One of Brooklyn-based photographer Jessica Dimmock’s most poignant memories involves the story of a woman named Cheryl. Now her in late 60s, Cheryl had spent years of her life traveling to cheap motels where she would feel free to explore her femininity—donning lipstick, a wig, a dress, and high heels. “Because her work afforded her some chances to travel, Cheryl often found opportunities to be on the road and rent a motel room for the night,” says Dimmock. “After all of this preparation, she would draw the curtains closed and watch the game on TV. The tremendous isolation involved in this act—the shame and secrecy that went along with the need to be who she truly is—has always stuck with me.” For the past seven years, Dimmock has been photographing and filming older trans women in the Pacific Northwest. Dimmock is careful to explain that the situations are, well, complicated: some of her subjects don’t consider themselves to be trans because, as Dimmock explains, it was not an identity that they felt free to totally embrace. “They’ve been trapped in a timeline and a situation at home that has made it impossible for them,” says Dimmock. “But everyone I photographed is on the spectrum of having a full female identity. There are women inside all of these people.” The series of photographs below, taken in late 2017, returns the women to what Dimmock calls “these hidden and secretive spaces.” “It places the women in the settings in which they found creative ways to steal away and express their honest identities in private,” she explains. “They are intentional and accurate to their stories.”
JODIE, 50s Klamath Falls, Oregon
A self-employed delivery driver originally from Norfolk, Nebraska, she came out to her brother in 2012.
For my entire life, I felt like a part of me has always been female, and I’ve always wanted to bring that part forward. But I lived in places without an LGBT community, and being different was not accepted.
I had a huge fear of coming out to my brother. I lived in a very small RV with him. We were best friends, we were family, and I knew that family could disown family members when they came out. I went to extremes to hide the fact that I was trans because I couldn’t risk losing my family.
The bowling alley was a place where I could walk in anytime and grab my things and carry them out and bring them back, and nobody would pay a bit of attention to it. It’s a place where I didn’t know people, so I wouldn't encounter friends of mine asking to bowl with me, or something like that.
I went to the thrift store and I bought myself a used bowling-ball bag. I threw the bowling ball away, put my girl clothes in the bowling bag, and put them in the locker. It was a safe place where nobody would find them; nobody knew I had it, and it could be there for a long time. Nobody was going to say, “Come get your things now.” And the bowling-ball bag is actually a good-sized bag.
In the very beginning, I had a set of breast forms, women's pants, a women’s shirt, one wig, and some makeup. I basically was so self-conscious about being out in public that I didn’t do anything in public. But when I had some privacy, I would go to the bowling alley and get my bowling-ball bag. I would go home and I’d get dressed up. Then I’d put it all back again, before anybody else showed up. It felt like I was putting a big part of myself inside a locker for later.
I reached the point where I recognized that, in order to be my true self, I was gonna have to come out to my brother eventually. So I found an opportunity to do that. I wrote an email, and the response I got was, “Of course I support you. You are my family. And let me tell you about Krystal.”
It turns out my brother was also trans—feeling the same way [and] never coming out to me for the same reasons, because we just never talked about it. Even in making fun of somebody else or anything like that, we never did that—it was just a subject that was completely stricken from conversation. It was a shock to me, but it turned out to be a turning point in both of our lives.
It feels like a long time ago. We have seen transgender issues all over the mainstream media. We have seen attacks from every angle; we made progress, and then we got shut back, and it feels like, for the transgender community, it’s just a nonstop battle. They are trying to force you back into a world where you have to hide your stuff in a bowling locker again.
MAILEE, 56 Seattle
A CAD drafter originally from Enumclaw, Washington, Mailee goes out in public as a woman and has told a select set of individuals about her gender identity. She first started dressing as a girl at the age of five.
It’s something that I didn’t recognize, but it’s always been there. I didn’t even realize that something like that existed until I was in my 40s. When I was about five or six, my mom used to use curlers in her hair all the time—those really poky ones—and she would put a red bandana over them when she was doing her housework. At night I would sneak out into the bathroom and, of course, I didn’t have hair, but I would take that bandana and put all the curlers in it and tie it to my head. It hurt because of those curlers digging in, but I would go and lay down and just relax. Just that feeling ... I don't even know why I had that feeling, but it was there. So I remembered that, and then I started looking ahead a little bit, and I went, Oh, yeah, there was the time I did this, and there was a time I did that—and then I realized that I had been cross-dressing as much as I could my whole life.
I grew up in a very conservative family, so the idea of conveying your feelings—saying, “I feel this way. Is there something wrong with me?”—it wasn't even an option to bring it up. I remember, as a child, my mom taught us to say our prayers every night. I learned the prayer she wanted me to say, but when I said them to myself, my prayer was, Please, God, let me wake up and be a girl tomorrow, just for a day.
Back in my closeted days, I would gather a set of clothes and shoes that I would wear to work and put them in the back seat of my truck. I usually had to wait until my wife went to bed so as not to raise suspicions. She usually left for work very early, so I had time to dress in something feminine, apply a little lipstick, grab a purse, and head to work. Getting ready was a big part of the feeling. I did this late in the fall and early in the spring, when I could drive to work in total darkness. Driving with my purse sitting next to me on the seat, with the smell of perfume emanating from the soaked rag I placed on the defrost vent, gave me a total feeling of being a woman on the way to her job. It was so freeing to get to be real, even for a short time. I would stop at the hardware store, about a mile from work. The parking lot was only partially lit, so I could get out, put my purse over my shoulder, and walk around the parking lot, pretending I was a woman out shopping. The sound of heels clicking on the pavement was intoxicating. But after a few minutes, I would hurry back to the safety of the truck and, sadly, change back into boy clothes before it got light. Then I’d proceed to work, feeling whole again, at least for the time being. Once home in the evening, I would have to reverse the process, making sure to get everything put back in its place, ready for the next time.
MHARIE, 83 Eugene, Oregon
A former mechanic who has worked on everything from motorcycles to Army aircraft, Mharie has been retired since the age of 65. She began dressing as female at the age of ten and came out just recently—within the past three years.
I have a lot of things stuck in my head that I have never told anybody. Even the wife of 53 years. The secret life was very hard to keep secret. It did not push a lot till I was older. I dressed when all were gone from home, such as when Randi went to see her girlfriend.
There was a four-day trip once, and boy, did I cut loose. I had bought some underthings and a used wig. Then I retired, and I would dress when [my wife] was at the Oakway Spa—good for three hours at a time, three days a week. I’d draw the curtains because I was always afraid the neighbors would see me. Then I got caught in garb, and there was a big bang, and I cast out the garments. But I got them again sometime later—and on and on and on.
When I was 12 years old, I stole a lipstick to put on at times. When the house was empty, I would raid my sister’s things—she is three years older. I was found out a lot of times. So I overdid everything to show that I was turning into a man: motorcycle racing, flying airplanes. It was all to cover up my not liking the "normal boy things.”
I went into the Army as an aircraft mechanic to see if it would make me more manly. It worked for some, but when I got out, I was a little lost as to [the] purpose of life. I have come so close to hanging myself, many times over the past years.
Now I have the clothing in my part of the closet, and my wife is putting up with it. It has built to where she will even help me look okay.
AMY, 42 Tacoma, Washington
A science-lab technician, Amy is not fully out, though she started dressing in girls’ clothing at age five.
The first time I was caught, I was nine years old, and everybody had left the house—so I grabbed this kind of red, silk teddy thing and put it on. It was a Saturday morning, and I just kinda relaxed in it, then I fell asleep. My family was supposed to come back in late afternoon, but they came in around 11. So they see me, at nine years old, layin’ around in this red, silk teddy. And the story I told them was I was just feeling cold—which I’m not sure anybody would buy, that you wear a teddy if you’re cold. But my mom sounded like she bought it.
I was scared. Definitely scared. I had enough glimpses of the reactions to know that if I got caught, like, actually in full outfit, it just would not be good.
My family’s a very traditional Mexican-Catholic family. Have you ever seen those little rosaries, Virgin Marys, all the saints’ pictures, all the candles? That kind of family. So yeah, I very quickly realized that these are not people who I can ever let know that I’m doing this.
When I moved out here and started going to clubs, I’d typically put on my clothes at home and then put something really baggy, like sweatpants, over the clothes. I would put my dress on, put my stockings on, and then put, like, these baggy sweatpants over them, and then the jacket over that. And then, of course, I would only go when it was pitch dark and I saw nobody out. When I got to my destination, I'd take off the baggy clothes and slip on my shoes in the alley or the bathroom. I would always be looking around—staring around to see if anyone was here. It was a safety issue, I think. I don’t have a car. I’d walk down, and from where I live to the clubs, it’s probably about a 25-minute walk. If you start seeing a whole bunch of people and they start seeing you dressed and they start giving you bad reactions, what are you gonna do? But if you’re just all swaddled in this, you know, whole swaddle of clothes, they’re gonna say, “Well, that’s a homeless guy.”
A lot of my family is just really screwed up: been in jail, violent history, drugs, alcohol, that sort of thing. I always felt like the kid who did good. I was always a really smart kid. When I was in high school, I was really antisocial—not into hurting people, just wanted to be by myself. And people really—they rooted for me. I know that. And, I always felt, I always was a good kid, and it’s like ... I realize now there’s nothing wrong with cross-dressing, per se, but I don’t know; part of me still feels like I gotta be the good kid. I gotta be the one not causing trouble. I’m a good, honest, decent guy ... and just because sometimes I wear women’s clothing or I even feel like a woman, that doesn’t change. I’m still a decent guy. I still respect people. I always root for the underdog, you know. Always respectful—of ladies, especially so. And that doesn’t change just because I got women’s clothing on.
FRANCES, 65 Seattle
Retired from sales and marketing, Frances is out “to those I care about.” She started dressing in female clothing at the age of five or six.
Even before school, I knew I was different. But I just didn’t know what it was. I hated playing football, although my size was such that I should have been good at it. But I hated it. Later in life, I tried to suppress it and I tried to hide it. When my wife met me, I had a full beard and looked like one of the guys in ZZ Top. But there were things that she could tell were different. You know, most guys just don’t go do the grocery shopping and do laundry on their days off. It just doesn’t happen. So she knew I was different, but she has learned to accept me.
I needed someplace to hang up my clothes instead of stuffing them in a suitcase all the time. I read the advertisement for TranSpace and thought, God, that’s me. TranSpace was a lifesaver for me, because it was a place where I could put my clothes and continue to have two different lives. At the time I had a young child at home, and I didn’t want to confuse him any more than I needed to. I had a verbal agreement with my wife that I wouldn’t dress at home, or at least not when the child was around. Mainly, I used it as a space to store my clothes and makeup. If I wanted to go to an event, like bowling or whatever, I would go there and change. I’d allow myself some time to change, then leave from there to go to the event. Then I’d come back and take the makeup off and change back. Everything that was Fran was still in the locker at TranSpace.
Most of my family knows. Those that matter to me know. There are some who would never understand, and if I ever come out to them, I’ll lose them. There are still some people in my life who don't need—don't really need—to know.
JERI, 66 Seattle
A retired engineer and CEO of an engineering-consulting company, Jeri was born in rural eastern Washington State. She is out only to her wife and a few close friends, and began dressing in female clothing at the age of 40.
It took a long time until I figured out that I really felt better presenting as a woman. It was all very hidden, and only when I was out of town. And I just remember thinking, This can’t go on. I mean, sooner or later, there was going to be a confrontation.
I took a trip to California one time, and I had a bag of Jeri’s things that I put behind the seat of my truck. When you are married and raising kids and running a company, you don’t have a lot of private time. So being on the road was where I had private time. I kept looking for excuses to get dressed. I would get dressed, see what it looked like, see what it felt like. You know, I’m not a bad person. I didn’t go out and hang out in bars or anything like that. I just got dressed, and then undressed, and then life would continue.
I don’t know if I will ever talk to my kids or not. I don’t know—they shouldn’t have to deal with something that is not comfortable, and I don’t know whether it would be uncomfortable or not.
I was reading an article the other day about a Japanese custom called “death-cleaning,” where, as a person gets older, they take it as a sort of personal responsibility to start tidying up their loose ends, getting rid of the half a can of paint and the bag of salt that the kids wouldn’t know what to do with. And I’m thinking, I gotta clean up the house, I gotta clean up that hard drive—that kind of stuff. I don’t know if I will, or if at some point I will just try to explain. It struck me as an interesting sort of societal thing that people should think about: not having the kids stumble into a closet full of things that they didn’t want to talk about before they died. You don’t wanna leave it until there is no chance for an explanation.
MARGO, 64 Oakland, California
An audio-video producer and live-music performer for memory care patients, Margo was born in Pomona, California. She says she is currently out “most of the time.” She started dressing around the age of five, but remained closeted until she was 59.
My oldest son basically seems to hate me, and definitely hates the fact that I’m trans. My youngest was born my daughter and is now my son—he has transitioned, and we are great buddies. He has been a major inspiration to me, because he transitioned before I came out. I only came out four or five years ago, but he was already into his transition at that point. I’ve always known; I was just very closeted about it, and, at various times, in denial.
I’ve had jobs where I would travel and the employer would pick up the cost of that. I also had a route-sales job at one point, and one of the things they suggested you do is get a motel. That was before cell phones: you would get a motel that had outgoing local calls, so you could make your prospecting calls from the comfort of a motel room, as opposed to on a pay phone. So it was convenient. And I probably am guilty of making up excuses to make trips, to have an excuse to rent a motel room. I think in those days, I probably justified it to myself as, Ugh, tension relief.
I’m surprised how much of a struggle it’s not. And sometimes it feels more of a struggle being Mike. I’ll probably have to go be Mike when I go to my mom’s for Christmas. My mom’s reaction when I told her ... I think after the first or second time, she said, “I don’t wanna see it.” Okay, well, wasn’t like I was going to come for Christmas like that. But then she quickly followed up with, “Well, it would be too confusing for Bill—for your stepdad.” He was already showing Alzheimer’s at that point, so now I struggle with that one. But he’s actually reaching the point where he won’t remember that Mike ever came over.
BARBARA ANNE LOVE, 74 Kent, Washington
A retired pilot, Barbara Anne first came out in 2002, when her wife helped dress her up as a woman for a Halloween costume. She says she looked in the mirror and "fell in love" with herself.
I’ve, uh, been this alternative gender now since 2002. Unlike a lot of my sisters, I didn’t do this as a teenager—it never even crossed my mind. I was your typical über-male. It all turned after getting dressed up for Halloween in 2002. My wife said, “I’ll dress you up as a lady.” I looked in the mirror. And I fell in love with myself. So there it is.
My dad had a women’s apparel store in a very upscale town. I would work for him on Saturdays, selling candy for him in the preteen department. The ladies’ lounge was right next door and he hired, you know, very attractive college-aged girls. They would come down there, giggling and having a ball, and I’d go, “Ahh, I’m definitely not a part of this.” They seemed to be having a great time that I hadn’t seen in guys’ locker rooms or anything like that. I thought, I’m missing something. I always felt that there was some secret society that would’ve been great to be a part of, but you couldn’t.
Considering my lifestyle, it was more, well, what do I do? I obviously had to watch what I did, because all my activities were typical macho, male-oriented activities. So it was definitely a dual life. I was in the Coast Guard Auxiliary, and they wouldn’t have been thrilled. I was in an emergency-managing group in my city, with the fire department and the police department, so you can imagine how part-time transgender people would fit into that scenario.
My wife probably thought dressing up for Halloween was a one-shot deal. So, when she would go out for meetings and she would go traveling around the world, I’d dress up in the house. But then she came home early one evening from a meeting. I heard the garage door open, and I thought, I’ve gotta get out of these clothes. Unfortunately, she was faster than me. And by the time I was one-legged in pantyhose, she was in the door. I’ll never forget the gasp and the look on her face, like, I’m not seeing this. But she did.
When you’re a part-time alternative-gender person, you’re on a very, very tight schedule—as far as what time you have to change, where you have to change. I had to steal away at work as Michael—best to not get people all upset. And then I changed to Barbara Anne at the airport in my car.
People have said that when I’m Barbara Anne, I’m much happier—which I probably am because, again, actors are happiest when they’re onstage, right?
I suspect I will get up one morning, look in the mirror, and throw up. Because makeup can only go so far when you’re in your 70s. I’m gonna hold on as long as I can, but my pride has its limits, too. I don’t want to look ... I mean ... when you’re a man in your 70s, you tend to be invisible to the opposite sex. When you’re a grandma in your 70s, pushing 80, you become double invisible to the rest of the world.
GINA MARIE, 60 Seattle
Gina Marie works in warehouse receiving at an aircraft-parts and tools supplier. She has been out for three years.
I’ve felt different ever since I was nine. Through life, I always questioned myself, because I didn’t know if I was, you know—I didn’t know about transgender at the time. And I thought, Well, am I a cross-dresser? Am I gay? Am I this, am I that? None of them really fit, so I never knew what was wrong with me, and because I couldn’t put a name to it, I figured I was the only one who was like this.
On almost a daily basis, I was praying to God to let me wake up as a woman. I remember in junior high when girls were developing their breasts, in my mind it was like, Why aren’t mine growing? But I was too scared to go to anybody. I did not go to anybody. I kept it all inside and I never told anybody.
I went into the military ‘cause I was hoping I’d get shot in the war or something. I was confused about myself, with my mind saying I should be a girl, while having this boy body. And God never did let me wake up a woman. I was really hoping I was going to die in the military. Unfortunately, there was no war when I was in there.
I would find places where I could just walk around in heels. I’d park and walk around, and it would feel so good just to walk in heels and feel that feminine feeling. I’d leave the house, I’d pull over someplace, put on my heels. I’d still be in male clothing. There’s a trail beside the river, and I would just walk up and down the trail just to get that feminine feeling of, I’m in heels. I’m not in the clothes, but at least I’m in the heels. It would help me start my day. I could feel better about myself.
I would keep a really close watch both ways, and if I saw somebody coming, I would sort of make a mad dash to the car if I needed to, and wait for them to pass.
I did it every day. And I did it for 18 years. I was 57 when I came out, and I’m 60 now.
Amy, 76 Seattle
A retired medical secretary, Amy first starting dressing as female in childhood, and came out at the age of 73.
I grew up with my four brothers and had a happy childhood. But in second grade I first discovered something was amiss when I volunteered for the part of Heidi in the school play. The teacher said, “Okay, who wants to be what part?” I wanted to play Heidi. I didn’t think of myself as a girl that way, but I wanted to play the role I wanted anyway. The teacher said, “No, David, that’s a girl’s role.” I knew then that gender was not a game. I had to sort of learn to become a secret agent in foreign territory, conning the manly part in order to hide telltale feminine behavior. At 14, I was big enough to try on some of my mother’s clothes, and I knew then I wanted to be a girl.
There are many ways to avoid the stigma of being trans. Simplest is to remain closeted, which I did for over 50 years. I also tried ignoring it, denying it, and curing it by distraction, or even by love. It was during such a period of denial and distraction that I married the love of my life. A couple of years later, I could no longer deny my trans identity to myself, and I came out to her. She soon accepted, and even facilitated, my cross-dressing—recognizing, as I would sink back into my authentic self, that it served as a release from the tension that came with forever trying to pass as a man. She put up with it, but she wouldn’t want me going out. There’s a social issue, and she wasn’t ready to deal with that. So I could only dress at home.
By 1980, I began to explore the possibilities for becoming the woman I wanted to be. But best-practice guidelines then demanded that a married person get a divorce before beginning transition. This I could not contemplate doing. People, until the ‘90s, if you transitioned, you went stealth: go to another city, start a new job. I didn’t wanna do any of that: find a new name, make up your history, you know, tell how you went to Girl Scouts.
Marriage is the adventure of sharing yourself with another person as they really are, not as you might imagine them to be. Edith accepted me as I was, and that was sufficient. I could not set gender against love, and so we shared my cross-dressing in the privacy of our home. By the time guidelines were relaxed, my wife had contracted the cancer that would eventually kill her, and I could not imagine adding the further stress of transition on top of this crisis.
After her death, after being married for 46 years and being a cross-dresser for 57, I transitioned almost seamlessly to womanhood—and to my authentic self—beginning at age 72. I am still learning to accept myself as I am. There is that old man in me still, and it is important to allow both agents agency. If this sometimes confuses others, I need to allow them to come to terms with their own transitions—from confusion and fear to understanding and tolerance—in their own time, just as I did in my own transition. I trust that will not take another 50 years.