This weekend, Austin hosted a variety of events to mark the Pride movement, sponsored by the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender community. This reminded me of my own rainbow education that began – not here in Austin, as one would think – but in 1950s Dallas, Texas.
I spent my youngest years either living with or visiting my maternal grandparents, and there was where my barometer of normality was set. In the context of everyday life with them, I was introduced to Lorenzo, an individual who came to the house about twice a week to do laundry, ironing, and other cleaning chores for my grandmother. The biweekly visits had begun in the late 1930s, before the advent of washing machines, when getting clothes clean was a laborious task largely accomplished by using big tubs of water on the back porch or in the yard. Lorenzo was strong and could manage this laundry work easily enough. By the time I came along, washing machines were doing the hard part and he did ironing and other tasks around the household.
My issue with Lorenzo was that I never knew whether he was man or woman – he was the original “Pat.” And no one called him “Lorenzo.” Instead, for whatever reason, he was called “LorenzAH.” Not that I was familiar with the name Lorenzo, anyway. But it wasn’t Henry and it wasn’t Mabel. Since the name didn’t offer any clues, I considered the fact that he wore his hair rather long, touching the shoulders. No men sported hair that long back then. I remember asking my grandmother many times, “Is Lorenzah a boy or a girl?” Alternatively, she would respond with “It’s not polite, young lady, to ask questions like that,” or “Don’t you be so nosy, young lady,” and the truly mysterious, “Lorenzah is just Lorenzah.”
Even though I grew up and came to accept, “Lorenzah is just Lorenzah” as the final answer, I recently decided I needed a definitive, if somewhat belated, answer to my questions. I asked my aunt to tell me about Lorenzo. She explained that he was born and considered to be male, but that his mother noticed some anatomical differences and kept him at arm’s length as a result. When he began to menstruate, the mother’s employer, a wealthy Dallas woman, took Lorenzo to a doctor who explained hat he was a hermaphrodite (which now we refer to as a sufferer of a disorder of sexual development or DSD). Subsequently, the employer took him under her wing (given the mother’s distinct lack of interest in him by this point) and taught him how to do things around the house. She then helped him find jobs among friends and friends of friends, which is how he ended up working for my grandmother.
From what my aunt remembered, he could have gone either way in the gender department, but he preferred being a woman. He dressed ostensibly female until he got tired of being picked up by the Dallas Police Department who continually arrested him on morals or disturbing the peace charges. My grandfather would often be called to bail him out of jail. After a prison sentence of about a year or so, he and the police agreed that he wouldn’t appear in public wearing dresses if they would leave him alone. I seem to recall a dress or two and maybe even the outlines of a bra, but mostly I visualize his stocky frame covered in twill pants and a white shirt. While dressed like a man, however, he lumbered through my grandparent’s craftsman bungalow keeping up a constant patter and laughing a high-pitched cackle of amusement that, one suspects, might have been mimicry of his own mother’s voice.
Family lore has it that he gave my aunt her first bath when she was brought home from the hospital. My aunt also told me that he was very protective of her and my mother – my grandmother couldn’t criticize either one of them when Lorenzo was around. When grandmother complained that my mother changed clothes too many times during a day, Lorenzo would pipe up with, “Now, Mrs. G, who does the washin’ and ironin’ around here? I do! And I say that girl can change her clothes as much as she wants to!!” As she recalled her long relationship with Lorenzo, my aunt said of him, “He was probably the one person in my childhood who loved me unconditionally.”
All during my childhood, Lorenzo was there. He was a part of the fabric of my grandparents’ life and it seemed normal that one should know a black person of indeterminate sex and that he could be a protective mother hen of young girls against my grandmother – no mean feat. It also seemed normal that our family would help him wrangle with his police problems when needed and that these problems would be of little concern to the household as long as Grandaddy was able to spring him.
Even in our post-civil rights act, politically correct times, I imagine many in this country would consider it a bit odd to have such a person working in their home, taking care of their children. They would be fearful of the values that another Lorenzo with all the gender-disorder baggage might instill in their impressionable young girls. And yet, half a century later, I was struck by my aunt’s comment. Her memories are not about interracial relations or gender disorders, but about shared humanity and the unconditional love of one human being for another…a rainbow that colors her heart.