Not the Boy Next Door

A transgender coming out story

Tammyrae's kindergarten class photo

When she was just four years old, she was scolded for wearing “girly” clothes. “In kindergarten,” she says, “I was often removed from the girls play zone and placed among the boys ‘where I belonged.’ The world around me constantly told me I was a boy, not a girl.” It would be years before the little boy named Leslie from Middletown, New Jersey, would become Tammyrae Larissa Barr, a woman who—after 18 years of being a husband and a father to two sons—came out as transgender. “I knew I was different,” she says, “but I did not have the language or the words—or a reason—as to why I was so different.”

The understanding was complicated by the physical transformations that characterize every journey from childhood into adolescence. “I tried to fit myself into a box and rationalized that I couldn’t be a woman because I had ‘boy parts,’” she says. But long before acceptance, Barr—like many transgender youth—faced years of bullying, rejection and even violence. “A bully one day picked up a large rock and smashed my head,” she remembers. “I was left on the side of the road” at 11 years old.

As an effeminate boy, she learned to put on a tough exterior, often overcompensating and getting into fights. “Sometimes I wonder if it was because I fought back so hard that they hit me where I couldn’t defend myself,” she says. Then came puberty, facial hair and dating. “I attempted to date when I was about 16,” says Barr, “but did not really have a girlfriend until I was 18.” Pressured into dating girls—that’s what boys were supposed to do, everyone told her—Barr’s eye wandered to both men and women. “I thought I could possibly be gay,” she says. “Why else would I be so ‘girly’ and yet be a boy?”

It wasn’t until 2010 that she came out and began living openly as a woman—hair, makeup, hormones and all. This came only after much turmoil and paying her way through Rutgers, pursuing a career in the male-dominated engineering field, and marrying a woman and fathering two sons. “I honestly feel I have always known,” she admits. “We grow. We evolve, but we don’t really change.”

Barr’s wife at the time encouraged the transition after 18 years of marriage. “One day she came to me and said, ‘I need you to transition. It’s tearing you apart,’” she says. But fears of losing her family, friends and job persisted. “I tried to cope and prepare my family for the upcoming transition,” she says. “It wasn’t news to my sons, but the reality of me moving out, getting divorced from their mother and eventually having a sex-change operation was a huge jump.”

Barr’s own father denounced her—they haven’t spoken in years—and she’s had to fight to sustain a career in the field she loves. But today at 45, Barr believes there’s no right way to transition. “Coming out is coming out,” she says. “It’s fearful and full of angst and worry.”  But her proudest achievement these days tends to be less about change and more about continuity. “It’s the loving relationship that I have with my two sons,” says Barr. “I won’t say everyone has always been on board with the transition, but in general, things have gone smoother for me than they have in a long, long time.”