Whizzing past the intersection of 24th Street and Camelback at rush hour, the muscular skater in pink short-shorts cuts a jolting figure. If the stocky, tattooed torso and chiseled facial features are almost certainly male, the perky little breasts peeking over the slashed undershirt are just as certainly female. Adding further fuel to the head-scratching is a mop of shoulder-length black hair--obviously dyed--and a peach-colored face at wild cosmetic odds with the deeply sun-burnished body.
Echoing the thoughts of many but the tact of few, one commuter gingerly broaches the question that's on the lips of anyone who's ever gazed at this androgynous question mark on wheels. Diplomatically avoiding the "it" word that frequently crops up in any discussion of the high-profile curbside curio, she asks, "Is this person a man or a woman? I've been seeing this individual for years and I'm still not sure. Whatever they are, this is one intriguing character."
So is he a she? Or vice versa?
Parked in a booth at a central Phoenix coffee shop on a recent afternoon, the Valley's answer to Saturday Night Live's sexually ambivalent "Pat" character smiles coquettishly, causing the penciled-in apostrophes that pass as eyebrows to arch high on the mannish forehead.
"My idea of being a female and everybody else's idea is different," announces the gender bender who's got the whole town wondering. "If someone wants to look at me as a butch dike, fine. At least they're looking at me as a woman. Okay, so I may not be the Jayne Mansfield of transsexuals. But I'm myself, so that's okay."
"Myself" is the former Robert George Abbott, a 50-year-old ex-Marine now legally known as Donna Marie Abbott. And upon retiring to Phoenix two years ago, Abbott launched a personal one-man battle of the sexes, a full-gender assault played out in full view of the city as he zips about town on rollerblades all day long.
Judging from the response that Abbott's unexpected, "Where's Waldo?"-like appearances receive from disbelieving motorists all over town, it looks like she's finally winning the war. Abbott now looks enough like a woman to inspire honking horns, double takes, wolf whistles and even the occasional fender-bender. But she still looks enough like a man to draw more than an occasional one-finger salute--or worse.
After logging more miles on her rollerblades than she cares to remember (using the skates as an alternative to a car, Abbott travels at least 15 miles a day, causing the $80 blades to wear out once a month), Abbott is now taking most of that attention in stride.
"I don't care for it all the time, but, hey, when the guys honk and wave, that's nice," says the former biker gang member over coffee at the Denny's on Seventh Street and Camelback, a haunt popular with hungry, gay bar-hoppers. "To me, it's a confirmation that I'm making progress toward what I want to become. A day doesn't go by that at least two guys don't try to pick me up--Wanna ride?' Uh, no, I don't think so. But there was a time not too long ago when no one noticed me."
Such a time is now hard to imagine. Yet in spite of two years on the female hormones that have enabled him to sprout a couple of quite respectable-size breasts (These aren't implants!" she says of the twin apples of her eye. "These are all mine!"), Donna Abbott remains in a sexual netherworld. A preoperative transsexual who realizes she may never scrape together the $17,000 for the surgical procedure that will turn her into a woman, Abbott still possesses the male sex organs she was born with. Or at least some of them.
A Vietnam veteran, Donna Abbott claims that during her life as a man, she and two other members of her company were castrated by the enemy after they were captured during a secret mission and refused to reveal military plans. "Basically, we were sniping and we got caught in the wrong place," says Abbott, who fears that further elaboration about the 1966 incident might jeopardize her military benefits. "I'm kind of old-fashioned--I believe in God, Mom, apple pie and my country, so I didn't talk."
Dismissing the notion that his genital mutilation has any bearing on his desire to become a woman, Donna Abbott flashes a crooked grin that just might be facetious. "Other than that, I've led a pretty normal life." In reality, her incredible story is anything but. If Donna Marie Abbott hadn't lived this life, tabloid television would have had to invent it. If Abbott herself has fabricated this mind-boggling biography, she's done an admirable job. Although very few of the details can be verified, those that can be appear to support what she is saying.
Born near Stuttgart, Germany, in 1944, young Donna (ne Robert George) was orphaned at an early age when his parents were killed in a car crash in Paris. (Abbott believes his father may have been one of Hitler's officers.) In 1951, the tow-headed youngster was sent to the United States, where he was one of five children adopted by a San Diego policeman and his wife. When not dressing up in his sisters' clothing, young Robert frequently displayed the hotheaded temper that would flare up often in later life. "I was sent to the school counselor when I was in the sixth grade because I was so aggressive," recalls Donna. "I was extremely violent--I played the boy to the hilt." During one counseling session, Abbott's mother happened to mention that the only time her son calmed down was when he was playing dress-up. The counselor's progressive words of wisdom: "Let him dress up as long as he wants."
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.
Alternating his leg-strengthening rollerblading rituals with upper-body workouts, Abbott spends much of his time either on the street or in Bally's health club on 40th Street. (For the record, Abbott now changes clothes in the women's locker room. "The women seem to be much more open-minded about this," reports one spa employee.)
Every Sunday, she skates to services at a nondenominational gay church. Several times a month, she blades over to the Veteran's Administration Hospital for medical treatment or to a private doctor for the biweekly hormone therapy that has enabled Abbott to become reclassified as "a disabled female." Extracting the plastic ID card validating that claim from her fanny pack, Abbott proudly shows off the document as if it were the Purple Heart.
Not all of her fellow vets share Abbott's enthusiasm for her transgender triumph. Dressed in full female regalia during a recent trip to the hospital, Abbott heard the fellow behind her in line announce, "Now I know why we lost the war!"
Spinning on her heels, Abbott countered, "Listen, you son of a bitch--we didn't lose no war because of me!"
Donna Abbott sighs wistfully. "No matter how often it happens, you never really get used to remarks like that. I try to ignore them, but they hurt. And if I'm having a bad day, watch out!"
Or so a Jeep full of teenage hooligans discovered after hurling a few choice, antigay sentiments at Abbott en route to high school one day last semester. "You should have seen their faces when I caught up with them in the parking lot," says Abbott, who dumped a cup of hot coffee in the ringleader's lap. And when she's in a friskier mood, Abbott says she gets even with gawkers by flashing her tits--a stunt that once earned her a lecture from a befuddled cop. "When I first got here, police officers--mainly the lady cops--were stopping me all the time," she reports. "They were curious about who I was and what I was doing, so I'd tell them. They were polite, so the way I see it, if I tell em how and why, maybe the next time they see someone who's a little different, they might leave them alone."
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Watching the faces of rush-hour commuters as she laces up blades outside the coffee shop, it becomes clear that the chances of Donna Marie Abbott ever becoming just another face in the crowd are somewhere between zero and nil.
Preparing to blade off in the direction of her gym, Abbott announces, "My next goal is to be a female bodybuilder. All my friends think I'm nuts. They say, 'What do you want to do that for? You'll look weird!'
"But, hey, what do I have to lose?" asks the woman who's definitely her own man. "I already look weird." Somewhere in the distance, a car honks.