The Bruce Jenner of Chestnut Hill

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Julie Chovanes is an attorney hoping to set up a clinic to offer legal and social services to the transgender community. (Courtesy of Julie Chovanes)

WHEN HE WAS playing football at Lower Merion High School, Joe Chovanes didn't dream he would grow up to be a woman.

It's hard to wrap your mind around it, but the Joe of long ago, now Julie, says she was a woman all along.

If this sounds like Bruce Jenner, but without the fame and national adoration, it is.

Transgender has transitioned into our national consciousness.

Like Jenner, Chovanes was kind of a jock and had a way with the ladies. Unlike Jenner, Chovanes became an attorney and married his college sweetheart. They have four children.

Chovanes' life seemed beautiful, others certainly thought so, but something was not right to him, within him.

"The football mentality was one I was never good with - too 'guy-like,' too militaristic. But that is not just a bad thing," Chovanes says with a smile. She has a sense of humor - a survival mechanism - and sometimes cracks jokes just like a guy.

"How do you make a hormone?" she asks me during an interview, one of several discussions.

I shake my head.

"Don't pay her," she barks.

Stereotypical guy humor.

"I was socialized as a guy forever," Chovanes says, with a shake of her blonde hair. (She loves being a tall, eye-catching blonde. "Guys are so easy to manipulate.")

That she loves male attention, while still being sexually attracted to her wife is part of the mystery of human sexuality. I don't understand all of it. Few do.

Chovanes still checks out women, but now, she laughs, she's also checking out what they're wearing.

Prior to transitioning, Chovanes had thought about suicide, had consulted therapists with often opposing views, had prayed, because she is religious.

"It was soon after my second heart attack about six years ago" she decided "the strain of fighting this thing off" was ruining her health.

Revealing to her family the identity she felt compelled to adopt would be hard on them. Julie felt dying would be even worse.

A high percentage of transgender people don't agree.

"The 2011 National Transgender Discrimination Survey found that 41 percent of transgender adults between 18-35 have attempted suicide once in their lives," I'm told by Vince Paolo Villano, spokesman for the National Center for Transgender Equality. This contrasts with 1.6 percent of the general population.

That means that four out of 10 of the estimated 700,000 transgender Americans have attempted suicide - not thought of suicide, but have attempted it.

"I had my wife and my children in front of my mind every second of every day," Julie says.

"God didn't do this to me, didn't make me this way, just to destroy me. So I started to transition."

What Julie did in private, Bruce has done in public, more or less, but it was the same.

Probably through a hormone imbalance in the womb, both Jenner and Chovanes were born with a male body, but a woman's - what? Spirit and soul, Jenner says. Psyche, broad range of emotional responses, Julie tells me.

 

Chovanes was born 54 years ago to a conservative, religious Polish family in Bala Cynwyd and discovered at an early age she was different from her four brothers. She was happy until she heard the judgment of others. Then, because of "shame and guilt and fear" you learn "to hide it from the outside world" and the self-loathing begins.

It's hard for me to imagine feeling I am one thing but having to play another role to find acceptance. I would wish to be otherwise - and so did Chovanes.

"Oh, yeah, every second of every day," she says. "I can't be this way, it's wrong. I wished I was someone else and sometimes I wished I was dead."

The important person as yet unmentioned is Julie's wife, who declined to comment to protect her privacy and her family. That is why I will not name her nor the children with whom they live in Chestnut Hill. The children, Julie says, have accepted her after the transition.

I did speak to, but won't quote, the spouse of 27 years. Without being crass or cute, I sense she may be where Jenner's second wife, Linda Thompson was, filled with disbelief and sadness.

"Being married to a woman was not what I had envisioned for my life," Thompson was quoted as saying.

Speaking for her spouse, Chovanes says their relationship is good. "She saw this as part of what God is calling her to do," Julie says.

She tells me how the transition was explained, individually, to each of her four children. Tears came to her eyes when she recounted what her adolescent son said - " 'You're always going to be my dad and you told me to never judge anyone.' It was beautiful," she says.

"I'm incredibly lucky. I have a career, I have people who know me from elementary school who have accepted me," says Julie. "The majority of my people have little or none of that."

Her "people" are transgender - the rejected, the repulsed, the ridiculed - who struggle against job and housing discrimination and the every-day, casual indignities.

"I went from the hugely satisfying level of white male privilege to being molested on the street by guys without teeth," she says with bittersweet humor.

When I gingerly ask if she will have surgery, she politely replies it is none of my business. "Trans is trans no matter what the ability to modify their body is," she says.

Because she can, and she must, Julie is now putting together logistic and financial plans to open a clinic, probably located in Center City's Gayborhood, to offer legal and social services to our area's estimated 15,000 transgender people.

Like her sexuality, it's not something she planned, but something she will embrace.

 

 


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