Surgery released woman trapped in a man's body
Gender reassignment was her salvation, despite the ridicule she experienced when she returned to the life she once lived as a man.
By MARALINE KUBIK
VINDICATOR STAFF WRITER
hen Joni Christian was a little boy, she prayed every day that God would change her into a girl.
The Ursuline High School graduate got her wish -- with the help of hormone therapy and surgery -- at age 26. This November marked a milestone for Christian: 27 years as a woman, one year longer than she was a male.
The process of gender reassignment, although a seemingly radical transformation, was Christian's salvation, despite the ridicule, sarcasm and shunning she experienced when she returned to the life she once lived as a man.
Women she worked with at General Motors Lordstown assembly plant circulated a petition to keep her out of the restroom; men stared and hurled cruel remarks.
"I became a freak in a sideshow when I went back to work," she said, adding, "I don't blame them; they had no other way to deal with it."
Since 1975, the year of her surgery, the culture in the Mahoning Valley and at GM has become more tolerant but, she said, there is still a long way to go.
"By the time I was 4 or 5 years old, I knew I wanted to express my natural femininity," Christian recalled, "and I realized it wasn't acceptable."
Lessons learned in a Catholic grade school reinforced the notion that boys should be tough, masculine. Even the playground was segregated -- boys on one side, girls on the other, Christian said.
"Puberty was a nightmare. My body was turning into a monster -- doing the opposite of what I wanted to happen. In high school I thought I might be gay, even though I wasn't attracted to boys, and I knew you must deny and suppress that."
In 1968, a year after graduating from high school, Christian went to work at GM and was drafted into the Army a year later.
"That was where I came to know that this was something I had to deal with," she said. During the 10 months and 28 days Christian spent in the service -- she was released on a family hardship -- she saw an article in Life magazine about women who had been born male and had undergone sex-change surgery.
"That's when I knew it was possible," she said, breathing a sigh of relief.
In 1970 she went to Cleveland Clinic, where she said she "instantly became an experiment."
After a series of psychological exams, she started taking estrogen. The rapid changes taking place in her body weren't readily apparent under her work coveralls in the paint department at the automotive assembly plant, so she encountered few problems with co-workers.
But with all the costs for hormone therapy coming out-of-pocket, and the knowledge that the costs of the surgery would also be her personal expense, Christian began wondering whether this was the best route for her to follow.
She stopped taking estrogen, met a woman who had a young daughter, and began entertaining the idea of living a more traditional life. The couple married three months later.
"I thought a relationship would make it all go away," Christian said. "I thought I could be straight, or normal -- is that the right word?.... I really wanted to be a parent and my wife's parents thought I was a good catch."
For the first two years, married life "was pretty OK," she said. She adopted her wife's daughter and the family seemed like any other. "But after two years that thing I had tried to suppress, run away from, was still there."
Christian turned to drinking and using drugs to escape, but an automobile accident brought her face to face with reality. "I had to do something to get real again. I told my wife and I started back on estrogen."
The night before gender reassignment surgery -- the term she prefers over "sex change" -- she lay in her bed at the former Southside Hospital, praying no one would barge in and stop the procedure.
The only time she had contemplated suicide was when she had opted to go forward with the surgery and physicians at Cleveland Clinic turned her away.
Nine months before the surgery, Christian's wife had given birth to their daughter. While Christian was recovering, the wife brought the baby to the hospital to visit. Christian said she loved the baby and was wracked with guilt for going forward with the surgery, not knowing what the impact would be on her daughter.
She was also worried about how her mother would react.
"My mother never knew about it until after the surgery. I couldn't tell her. I asked my ex to do it," she said. Afterward, "my mom became my best friend for life. She stayed when the rest of the world left."
Christian's marriage was dissolved in February 1976, three months after her surgery. After the wife remarried, she tried to abolish Christian's parental rights so her new husband could adopt the little girl. The ensuing court battle bankrupted Christian, but it was worth the expense, she said.
"The hardest thing I ever did was one day when I took my daughter to the playground when she was about 7 years old. She was playing on the monkey bars and I asked her how she would feel if she didn't see me anymore. She said she wanted to keep seeing me and I decided right then that it should be her choice when she doesn't want to see me anymore."
Although the relationship has never been a traditional father-daughter one, Christian said she and her biological and adopted daughters have maintained family ties. They call her Joni, not Dad.
When her biological daughter married, Christian selected the music and sang at the ceremony. "People asked me if I felt bad because I couldn't walk her down the isle. I told them walking her down the isle isn't as important as being here."
Glad for GM, union
Although returning to work 3 1/2 months after undergoing gender-reassignment surgery was challenging, Christian said her job at GM and membership in United Autoworkers Local 1112 made it possible for her to change her life.
The company provided the paycheck that enabled her to pay for medical treatment and a drawn-out court battle to maintain her parental rights; the union protected her from being fired or discriminated against on the job.
"If it would not have been for my union, I would have been fired," Christian said. "A lot of supervisors had major issues with me. Some did not want me working for them."
"The union respected me as a union person even if some of the members didn't approve of me. The union taught me that an injury to one was an injury to all."
As years passed, Christian transferred from the paint department to quality assurance, a job in which she moved throughout the plant. She and her co-workers eventually got used to each other; she won their respect and even managed to build some friendships.
Twenty-seven years ago, when Christian came out as a transsexual, "no one at work was out as being gay, bi [-sexual] or tran," she said. Since then, she said, the situation has "relaxed a little."
GM and the UAW both sponsor diversity programs and sensitivity training.