By Carol Tanis
At age 75 Charley Renee has come out as a woman. And if that weren’t enough, she’s speaking about the process to college and high school students and others in West Michigan.
Born in Benton Harbor, Charley graduated from Michigan State University in 1959 and earned a Ph.D seven years later from the University of Arizona at Tucson. As a man, Charley had a successful career employed as a plant scientist, working for various companies and living in several states while traveling extensively throughout North and South America and Europe.
Busy with the demands of his job and living with a wife in suburbia, he had little time to think about his inner feelings and about why he felt different from other people.
“Living in Davis, California, about an hour from San Francisco, I first started hearing about people who are transgender,” Charley said. “Before that I didn’t know why I felt the way I did. I just knew I shouldn’t feel that way, so I kept the feelings suppressed.”
After many years of throwing all his energy into his job, in 2001 he retired and he and his wife moved to Vermont to be close to her family. But without the harried activity of career demands he had time to think about his feelings and he became depressed.
“It hit me hard once I got to Vermont,” Charley said. “My wife’s family was there and I just felt I couldn’t do anything.”
Six years later his wife died from injuries she received in a car accident. After spending a year and a half to sell their property and then moving back to Michigan, Charley decided to begin the transition to female. “I decided I wasn’t going to fight it any more,” Charley said.
Two months before his 71st birthday Charley had gender-reassignment surgery and has been on estrogen therapy since. She spent the next couple of years transitioning under the guidance of an endocrinologist at the University of Michigan Medical Center and a therapist specializing in transgender issues. Laser electrolysis for facial hair removal was part of the process along with changing her name to Charley Renee, and her gender from male to female on her birth certificate, driver’s license and passport. In addition she received some voice training to make her speech pattern more feminine.
“I’m happy and my depression has gone away,” she said.
Coming out to family has been mostly good. They haven’t rejected her, but at the same time she’s not exactly sure how some of them feel. “When I’m with the family, nothing is ever said. I’m never sure if the elephant in the room is being ignored, or if there really is no elephant in the room.”
Charley came out to friends on Facebook by posting photos of herself dressed as a woman. “My friends started writing to me and said ‘Charley is there something you want to tell us?'”
Employed as a sales associate in Holland at JCPenney, there was another hurdle to cross in the coming-out process. “The company has a strong anti-discrimination policy that includes gender identity, so I knew I had their corporate policy behind me, but I also knew that I was in Holland, Michigan. I was thinking about transferring to Portage, but a friend convinced me to at least give management a chance.”
Her fears turned out to be unfounded. Management was glad that Charley had found happiness as a woman and was extremely supportive of her coming to work as a woman. However, feedback from co-workers was mixed. “Reaction has ranged from associates telling me they were very happy for me, to others who said ‘I just don’t understand.’ So I had to talk to them.”
What about the reaction from customers? “They always refer to me as female, so it’s been a good experience. I don’t think they have a clue.”
Along with enlightening her colleagues, Charley is taking on the challenge of educating others by speaking at classes at Hope College and Western Michigan University as well as talking to the Gay-Straight Alliance at West Ottawa and Holland High Schools. In addition, she’s on the board of Holland is Ready, serves on the transgender committee of the Kalamazoo Gay Lesbian Resource Center and attends Holland Lake Shore PFLAG meetings.
Her most recent milestone in this process was changing her wardrobe. “I cleaned out all of the male clothes early this summer and donated them to the Lakeshore Rescue Mission. You wear those kind of clothes for over 70 years and then all of a sudden you’re getting rid of them. That’s a big deal.”