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Stephenie, At Last

June 14, 2014

Happiness is difficult to define for a person who doesn’t fit neatly into society’s conventional concept of gender. Transitioning to the preferred gender is sometimes the only solution to resolving dissonance between one’s internal identity and how society perceives them. It is especially challenging for older individuals who have lived with the discord for most of their lives — but ultimately decide they must be true to who they are, often at great personal cost.

Stephenie Viewweigh was able to live her last years in the gender she always knew she was. She died Friday, June 13th, 2014.

Stephenie at Last: Transition is an 'Inside Job'

  Story and Photographs © 2014 Robin Rayne Nelson/ZUMA Press

All Rights Reserved

East Point, Georgia –Stephenie Vieweigh would never forget the bitter, metallic taste of the rifle barrel in her mouth. Her finger was on the trigger — and she was pulling it.

“I couldn’t go on living a lie, unable to be who I really was,” she explained.

It was six years ago on a late-summer morning near Turtletown, Tennessee, a small mountain community near the Georgia and North Carolina borders.  Stephenie was sitting beside her kitchen table in the house she built a few years earlier. 

“My friend Dan from the local Alcoholics Anonymous group had stopped to visit. Nobody locks their doors in that town, there just wasn’t any reason to. Dan just walked in the door as I was taking what I thought would be my last breath. He saw me and in a split second grabbed the gun out of my mouth. I just sat there, sobbing, unable to talk,” Stephenie remembered.

“He kept asking, ‘What’s up? What’s wrong?’”

“Everyone in that town only knew me as Stephen. The real me — the person I was in my head, my heart and my soul — was Stephenie. I told him, ‘I know I look like a guy but I’m a woman. I got stuck in the wrong body. I think like a woman. I have the emotions of a woman.  I perceive life in a feminine manner. I’ve known all this since I was about six years old.’”

“I said, ‘If I couldn’t live my life as the woman I knew I was then I didn’t want to go on living. I couldn’t be ‘her’ where I was. I couldn’t not be ‘her.’ The physical, emotional and spiritual pain was more than I could handle.’”

Stephenie’s friend had never heard about transgender, transsexuals or gender identity issues. “I don’t know anything about what you’re saying, but you need to get hold of a therapist. Now,” Dan insisted. He unloaded the rifle and took it with him. He left the bullets on the table.  “I’m sure Dan was bewildered by what he had witnessed. He kept his distance from me after that. I never saw him again.”

steph1

“For as far back as I can remember, I wrestled with knowing I had the wrong body. It was a bad joke that I couldn’t do anything about. I was never male, I just looked like one for most of my life,” said Stephenie, now 69.  As Stephen, she served four years on a destroyer in the Navy and is a Vietnam War veteran. She also earned college degrees in architecture and computer-aided design. “I lived in Indiana, Florida, Tennessee and now Georgia. I worked in construction as a painting contractor, carpenter, framer, plumber, and even as a county computer technician. I presented a male façade as Stephen during the day, but my brain always knew different.”

“For several years when I lived in Florida I’d come home after working all day, get dressed in something pretty and drive thirty minutes to Tampa. I’d visit friends, go to restaurants and just interact with people as Stephenie. Some nights I stayed out until one or two in the morning.   I was always terrified of being discovered,” she continued.

That gender struggle was stuffed down deep when, as Stephen, she met a woman and married. That secret-self had to remain a secret.

“My wife owned a ladies’ consignment shop. My job was to maintain the place. I’d go in after hours, look through all the fabulous clothes and shoes and get dressed while I worked on whatever the place needed. If my wife ever suspected, she never said anything.”The couple moved to Tennessee a few years later and built a home, but the marriage didn’t survive.  “It had nothing to do with my gender issues, though,” she explained.

steph7

Her need to be Stephenie soon emerged stronger than ever. “I returned to living as Stephenie all the time while I was home. I started on hormones but never really saw any change in how I looked. I saw the same ugly mug in the mirror every day. I kept sinking deeper and deeper into depression,” she said.  “I remember tying a rope around my neck several times while sitting in the loft, thinking it would be better to be dead.”

There was no place to go outside of her home. The closest town was more than 90 minutes away.  “Some nights I’d just get dressed in slacks and a blouse and drive around those mountains at midnight when everyone else was asleep, hoping nobody recognized me.”

A recovered alcoholic with 26 years of sobriety at the time, Stephenie thought she could cope with the gender discord.  “But after decades of this torment in my head, I just didn’t want to go on living,”  she said.

A few days after her suicide attempt, Stephenie located a therapist in Atlanta to help her understand gender incongruity. They emailed back and forth several times a day for a few weeks.  “Finally, I found the courage to drive down and see her in person.  We connected right away. I saw her once a week for a few months. I didn’t feel like blowing my brains out anymore.”

steph4

After several months of sessions, the therapist persuaded Stephenie to move to Atlanta and begin living full-time in her preferred gender. “I couldn’t go on the way I was.  I‘d lost my house in foreclosure and didn’t have any place to live,” she explained.

Two weeks later, her red pickup truck loaded with boxes of clothes and a few personal items, Stephenie left rural Tennessee for a new life in Atlanta.

“As soon as I got out of my driveway, I felt free. There was this huge sense of relief. It was all about coming unattached to what I’d been attached to. It was more than just Tennessee, it was my whole life up to that point. It was exciting and extremely scary. I’d heard all these stories about transgendered people getting stabbed, mugged, beat up or shot.”

“I suppose I’m what some people call a ‘late bloomer,’ but age doesn’t really have anything to do with it. I reached a point where I either had to be Stephenie or be dead, but I’d come through too much in my years of sobriety to be dead because of this,” she continued.

steph5

“I made the decision to push through my fears. I allowed myself to open the door and get on with my life. At 63, I was finally going to be the real me in front of everyone. I wasn’t going to lie any more.” she said.  “That decision saved my life.”

Stephenie rented a succession of bedrooms in and around Atlanta, hoping to find work to supplement her limited Social Security income.  It didn’t worked out as she’d hoped. Last year she was robbed at gunpoint in the house where she was living. “They took my rent money, food money, my purse, makeup, computer, my car, my ID, everything. But I’m still alive,” she said.

 “When I came to Atlanta, the public’s awareness of transgender was nothing like it is now. When I got here there were lots of stares and whispers. I got all caught up in being accepted by other people. I relied on how other people viewed me. If other people liked me and accepted me then I could like me. I relied on other people’s comments to know how to feel about myself. It hurt in the beginning because I wanted to go from  Stephen to Stephenie at 100 percent. I wanted everything to be wonderful.”

“I also got caught up in the commercialism of being a woman — the right clothes, the right hairdo, the right makeup. That’s all outside stuff. It has nothing to do with who you are as a person,” she said.

steph 3

She calls transitioning an ‘inside job.’ 

“It’s not about other people putting their arm around you and telling you you’re okay. My transition succeeded the day I accepted exactly who I am, what I look like and how I present myself.  When I realized that, I said, ‘Yippee, I can do this!’  If there are those who point and snicker or show disrespect, I don’t pay them any attention these days,” she said.

“If people like me, that’s fine. If people like how I’m dressed or how I wear my makeup, that’s fine.  If they don’t, that’s fine, too. They have that choice, just like I have that choice. My voice is a bit rough and I know I’m never going to be what society calls pretty, but I don’t need other people to validate my own sense of who I am. These days hardly anyone addresses me as ‘sir,’” she added.

“I know my face isn’t beautiful, but so what?  To who?  Take the makeup off a lot of those models and see what they look like. Women have bought into the lie that they are only what they look like.”

 Stephenie limits herself to one meal a day out of habit and financial necessity. Her Social Security check goes for rent, utilities, food, cell phone service and car insurance, with enough left to buy peanuts for her neighborhood squirrels. She manages to make weekly visits to a local AA meeting and drives thirty miles each way to a gender support group every few months.

Tall and thin, Stephenie exudes an unwavering confidence in her internal sense of identity, though she has as no funds for a legal name change. Her driver’s license still reveals her birth name and sex.  Her prominent bust is the result of silicone breast forms. “They look, feel and jiggle just like real boobies.They just come off at night,” she joked. “I don’t have money for doctors, hormone therapy or sex reassignment surgery, but I’m too old for all that now anyway,” she said, wistfully.

“Transgender stories are all over the newspapers and television now. Maybe we’re not totally accepted yet but society is much more aware of our struggles these days,” she said.

steph8

 “An old friend from Florida managed to find me a few months ago on the Internet. We actually dated many years ago. I told her about my transition to Stephenie and what my life had come to. She was very accepting.” 

“She invited me to come live with her. We’ll share the food bills and utilities and I’ll have enough money to live on. It will be great to be with my friend, away from all the crime in Atlanta. I can start living instead of just existing.”

 “At last I can have my license changed to read ‘Stephenie.’  Maybe I’ll see some other friends from back then, once I get moved,” she said.  “I’m sure we’ve all changed a lot — maybe some of us more than others.”

~~~
Stephenie got herself to central Florida in late January to live with Kip, her friend from years ago. Her life seemed to be starting a new chapter, even as she approached her 70th birthday.
She’d been in Florida only a few weeks when she began coughing. It grew steadily worse. “You’re sick, you need to go to the doctor,” Kip told her. 
The doctor’s diagnosis was blunt. “You have lung cancer,” he told her. She was admitted to the hospital, where further tests revealed a brain tumor as well.  It was Stage 4 cancer.  He suggested radiation treatments to keep the tumors small, at least for a while. “I guess I shouldn’t be surprised, with all the cigarettes in my life,” Stephenie said. 
Once she was released from the hospital, Stephenie learned she was no longer welcome at her friend’s house.   With no money, no transportation and no place to live, a hospital social worker directed her to a modest group home that provided a bed and meals.
 Stephenie had to present as Stephen in order to move there. It was a matter of survival. 
'Vacation Rental' Group Home Abuses Sick Elderly
The home was in the country, miles from town, her doctor or any stores. Her hair and beard had grown long and grey. Her makeup, heels, blouses and dresses were stuffed into a duffel bag. Stephenie had gone underground. It was a painful re-transition.
Her roommate was Robert, a former realtor from Palm Beach who had lost his wife and now had spine problems. The cramped room they shared lacked heat or a working air conditioner, but they were afraid to complain. They were both one step away from being homeless. 
“It was horrible,” Stephenie said. “There was one toilet for eight people, and it didn’t work very well.  We are macaroni and cheese or rice and beans most days.”
The owners had placed a lock on the refrigerator door to keep the residents from between-meal nibbling. They also drove their residents to a bank on the first of every month to cash their social security checks. The owners took most of it, leaving Stephenie and her housemates with a just a few dollars for personal necessities. The home had been investigated numerous times for suspected abuse, but the owners were never convicted. 
After several months, Stephenie called the county’s adult protective services out of fear and hunger. Investigators managed to get her designated as a ward of the state.  She was relocated to another home with honest and compassionate caregivers, Valerie and Howard.
Stephenie began radiation treatments and ate heartily to regain her strength. “Being here with these people, it’s like heaven,” she said. “The food is wonderful and they are very nice to me. I even have my own room,” she said.  She was grateful — and hopeful.
Stephenie continued to present as Stephen. “I didn’t want to cause problems or answer questions,” she said. “I know who I am so it doesn’t really matter, does it?”
Questions briefly surfaced when Valerie helped her unpack her duffel bag of clothes and found only the blouses, slinky dresses and designer sandals. “They were just some clothes a friend gave me because she owned me some money,” was Stephenie’s explanation.  The couple managed to find some used men’s shirts and jeans for Stephenie to wear. Neither Valerie nor her husband mentioned her wardrobe again.
Stephenie’s cancer grew despite the radiation treatments. A few weeks after she had been relocated, she suffered a massive seizure. Then, a large blood clot caused her leg to swell with excruciating pain a few days later. Stephenie was soon back in the emergency room,  then readmitted to the hospital. 
She was transferred to a nearby hospice center the following week. 
“I’ve had a full life.  I know I’m terminal.  I’m ready to get out of here. At least I got to live as Stephenie for a while,” she said, pensively.
As Memorial Day approached, her doctors ordered  morphine to ease the pain in her chest from the quickly advancing cancer. She slipped in and out of consciousness as the drug took effect.
Valerie and her husband  eventually learned the truth about Stephenie’s gender identity
“Well, that certainly explains the clothes,” Valerie said.  “I’m going to call her Stephenie from now on. Oh, how I wish I’d known this before. We could have made her a lot more comfortable. I feel bad that she thought she had to hide who she really was.”
The hospice center’s social worker agreed. “It’s our mission to make our patients as comfortable as possible,” she said. Even though Stephenie was quickly approaching the end and wasn’t able to talk much, she could hear what others  were saying in the room, the social worker explained.
“Hearing is the last thing to go. I know she can hear us so I’ve instructed the nursing staff to address Stephenie by her preferred name and gender from now on.”
A few days before she died,  Stephenie told Valerie of a conversation with her roommate who was a Baptist pastor. They talked about God. Stephenie was afraid of dying alone.
“She wanted to know for sure if God was real,” Valerie explained. “She and the pastor talked a long time. Late that night, their  room filled with a beautiful light. Steph said she knew Jesus was there. She felt overwhelmed with love and she knew God was real. The next morning the pastor asked if something happened during the night. Stephenie told him what she’d seen.  “I know, I felt it too,” he told her.
Valerie offered to shave Stephenie’s  beard so she would be more comfortable as herself, but she declined. 
“I guess it doesn’t really matter, God loves us no matter how others see us. And there is no gender in heaven. We leave these bodies behind,” Valerie said to her. “It’s our spirits that go to Heaven.”
~~~
Stephenie died on a gentle June morning. Valerie sat beside her and prayed as soothing flute music played softly from a CD player she’d brought with her.  She held Stephenie’s hand for more than an hour as life slowly slipped away.  Then there was her final breath. The room became still. 
“She had no family, but she died knowing she was loved,” Valerie said, wiping tears from her eyes. “She didn’t die alone.”
Back at the house, Valerie began the sad task of sorting through Stephenie’s personal effects still in her bedroom.  She planned to donate her wardrobe to a nearby thrift store that supported the local Humane Society.  “She had twenty pairs of heels and sandals and nearly as many purses stashed in her duffel bags, as well as the dresses and blouses. I know Stephie wanted to help care for the animals who didn’t have a home.”
Valerie found some papers among Stephenie’s possessions that indicated she’d purchased a casket and a burial plot years ago in St. Petersburg. A local funeral home offered to drive her remains to the cemetery and take care of the burial. “Her grave will remain unmarked.  I guess she decided she didn’t need a stone,” Valerie said.
As Valerie packed Stephenie’s clothes for the charity, she kept an eye out for the small token that Stephenie treasured — the one inscribed, ‘To Thine Own Self Be True.’  She wanted to hold onto it.
“That was Stephenie. She was finally true to who she was —  even if she didn’t look like it in the end,” she said.
“I learned a lot about gender and accepting people for who they are,  just loving people as they are,” Valerie added. “I’ll miss her.”
 © Robin Rayne Nelson
All Rights Reserved
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21 Comments leave one →
  1. June 14, 2014 6:21 pm

    Rest in pace dear Stephanie, i’m very sorry of know of you after you leave this world

  2. June 14, 2014 6:53 pm

    This is REMARKABLE, EXTRAORDINARY…SPECIAL!! She is my heroine now! this…just make me cry, I have tattoed on my soul her words: She calls transitioning an ‘inside job.’

    I am doing my inside job too, like a man, it is not easy but its beautiful. Thanks Stephanie and the journalist who wrote this.

  3. June 15, 2014 4:06 pm

    A powerful story about those with gender issues. In telling her story, Stephanie has helped many others. Hopefully this piece will also help in educating people. Rest in peace Stephanie and thanks to both Stephanie and the author for this important story.

  4. June 17, 2014 11:06 am

    A truly remarkable woman, Stephie was. Thank you Robin for putting her story out there for others to know. I will never forget Stephie. She made a big impact on my life. Anna Lisa

  5. jac1975 permalink
    June 22, 2014 1:13 am

    Thank you so much for posting this story! I knew Stephanie from AA, and we’d heard all kinds of rumors after she moved. No one knew what was true. We found the pictures for sale of her at that horrible horrible “home”. Thank God she found safety and comfort in the end. Your story will provide a great deal of comfort to those of us who knew her. Thank you!

  6. Jeff H permalink
    June 22, 2014 9:57 am

    Thank you, thank you, thank you! I met Stephanie in AA in Atlanta & didn’t know how She’d lived out her last days. Powerful story and photos!

  7. Ken permalink
    June 22, 2014 11:42 am

    I knew Stephanie from the rooms in Atlanta also and I never knew what happened to her or where she went. I am so glad that she went in peace and love. Thank you for this beautiful story.

  8. christi permalink
    June 22, 2014 11:50 am

    Thank you for writing this article on Stephenie and her liife. I met Stephenie in AA and would always move in to her shares, because I knew what she was to share , I could always connect. She was an amazing lady who impacted Alot if lives in Atlanta and I am sure we’re ever she showed up.
    I am deeply saddened at the new of her death, I did not know she had moved and especially her diagnosis of cancer. Thank you to all were with her in her transition and too love her with all your heart.
    My heart is heavy today but know she is surrounded by eternal LOVE.
    You are angels to have taken care of her and to write this beautiful passage of her life.

  9. Nicole permalink
    June 22, 2014 5:23 pm

    Rest in Peace!! God loves ALL!! Gender does NOT matter but what’s inside that counts the most!!

  10. June 23, 2014 11:09 am

    Rest in peace, Stephanie. You will be missed. xoxoxoxo

  11. Mike permalink
    June 23, 2014 12:03 pm

    Thank you so much for sharing this beautiful story. I met Stephanie in Atlanta as well and only knew her as Stephanie. I can’t imagine the struggles she went through but I admire her for her strength to walk through her fears. Knowing her was part of what helped me begin to accept myself for who I am. Her experience with God brings such hope and peace to me and reminds me that He never leaves our side. Rest in peace Stephanie.

  12. cspotjump permalink
    June 24, 2014 2:59 am

    I too, knew Stephanie from the rooms of AA and I grew to like her very much. It was when we shared hugs in passing that I really got the sense of how much she towered above me – Something I will always remember. But I was changed by her presence – primarily because she was a catalyst for me to develop a new and deeper understanding of that most common human desire: to live an authentic life, to be loved and supported for who we are, not feared for our perceived differences. And every time I saw her she was Stephanie – through and through. This is the first I have heard of her passing. Thank you for telling her story. I am truly sorry that I will not have the opportunity to see her again. Rest easy Stephanie.

  13. michelle boone permalink
    June 26, 2014 7:21 pm

    This made me cry. I am transgender M/F and 57, just starting my transition 6 months ago. I love her, she is a wonderful lady and wish I had known her in person.

  14. Dave permalink
    July 14, 2014 11:01 pm

    I met and got to know Stef in AA in 1991. A great example for me in early Sobriety. We often chatted about the Navy. I speak only for myself, my memories of Stef we all positive. RIP my Friend.

  15. Andrea permalink
    May 10, 2015 8:42 pm

    Robin this was a beautiful story! How powerful – you are quite the journalist.

  16. Steve M permalink
    May 30, 2016 4:06 am

    I just don’t where to begin, I’m in shock since I read this story a couple months ago and just now have a clear enough head to put my feelings into words. I met Stephen in 1992, we met at A.A. I was just a couple years sober at the time and he had quite a few sober years in the program at that time. Prior to actually speaking to him the first time, I was actually awe struck by the way he conducted himself and how others in the program gravitated to him for help. Stephen was always willing to help anyone in need!

    He was a very humble man and this would be something he wouldn’t have told anyone. But the story is, that after we had spoken a few times at meetings he asked me “do you want to do something to make amends to people you may have wronged in the past but may never get the chance to see them again?” I said sure but how do I do that. He said “I’d like to take a trip to Homestead and deliver water to the Hurricane Andrew victims”. He said “helping total strangers in need will be our way of repaying a debt to those we have wronged in the past.” The storm had just ravaged Florida the day prior and I said “sure but where do we get the water?” He said I have purchased a whole truck load and all I need you to do is help me load it up and drive it down there.” So early the next morning around 3am we loaded up his pickup truck full of bottled water and headed south for the 7 hour trip. I remember distinctly passing the National Guard on Alligator Alley in the darkness of early morning as they and we, made our way down there. The trip was a success and those folks were so happy to see us, some had tears in their eyes and I’ll admit, I did as well. That long journey also allowed for me and Stephen to really connect as friends.

    Stephen and I fished together, we worked on building a racecar and did the things that good friends would do. But as time grew on, we did like a lot of friends do, they drift apart on their own life’s path. We haven’t spoken in many years and I am saddened to hear of his passing. I feel a bit of guilt for not keeping in touch, but I guess I figured he was still plugging along and carrying himself so proud and saintly the way I remembered him.Then to read and see how he suffered towards the end is just awful. The guy helped so many folks during his time on earth, he really helped many people turn their lives around. Seems that none of us “friends” were there to help him in his time of need.

    I never had any idea of his internal struggle with his identity. Had I of known, I would have supported him. That is a fact I know in my heart. I don’t know what actually made me want to share all of this, maybe it’s my way of telling Stephen, thanks my friend. Thank you for being there for me as a true friend would do. I’m sorry I wasn’t there when you needed help the most and I hope you will forgive me. And Stephen, I’m glad you were able to “find yourself” and be who you wanted to be. You my friend were a special human being. Heaven gained an Angel and the Earth, has become a bit more shallow…Bless you!

    • Sid R. permalink
      June 23, 2016 5:56 pm

      Steve, thank you so much for sharing this memory of Stephenie. I am not surprised at all about the act of generosity as she lived the principles of the program like few do. I too am so grateful for the skillful telling of her story. I believe that it has the power to teach and guide us to do profound things that we might not have been led to do otherwise. May we follow her example and help where we can. Sending prayers of peace and comfort to your heart.

  17. Scott permalink
    June 22, 2016 9:37 am

    At peace finally. What a sad, inspiring story, that could have had a happy ending through acceptance and understanding. Unfortunately, too many that need to, will never read this story or fathom it’s importance. We are all God’s children, are unique, and valuable.

  18. June 23, 2016 6:34 pm

    I’m in good company here with all these others who knew Stephenie in the rooms of AA in Atlanta. I am sad beyond reckoning to read what happened to her, but so grateful for the skillful and brave telling of it. I always looked forward to what she had to share because she was free of bullshit, but long on insight and wisdom. I’m so sorry that Atlanta met her with violence, and that to be someone who was so admired and cared for, she fell through the cracks so many times. I wonder what was done to the “group home” POS’s who abused and neglected her… But more than that, I wish that I could personally thank Valerie and her husband for being there at the end.

    Such a fitting last chapter, to share a room with a Baptist preacher in hospice–humble companions at the threshold of death, and that he witnessed the moment that the love and light of God presence came to comfort her. In my mind’s eye, I can see Stephenie nod and chuckle ironically.

    Her story makes my heart burn brighter, and my prayer is to do for others as she did, and how I wish we could have done for her.

  19. October 31, 2016 8:44 am

    Reblogged this on Echo LaVeaux.

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  1. Stephenie, At Last – A Powerful Story of a Transgender Life Delayed | Transas City

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