Longform

SWITCH BLADER

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.

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Dewey Webb