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After a lifetime masquerading as a man, Emelia De Souza is done playing dress-up – and she’s never been happier.
Until recently, Emelia’s Port Townsend–area neighbors, friends and coworkers of the past 20 years have known her as Henry Souza, an architectural designer who came to Cape George in 1994 to build a home and settle down with Laura, then his wife of 10 years.
But Henry was a cover.
“I’m truly happy for the first time in my life,” said Emelia, now 65. “I’m so much better to be with now.”
Ever since grade school, Emelia knew she wasn’t like the other boys.
Having survived life-threatening cases of liver cancer and hepatitis C over the past several years, she said she’s finally able to face her inner woman, to embrace her true self.
“I’ve had two new leases on life,” Emelia said upon addressing about 30 of her fellow Rotary Club of East Jefferson County members during a meeting on Feb. 12 in Chimacum. “The first was my new liver. The second was my emotional and gender emancipation from all the years I kept Emelia stuffed away and presented Henry as this 3-D personality. That freedom has been like being released from aeons of bondage.”
Now, while transitioning both emotionally and physically, Emelia is on a mission, calling for greater awareness of gender issues in local governments, businesses, schools, hospitals and the community at large.
“It’s a calling,” she said. “Right now, I’m driven. I don’t know why I’ve got all this energy, but I have got to get this message out, this message that it’s OK to come out now.
“We’re not sick – it’s proven more and more every day. We’re all beautiful people and there’s no reason we need to be ashamed of ourselves.”
“I’ve always known I was different, ever since I was a little boy,” Emelia said of growing up with her parents and two younger siblings in rural Whatcom County in the late 1950s. “We were very, very poor. We didn’t have a toilet in the house. We had an outhouse. We had no washing facilities. There was one sink, and it drained out the side of the house. We kids had to share bathwater and, every summer, the water had to be heated outside in a big 50-gallon drum because our well would go dry.”
At 9 years old, Emelia would sneak some of her sister’s clothes and slip into the nearby woods to try them on.
“I knew this was not correct, because I had to hide to do it,” she said. “I felt good, though. I felt nice and pretty. I felt like I had been cheated, like ‘Why am I in this body? I wish, I wish, I wish I could have been a girl.’ That went through my mind a lot.”
While playing in open fields around her home, she would dream of walking into one of the many nearby barns and seeing a magic well into which she would jump and resurface as a girl.
She often assumed female roles while playing with her siblings. She sometimes wore her mother’s slip and used a sheet as a toga wrap, and she liked to flip through Sears catalogs and imagine having hips like lingerie models.
None of this went over well with her father.
One time, upon getting out of the bathtub, she wrapped a towel around her body so as to cover her breasts.
“And I’m walking away and I’m just swinging my hips, and he [my dad] says, ‘Knock that queer crap off,’” she said. “It wasn’t until junior high or high school that I realized I had to keep it under wraps. Before that, it was a natural response for me to act feminine.”
When she rode the school bus as a fourth-grader, two brothers would spit seeds at her as the bus driver looked on, smiling.
“I never could figure out why I was being singled out like that,” she said. “Then I thought maybe it’s because I’m a Mexican and poor. I knew that no one knew I was transgender. If they ever found out, it would have been disastrous for me.”
Her father was Brazilian, and her mother was Mexican, Peruvian, Spanish and French.
“I was the only Mexican child in my school,” she said. “I wasn’t even going to say anything about my being Mexican, number one. And number two, there'd be no way anyone would ever find out I wanted to be a woman. No way. At that point, I had decided that I would go to the grave with that.”
Though consciously keeping up her masculine facade, Emelia was physically and emotionally harassed while attending Bellingham High School in the 1960s, causing deep-seated anger, hate and disgust.
“It was constantly on my mind,” she said. “I always had the fear that I would make a mistake. Sometimes I would be afraid of public speaking or going to crowded places. That was always a lot of pressure on me.”
After graduating in 1967 and turning 18 that July, Emelia started a two-year program at a technical school in Bellingham, which allowed her to defer being drafted to fight in the Vietnam War.
About two months in, a classmate threw a paper airplane at her, so she threw it back, and her teacher said, “Souza, you’re out of here,” sending her to the superintendent’s office. Emelia grew tired of waiting at the office, so she walked to the post office to sign up for military service.
“I was upset that I got kicked out of class and that the superintendent wasn’t there,” she said. “A lot of boys were enlisting at that time and getting drafted, too. I fit right into that mold. Patriotism was really strong at that time, and I was gung-ho about it.”
Emelia, then Henry, joined the Navy and became a submariner, or bubblehead. During that era, only men served on U.S. submarines.
Soon after, the submarine headed to San Juan, Puerto Rico, where all the sailors went straight to the brothels. That’s when Emelia lost her virginity.
In 1970, she was reassigned to a subtender in New London, Connecticut. Soon after, she met a woman and got married.
A month later, Emelia sped into a 3-foot-thick stone wall in her MGB convertible, injuring her right ankle, right shin bone, left knee, left thigh, sternum and two of her ribs, as well as sustaining a concussion.
“It was devastating for me because I couldn’t figure out why this all had happened,” said Emelia, who would later conclude the crash was likely an attempt at suicide. “I don’t remember anything of the accident, even coming up to the stone wall.”
She would spend the next 11 months in a military hospital.
“All of a sudden, here I was, a second-class petty officer at the height of my sexual virility, my sexual prowess, and I’m in a circular bed being fed by my first wife because my motor function was completely shot,” she said, adding that she soon found herself in a deep depression. “Then I find out that I’d been infected with hepatitis C and E. coli when they operated on my leg.”
Before the crash, she had planned to spend another six years in the Navy.
Around Valentine’s Day of 1971, Emelia’s first wife asked for a divorce. By September, Emelia was sent home from the hospital and by October, she’d been discharged from the Navy.
DUALITY OF DRESS
After the divorce, Emelia said, she felt liberated from her depression and secretly began acting out her femininity – commonly called cross-dressing – for the first time as an adult.
In 1972, Emelia married her second wife. She would take her wife’s clothes and try them on in the middle of the night. Sometimes she would retreat to a hotel room with some of those clothes.
This sneaking around led to fights and, after several years, her second wife walked out.
“I had all this destructive anger built up,” said Emelia, who marked the breakup by breaking all the kitchen dishes.
She was married again in 1976.
By then, she had become more daring, shopping for everything from clothes to shoes to lingerie, makeup and perfume at stores like The Bon Marche. She would get dressed in a hotel room, then drive around, often calling a crisis line for help in understanding her deviant behavior. Afterward, she would dispose of the clothes to ensure no one found out.
“I started to get bolder,” she said. “I would go to state parks where no one was around at night and cross-dress there.”
A sheriff’s deputy stopped her one night as she sat in her car at a state park.
“I was totally freaking out,” she said, but after some questioning, the deputy sent her on her way.
Following that interaction, she became more apprehensive, also partly because she had learned from a crisis line that in some cities it was illegal to impersonate a woman.
“That was in my mind a lot,” she said. “I didn’t want to get in trouble. There was a lot of fear when I would act out my femininity.”
Emelia began practicing Buddhism during her third marriage, finding it to be a safe space to shed her macho front and fearlessly express love and compassion.
“I was part of a group and I was loved,” she said.
In 1981, the same year she divorced her third wife, she met Laura through her Buddhist practice.
“When we first met, she didn’t want to be around me because I acted like a macho pig,” said Emelia, recalling how that all changed after the two sat together on a bus back to Bellingham after a Buddhism event in Seattle, talking the whole way.
She and Laura married in 1984. Two months later and fully outfitted in women’s clothes, Emelia came out to her new wife. None of her past wives had known of her cross-dressing.
“When I came out to her, it floored her, which is putting it mildly,” Emelia said, clarifying that she was coming clean about her cross-dressing, not about her being transgender, which wasn’t yet commonly understood. “I told her I don’t wear these clothes to any public activities and I’m very careful of that. She [Laura] told me the reason we’re here is to procreate.”
After that, she and Laura buried the issue. For years, Emelia continued secretly acting out her femininity, but largely focused her energy on building her career, practicing Buddhism and creating a life with Laura.
“I did a lot of contracting and was trying to excel at the male aspect of being a carpenter and contractor,” she said.
COMING TO PT
In 1994, the couple sold their home in Bellingham and began building a new home in Cape George.
In 1995, Emelia opened a printing shop in the Port Townsend Business Park for architectural drawings such as blueprints.
The business lasted through 1999, when she closed it and began working on her architectural design projects from home, which lasted until 2005 when she opened an office in Port Hadlock. She closed it in 2011, amid mounting health problems.
Emelia also joined the Rotary Club of East Jefferson County in 1996, and has been an on-and-off, but mostly on, member ever since.
In 2010, Emelia was diagnosed with liver cancer.
“That’s when I was able to start to accept myself,” she said, acknowledging that she often came off as angry to those around her because her masculine front was failing to suppress her underlying pain and unhappiness. “All this time before that, I was punishing the female part of myself, because I thought I was sick and mentally demented. But in worrying so much about my cancer, my attention was diverted, allowing my inner girl to come out.
“Your true self will emerge when under stress.”
Surrounded by friends at a New Year’s Eve celebration later that year, she declared she wasn’t the mean, angry person everyone had come to know, rather a little boy who had only ever wanted to belong.
By that time, Emelia’s doctor had told her a specialized chemotherapy treatment had worked and she had beaten the cancer.
Still wrestling with her anger, she had a breakdown in her Buddhist practice in the summer of 2011. So, looking for guidance, she visited a friend of Laura’s knowledgeable about Buddhism. That person concluded Emelia was not a lonely little boy, but a trapped little girl.
“I was just so happy,” she said. “I was ecstatic. I had been released from a lifetime of imprisonment. Then, all of a sudden, I said, ‘Well, I’m coming out.’ So I did and I began telling people about it.”
She also set her sights on an eventual sex change operation, but when Laura threatened divorce, she resolved to hold off “because I felt that my love for Laura was greater than my desire to be a woman.”
Still, she held out hope that Laura would eventually come around. In the meantime, she would need to beat her hepatitis C before having a sex change operation. That fall, she began an intensive 24-week drug treatment program to do just that.
Emelia’s doctor took her off the drugs four weeks early, thinking they’d beaten the disease. The drugs exacerbated her anemia, making her weak and sending her to Jefferson Healthcare for blood transfusions on a weekly basis.
By March 2012, her viral count had jumped 50 percent. She hadn’t beaten the hepatitis, and would have to put off treating it until May 2014.
Her liver cancer returned in the summer of 2012. In September of that year, she turned to Swedish Medical Center in Seattle, where a hematology doctor got her name on a liver transplant list.
While driving home in the early morning hours of Jan. 1, 2013 after a New Year’s Eve party, Emelia asked Laura if she, Emelia, could, once again, act out her femininity.
“She [Laura] said, ‘I thought it was buried,’” Emelia said, although Laura eventually conceded, with the exception of cross-dressing in public.
Emelia’s liver was in stage-four cirrhosis, and she feared the cancer would soon metastasize. Then, on Memorial Day 2013, she got a call from Swedish announcing that a liver had been found for her.
The transplant was a success, and she was home recuperating after little more than a couple of weeks. Soon, she was back to remodeling her front porch, a project she’d started before the transplant.
One day upon returning home from her first makeup appointment in town, she ran into the man she contracted to replace her gutters.
“I’m just freaking out, just embarrassed and ashamed,” said Emelia, who was all made up. “And then something came over me, and I realized, ‘I’m not afraid anymore. I’m not ashamed.’ It was as if I’d been blown out of the closet and the door slammed shut behind me. We continued our conversation, and he didn’t say anything about it.”
That summer, Laura asked if she’d thought about hormone replacement therapy.
“In that moment I said, ‘Thank you, God,’” she said. “It was a miracle because she had been totally against it, but now was starting to get more and more acclimated to it and supportive of me.”
She knew she still had to beat the hep C before she could start the therapy. That September, she did, after having begun a new treatment in May.
This February, Emelia began her hormone replacement therapy, the cost of which is covered by Medicare and her Veterans Affairs benefits, as is her psychological counseling.
“It’s easier to cry now and easier to feel emotion, to sympathize and have compassion,” Emelia said of the hormone therapy’s effect so far. “Before, it was about being a man and being tough, but now I really don’t care. If I get emotional, I can’t stop it.”
Since she’s sweating less, her makeup doesn’t run as easily. And the migraines she’s suffered since opening her print shop in 1995 have begun to recede, though they’ve given way to a new kind of nuisance in sore nipples.
“I’m waiting for the hot flashes to start, because I’m always so cold,” said Emelia, who’s been anemic and walked with a limp of her left leg since the car crash in her Navy years. “I’m also waiting for the girls [breasts] to start developing.”
She now regularly visits hair, nail and makeup stylists and prefers a more subdued, professional style of dress that’s both workplace friendly and brings out her beauty.
“Some transgender people use so much makeup that it’s startling,” she said. “I don’t feel that I need to go that far in expressing myself. I’m not just trying to look like a woman, I'm trying to look like myself, like how I feel inside, which just so happens to be a woman.”
Until 1998, Amy Mook, 58, owned Ampersand Press in the Port Townsend Business Park across from Emelia’s print shop. The two became friends during that time.
“I didn't think of him as a super-macho guy, but I also didn't have the thought that he was a woman,” said Mook, who remembers when the fellow business owner she knew as Henry came out to her in 2012. “All of a sudden, I realized she had been hiding and how hard that must have been. It’s moving when a friend trusts you like that.”
Mook said that though she’s not one to fixate on mannerisms, she has noticed Emelia’s femininity and resultant happiness. Otherwise, though, she’s the same person Mook knew in the ’90s.
The essence of her is the same, but "happier and gigglier,” she said. “And it’s easier to really get to know someone who's more relaxed.”
In 2012, Laura found herself in anticipatory grieving for fear of losing Emelia to renewed threats of liver cancer and hepatitis C. She also found herself filled with anger, betrayal and sadness at the thought of losing her husband of nearly 30 years as Emelia increasingly began to shed her lifelong persona as Henry.
“The fact is it’s a major life change for both us,” said Laura, who still calls her mate Henry. “I married Henry Souza 30 years ago, and we've spent our lives together in that time, so for me to quickly move on is rather difficult. It's a loss, a loss of someone you have been with for many years. It's right up there with the stressors people go through when grieving a death.”
Laura began questioning everything and didn’t know where to turn for answers. At one point, she considered grief counseling, but eventually she turned to the Internet, searching for a way to make sense of her emotions and steady her mind.
“I was looking for validation of my very negative feelings,” said Laura, who began feeling isolated. “I was really angry and didn't want to go out in public with my partner. I was asking myself, ‘Are these emotions OK? Am I a lesbian now? Should we get divorced?’ I had a lot of questions for people in the same situation as me.”
Still consumed by her negative feelings, Laura became more and more conflicted as she noticed a shift in her husband’s demeanor.
“I had been so repulsed,” she said. “When Henry started the transition and started telling friends [after the liver transplant], I felt I had gone from repulsion to respect for his life, the dignity of his life. But I’m still conflicted with my own negative feelings. I am watching this person who is so happy, much happier than I've ever seen. I cannot deny this person happiness by drawing a line in the sand.”
Unable to find a local support group, Laura has taken matters into her own hands. During a recently completed winter quarter at the University of Washington, she wrote a paper for a nonprofit leadership and management course in which she developed a strategic plan for establishing a support group for spouses of transgender people. She hopes to launch that group by March 2016.
Both Laura and Emelia have found that their Buddhist practice has helped guide them through this transition. Now, Laura finds her negative emotions have forced her to reassess her own happiness and pursue passions she might have otherwise pushed aside.
“I don't think I would have gone through this process as quickly as I have without my Buddhist practice,” she said. “I don't feel my life's work is done, so this is forcing me to take steps to do things for myself. In a way, that's a very positive thing. Now I’m asking, ‘What is my next passion? Where will I put my energies now?’ It's very easy to sit back and be negative, to be angry. As a Buddhist, negative emotions can be agents of change. It took me a while to get to this place. I asked myself, ‘How long do I want to suffer?’ It’s not to say the suffering is no longer there, it is. But those negative emotions can be the ingredient to empower change.”
Though neither is sure what the future holds for their relationship, both still love each other.
“I just want her to be happy,” Emelia said. “We still love each other very much. I think we’re going to stay together, it’ll just be a different relationship. We made a promise to each other that we would not let each other die alone. We're not going to leave each other.”
After long struggling with the idea of her husband having a sex change operation, Laura has offered her blessing.
“My feeling is that if it can be done, he should have it,” Laura said.
This month, Emelia is set to meet with her surgeon and find out if she can safely move ahead with the operation. If not, she said she would be devastated.
“It would be very difficult to go on living,” she said. “I am definitely looking forward to having female anatomy. I have been wanting this all my life.”
Laura said she’s impressed with her partner's drive and energy.
“I'm amazed at his determination,” she said. “He is so strong. Other people might sit back and say, ‘I'll wait,’ but that's not his style.”
Emelia knows she’s not getting any younger and, with her wife’s support, also knows she has nothing to lose and everything to gain.
“I will always be unhappy unless I can make this change,” she said. “That's the whole idea of gender dysphoria. We both understand that now.”
Emelia has already made tangible strides in promoting greater transgender awareness locally.
In October 2014, Jefferson Healthcare became one of 426 health care facilities nationwide to be named a “Leader in LGBT Healthcare Equality” by the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) Foundation, the educational arm of the country’s largest lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) civil rights organization.
Jefferson Healthcare is now included in the HRC’s 2014 Healthcare Equality Index, meaning it has met key criteria, including patient and employee nondiscrimination policies that specifically mention sexual orientation and gender identity, a guarantee of equal visitation for same-sex partners and parents, and LGBT health education for key staff members.
Jefferson Healthcare accreditation specialist Laura Showers said the hospital began the process of training executive-level staff and completing an exhaustive questionnaire after some less than ideal encounters between Emelia and hospital staff following her 2013 liver transplant.
On several occasions while getting regular blood tests, Emelia said, staff insisted on calling her sir, prompting her to correct them, or handled her in a physically rough manner.
After Emelia took her concerns to patient advocate Jackie Levin, CEO Mike Glenn launched an investigation, and later informed Emelia the hospital’s staff had apologized and because of her concerns, the hospital was pursuing designation on the HRC’s Healthcare Equality Index.
In a letter to the editor published in the Leader on Dec. 17, 2014, Emelia thanked Glenn for his initiative.
“With me being of color, transgender and having had a recent liver transplant, it is vital to me to know I will be safe, to have the reassurance that I am going to be treated with respect and acknowledgment of my true gender,” she wrote. “I do not want to have to worry about how I am going to be treated when I go to an emergency room or to see my healthcare provider.”
Showers said that in order for the hospital’s designation to be renewed each year, it must advance its efforts to promote equality.
“It was a real eye-opener,” she said of the questionnaire that aims to help hospitals identify gaps in policies and practices. “I think the idea is year after year, you narrow your gap and improve on these things, and we've got plenty of work to do.”
Emelia’s success with Jefferson Healthcare motivated her to push the City of Port Townsend to pursue designation on the HRC’s Municipal Equality Index.
Currently, five Washington cities and one island community – Seattle, Olympia, Spokane, Tacoma, Vancouver and Vashon Island – are on the index. Laws prohibiting discrimination have been passed in Seattle, Olympia, Bellingham, Burien, Tacoma and King County.
State law protects transgender people from discrimination in several areas, including housing, employment, credit extensions and insurance transactions, and places serving the public, such as public schools, restaurants and hotels.
So, in December, Emelia met with Realtor, Port Townsend City Council member and former mayor Michelle Sandoval, someone she had considered an enemy since settling here 20 years ago.
“I was surprised to hear from her,” said Sandoval, who had known Emelia’s past persona of Henry to be “very unhappy and hostile.
“I think the city, county and state governments should be completely inclusive, fair and nonprejudicial to any person.”
Emelia has not only proposed getting the city on that equality index, she’s pitched a human rights commission, and it’s getting traction. It would hear citizen concerns and report to the council.
“I think having a broader human rights commission here [in Jefferson County] and policies set for the entire county just makes sense,” said Sandoval who, along with her fellow council members, supports a joint commission with county government to serve citizens countywide.
Mayor David King said he’s sure such a commission would have support in Port Townsend and hopefully throughout the county, as well. Like many, he says, he’s still coming to grips with the nuances of transgender issues.
“I’m prepared to be educated on this,” said King, who plans to present the idea to the county’s commissioners soon. “I bet there are issues I am yet unaware of.”
In January, Emelia launched Henri’s Secret, LLC with the goal of offering fine apparel and lingerie for transgender women, though she still needs seed money to develop and manufacture her products.
“I’ve always wanted to have a pair of panties that fit,” she said, adding that she is also developing an Indiegogo.com website to raise money.
She’s recently changed her name and gender on her state driver’s license, and has begun work on a book about her life’s journey, calling it “A Thousand Will Follow.”
She’s particularly motivated by a seemingly increasing number of news reports about young transgender people committing suicide.
“They’re hiding and they're depressed because there's a huge amount of emotional trauma they've had to go through,” she said. “People need to be aware that words can hurt and can leave a deep impact on your life. It's almost at a karmic or spiritual level that this hurt takes place. It's a deep scar.”
Emelia hopes to promote awareness and understanding through sharing her story.
“My message is, it’s time to come out,” she said. “The people coming out now will be the first ones breaking the wave of the genderality movement. Gender is now an issue. It's in our faces, and we have to start dealing with it.”
TELLING HER STORY
Emelia came out to her fellow Rotarians in the fall of 2014, but it wasn’t until February 2015 that she stood before them and told her story.
“You've all been just super encouraging,” she told them. “There have been several times when I've been by the edge, but your encouragement has helped me to carry on.”
Rotarian Karen Griffith, to whom Emelia came out in late 2013, has been particularly supportive of her transition. She helped Emelia fine-tune her talking points before addressing her fellow Rotarians.
“I told her, ‘The most interesting and most important story you can tell is yours,’” she said. “I have always defended Emelia. Why would we do anything but support her in her new role? I fully expected the club would rise to the occasion and it has. Now it's a non-issue.”
Still new to the club, Jefferson County Undersheriff Joe Nole was the only person in the room that day who had not yet met Emelia.
“I saw her at Rotary before and I thought, ‘That woman looks like a guy,’” he said. “She had a little mustache, and I thought, ‘Is that a woman or a guy?’ As a cop, I naturally wondered what her story was.”
Nole had received a phone message in late November 2014 from someone wanting to talk about transgender issues; he neglected to return the call. When Emelia stood up and launched into her story, Nole realized it was she who had called nearly three months earlier.
“When she got up there and began to talk, I couldn’t believe it,” said Nole, who returned to the Sheriff’s Office afterward to tell his fellow deputies about it. “It kind of blew me away. I thought it was really brave. It was a big learning experience for me and changed the way I think about those kinds of things.”
Nole said he was equally impressed with the respectful, supportive reactions of their fellow Rotarians.
“I was proud of that group for being so accepting,” he said. “I had almost expected someone to yell at her.”
For many, Nole said, talking about issues of sexual orientation and gender identity can be awkward and uncomfortable, but it can be liberating to see how those issues play out in a fellow human’s personal experience.
“In my job, I meet all types of people in all kinds of situations, but I never thought I'd meet someone like this,” Nole said. “It made me feel good to learn. I've always thought of myself as a pretty open-minded person. Emelia’s story made me realize my mind wasn't quite as open as I thought it was.”