The essay that follows was written by Sarah A. Vestal following the 40th reunion of the 1975 class of Little Rock’s Catholic High School for Boys. She was Charles Vestal in 1975 and, still, at the 30th reunion in 2005. Photographs show Vestal, who now lives in Tulsa, today and before she began receiving female hormones.
My recent 40th high school reunion was my first public appearance in my home town of Little Rock in almost a decade. I was a woman returning from transition exile in liberal queer San Francisco and walking into a full gymnasium of men as the first transgender female graduate of an all-male high school in a small Southern red state.
At the preceding 30th reunion of Catholic High School for Boys, Class of 1975, I was the well-known local businessman – a 5th generation native. This time was quite different.
As I pulled into the school driveway for the alumni dinner, students were directing traffic. “Picking up your son, ma’am?”
Many of my classmates knew of my transgender status for years, but Arkansas has never been known for progressive views. A few weeks earlier, the Vatican announced transgender folks were not morally capable of being god-parents. The local Catholic bishop barring my entry in a George Wallace-style confrontation was my frequent nightmare. To complicate matters, I now saw my male classmates in a different light, as I felt they also did with me. When they previously knew me, I was a straight man and father of two daughters. Now, I am the straight woman feeling a sexual tension with my former male classmates for the first time.
“You are hot, babe, really hot!” Smile. Blush. “Thank you, Mel,” was all I could reply. That same simple thank you, a hug, and tears were all I could manage in response to scores of supportive statements.
Father George Tribou was the legendary headmaster, a strict disciplinarian and devout priest who required the boys to wear ties and keep their hair short during our turbulent early 1970s. With many shared stories, fellow classmates and I visited his grave to pay our respects. While my classmates were joking about the ground not moving as I stood over him, I felt a deep connection. I recalled Tribou once telling me as a troubled boy, “Jesus will be with you no matter what.” I left his grave believing Tribou would accept me today, despite the hateful dogma of the Catholic Church concerning transgender people.
The major reunion event was a Saturday night dinner at one of the city’s finest restaurants and included the 1975 graduating class of the corresponding all girls high school. With my heightened concern over my male classmates’ reactions, I did not anticipate the kind and unconditional support I received from my female high school friends, many of whom I either dated or wished I had dated over the years as a man.
￼Acceptance was summed up by a classmate’s subsequent Facebook posting: “You were brave, but as it turned out, we’re a pretty accepting group of guys. As I told someone, ￼￼having adult children makes a difference in what is a big deal and what isn’t. Proud of you; and proud of my class.”
Recognized authenticity is a wonderful experience.