Michele Culver is a 1-yearold female. So pay no attention to the 49-year-old male body she is walking around in.
That body has always been the biggest obstacle to her happiness. But as of June 1 last year, Culver dropped all pretensions about altering it.
She had been injecting estrogen into the body for years, chemically calming an internal gender war raging within her since her childhood.
Culver, a Scottsdale resident and ambassador to the city’s minorities, says she is now free of her struggle for identity. She has "transitioned," dropping the male name — Kenneth — that she has answered to and hated her whole life.
It was under that name that Culver was named to the Scottsdale Human Relations Commission in 2002, a politically appointed group responsible for reaching out to the city’s minorities.
By switching genders, Culver has herself become a minority, a position she argues makes her well-equipped to relate to Scottsdale’s cultural spectrum.
When the male name was dropped, so too was the idea that Culver must feel like a woman living in a man’s body, she said.
"It’s like you waking up tomorrow, knowing that you’ve been a male all your life, looking in the mirror and all of a sudden you get breasts and you’ve got long hair and all of a sudden your manliness is not there anymore," Culver said. "I do that every single day."
Masculinity was just one of the things Culver has lost.
After 20 years of marriage, Culver is getting divorced. She had to sell her Scottsdale bike shop, the Bike Emporium, in early 2004 when she began phasing women’s clothes into her wardrobe. The customers, particularly children, stopped coming in. Culver said she is on speaking terms with only one family member aside from her two teenage children.
In becoming Michele, Culver has been stripped of nearly everything that Kenneth acquired, short of his children and commission seat.
Though U.S. Census data shows the city remains predominantly white and wealthy, the city has pockets of poor, gay, Yaqui Indian, black and Hispanic residents, just to name a few of its minority groups. Some are growing rapidly.
On the outside, Kenneth Culver shared little with Scottsdale minorities when he was tapped to serve on the commission. A guy’s guy, the old Culver liked guns and knives, illegal drag racing and BMX bikes. She’s still into bikes, but has moved on from other elements of that persona.
"I was over-macho," she said. Culver was also white, married and raising two teenage kids in the McCormick Ranch subdivision.
In 1994, Culver’s family moved to Scottsdale from New York after a series of snowstorms crippled their bike sale and repair business. That same year, Culver opened the Bike Emporium in central Scottsdale.
WONDERED ABOUT GENDER
Culver said that for as long as she can remember, she has wondered what, exactly, she is.
Born a male in New Jersey in 1955, Culver felt misplaced in that gender. Her first romantic relationship was with a boy. She was 15 years old and it did not feel right. She’s not gay, she said.
Shortly before turning 30, Culver married. The wife understood that Culver would cross-dress and might be a transsexual. Marriage calmed the desire to become a female for several years. Culver did not want to identify her exwife, and she declined a request to be interviewed.
When the first child was born, Culver’s interest in becoming a woman was renewed.
Culver was appointed to the commission after being encouraged to apply by then-Councilman David Ortega, a Bike Emporium customer. Ortega said he recommended Culver for city service based on his work assisting local children with their bikes.
He did not know Culver was a minority, he said.
"I had no clue about any of the transition things that happened," he said. "I know him as Ken Culver."
Now Culver is a minority within a minority, living alone in a one-bedroom apartment.
"Trans people, whether they’re transsexual or transgender, have been welcomed into the larger (lesbian, gay, bisexual or transsexual) community in sort of fits and starts, and not always comfortably," said Daniel Brouwer, an Arizona State University assistant professor in human communication who has studied transgender issues.
Culver is not a woman yet. For the past year, she has lived as one in the way she dresses and behaves, the first step in switching genders. Culver has labeled herself a transsexual.
That title, however, is not accurate, Brouwer said. That description is for those whose gender has been altered through surgery.
Culver said she is saving up for the procedure, which costs roughly $15,000. In the meantime, her body is a work in progress.
She has big hands and stands well above 6 feet. Her face appears to be sinking in spots, taking on a feminine frame. Her hair is reddishbrown, grown almost to her shoulders. Like all her other changes, Culver said her breasts are real and were initially the accidental byproduct of hormone therapy started three years ago.
Doctors told her the estrogen would have little to no physical effect because of her age. They were wrong, and the injections Culver was taking — and hiding from her wife — became obvious.
Culver’s personality has undertaken a similar transformation, she said. Once an introvert, prone to depression and suicidal thoughts, she said she can now relax and be open about what she feels. After selling her store, Culver worked repairing bikes for a sporting goods chain. She said much of her time is spent with her children, working with minority groups and dating — both men and women.
Culver’s colleagues in Scottsdale government said the only Culver they have known is Michele, and she has thrust herself into the commission’s work.
"I can’t really speak for what she did before, when she was Ken," said Aubery Strickstein, who works with Culver on the commission. "She’s upfront, she’s very open, she has strong opinions. There aren’t any of us on that commission that are shy."
She has been particularly outspoken regarding hate crimes, of which Scottsdale has few. Police Chief Alan Rodbell said his department now works directly with the commission in determining if a crime deserves that designation.
Culver’s first term on the commission expired this year. The City Council reappointed her in March by a vote of 6-1. Councilman Jim Lane, the lone opposing vote, argued that Culver had tunnel vision, focusing solely on her issue.
"I understand why, and everything else, but I didn’t think that that was necessarily a good (idea) to be biased toward that one particular thing," Lane said.
However, Velicia McMillan, a Scottsdale diversity specialist, said Culver has worked on a wide range of issues, from day laborers to police hiring practices.
McMillan, a Baptist, is an unlikely ally. Yet she is one of several supporters Culver said she has found in Scottsdale since transitioning.
Culver is a rare example, McMillan said, of a minority working to find themselves without forgetting about other people.
McMillan said the Bible teaches her to disapprove of Culver. "But it’s my understanding that the precept of the Bible is to love one another," she said. "And Michele is a wonderful person."