Back in 1970, I was a young male soldier, serving in Vietnam. I was a base camp troop, so my enemies were boredom and monotony.
Which is why, when a friend of mine came to me with a scheme for us to sneak off to Bangkok for a few days of partying in the sex capital of Asia, and sneak back without anyone knowing the difference, I did it.
This wasn't a smart decision. Going AWOL in a war zone is desertion. If we got caught, we could kiss the rest of our lives goodbye. But boredom is a powerful motivator.
So for three days and nights, my friend and I frolicked in the bars, cavorted with prostitutes, and drank and ate like kings. On the fourth day, I woke up with a young woman I didn't recognize, the tell-tale symptoms of gonorrhea which I did recognize, and the shocking news from my friend that he couldn't figure out how to get a ride back to Vietnam.
The other thing was, I was broke. I called home to get money wired to me—then tried to figure out where I'd sleep and eat until the money arrived.
Which is how I fell into the care of the young woman who spent the night with me. She called herself Suzy Wong, after the movie character. She took me to a U.S. medical clinic that was conveniently located near the bars. There was a door for women, and another one for men, and when you got inside, there were different colors of tape on the floor leading to different procedures. I followed the color for venereal disease and, 15 or 20 minutes later, emerged with a sore butt. Not a word had been spoken.
Suzy Wong took me home. She lived in a tidy, comfortable flat in a pleasant neighborhood. She introduced me to her roommate, another young woman, very pretty, and the mother of a toddler. I didn't know much about such things back then, but I could tell they were lovers. Nothing overt, just the way they looked at each other. Plus, even then, I could see how sex with men had to be dehumanizing for Suzy Wong, a different stranger every night, many of us unpleasant.
We spent the afternoon together. First, me watching Suzy transform herself from the sultry sex goddess I'd met in the bar to a pretty young woman with a nice smile. There was a lot of hair to un-pin and some of it came off. There were false eyelashes big enough to squash mosquitoes. And there was padding and a lot of makeup.
Guys aren't supposed to be interested in such things, but I was rapt. I'd been aware for some time that deep down inside, I wanted to be a girl. I sometimes had dangerous dreams of having a sex change and wearing beautiful dresses like Suzy did, and having beautiful hair done up like Suzy's, and being admired for my beauty and grace.
I always erased these dreams as fast as I could. I didn’t understand them, but I knew they were dangerous.
Suzy Wong could see I was different. At one point she asked me if I'd like to have a man for the night. I blushed and said no.
In the morning, she asked if I'd like to go to the beauty salon with her. She smiled when she said it. She had read me. Of course I went.
The beauty salon was as transportive for me as the prostitute bars were for many of my fellow soldiers. I watched Suzy get made up, I watched them do her nails and makeup and hair, making her look like a Hollywood actress. As I watched I imagined it was me they were working on. Me who was 5-5 and pretty with perky round breasts and full lips and delicate hands.
I hid these thoughts from everyone and I even tried to hide them from myself, though as the years went on, it became impossible to deny them.
In the end, my money came from home. I got my hotel room back and Suzy stayed with me that last night. We got a ride back to the war zone the next day. I laid a huge tip on Suzy Wong, more than she'd make in many months and she was happy for it, though she proposed marriage to me yet again, as she had many times in our days together.
I pointed out that she didn't really enjoy intimacy with men. She denied it, but just enough to save face. The thing was, she would have traded anything for a future where she was safe and comfortable and could live in dignity. She wanted to escape from a place where her only career options were sewing in a sweat shop for $1 a day, or selling her body to strangers.
I've thought about her thousands of times over the years, especially as I began to accept who I was. I always wish I'd given her more money. I always wish that what I did give her helped her escape the prison she was in.
And when I start feeling sorry for myself for having such a large, unwomanly body, I think, what if I had the choice. I could be what I am—a woman in a man's body, but with a nice family and a good career—or I could be Suzy Wong, a beautiful young prostitute investing her youth in the lusts of men with no names, and facing a future of poverty and broken dreams.
I always accept my own reality, but I hope we can change the realities for people like Suzy Wong, and for my transgender brothers and sisters.