Byko: Sophie's choice to survive as transgender

Sophie Lynne, a 49-year-old transgender woman.

WHEN IT IS her time, Sophie Kandler knows she will die alone, but it will not be by her own hand.

In an act of confusion, anger, frustration, and desperation, in 1990 Sophie went to one of her favorite places, Valley Forge Park, with one of her favorite things, Southern Comfort. She poured rat poison into the bottle and quickly drank as much as she could.

Her loathed body saved her life by vomiting it up.

Sophie is among an estimated 700,000 transgender Americans. The actual number is probably higher, but the U.S. census does not request gender identity, and most hide who they are. More than 40 percent have attempted suicide at least once between ages 18 and 35 (the actual number is probably higher). Of the general population, 1.6 percent have attempted suicide.

As early as age 4, as a boy in a small town in rural Chester County, Kandler didn't fit in.

"Other boys played baseball, football, army games," she says. "I never got into that." She had no idea why.

Sophie's mother had been a nurse in Scotland before she came to America with Sophie's father, an Army man who was a disciplinarian.

"I wanted to play with girls and engage in feminine activities, and that was beaten out of me in a hurry," says Sophie.

Her father was a cold fish, impassive.

"I had never seen him smile, never. He never told me he loved me, ever," says Sophie. "He never hugged me."

The long conversation I had with Sophie was the same day the School Reform Commission issued guidelines requiring transgender students to be allowed to use the bathroom and locker room they wish, sign up for any sport they like, and dress as they please.

"Transgender students next fall will get their asses kicked," says a grim Sophie. "When LGBT, especially T, makes a step forward, the right wing reacts violently."

I am leaving out a few identifying details because Sophie fears retaliation.

"Who would choose to drop their marriage, their career, their family, just to wear a dress? That's absolutely ludicrous.

"We're born this way," she says.

Transgender is baked into the cake at birth, like eye color.

"Transition is the last resort. You don't transition on a whim," says Sophie. "In my case, it was transition or blow my head off."

Depression is common among transgender people, and it's not hard to understand why. They are objects of hate, disgust, derision, maybe even fear. They live in a world of hard stares and pointed fingers.

Sophie has a wonderful, warm smile, but she is taller and broader than the average woman and attracts stares on the street - some curious, some hostile.

"I am aware of it," she says. "I put my shoulders back, head held high."

Transgender is not a "mental disorder." It is medically defined as "gender dysphoria" - the distress people may feel when their gender identity does not match their anatomy.

It's been described as always feeling "wrong," which creates self-loathing, rage, and depression.

"So I was going to, through sheer force of will, and martial arts training, jam it down," says Sophie, who attended Penn State, was a frat boy, earned a baccalaureate in education and a master's in instruction design two decades later.

As Lance, Sophie married 23 years ago. She has a wonderful 8-year-old daughter, who accepts her father's transition. They were together on Father's Day at the mall, then had dinner at a restaurant.

Sophie will be 50 in September. She had a "rebirth" in 2008 that brought things to a head.

Sophie and her wife, whose name I am withholding, always enjoyed Halloween. In 2007, they went to a party as Lois Lane and Clark Kent. In 2008, Sophie's wife suggested the same characters - but with her as Clark Kent and her husband as Lois Lane.

They had fun at the party, but at some point Sophie passed by a mirror.

"I looked at myself - the first time dressed as a woman outside - and thought, what am I going to do? The seal had been broken."

Sophie began a secret life, buying makeup, keeping clothes in a storage unit, and occasionally going to support group meetings in Philadelphia, which has one of the largest transgender communities in the nation, says Sophie.

Her only regret is lying to her wife, who works in financial services. Sophie's wife graciously agreed to talk with me.

In recent years, she says, "I knew something was going on. There was time he couldn't account for, but I never thought he was spending time and money on another woman."

In a way, he was - Sophie.

When Sophie came clean, "It was actually like a relief because it explained everything, all the pieces fell into place," the wife says.

With the secret revealed, some questions were answered but other feelings emerged.

Although she loves him, says the wife, "as I replayed this in my mind I heard, 'I've been lying to you since the day we met.' Had he been honest, we wouldn't be in this situation."

The husband "may be the best friend for the rest of my life," says the wife, "but I am not interested in living with a woman, and as a Catholic I can't."

Sophie says, "I had buried my feminine self so deep that, when we met, she was like a shadowy specter hiding in dark corners. I knew she was there, but I did my best to ignore her." Like many trans people, she says, she thought that "marriage would be the final cure. It wasn't."

Sophie says her wife will divorce her and, in a blog written under the pen name Sophie Lynne, says she doesn't blame her.

"The fact that my condition has caused her any pain is an agony I live with every day," Sophie says.

Her wife, too, is a victim. I am sure Sophie would not want that word applied to herself, but as she says, no one would choose it.

Because most of us can barely imagine what it is like to be her, the least we can do is let it be.

Sophie is thankful for her job as a head cashier for a Barnes & Noble in the suburbs. She's been there a dozen years.

Two years ago, "I transitioned on the job, but they stood behind me," says Sophie. "I could be fired in the commonwealth of Pennsylvania just for being transgender."

She also could be kicked out of her apartment for being transgender, or lesbian, or gay. Not in Philadelphia, but the rest of the state offers no protection for people who are "different" through no fault of their own.

"We are very open here, very progressive," says Lisa DeMeno, Sophie's supervisor at the bookstore. Employees were informed that the person they knew as Lance was transitioning to Sophie and that they were to respect her. Almost all have. Barnes & Noble deserves praise for standing by Sophie when transitioning was a matter of her survival.

The occasional negative notice from some people, DeMeno says, "is something we deal with."

Sophie currently shares a one-bedroom apartment in the suburbs with transgender Linda Lewis, an icon in that community because of her makeup skills. They are best friends, but not involved romantically.

"Sophie's married," replies Lewis when I ask a question my job impels me to ask.

Despite her high social standing, Lewis, 57, tells me she dresses as a man when she goes to her job at a chain pet store.

"I still work as a male, but it's getting harder and harder to hide it," she says. Lewis doesn't know if she will be as lucky with her employer as Sophie was. She fears that her employer will kick her out, as her own father did.

In December 2013, Sophie sat down at the kitchen table in her parents' home and laid it out for them. With a tight throat, trembling hands, and a pounding heart, she revealed her true self and said they could have a living daughter or a dead son.

Her father listened in stony silence. Then he got up, walked slowly around the table, and hugged his child for the very first time.

stubyko@phillynews.com

215-854-5977 @StuBykofsky

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