Editor’s note: We last corresponded with Alecia in mid-January during the editing of this story prior to publication and have since learned she passed away Jan.22. The family asks that stories, comments, and photographs be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org. Donations can be made to the Ben Abel Memorial Fund by contacting the Shawnee Mission Unitarian Universalist Church at 913-381-3336 or by emailing email@example.com. Direct donations can also be provided to Alecia’s favorite charity Give Kids The World Village.
Mick Jagger’s voice bellows from the ceiling of a small patient pre-operation room.
I can’t get no satisfaction.
Alecia Abel can’t either. On a mid-September afternoon, she leans against the robin’s egg blue wall, illuminated by fluorescent lights. It’s half an hour past her 3 p.m. appointment, and she’s on the phone with credit card companies.
She has chosen to start a difficult process many fail to understand, one that has sparked heated debates over the past several years. Some Americans have paid the ultimate price for making the same decision; five people were killed this year in Florida alone.
Yet, Alecia exudes a calm energy. A little bit awkward. She rubs her eyes and scratches her balding head. The 38-year-old waited a decade to undergo this surgery— another hour’s delay won’t hurt. She wants to make sure she uses a credit card with zero interest to pay the $3,750 remaining balance on the $5,300 bill for her facial plastic surgery.
Alecia crosses her arms, showing off her sleeves of “Star Wars” and Disney-inspired tattoos. The problem with the card she uses is the cardholder needs to show a photo ID at the payment counter. But Alecia’s spouse is busy at work.
Alecia’s name was supposed to have been added onto the card last week, but it’s not showing up under the account.
“Is it under Ben?” Alecia asks on the phone.
“That’s my legal name.”
Just 10 days earlier, in the dead of night, the Abels’ living room was bathed in red and blue police lights.
They had moved a year-and-a-half ago to Newberry, a small town in North Central Florida with a population of about 5,000. They were newlyweds but there was no Alecia then; they were Ben and Lizzy, an ordinary couple settling down in a sleepy southern town. When their realtor showed them the Newberry Oaks neighborhood, packed with single-family homes, large yards and sidewalks, they knew it seemed like a good fit. They liked the clean look of the newly constructed homes. Later, they hit it off with their new neighbor, Carly.
Now, their house looked like a crime scene. An officer knocked on the front door.
Lizzy answered first.
“Have you seen your garage door?” The officer asked.
“No,” Lizzy answered.
The officer led her to the front of the house.
Lizzy stared at the large, black letters spray-painted across the two-car garage.
“Move or die.”
They suspected it was a response to Ben’s big decision to transition from a man to a woman — to finally feel comfortable with her identity. To finally become Alecia.
That such a crime targeting members of the LGBTQ community would occur in Newberry is not surprising.
It’s situated in Alachua County and neighbors Gainesville, home of the University of Florida. The massive public university creates a political blue bubble inside a generally conservative part of the state.
Newberry’s demographics are not unlike other small cities in Florida. In 2016, 59 percent of the city voted for Donald Trump. White males without college degrees, Trump’s biggest supporters in the 2016 election, make up 70 percent of Newberry’s population.
Under Barack Obama’s administration, the LGBTQ community experienced several victories, including the legalization of gay marriage and the removal of “don’t ask, don’t tell,” which barred gays from openly serving in the military. But policies under Trump have created a climate of fear that hard-won rights could be reversed.
However, some rights may be on the horizon: In November, Florida became the first state to introduce legislation that would prohibit conversion therapy, a practice with the goal of changing a person’s sexual behavior, gender identity or sexual orientation, usually to subvert LGBTQ tendencies. The bill would ban this therapy for children under age 18.
However, several Florida LGBTQ activist organizations were outraged by the killings of five black transgender women this year, which they say have been largely ignored by state politicians.
Now Alecia, who first came out and adopted her new name in July, is among the targeted.
Someone had left a sticky note on the Abels’ garage earlier the same day, the same message scrawled upon it. Alecia discovered the note and thought little of it. She crumpled it up and tossed it in the trash.
The Abels might have felt more shocked about the garage had it not been for the earlier note.
The couple brushed it off as the work of neighborhood kids up to no good. If the vandals had done something more physically threatening, like throw a brick into their window, Lizzy would have worried for their safety. Instead, Lizzy thought neighbors perhaps didn’t like seeing Alecia come and go from the house in makeup, skirts and flaming auburn wigs.
But the Alachua County Sheriff’s Office took the incident seriously and investigated it as a hate crime. The case is ongoing.
And the community showed support. Newberry Mayor Jordan Marlowe reached out to Alecia and personally apologized. After Alecia pressure-washed the garage, a neighbor painted over what remained of the slur. That eased any fears Alecia and Lizzy had; they were determined to make a go of it in Newberry.
Alecia was just as determined to move forward with her transition, no matter the political climate.
Ben Abel knew from an early age that he felt more comfortable as a girl. He grew up in Kansas City, Missouri, where he had always been close with his mom. Annual family trips to Orlando inspired in them a lifelong love for Disney movies and theme parks.
One of his cherished memories is of wandering into his mom’s closet and trying on her clothes and shoes. He liked the way they made him feel and look. It just seemed more natural. It didn’t occur to Ben that society deemed his pastime abnormal.
He kept his feelings about his body to himself and didn’t share the details of his dressing up to anyone, not even his mom.
In his early 20s, Ben wanted to make healthier lifestyle changes. He had often struggled with his weight, peaking at 360 pounds. He joined an all-women’s Weight Watchers group for inspiration. He related to their problems and they encouraged each other. At the meetings, he felt like he could be himself. Finding a group of women to connect with was critical to changing his mindset about eating right and exercising.
He successfully lost nearly half his bodyweight.
In 2006, Ben’s mom and biggest supporter died of cancer. It devastated him. It was around that time that Ben began understanding he was probably more of a woman than a man, but he never had the chance to share his secret with his mom. He had deep regrets; he vowed he would never make that mistake again.
Back in the pre-op room in mid-September, Alecia ends the phone call with the credit card company. She finally secures payment and can begin the operation to begin her journey of physically becoming a woman.
Alecia takes off her pride tank and bra and pulls over a blue paper surgery gown.
The cosmetic surgeon, Dr. John Poser, enters the room and offers her a firm handshake. Alecia feels confident Dr. Poser knows what he’s doing and can help make her feel more comfortable in her body.
He uses a purple nontoxic marker to etch Alecia’s face. Lines across the jaw. X’s and circles. Little half circles around the eyelids. These are the areas of her face Alecia hates.
Her eyelids are hooded, meaning extra skin droops over the top lid. For Alecia, this means any application of eye makeup is tedious. She has too much loose skin and fat below her chin, a problem exacerbated by her weight loss.
Some of the extracted fat will be moved into her thin lips. Alecia hopes they will become plumper, fuller and make it easier to wear lipstick. She wants to look and feel more feminine.
Dr. Poser finishes marking up his patient and steps back. Alecia resembles a child’s art project.
She studies her face in a handheld mirror, pulling the skin back at her jawbone, imagining what she will look like one day soon.
Two weeks go by before Alecia returns to the surgery center for a progress check. She looks like she’s recovering from a bad fight or car accident, but her face is healed well enough for her to put on a thin wing of eyeliner. She also has scabs around her slightly fuller lips. Her neck and the skin behind her ears are marbled with deep red and purple bruises.
She chats with Dr. Poser and his assistants about her progress and massages the skin under her chin and behind her ears.
“It hasn’t looked as good as the day I got the surgery done,” Alecia says, slouching in the patient chair.
“Normally, it’s downhill for a couple weeks before it picks up again,” Dr. Poser reassures her.
Alecia understands the process of transitioning is slow and can vary greatly for each person. But she is frustrated. And impatient. After a decade of hiding her identity, she is ready to become the Alecia she has always known herself to be.
Alecia has also recently had laser hair removal on her legs. Her next big physical step is starting hormone therapy. Over a period that can last for a couple of years, a transwoman’s body undergoes several changes: breasts develop, fat distribution changes and body hair decreases in thickness.
With hormone therapy, Alecia’s voice may also rise in pitch. She is misgendered over the phone often because her voice doesn’t yet sound feminine. She does not blame people who refer to her as “sir” or “he” on the phone because she says they’re just following normal social cues. Still, she is hoping for the day it will be natural to hear a “Thank you, ma’am.”
She also realizes the process will be even slower for her. Alecia’s busy work schedule as a service engineer for a large scientific equipment company has her traveling out of town or state multiple times a week.
Until she can begin making more permanent physical changes, Alecia is becoming more in-tune with her self-perception, starting with her name.
She chose to call herself Alecia as a combination of two of her favorite cousins, Alisha and Allison. She has not yet legally changed her name; it costs $450 in Alachua County. But harder still is changing her gender marker on her driver’s license and other important documents. In Florida, this requires multiple doctors signing off on her record, indicating she is of sound mind and understands the changes she wishes to make.
But these obstacles pale in comparison to how Alecia feels when she wakes up and looks in a mirror. She has a spouse, a house, pets and a career. Sometimes, she feels like a preteen going through puberty for the second time. At 38, she still doesn’t exactly know who she is.
A month later, Alecia and Lizzy travel to Universal Studios in Orlando. They are annual pass holders to Universal and Walt Disney World and drive about two hours to the theme park haven often. But this October day is Alecia’s first time back since her surgeries. It is also the first vacation she is on with her dad, George Abel, since coming out to him in the summer.
She gave him the news over the phone after George was diagnosed with the same type of cancer that killed Alecia’s mother. Alecia regretted not telling her mother and best friend her biggest secret. She dialed her dad’s number and took a deep breath.
“I have something I have to tell you,” she told George.
“Whatever it is, just know that I’m your father, and I will always love you.”
Then she told him that she is a woman and has felt this way since before mom died.
Alecia knows many others’ family and romantic relationships are shattered because of decisions to come out, so it meant the world to Alecia that her father was accepting. She believes her mother would have felt the same, though she will never know.
At the theme park, Alecia and Lizzy discuss the upcoming Kansas City Chiefs’ game as they wait in line for the popular “Harry Potter”-themed Forbidden Journey broom-flying ride. They laugh at the ridiculous, over-the-top nature of the new “Fast and Furious” ride.
But the past few months haven’t been easy for Lizzy. The husband she married had suddenly become her wife.
Ben and Lizzy met through mutual friends during college. They were friends for years before they started dating and shared a love of the Chiefs, theme parks and pop culture.
It was a friendship that blossomed into a relationship when they both saw the opportunity. The day they married in 2016, Ben had a clean-shaven head and a full reddish-brown beard that complemented a deep red dress shirt. Lizzy, who is a year older wore a strapless white dress.
The couple was ready to begin life together anew in an up-and-coming neighborhood with newly built homes. Four months later, husband and wife moved to Newberry. A year passed before Ben’s fateful call to Lizzy. He had been out of town for work.
“There’s something I need to tell you, but I don’t know whether I should tell you over the phone or in person,” Ben said.
“Well, just tell me,” Lizzy said.
And Alecia came out.
“Wait, did I hear you right?” Lizzy asked.
Alecia’s reveal came as a complete surprise to her. She asked Alecia how long she had known and what kind of a timeline she would take to come out and begin transitioning.
Alecia told her she had known she was a woman for years, but was afraid to tell anyone. But now, after finally telling her biggest secret to the people she cares most about, she was ready to dive into her transition. Within days, she embraced her identity by wearing her feminine clothes, wigs and insisting that people call her Alecia.
Lizzy didn’t feel deceived; Alecia had been deceiving herself and couldn’t have known how her family would react.
Lizzy, who works in emergency management at a developmental disability center in Gainesville, had always been an ally for the LGBTQ community. But she found herself in a situation she had never imagined when Alecia came out.
She felt lost. She loved Ben. Now she would have to love Alecia. She found herself in a difficult place of redefining her marriage. It had been a conventional one until Alecia’s transition. But now Lizzy was in a gay marriage.
She felt selfish, guilty even, that she thought about her own predicament at a momentous time in Alecia’s life. She reached out to her friends in the LGBTQ community but none had experienced such huge change during their relationships. They encouraged her to seek a support group.
Lizzy has been busy, but she’s found local organizations she is hoping to check out soon. Until then, she said her relationship is starting to feel more normal. After all, Alecia still has the same personality as the Ben she married.
In becoming Alecia, she didn’t lose her dry sense of humor, love of makeup and favor for women’s clothing. Instead, Lizzy said, she just became more comfortable with it all. She finally embraced who she was and began physically expressing her feelings.
One way she’s done this for years is through tattoos, which Alecia says tell her life story. The Rebel insignia from “Star Wars,” Ariel from “The Little Mermaid,” and the Ravenclaw sigil from “Harry Potter” are just a few of the 20 plus tattoos she has on her arms and legs.
In November she added a new one: two female symbols with intertwining hearts, to represent her relationship with Lizzy.
Like her tattoos, Alecia’s house is telling of her personality and story.
One night in November, more than a year and a half after moving in, it is still in a state of half-finished projects. Walls are half-painted and some electrical outlets remain frameless. She’s a woman with a lot of ambition who likes to take on big commitments, but her home life and identity are in a constant state of reworking and development.
Alecia collapses on the sofa, exhausted from a long workday. She cuddles her mutt, Zoë, who’s wearing a clunky plastic cone around her head after losing a fight over food with the Abels’ husky, Slayer.
“A package came in the mail,” Lizzy calls out from the bedroom. Alecia staggers over and opens a cardboard box.
“My wig!” She calls out. Like a kid on Christmas, she tears open a plastic bag, unveiling a bright auburn head of hair. She whips it over the top of her balding head, where it falls just under the length of her shoulders.
From the moment she puts the wig on, she can’t stop brushing her fingers through it, tossing it around in her hands like any other woman would after a salon visit.
“I forgot how nice it feels,” she shouts to Lizzy. Alecia had the exact same wig before, but used it so much without taking care of it that it developed a bunch of knots and became unwearable.
Alecia, in her auburn glory, resembles her old self: Ben with a shock of red hair, the Ben standing next to Lizzy in the canvassed photos that hang above their bed.
If she could, Alecia would be her current self in those photos. But they are memories. Memories that cannot be altered or forgotten.
One day, she hopes to add more photos to the walls, this time as Alecia. She will beam in a photo with Lizzy, red hair cascading down her back. Then, she will finally be satisfied. And finally feel free.