By Amy Silverman
By Olivia LaVecchia
By Monica Alonzo and Stephen Lemons
By Chris Parker
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Taking that advice to heart, the confused adolescent spent his teen years leading a twisted double life. When not sneaking out of the house in drag for furtive forays into the homosexual demimonde, he uneasily slipped into the part of the teenage hell-raiser eager to make life miserable for the denizens of same.
"For a while, I was with the cowboy group, and we used to go out gay bashing," Abbott confesses. "Now that I look back on it, oh, geez! But when you were a kid, you'd go along with it because you didn't want them to know about you. To this day I wonder if any of those guys could handle what's happened to me. I've really been tempted to go back to a class reunion."
The future Donna Abbott didn't stick around for high school graduation, choosing instead to knock around as an amateur bull rider, weight lifter, surfer and hay baler prior to signing up for a Marine hitch in 1965. Following two tours of duty in Vietnam, he married for the first time in 1968. The stormy union ended seven years later when Abbott's wife and three stepchildren could no longer tolerate the violent nighttime rages that were eventually diagnosed as posttraumatic stress syndrome stemming from his experiences in Vietnam. Unaware that he was even awake, the disturbed vet would leap up out of a dead sleep and pummel his wife against the wall, screaming about the war all the while. Says Abbott, "It got to the point that I was doing this so often, she knew the name of every guy in the platoon." Not surprisingly, Abbott's erratic behavior and bizarre sexual conflicts took their toll on all three of the major romantic relationships of his life (his confusion had even led to a brief stint as a transvestite hooker). "They didn't deserve me and I didn't deserve them," says Abbott of the two wives and one long-term live-in girlfriend with whom he raised eight stepchildren over the course of 22 years. Like many transsexuals who spend years desperately floundering through charades at conventional lifestyles before uncovering their "true" selves, Robert Abbott finally found herself in 1990, while working as a truck driver in New Mexico. Diagnosed as a transsexual by an Albuquerque psychiatrist (a condition classified as a mental disorder by the American Psychiatric Association), Abbott began living as a woman. Abbott's wife at the time was not thrilled to learn that "the other woman" who'd ruined her marriage was none other than her own husband. "My wife couldn't handle it at all," recalls Abbott. But Abbott's teenage stepdaughter reportedly thought it was way cool to have Mrs. Mom for a dad.
"It was fun for my oldest daughter because she could fit into all my clothes," continues Abbott, who reports that his stepchildren from that marriage picked out his new female name. "I love to shop and she loves to shop, so it worked out great."
Abbott's stepson, however, had his doubts. "My son kept asking if he was going to turn out the same way," says Abbott. "I was honest with him. I said, 'I hope not.' What if I'd told him 'No' and that wasn't the way things worked out?"
But the decision that saved Abbott's life (since beginning to live as a woman, Abbott claims she doesn't recall having had another Vietnam flashback) also cost her an entire family.
Abbott's adoptive father died without ever learning that his son wanted to become his daughter. His adoptive mother issued a deathbed edict that Abbott was not welcome at her funeral in any gender. Today, the only person from Abbott's past with whom he remains in contact is a sister who is still ambivalent about her brother's transgender odyssey. Even the children who had initially supported Abbott turned against her, most likely because of their mother's influence, Abbott suspects. Fighting back tears, Abbott says, "When I came out here and started the change, my kids from my last marriage wrote me a letter that said they want nothing to do with me because of what I am. That was two years ago, and I haven't heard anything since. That hurts."
Then, regaining his composure, he adds, "That's why I get a kick out of people who claim that going through gender change is a choice. Who chooses to lose all your friends, lose all your family and have the opportunity to be beaten and shot? Who chooses that?"
Unemployed and living on disability checks, Donna Abbott has attempted to restore order to the twisted wreckage of her life since moving to Phoenix. Citing a litany of medical problems (multiple sclerosis, arthritis, a severe hearing loss, and a leg crushed in a motorcycle accident), the woman who now looks like the picture of health says, "When I got here two years ago, I was a wreck. I wasn't supposed to live past 1990, so I've been lucky. Real lucky." To cut living expenses, Abbott shares her small but immaculately kept, two-bedroom apartment in east Phoenix with a platonic male roommate. Although the decor is almost spartan, the feel is definitely feminine. Downright girlish, even. A flowered sunbonnet adorns the front door. On the living-room wall, a Nagel knockoff. In the hall hang a handful of card-shop plaques emblazoned with inspirational quotes. Hanging in the bedroom is a frame containing the child's sweater Abbott wore upon arriving in America in 1951. And on every available ledge are an army of tiny plastic Smurfs and other fast-food premiums that Abbott picks up during her ritualistic rollerblading route.