When Gerry met Donna

A Jewish sports journalist's journey from man to woman.

March 16, 2006 10:05

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Back in 1989, Gerry Greenberg was very much one of the lads, drinking and singing bawdy ballads at a Netanya pub. Back then, he was still a bald-headed man who managed the British rugby team at the Maccabi Games and worked as a Jewish sports journalist. No one would have suspected then that Gerry was a closet cross-dresser. But today, 17 years and numerous operations later, Gerry Greenberg is Donna Gee, an elegant middle-aged British lady. Though only recently having become a woman, Gee has been a journalist since age 16. "I gave [Welsh-born singer] Tom Jones his first write-up on the Pontypridd Observer," she says. In 1976, Gee left Fleet Street for a seven-year stint as deputy editor of a Manchester-based Jewish newspaper group. After spells at The Jewish Chronicle and two years as assistant editor of the (now defunct) Manchester Jewish Gazette, Gee joined the team that launched the tabloid Daily Star in 1978. As the Daily Star's rugby correspondent, she (still as a he, that is) befriended the great Welsh fly-half Phil Bennett. "He's an old friend," she says during a visit to Israel, "and still sends me Christmas cards." But all those years, Gerry was living a double life. "I was in denial in public, but privately became a woman at any opportunity. I kept a bag of [women's] clothes in the garden shed that I took with me on assignment, and would dress up in the privacy of hotel rooms. Even though I knew there were many others like me out there, I was paranoid about being caught. Ultimately, I turned [this paranoia] on its head," she recounts. "The first time my wife found out was in the '70s, after we were married for six or seven years. One night, after the kids were in bed, Lynn dressed me up as a woman for fun. She could tell that I was turned on, and ran to a doctor the next day and told him that I'm gay. I told her that I would never talk about the subject - it must have been at least 15 years before we discussed it again" she recalls. "I came out in 1997. The Internet gave me an insight into understanding what a man is and a woman is," Gee says. "Realizing that I'm anonymous, I keyed in the words 'Manchester' and 'transgender' and immediately found a local support group. I poured my heart out in the e-mail I sent them, then received a reply saying 'I don't know why you're ashamed - you sound exactly like me.'" Regular e-mail correspondence continued until Lynn walked into the study one night and took a close look at the computer screen. "I let her read the e-mails. Lynn said that she didn't realize it was so important to me and even gave me lipsticks as a present - she was telling me that she would support me. "At that stage, we both thought I was just a cross-dresser. She came with me to meetings and events with hundreds of transgenders. In general, transgenders are non-confrontational. People's gender is not between their legs - it's between their ears," says Gee. It was a gradual changeover. "I was coming home from work, changing into Donna and living my social life as a woman. In the morning, I'd change back into Gerry," she recalls. "It was stressful being two people. In time, I realized that my ultimate dream was to become a woman." One day, Gee's boss found out. "[He] told me that he knew about me, having received an anonymous e-mail. He told me that there's no problem as far he was concerned," she relates. "I wrote to my workmates while I was on holiday in Israel, and told them I was going to change over. They were all shocked. Some were more accepting than others; some workmates wouldn't look me in the face. In general, the ones who have a problem are usually men who are superficially straight but have an issue with their own sexuality - guys who are not sure about themselves." CHANGING GENDER was no simple matter, she explains. "I've had several operations including breast augmentation, and my surgery is still not complete. My prominent Adam's Apple was reduced and facial hairs were individually removed by electrolysis - a painful experience, like bee stings. I must have spent three or four thousand pounds on electrolysis." And the feminine voice? "Just practice - speaking from my head, not my chest, like men do," she says. "I've been taking hormones for four years to soften skin, reduce hair growth and feminize features. I take estrogen to reduce testosterone levels. I have no male feelings left sexually." Now, she says, "Most people take me for a genetic woman." But this woman is also a father with two grown-up daughters. "Hayley is 35 and Lisa is 33. They call me Dad at home and Donna in public. They were in shock at first, but rapidly accepted my decision. I was lucky," she says. "More often than not, transgenders suffer terrible rejection from their families." Gee's five grandchildren all accept her change, she says. "My eldest granddaughter was nine when she found a wig," Gee recounts. "It aroused curiosity among their schoolmates, but they never had any trouble at school." When Gee was their age, she had troubles of her own. "I've always had this element of transgender-ism in me," she says. "It started when I was about seven. (A lot of transsexuals will tell you they felt it from childhood.) There was a woman trapped inside me. In those days this was totally unacceptable." This internal urge was stifled throughout the formative years, she says. "I was a normal lad with normal interests. I was fanatically interested in sport, a man's man. I think I was even a little homophobic," she says. "I didn't know what transgender was - it was difficult to know anything about it in those days - and thought I was depraved or perverted because of my secret." Not that Donna shies from self-analysis. "My mother died when I was six. It's a possibility that I was trying to recreate my mother in myself," she admits. Still, "I only went to a psychiatrist once in my life, for a specific reason: to obtain the hormones I needed." Donna's experience, she says, gives her a unique perspective on gender relations. "I understand women so much better now. I'm from both Mars and Venus, and have elements of both genders. That makes me privileged," she says. "Women confide in me; I now socially orientate toward women. A lot of women don't know that I'm not a genetic woman - and those who know tend to be accepting." What of spiritual matters? The family lives in the heart of Prestwich, a predominantly Jewish middle-class Manchester neighborhood. "I'm a secular Jew, but acutely aware of my Jewish roots. We are a very Jewish family, without being religious. My grandchildren all attend Jewish schools. "Halachically, I don't know what I am. If I went to a shul, I'd go to the women's section," says Donna, adding that Britain's Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks has indicated he sees no problem with this choice. A SELF-CONFIDENT, articulate spokesperson, Gee has become a crusader for transgenderism in Britain and the subject of many a television and magazine feature there. "The term 'transgender' covers the whole trans scene: transsexuals, transvestites, she-males, etc. Drag queens are not really transgender - it's more of a Purim thing. Trans men and women are entitled to respect and dignity, regardless of their appearance. I just want to be accepted as a woman." On sexuality, Gee says, "This has nothing to do with homosexuality. People tend to lump trans and gays together, but there are straight, bi-, gay and asexual trans. The idea of physical contact with another man used to repulse me. Now I can react to a man's interest - but I'm not gay because I do it as a woman." When pressed, however, the Cardiff native admits to retaining some basic male instincts: "I still get excited when Cardiff City wins a game." Gee says she would like to ease back on her work commitments, but is still in demand as a freelance production sub-editor for Britain's Metro daily newspaper and over the weekends on the northern sports desk of the tabloid weekly The People. "In most cases, I advise people to change jobs. I'm fortunate in that my workmates accept the new me and see the light side. When [Scottish soccer player] Paul Dickov scored a goal against the Faroe Islands in a recent European Championship game, my editor taunted: 'With the name of that scorer, there's only one person I want to sub that story!'"

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