Calpernia Addams

Originally appeared in Transgender Tapestry #104, Winter 2004.

A Modern Day Christine Jorgensen

by Christine Beatty

Calpernia Addams is a woman you can?t help but notice. Even among the remarkable landscape of transsexual

women, she stands out. In some ways she is a new millennium version of Christine Jorgensen. She has adapted

marvelously to her unexpected role on The Big Stage, and she has used that position to educate others and

advance the cause of transgendered people everywhere.
Calpernia never wanted the kind of attention she received. She was happy to win Tennessee Entertainer of

the Year; she hadn?t counted on figuring prominently in one of the most sensationalized murder trials of

1999, nor on being the cover story of a New York Times Magazine article in May of the following year, nor

on the controversy that swirled around that story. Her response to the publicity circus included her

autobiography, Mark 947, and her role in making Showtime?s hit movie ?Soldier?s Girl.? Between these two

works we gain remarkable insight into Ms. Addams. From her current life one would never guess this woman?s

humble and decidedly bizarre past.

Mark 947 refers to the Bible passage ?And if thine eye offends thee, pluck it out,? a dramatic metaphor for

her sex change. In this book Calpernia candidly details her Nashville upbringing in a strict and fanatical

Fundamentalist Christian family. Until she turned eighteen she?d never seen a movie, gone to a schoolmate?s

sleep-over, rollerskated, or swam in a ?mixed sex? pool. She was denied most of the things average children

and teenagers take for granted. What she got instead was church and the Bible, dogma that conflicted with

her incipient gender issue. Her only escape was the U.S. Navy, into which she enlisted upon reaching


In her stint as a Navy medic, in Desert Storm and on the Aleutian isle of Adak, her eyes opened to all that

she?d missed, and to her burgeoning gender and sexual identity. By the time her enlistment was over and

she?d returned to Nashville, she found her niche in the local gay/drag community. Soon she took her first

steps into performing and quickly worked her way to being a favorite at Nashville?s largest showbar. It was

at this nightspot that she met Army private Barry Winchell, and from there blossomed the tragic love story

that inspired ?Soldier?s Girl.?

?Soldier?s Girl? is an incredibly moving account of star-crossed lovers, of Calpernia and Barry. When

Barry met Calpernia, he knew she hadn?t always been a girl. Despite his heterosexual past and her

pre-operative status, Barry found himself attracted to her compelling femininity. The movie brilliantly

depicts some of the emotional complications faced by lovers when one is a pre-operative transsexual,

including Calpernia?s initial suspicion that he?s using her to explore his bisexuality.

However, some of Barry?s fellow soldiers saw no beauty in the relationship, and he had to endure months of

homophobic taunts and an unofficial witch hunt in direct violation of the military ?Don?t Ask, Don?t Tell?

policy. And on the Fourth of July weekend, 1999, Barry was murdered by a fellow soldier with a baseball bat

as he slept. To the film?s credit, the villains of this story are painted as complex and pitiful characters

rather than two-dimensional bogeymen.

A favorite when it premiered at the 2003 Sundance Film Festival, ?Soldier?s Girl? captures the relationship

between Barry and Calpernia with sensitivity and romance. It also hints at the political nightmare that was

to follow, one Calpernia found herself centered within.

In the May 2000 issue of the New York Times Magazine, writer David France penned a story that caused great

controversy. Essentially, it stated that two gay rights groups, the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network

and the Lesbian and Gay Coalition for Justice, convinced Calpernia to describe herself as Barry?s

?boyfriend? so the message about the failure of ?Don?t Ask? would not be diluted by the complexity of the

situation. The tag line for the story read ?In order to turn murdered soldier Barry Winchell into a martyr

for gay rights, activists first had to turn his girlfriend, Calpernia Addams, back into a man.?
Naturally, these groups took umbrage?and then they took action, drafting a letter denouncing the article, a

missive that Calpernia, in the grief and confusion of her loss, signed without reading too carefully. As

she explains on her website,, she is grateful to both David France for getting Barry?s

story out on a mass level and the activist groups who comforted her at a time when she had little to lean


After the story was publicized, Calpernia was bombarded with offers to turn the tragedy into a film. For a

year and a half, she rejected proposals, until she met producers she believed would tell the story without

making it lurid or sensationalized. She found that production company in Showtime, and she worked with the

cast and crew to make the story as accurate as possible. Then she hit the road with the film, appearing at

many film festivals, putting a human face on transsexualism and educating people.
Only when one considers how painful Calpernia?s loss was and how difficult it must be to constantly relive

it in order to bring transgender issues and the full weight of the tragedy into public consciousness, only

then can this woman?s inner strength and resilience be fully appreciated. The parallels between Calpernia

and Christine Jorgensen are irresistible: hauled under the public spotlight, both handled their fame and

notoriety with dignity and aplomb. Over these years, Calpernia has become quite the spokeswoman for the

greater transgender community, as did Christine before her.

Earlier in 2003, I interviewed Calpernia at length in a coffee shop in Hollywood, California, her new home.

We spoke of her book, the movie, her passions and much more.

In what positive ways did your strict upbringing influence you?

It kept me out of trouble. For a lot of women in our situation, it?s so lonely and difficult that we reach

out for things that can in the end almost destroy us. And my upbringing helped protect me from that.

What was the best part about writing Mark 947 for you?

It was wonderful for me to sit down and lay out all the pieces of my life and organize them into a linear

format that
I could eventually hold in my hand. It
let me step back and take a look at my life and understand subtle things that I hadn?t really seen


It must have been painful to relive the tragedy of Barry?s death. What else was difficult for you in

this book?

It was really hard thinking back on all the love and the good times. These made me cry as much as the loss

because you don?t realize what you lost until you think about it even more. Seeing those things laid out

and writing about them as a person who is now alone was sad. To look at life now and think, ?I am

successful and I?m happy, but I miss that.?

What is the one thing that you left out that you might have included?

I think people would have liked a lot more nitty-gritty details of transition, but I chose to make the book

more personal by writing about the moments of life that were beautiful and special to me.

What are the greatest influences from your childhood that shaped who you are today? Your teenage


The greatest influence against my will was God and the Bible, because that completely shaped the first

eighteen years of my life. Good and bad came from that. A small circle of women have been my biggest

influence in developing myself the way I wanted to be.

Did anyone have a clue about the woman inside you before you did?

In school, girls always treated me like one of them. I would be invited to slumber parties that boys would

never get invited to, things like that. I think they picked up on it without saying it. In the Navy I met a

small cadre of secretive gay people, and they could tell there was a different sexuality going on with


The lesbians on Adak?

Yes, I was raised by wild lesbians in Alaska. [laughs]

At what point did you know for certain you were transsexual?

I had a very strongly suppressed wish that I was a girl for most of my life, but
I just didn?t think it was possible, so I didn?t even let myself dream. When I saw my first real

transsexual at the nightclub, I realized it was possible, and that?s when I let myself take hold of that


How difficult was it to make the choice to transition?

It was scary. I took my first hormone shot in December of ?97 in the dressing room of this matriarchal

transsexual. Her name was Robin Dupree, and she gave me my first shot. When my drag mother Chyna found out,

she threw up her hands and said ?Oh, Lord! I hope you know what you?re getting into,? because she knew it

was a hard path. I felt great relief when I finally made that choice.

How about SRS? Were there any significant doubts, or was that your goal all along?

My only fear was that I would lose sexual sensation. I knew I wanted to be completely female; that wasn?t

in question. But I was worried that the surgical technology might not be to that perfect level. I took the

plunge because I felt I had to. I suffered, being a pre-op. Some girls adapt just fine to that, but I

needed to go all the way. Luckily it has turned out wonderfully for me.

Who are your heroes, and why?

One of my heroes is Andrea James of She had a lot of obstacles in her transition. She

didn?t immediately see an easy path, but she went ahead and came out the other side a beautiful, dynamic

woman. And seeing she could make it, I was, like, ?Wow! I could do this, too.? As a writer, I look up to

Flannery O?Connor and Eudora Welty. They?re brilliant writers from a time in history when people didn?t

necessarily appreciate female writers. Most of their stories are about unusual characters, funny, but dark

and Southern, and that relates to me. Most of my heroes are from daily life.

What are your politics? Have they changed? If so, how?

We were raised apolitical because my parents believed both parties are impossibly corrupt, and I do still

believe that on some level. If I had to choose, I would be a Democrat because they are more likely to be

sympathetic to situations I care about. As a soldier I was a medic, so I was there to heal people and

didn?t have to deal with the politics of murder so much.

What causes are important to you?

I get very uncomfortable when I see somebody making someone else feel bad. Most of my politics are more

one-on-one, interpersonal things. I?d be more likely to help a single person in my life, rather than being

part of a larger group?although I?m sure I?ll take part in larger political groups as time goes by.

Given your history, how do you feel about religion? How about spiritual matters in general? What do you
believe in?

I?m a bit ruined on religion. It limited my life and made me so unhappy and made me feel so judged growing

that it forced me to examine it from a scholarly point of view. I think a lot of scholarly evidences makes

it difficult to take, for instance, the Bible, at face value?or even other religious texts. The greater

human need to look for a power outside themselves, to improve the world, is a positive thing. My own

spirituality?I will admit I say a little prayer every time I ride in an airplane and it takes off, and I

still struggle sometimes with worries about hell and punishment, but I really just don?t know. I try to be

the best person I can be, and if I?m called to judgment for that and I?m judged negatively, there?s nothing

I can do about that.

How are your relationships with your brother and sister today? Your parents?

My little brother and sister and I have always been very close. There was a long period where we didn?t

communicate at all during my transition. I sort of withdrew from everybody in my previous life because they

were such a reminder of who I used to be. I needed to develop my new self. Now I talk to my brother and

sister on the phone every few months. We were three kids trying to grow up in that difficult religious

household, so we have a bond through that. My parents love me very much and they always have, but they only

refer to me with male pronouns and by my old name. Even though they want to see me, they tear me down the

whole time by calling me the wrong pronouns and name, and they won?t make any attempt to do otherwise. So I

don?t have a lot of contact with them.

What kind of experiences have you had with coming out to others? What about being outed?

For seven years in Nashville I was a showgirl in a very well-known bar, so I never had to come out so much,

thanks to that. My whole world was gay, lesbian, or transgender, and my encounters with straight people

were very limited. When I started to foray into the straight world as a woman, those were some more nervous

times, going to a straight club or going somewhere and really needing to pass. In the early days there were

plenty of times when somebody would walk up and say, ?My friend wanted me to ask if you?re a guy,? or

something horrible thing like that, and it was always crushing. Finally I learned to throw my shoulders

back and stick up for myself. As time passed I got better and better, so it?s not really an issue for me

any more.

What have you done as an actress, and where would you like to go with it?

Well, for seven years I was a showgirl, with choreography and costumes and makeup. I?ve also done plays

like ?You?re a Good Man, Charlie Brown? and ?Light Up the Sky? and ?Steel Magnolias,? which were a lot of

fun. And now, thanks to ?Soldier?s Girl,? I?ve met a lot of wonderful friends in Hollywood, so I have high

hopes to do indie films or plays.

When did you first become interested in computers? Where did you learn? Where are you going with


When I was a teenager, the Com-modore VIC-20 came out, it just clicked with me intellectually.

Understanding that opened the door later, when Win-dows came out, knowing the infrastructure. When I was in

the military, I was in charge of the hospital?s computers in Alaska because I was good at figuring them

out. Now I use computers to write my books, and also for my production company, Deep Stealth. We produced

two DVDs. I edit them on my computer and do the sound editing, and I love doing all that stuff myself.
Tell us about your website and your transgender BBS.
I always thought it would be fun to have a website, because running one is like having your own little

show. At first it was my cartoons and poetry, and then I thought it would be fun to have a BBS. Andrea has

one, and I was impressed how it took on a life of its own. People contributed, and it grew. It was like

planting a garden and watching it grow. I thought it was something that needed to be out there, so I

purchased the software and put it on there, and it just took off. And I?m so happy, because I learned from

reading the girls? stories, and I was inspired, and I made some cool friends.

Tell us about your friendship with Andrea James: where you met, what
she?s meant to you, and your current partnership.

A group of Nashville TS women moved to Chicago, and they were living full- time and were very passable.

They got corporate jobs in the big city and were a real inspiration to me. So I decided that Chicago was my

next step out of Nashville, and when I moved there, those girls had made friends with a really funny, cool

chick who was Andrea. She was post-op, and we were all pre-op, and I was, like, ?Wow, she?s done it all!

She?s so cool!? As [Andrea and I] talked more and more we discovered we both wanted to do things in the TS

community. We felt it was an under-served community with a lot of needs, so we thought we?d put our heads

together and see how we could help our sisters, and also help ourselves as businesswomen.

In retrospect, how do you feel about SLDN and the Lesbian and Gay Coalition for Justice and how they
handled your relationship with Barry?

That was such a hard time. I felt they were honestly trying to do good. They weren?t there to push me down

and make me feel sad about myself or repress transgender women. TS issues are a bit of a new frontier, and

they were probably as in the dark as I was about some of the finer points of how things could have been

handled in the best way for TS women and gays in the military. They never said, ?We want you to lie and say

you?re a man.? But they never really pushed me as a transsexual, either. I have to stress there was no evil

plot. They loved me, and I still love them. I wish all of us knew more then of what we know now.
What misconceptions do you think were perpetuated by their portrayal of this case?
I think the misportrayal came from the media more than the GLBT groups. Time magazine referred to me as

?Winchell?s crossdressing friend? in a caption. I don?t know where they got that information
or terminology. In the Tennesseean newspaper I asked [the reporter] to use only female pronouns and she

agreed, but
the article came out using male pronouns. I called her, and she said her
editor felt people would understand the story better. And I said, ?Are you inter-ested in telling the

truth, or are you
interested in whittling the facts away to make it a more easily understood story?? I never got an answer to


What were your concerns when you were first approached about turning this story into a film?

I was worried, based on the media portrayals done before that, that it would be ?Priscilla, Queen of the

Desert? meets the murder of JFK or some horrible Holly-wood treatment. It took me more than a year and a

half to settle on working with Showtime. They were genuine, very committed to making the story right.

What is your impression of ?Soldier?s Girl??

I really like ?Soldier?s Girl;? it?s unflinching. It shows at least two love scenes between Calpernia and

Barry that are not pornography. They?re like any love scene you?d see between Julia Roberts and Matthew

McConaughey. The producers made a miracle happen. It?s a wonderful movie.

Does it bother you that the movie industry doesn?t let transgendered actors play transgendered characters?
I hope that maybe I?ll be given an opportunity to turn that around, personally, by playing transgender

roles. What bothers me is the way every transgender character is either a prostitute or a punchline. Even

when I was at Sundance, we saw three different films that had a transgender rape scene where the character

was either being raped or doing the rape.

It?s true that a disturbing number of our sisters are forced into that line of work, especially earlier

transitioners who were cast out and have no work

Prostitution is not something I condemn. It?s a resource girls are left with because of society?s

rejection, and the blame lies on these girls? families and society for not helping them and taking care of

them and loving them.

How do you feel about being a visible role model for the trans community?

It?s a little scary to think people might analyze things I do and say that?s the way all trans people

should do it. I try to live my life the best I can and I try to contribute. I?ve made my share of mistakes,

and I will continue to make mistakes, but if anybody can take hope or inspiration from anything I do, I

feel flattered by that.

What kind of music do you like? Specific artists?

I?m a closet Dolly Parton fanatic because she faces something we face, that people can?t get beyond her

wigs and makeup to see she?s a loving, cool, super-talented songwriter and singer. I love bluegrass, I love

medieval music. And from my years as a showgirl, I do like ?clubby? stuff, like Madonna. I realize how

cheesy it can be, but I love that stuff, too.

How about movies? What are your favorites?

One my favorites is ?Heavenly Creatures,? an indie film directed by
Peter Jackson before he did ?Lord of the Rings.? It?s about two lesbians in New Zealand who are fourteen

years old and had a really tragic love affair. I like the ?Alien? series; Sigourney Weaver is such a hero.

I like scary movies that make me scream out loud in theaters.

What books were significant for you?

I buy collected works, like the writings of H.P. Lovecraft, Eudora Welty, Flannery O?Connor, and Dorothy

Parker; that would be the canon of books that
inspire me.

What other pastimes do you enjoy?

I love to draw cartoons and play my fiddle, and I eat a lot of sweets.

How do you like Los Angeles?

I like L.A. I like the weather. It?s harder to get to know people here, but the opportunities outweigh


Where else might you enjoy living?

Eventually I would love to live in Europe, London, or somewhere for a year or two. When I get very old, I?m

sure I?ll end up back in Tennessee in a cabin somewhere.

What places would you like to visit?

I would like to visit the English-speaking European countries, like Ireland, England, and Scotland. And I?d

love to visit Australia, because Australian men are so sweet.

What?s a typical day for Calpernia Addams?

I usually wake up around noon. I have for almost a decade, because I was a showgirl at night. I take a

shower, have a long walk, have a coffee and a croissant, read a book at the coffeehouse. Then I walk back

home listening to music, and then I usually write, whether it?s my next book or a short story. Then I work

the rest of the day on the videos I?m doing, or scripting a play I?m writing, or looking for acting


Can we expect another book from you?

I?m writing my post-op memoirs now, starting with my SRS and going into this whole movie experience: making

it, going to Sundance.

How involved were you with production of ?Soldier?s Girl??

I had dinner with the writer in New York and talked to him a lot on the phone. The producers spent two days

videotaping me in Nashville, and we stayed in touch via the phone. And then
I visited the set twice in July in Canada, and I talked to them in post-production for editing.
Where do you see yourself in five years?

I?d like to have another book under my belt and at least one well-received film appearance to my

several. And I?d like to feel I made some significant contribution to the transgender community through

education of
the public, and through resources for TS women, like our instructional videos.

Anything you?d like to add?

This is a very interesting time of life for me, and I hope when I look back I can feel I made the right

choices to help myself and our community as a whole.

After reading so much of her story, it was a pleasure to talk with Calpernia and learn more about this

fascinating woman. I can highly recommend both Mark 947 and ?Soldier?s Girl? as worth your time to


Thanks, Calpernia!