College in the late 1980s and started dating in the autumn of 1988. Gwen remembers she was
“deeply closeted,” and was even disappointed that being in love with a woman still did not make
her feel fulfilled as a man. She started to check books about gender identity out from Pasadena
library and she realized she needed to tell Bonnie she was trans before they got married.
Gwen was sensitive that her coming out might fill the woman she loved with panic,
anger, embarrassment, or betrayal. Gwen chose to tell her in a public place, so Bonnie would not
feel unsafe. She chose a restaurant on Bonnie’s bus line home so that if Bonnie needed to leave,
she could get home quickly and safely.
After telling me about these meticulous arrangements, Gwen paused, perhaps recounting
the moment she told Bonnie. With immense courage and copies of pages from library books in
her hand, Gwen told Bonnie she was “trans something” and she wanted to “explore her gender.”
Bonnie smiled and said, simply, “Sounds like fun.” She clinked Gwen’s glass
confidently. In May 1992, they got married, just as they had planned at a Renaissance Pleasure
Faire in Devore, California. Gwen was still presenting as male, but within a few months of the
wedding she and Bonnie drove to the Holiday Inn to visit the Powder Puffs of Orange County
together. Gwen described the scene:
“I went to attend my first meeting there and I sat in the car for a good 15 minutes,
gripping the steering wheel, because getting out and venturing in was a big step. Bonnie was
gently pushing me along.”
As she told me this story, Gwen still sounded amazed at the results, as if she couldn’t
quite believe that they had been married for twenty-five years. Bonnie’s reaction, I think, stuck
with Gwen. It reminded me of my first email exchange with her. Me, on the cliff waiting for
acknowledgement, and her response, right down to the valediction, “Cheers,” was like her and
Bonnie clinking glasses. Bonnie had given Gwen unconditional support, and Gwen had paid it
forward with me 25 years later.
The year Gwen turned 25 was jam packed. In May, as she transitioned while acclimating
to married life and working at Kinko’s, she decided that AOL’s Terms of Service needed to be
changed. A lone transgender woman, only 25 years old, taking on a behemoth company, AOL,
over legal language? And paying the monthly AOL fee to do so?
Yes, indeed.
Cloaked under the privately-held forum called “Gay and Lesbian Community Forum,”
(GLCF) Gwen stumbled upon a Sunday night “gender chat,” hosted by Melanie Phillips.
Because it avoided words like “transvestite,” “Transsexual,” and “transgender,” it floated
narrowly past the Terms of Service requirements. Gwen could reach people all over the country
to talk about living with daily struggles of discrimination, finding medical care, ignoring slurs
from strangers on the street, and juggling the balance of living their truths at the cost of constant
danger. This chatroom served as proof to Gwen that people in her community would benefit
from having the Terms of Service changed. By making the language surrounding the transgender
experience legal, Gwen could help remove the stigma attached to being transgender while also
making it easier for people to connect.
She got to work. She wrote letters to AOL’s then-CEO Steve Case, the Terms of Service
department heads, and the press relations staff. Through the GLCF, Gwen partnered with their
head of Lifestyles and Relationships channel to have more voices saying the same thing.
Eventually, they got through and the people at American Online made the words “transsexual,”
“trans,” and “transgender,” allowed. By the end of 1992, Gwen was a staff member at GLCF and
was hosting the gender chats that she had found so helpful. In January of 1993, the terms of
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