After 15 years of living in Las Vegas, keeping a secret that only her closest friends knew, Deborah Richards decided to come out in a big way. She was majoring in film at the College of Southern Nevada and had directed a slick but sweet science-fiction love story called Boy Meets Girl. This past April it was nominated for four College Television Awards, which is judged by members of the Television Academy (as are the Emmys). Richards, who had been keeping her female side a secret, decided to go for it: She would attend the prestigious awards ceremony as a woman. If she were to win an award, the world would know who she truly is.
The normally unflappable Richards was shocked when she snagged all four. “It was bizarre,” she remembers. “At first, no one at the Emmys would speak with me, and no one knew who I was. Then, immediately after I won, everybody wanted to know who I was.” This is true in more ways than one: She was called up by her male name, which made everything all the more disorienting. “I told the audience that it was stranger for me than for them. I accepted the award on behalf of my former self, and my life literally changed overnight.”
Not only was she an award-winning filmmaker, but she was now out as a transgender female. There was no turning back, and Richards could not have been more thrilled. “Transitioning was not a choice,” she says. “And I am having the best year of my life.”
Although most others in the Las Vegas transgender community come out in less outré ways, all transitions tend to be a whiplashing. That said, Vegas would seem to be a decent place in which to come out as transgender. After all, in a state with an estimated 25,000 to 50,000 transgender individuals, the city stands out as a liberal-tourist mecca that welcomes all kinds. But that’s only on the surface. “In actuality, Vegas is generally conservative,” says Andre Wade, director of operations for The Center, a facility for the LGBT community. “But things are evolving quickly. Right now there are more and more opportunities for transgender people. For example, Zappos put in gender-neutral bathrooms, and Foothill High School just trained its staff on how to treat transgender people. Rainbows and glitter are not falling from the sky here, but there is a positive shift going on.”
While Richards has found her transition to be remarkably smooth—“Vegas is transitional itself,” she says. “Lots of people come and go, and the city seems to be a very accepting place”—others have a bumpier ride. Jeremy Wallace, whose family owned the rights to the Fantastic Sams hair salons (Wallace served as regional owner and director of franchise sales and marketing; the business has since been sold), was miserable as a girl. He recounts depression and suicide attempts, which underscored how critical it was that he transition from female to male. Wallace was careful with the timing—he did not want to have breasts and facial hair at the same time—and had the flexibility to lay low when he needed to. After having his breasts removed, his chest reconstructed to be more masculine and hormone-replacement therapy began, Wallace spent months working from home, relying on the telephone and email. “Finally,” he says, “I wrote a letter to all of the franchisees and came out to them as transgender. Some of them were stunned and confused—but so, truthfully, was I. Luckily, though, I am in an artistic community. I couldn’t imagine doing this on Wall Street.”
Despite the acceptance he received, after four and a half years of transitioning, Wallace still felt uncomfortable in his own skin. “I got stares and comments from people who know me,” says Wallace, who would go on to write about his experiences in a memoir, Taking the Scenic Route to Manhood (Aviva Publishing, 2014). “I needed to disappear and start over and thought that Vegas was too small for that.” He moved to Boulder, Colorado, with the intention of reinventing himself as a no-questions-asked male. Then, after about 18 months, Wallace recognized the value of what he had left behind. “I’m glad to have had that experience, but it made me appreciate Vegas so much more. I know that the town received me well then [when he first transitioned], and it receives me well now. The problem was not Las Vegas, the problem was me.” If he didn’t recognize it before, he recognizes it now: “After all is said and done, I can tell you that Las Vegas is Jeremy-friendly.”
Different challenges confronted Lori Pastor, a lifelong resident of Las Vegas, when she transitioned from male to female. For the last 15 years she has been working for MGM Resorts International (her current job title is corporate guest relations manager). Back in 2010, when she felt compelled to come out as a woman, Pastor was concerned about whether or not she’d be able to keep her job. Superiors at MGM assured her that she would not get fired, but they also informed Pastor that she would not be able to use the ladies’ room. Their position changed after a trans woman, represented by the ACLU, sued a property for being removed for using a women’s restroom. “There was no policy regarding trans bathroom usage at our property,” Pastor says, noting that once that precedent was set, MGM went ahead and changed their policy.
“They also instituted more robust health benefits for employees seeking transition. There are higher medical bills when you transition, and the benefits plan now addresses that. When I went through the process of getting breast implants, I was grateful that MGM’s insurance plan treated the procedure as non-cosmetic. That was huge for me.”
For a six-month period, between when she announced that she would be transitioning and when she actually began doing it, Pastor kept herself available to answer questions from anyone in the company. “Every time, I effectively came out of the closet or told someone else my truth. I felt a huge weight melting off of my shoulders,” she says. “I had played out these scenarios hundreds of times in my head, but until you find the inner strength to go through with them, you don’t know how they will work out. It’s nice that the feedback was mostly positive. I had the opportunity to normalize the process and open people’s minds.”
Now out in the world living as their true genders, Pastor, Richards and Wallace all find Vegas to be a comfortable place in which to reside. Partly because of her recent success, partly because of her perspective, Richards really seems to have moved into her new gender without missing a beat. The director has loads of confidence, brims with exuberance and is excited about her next film project. Appropriately, it’s titled Send Hollywood My Love. “Five years ago,” she says, “I went out of my house in female clothing for the first time. Walking to the car was terrifying. Now it is completely different. My physical features have changed, I’ve had breast augmentation, my hair is longer. Every day I look more passable. People treat you in direct response to how you look and how confident you are.”
How do they treat Richards?
When it comes to post-transition life, Pastor feels that she lucked out a little bit. She believes that she looks more like her mom than her dad. As a result, she easily transformed into her female self. “I can be passable in any environment,” she says, adding that new colleagues at work fail to notice that she once had a different gender. Her nicely designed suits went to Goodwill, and her dad got a fantastic collection of neckties. Her closet is now filled with tailored work attire that any management-level female would be happy to wear. “It’s been easy to blend into mainstream society.”
Before transitioning, Pastor occasionally spent weekend nights at gay bars and in the Las Vegas Lounge (a cocktail spot that caters to the trans community). Back then she did it because they felt like safe havens where she could express her femininity. These days, she knows she can go wherever she pleases without feeling self-conscious. While she has yet to do very much dating—Pastor identifies as bisexual and is not crazy about being objectified—she is pleased by the DMV’s view of things. “I can have the gender marker on my driver’s license changed to female!” she says with excitement. “Mundane things that people take for granted, we do not.”
Like Pastor, Wallace is tentatively considering dipping his toes into the dating pool and figuring out exactly where he fits in. While he’s attracted to women, he is concerned with identity issues. “There are times when I worry that if I date a woman who sees herself as straight, I won’t be man enough,” Wallace says. “I overthink things and maybe keep myself single to not have to deal with it.”
Certainly, he’s come to terms with his past and present. It’s expressed in the pages of his book and in speaking engagements. (Wallace is scheduled to speak at The Center on November 20.) Combining his pre- and post-transition experiences, Wallace has plenty of material. “After rehashing my life through the course of writing the book, I came away with such as high level of respect for who I used to be,” he says with some reverence. “I would not be the man I am today without her.”