, people sometimes stopped him to ask if he was a man in drag.

Harris' sex was ambiguous, but he had drives as strong as any girl—or boy—his age. He yearned for romance but was frightened by the prospect of sharing his unorthodox anatomy with a lover. Nonetheless, at 18, Harris lost his virginity in the time-honored tradition of teenage girls across America:with his knees up in the front seat of his date's car. The venue, however, was the only thing traditional about the evening; Harris' date was a divorced older man who blindly struggled to penetrate him for two hours, at one point grunting, "Do you even have a vagina?"

Finally, he found one; a tiny thing, with a hymen so tough that Harris now feels it should have been slit surgically. The deflowering hurt like hell, but at least Harris knew he actually had a vagina. In more ways than one, he had at last, he says, "become a woman."

With the '60s swinging all around him, Harris left home at 19 and moved back to Hollywood to seek his fortune as an actress. The outline for Harris' book describes these days as [ahem] "a cyclone of discotheques, movie premieres, and swingers' parties offering recreational sex with men AND women."

He began appearing in LA theater productions, supporting himself with beauty retail and other work. Finally free to see his own doctors and learn what was really going on with his body, he began taking estrogen in an attempt to regulate his menstrual cycle and increase his bustline. In 1972, still in his early '20s, he began experiencing hot flashes, fluctuations in blood-sugar levels, rapid weight gain and other symptoms of menopause, symptoms that weren't alleviated until one of his doctors suggested "reverse therapy": a course of male hormones. Desperate for answers, in 1973, Harris checked himself into La Mirada Community Hospital for three days of tests and exploratory surgery. The doctors there eventually diagnosed him with what they called "a hermaphroditic situation":Stein-Leventhal Syndrome, a congenital condition that affects one in every 10,000 births. They warned him that his body would continue to "masculinize" over time, adding that there was little he could do to stop it.

Harris reacted to the news by running out and buying higher heels and putting bigger pads in his bras. He'd always lived as a woman, and he didn't want to be anything else. Seeking images of "masculine" women, he would look up pictures of the brilliant but famously non-photogenic Gertrude Stein in the encyclopedia, anxiously wondering if eventually, he would look as nasty as she did. Many women fear the loss of their looks with age; poor Harris also had to fear the loss of his very gender.

When he tried to talk about his situation with his family, his parents predictably went into full, furious denial.

"Nothing's wrong with you," Harris' father roared. "If you let on to your boyfriends that you're some kind of freak, you'll queer your marriage chances forever!"

Touchingly, one of Harris' sisters worried that she might "catch" his condition and grow a penis, too.

THE CURTAIN FALLS

By Harris' account, as the '70s wore on, he appeared in a string of Z-grade movies (mainly horror films with such titles as Meat Eater and Mother's Day, all of which have proved remarkably difficult or impossible to track down), became an international call girl, and ended up in hot water with the Vegas mob, among many other spicy if incredible-sounding misadventures. He also continued working in live theater, but his increasingly masculine-looking body made leading-lady roles hard to come by, and by his late '20s, he was already playing middle-aged mothers. He was growing disenchanted with acting, realizing for the first time, what a crutch it had always been. He had been pretending to be a woman for years, and it wasn't working anymore. Despondent and lost, he turned to a "spiritual counselor" for advice.

"You've always been so unhappy as a woman," the counselor said. "How much worse off could you be living as a man?"

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