Choate is sitting in the conference room of a downtown San Francisco law office, across the table from two attorneys who silently flip through page after page of legal briefs stuffed into giant three-ring binders. She is preparing for an upcoming deposition in a lawsuit. Neither lawyer bothers to look at Choate as she tells her long, complicated story; both are busy scribbling notes that document the extraordinary hell she describes.
By the second hour, Choate seems to lose steam, as the story she's told so many times begins to make her sad once again. She is weary from recalling the confusing, scary, and arduous process of releasing the woman who lived inside the body of Larry Choate -- the 6-foot, 220-pound, balding construction worker that Toni Choate physically was for the first 42 years of her life.
Since early childhood, Larry had been different from other boys, identifying more with girls. Soft-spoken and fair-skinned, he was teased at school and often called a sissy. As a teenager, a family doctor tried to cure him with testosterone injections. The resulting deepened voice and unwanted body hair repulsed him. Larry tried to stay Larry until middle age, even marrying twice, but his anguish continued as he realized the second half of his life would only be as miserable as the first.
Few understood Larry's cross-sexual dilemma; not his mother, not his ex-wife, certainly not the guys in hard hats he worked with. His daughter was accepting, but she wasn't allowed to see much of her father back when Larry began living as Toni. At first, Toni simply cross-dressed; then she started hormone treatments; breast implants came a few years later. Finally, Toni had sex reassignment surgery.
Before the surgery, Choate sought out a therapist to help her with the transition.
But what began as a journey toward well-adjusted transsexuality went horribly wrong. Elated to find someone who understood her, Choate fell in love with her therapist. The affair that she says developed is the focus of Choate's Sunday evening session with her lawyers.
By her account, Choate was seduced by her female therapist when she was still a man, and the affair continued after the surgery that made her a woman. Choate hoped therapy would help her sort out her identity -- was she a straight woman trapped in a man's body, or a lesbian? -- but the acts of her therapist, a married, straight woman, only created more confusion. Choate was even allowed to live with the married therapist and her husband, and the couple even employed her in the nightclub they owned. Eventually, Choate says, she came to believe her entire existence relied on the therapist.
As she approaches the part of her story that is the hardest for her to relate, Choate pauses. The lawyers look up, encouraging her to go on. It was unrequited love, Choate eventually says, that drove her to shoot her therapist's empty bed 10 times in a fit of rage. She describes the eight months she spent in jail for her crime; the prior attempts to drown herself in the ocean, which left her washed up on the shore, puking a mixture of Vicodin, tequila, and salt water; and the dozens of scars that cover her forearms, where she repeatedly cut herself to, as she puts it, "feel alive."
Choate is worn and her eyes are moist. She lets out a sigh. But one of the lawyers asks her to perform one more exercise, setting a box on the table. In it are plush toys, dolls, love notes, cards, and various sweet nothings; all, Choate claims, gifts to her from her therapist.
Choate digs through the box and reaches for a book, True Selves: Understanding Transsexualism, which made Mildred L. Brown -- the author, and Choate's therapist -- famous. Choate opens the front cover and looks at the inscription inside: "You have become a warm, loving, dynamic woman," Brown writes to Choate, "who brightens the lives of all who know you, including me. With love and appreciation for all you are, Millie."
Mildred L. Brown is a sexologist. She has studied sex as a science and makes her living by helping people deal with their sexual issues. Brown's specialty involves gender dysphoria, meaning she counsels people, like Choate, who wish to change their sex from male to female, or vice versa. Brown's work and book have been more than well-received. She has high-profile clients, like Dana Rivers, the high school teacher near Sacramento who was placed on indefinite leave by the school board when she returned to class last fall as a woman, rather than the man she'd been the previous spring. Brown also counseled Marcia Chapdelaine who, as president of the San Mateo County Convention and Visitors Bureau, had a very public transition from man to woman two years ago and kept her job. In these and other cases, the San Jose-based Brown has been touted -- by herself, by other experts, and by the press -- as one of the nation's most authoritative and compassionate experts in transsexual issues.
But Brown is not a psychiatrist, a psychologist, a marriage family therapist, or even a clinical social worker. She holds no state license in any of the regulated mental health fields. Brown calls herself a sexologist, a profession the state does not recognize and therefore does not regulate. Brown also calls herself a doctor, based on the Ph.D. she holds in sexology from San Francisco's Institute for the Advanced Study of Human Sexuality, a school founded 30 years ago by a former Methodist minister who claims to have amassed the world's largest erotic art collection. The Institute offers doctorate degrees in erotology and sexology; these three-year programs include practicum courses and require a dissertation. Brown's 1979 doctoral paper was titled "Initiating Marital Coitus."