Oprah invited a former high school star quarterback on her television show last week to see how life changes after leaving the fame of being a young athlete. His name is Paul McKerrow. Or it was when Paul was a man. Today, she’s Kimberly Reed, and all woman. Not only does this make great television (and great cinema; Reed’s film Prodigal Sons chronicles her life), it makes us wonder: Why is this story so enthralling?
Oprah doesn’t make bad TV. Even a cursory chat with Kirstie Alley becomes a must-watch episode that’s really just two women talking about their issues with food. And yet, we cannot turn away. So too was this show about a stunning woman who was born a man. So why does this tale of gender identity so captivate us?
She was a star quarterback. And Valedictorian. And senior class president. And hot as a guy! Kimberly had a “fairytale childhood” from the outside, she says, and you wouldn’t be blamed for agreeing. Knowing everything was going right on paper always forces the question: So how did this all go wrong? But “wrong” isn’t the word here. It just didn’t go as … expected. Whether good or bad, it’s generally easier to dismiss the gender confusion of an obviously troubled young person, because onlookers can attribute it to abuse, or neglect, or bad parenting. But Kimberly wasn’t subject to any of those things. Which makes her decision to transition a bigger “WTF moment.”
She’s post-op. And looks damn good. It’s one things to take hormones that changes your voice and might add some breast tissue. It’s another thing entirely to have your penis turned into a vagina. Such a procedure makes us curious; that’s natural. For the unfamiliar, it leaves lots of questions unanswered (Do they cut it off? Can you still have orgasms?). So learning Kimberly had gender reassignment surgery in her twenties makes people perk up.
Kimberly is a lesbian. Even some LGBTs sometimes need reminding that sexual orientation is not the same as gender identity. So learning that Kimberly, when she was Paul, dated women (as high school jocks usually do), and still dates women now that she is one, can make one’s brain explode. Why, a queer novice might ask, would Kimberly “want” to become a woman just to be a lesbian? It’s an ignorant question — insomuch as ignorance is to be uninformed — but also one worth answering.
She’s glad she grew up as a boy. She hated being a guy when she was one, but looking back she realizes that, yep, men have it better than women in this world. As someone with a penis, she was “given this license, this boldness” that was “unearned,” whereas girls her age were already trained to assume their lesser roles. After moving to San Francisco for college and beginning to cross-dress, Kimberly says she only went to certain restaurants as a woman, and others as a man. Who in this world gets to experience, first-hand, how society treats men differently from women?