• Paula Holly, 63, came out as transgender two years ago. BTL Photo: Alex Godin

Being Paula Holly: A Trans Woman, Long Suppressed, Reclaims Her Time

By |2018-01-24T01:09:05-05:00January 23rd, 2018|Michigan, News|

Pain wells up in Paula Holly’s eyes as she recounts the life that she was never meant to live. As early as 3 years old, she remembers trying to articulate what it meant to be misgendered.
“I was a disappointment to them,” Holly says of her devout Eastern European parents. Her birth name, Gary — which she now calls her “dead name” — was as ill-fitting and uncomfortable to her as boy’s clothing. And, though she was caught many times in her sisters’ clothing, she was never confronted or comforted.
The time was the late ’50s, early ’60s, when people were largely intolerable of LGB community, much less of the T.
“They still are!” Holly adds with frustration.
In the eyes of her family, Holly’s true identity was something to be stowed away and ignored. And, with no one to confide in for guidance, she went on to suppress her true self for more than six decades. Now at 63, Holly is just beginning to reconcile her life (after coming out two years ago) by getting involved in her community. Her hope is to inspire others to not let their harsh realities be the norm.
“What my community needs is for more to come out to be visible,” says Holly, who thanks the weekly Senior Koffee Klatch discussion group at Affirmations in Ferndale for bringing her out of her shell and into the community. “I owe that group a lot, and I love them dearly. These are my chosen family.”
Holly recently joined SAGE Metro Detroit as a board member to help advocate for the rights of other LGBT older adults who may be in isolation.
“My belief is you have to be willing to be visible and you have to be able to open up and answer all the questions no matter how personal they are because that’s how you’re teaching them,” she says. “I want to educate people.”
Holly came of age in northwest Detroit around the Castle Rouge neighborhood. After her father — “the SOB,” she said, — took off when she was 16, she quit school and started working full-time as a mechanic in a garage to help support her mother and sisters.
“Here I am a girl, and I have this mechanical ability,” she recalls. “That caused some kind of inner turmoil within me. But I liked pushing a wrench.”
Holly would go on to work in the automobile industry as a mechanic, but not before the death of her mother.
“She said, ‘Gary, you’re not a hippie. You’re worse,'” remembers Holly.
From that moment, she made an attempt to live the life her parents wanted. She found a wife and started drinking to dull the pain of suppressing who she was.
“I did all my drinking at my house,” says Holly, who hasn’t had a drink in 29 years. It was a short-term ride for me. I started drinking at work because of where I worked. I found that I was not only able to suppress who I was but it also gave me false courage to be super macho.”
Holly was roughly 25 and a virgin when she started dating. “That’s when I met my wife,” she says.
In the 31 years of their marriage, the few precious moments when Holly felt like herself were behind closed doors in women’s clothing.
“I told her exactly who I was, and she understood off and on,” says Holly. “She pierced my ears, bought me makeup, bought me clothes; hot and cold, going in and out of understanding. I think she understood, but I think she just didn’t like it. She accused me of ruining her life, which I take full responsibility for.”
Emotionally torn over her own identity, Holly says she was in no position to be a proper role model for her two children.
“I feel very guilty because of this,” she says. “I feel I got more out of it than the kids did.”
As painful as the realization is, Holly said her story is hardly unique in the trans community.
“In the trans community, you hear only two or three stories because it’s the same story only different names and different times. The backgrounds parallel so close,” says Holly. Accepting herself has enabled her to better accept others and forgive, she explains. “I’ve also come to notice, we are all flawed.”
Soon, Holly will undergo gender confirmation surgery. Although the surgery won’t make her flawless, she will finally be whole.
“I am not changing my gender. I am only correcting a birth defect,” said Holly, in a matter of fact tone. “So I consider myself trans woman now, and, after my surgery, I will just be a woman.”
This story is two of 50 in the BTL “Gay and Gray” Aging Series, dedicated to sharing the stories of LGBT older adults in Metro Detroit.

About the Author:

Emell Derra Adolphus
Emell Derra Adolphus is a writer from Detroit. Read more of his work at youvegotmell.com.