Born into the wrong body

Bill Strange (upper left) became Dawnne Woodie (lower right) six years ago.<BR><I>Contributed photos</i>

Bill Strange radiated success.

The Texan - a third-generation Baptist minister - also co-owned a thriving chain of funeral homes. He was a husband and father. His name was well-known in right-wing political circles.

But something wasn't right.

Depression simmered inside, hidden behind the persona of a successful man of the cloth. A dark desire to kill himself lurked just below the surface. He dared not tell anyone the real reason for his unhappiness - an uncanny feeling he was a female trapped inside a male's body.

In the wrong skin

Bill is now Dawnne Woodie, a transgender woman, or "transwoman."

"In one of my earliest childhood memories, I was kneeling at the side of the bed," Dawnne said recently. "I'd pray to God, 'Please, let me wake up as a girl.'"

Today, Dawnne, 56, lives in Hermiston and plans to open a center for transgendered people in crisis on five acres just outside town. How Woodie made the transformation from conservative preacher to transwoman is full of twists and turns.

In high school, she said, Bill felt different from other boys.

"I always regarded myself as defective, even inferior to everyone else," Dawnne said. "Unfortunately, so did the other boys. I was an easy mark for every bully on the playground, constantly attracting childhood tormentors. They taunted me, calling me a sissy and a queer."

Rick Sanders, a classmate, admitted to being one of Bill's tormentors.

"I teased Bill in high school," said Sanders, who played football and sang bass in choir with Bill. "He was a nerd before before there was such a term."

Sanders, however, admitted he always had respect for Bill, though he acted differently than most boys he knew.

"Bill was a strong guy, who never flinched when teased," he said.

Reinventing himself

Eventually, Bill began to remake his image.

"I succeeded over the years in erecting an elaborate fa├žade that conned people into thinking I was really someone who had his act together," Dawnne said. "I dated the girls. I got married and had children."

As a young man, he studied at East Texas Baptist College and later earned his master's in English at Texas A&M. He drove 250 miles two days a week to preach at a little country church for $50 a week.

On Valentine's Day of 1973, Bill's wife buckled their newborn son and 1-year-old daughter into the couple's Volkswagen Beetle and set out for the grocery store. They never came home.

"They were hit broadside by a dump truck and killed instantly," Dawnne said.

Bill, devastated, went on to get his doctorate at Southwest Baptist Theological Seminary. He remarried in 1982 and fathered twin girls.

Bill embarked on side-by-side careers as minister and funeral home owner, shoving aside the uncomfortable feeling he was in the wrong skin.

"Most of my adult life, I medicated with vodka," Dawnne now says.

Eventually, he and his wife divorced, Dawnne said, not because of gender issues but rather because of his workaholic behavior.

Bill cradles two-day-old twin daughters in 1983, a product of his second marriage. One daughter was born before midnight and the other shortly after, giving them different birthdays.

Photos courtesy of Dawnne Woodie

Someone to listen

One day, a conversation with a female friend, Kathy Woodie, changed his life and later he took her last name as his own. During an evening of dancing and drinking, he unloaded his secret shame. Her reaction shocked him.

"She was absolutely cool," Dawnne recalled. "She said, 'You could have told me this 10 years ago.'"

Kathy, Dawnne said, became a lifeline for Bill, the only person he trusted with his true thoughts. Then his friend died unexpectedly. Woodie, heartsick, did her funeral. Afterwards, he shocked everyone he knew by quitting his life and disappearing.

The 47-year-old minister laid a letter of resignation on his church's pulpit and walked away. He then went to his business partner and said he wanted out.

"I told my partner he had until 8 o'clock to buy me out or I'd put my half of the business up for sale," he said.

After setting up a trust fund for his two daughters, Bill Strange ran away.

Bill interacts with a friend at a pool party during his senior year in high school.Photos courtesy of Dawnne WoodieEscape

"I took the first flight out of Austin - it didn't matter where it was going," Dawnne said. "My daughters didn't know where I was for two years."

He considered suicide and tried some indirect ways to accomplish the task. One time, he signed up to bungee jump from a suspension bridge in Arizona's Royal Gorge.

"I intentionally told them I was lighter than I was. I wanted to go down, hit the rocks and die," Dawnne remembers. "I spent two years traveling and doing things that were insanely dangerous or incredibly stupid, just trying to die."

Evidently, something inside Dawnne clung to life and, eventually, he ended up in San Francisco, still feeling hopeless and suicidal.

"I didn't want to exist if I couldn't be who I was, and I didn't understand who I was," said Dawnne, who now lives in Hermiston. "If nothing else, the Golden Gate Bridge was there and I could jump off."

Finding the person deep inside

Dawnne described Bill as a "gray-haired, broken-down old man" who was 49, but looked 89. But, as Bill started connecting with people in the transgendered community, his relief was palpable. The feeling of living life as the wrong gender was more common than he knew. Soon, Bill gave way to Dawnne. He started taking estrogen, progesterone and testosterone blockers and dressed female.

"The only choice I made was to become authentic - to become the person deep inside me," Dawnne said.

He officially became a woman on Bill's 50th birthday, May 2, six years ago.

Gradually, Dawnne gained confidence, taking on leadership roles and, eventually, finding herself behind the pulpit again. With a friend, she started an organization that reached out to people struggling with gender issues.

"We set up phone banks and answered calls 24 hours a day," she said.

Dawnne said callers shared stories of rejection and getting beat up and being evicted from their homes. Eventually, the organization evolved into the Outreach Program for Transgenders in Crisis (OPTIC), which has offices in San Francisco, Detroit, Houston and New Orleans.

Going home again

In 2006, Dawnne decided to attend her 35th high school reunion in Deer Park, Texas.

"They were expecting Bill," Dawnne said.

Wearing a purple two-piece outfit, black heels and make-up, Dawnne walked up to a table covered with name tags. She recognized the classmate sitting behind the table.

"Hi, Raymond, I'm Dawnne Woodie," she said.

Dawnne explained that she and Bill Strange were one and the same. The man's jaw dropped slightly, Dawnne said, but he remained otherwise composed.

"He didn't blink," Dawnne said. "He scratched out Bill on the name tag and wrote Dawnne."

Word soon got around and Dawnne found herself the object of fascination.

Rick Sanders, who once teased Bill, was accepting of Bill's metamorphosis.

"It doesn't matter to me," Sanders said. "A lot of people in our time grew up believing that 'Leave it to Beaver' was the way life was supposed to be. Dawnne is just doing what Bill always wanted to do."

About Dawnne's appearance at the reunion, Sanders said, "He looked better than some of the other girls."

Earlier, shortly after Dawnne made the transition from male to female, her ex-wife and two daughters trekked to San Francisco to check out her new identity.

After long talks, they marveled at how much happier Dawnne seemed. When her daughters returned home, they outed Dawnne to her 99-year-old grandmother.

"My phone rang," Dawnne said. "It was grandma demanding an explanation."

She explained as best she could. When Grandma asked if she was happy, Dawnne said yes.

"Well, honey," she said. "I give you my blessing. You were the unhappiest child I ever knew."

Others in her family have been less accepting, Dawnne said.

Relationship with God

People often ask Dawnne how she can reconcile herself as both transwoman and a minister. She doesn't deny that some Old Testament scriptures portray gay, lesbian and transgender lifestyles as sinful. Woodie calls them the "clobber scriptures."

"People use those scriptures to clobber us," she said.

Dawnne concentrates on the New Testament, where Jesus admonishes people to "love one another" and "love your neighbor as yourself."

Now, Dawnne visits churches around the country telling her story to congregations and giving a sort of Transgender 101 course. During one visit to a church where her father and grandfather had preached, several people "got up and slammed out" after she took the pulpit.

Those who remained, however, listened intently to her story. While some treat her with scorn, most people seem to accept, Dawnne said.

Branching out

Last September, Dawnne moved to Hermiston to join her friend Rev. Melanie Brown in her business, Sacred Space Life Enrichment Center. Dawnne said she is in the process of purchasing five acres of land to build a 22,000-square-foot retreat center for transgenders and others who are in crisis. At least one counselor will work at the center, she said.

She won't reveal the location, just yet, though so far, Hermiston been an "open-minded and accepting place."

"I have fallen in love with the community, with the people, and the area," she said. "Other than a couple of closed-minded detractors, I find that the populace here is ready to just live and let live, allowing me and others to live our lives without judgment, and allowing us to just be ourselves."

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