"Do you ever go over there?" I asked Jean.
"No. I tried a couple of times, but they didn't like it." she replied quietly.
"Because you're not a vet?" I asked. I knew that the VFW was for Veterans of Foreign Wars, but I also knew that this particular organization welcomed anyone through their doors.
Jean looked at me. Trying to decide whether she could trust me enough with the information she was about to share. I guess I passed. She sighed. "I AM a vet. Vietnam. That's not why they don't want me in there. It's because I'm different."
I didn't reply, so with eyes not meeting mine, she went on. "I'm a hermaphrodite. Do you know what that means?"
I nodded. "Yes". Now it made sense. This was one LARGE, muscular woman. Maybe I was naive that I didn't see it before, but now...before I could respond, she/he whipped the ever present bandana from her head. Imagine how surprised I was to see the male patterned baldness! Her head lifted and she looked into my eyes for what? Surprise? Disgust? Anger? Acceptance? Compassion?
"So what!" I said. "Your money should be as good as any one else's - *uck 'em if they can't take a joke".
Jean laughed out loud. "Ha! The joke is on me!"
The ice broken, we began one of the most heart wrenching conversations I've ever had on the road.
Jean told me she was born with both male and female genitalia, but that her parents decided she should be raised as a boy. Gene. She was told never to talk about it and to hide it from everyone. As she got older, she felt more female than male. She was very ashamed of her body. When as a young teen, her father found her kissing a boy he kicked her out of the house. She was now in her 50's and has never been back.
She lived on the streets for a while, turning tricks for money, but during the Vietnam war, they were so desperate for bodies that she found a doctor who helped her pass the physical and she became a soldier. Of course, eventually she was found out and since the army was not looking for that kind of publicity, they gave her a "conditional" discharge. Out of the service, not able to find work, she hooked up with a circus, where for many years he/she was disrobed in front of freak show customers on a twice daily basis - they laughed, they pointed, and they made fun of her - on cue. Finally, unable to take the shame and abuse any longer, she slit her wrists.
The VA hospital was able to save her life both literally and figuratively by getting her financial assistance, so she would not have to demean herself just to live. When she healed, she "rescued" Lila from the circus (I did not hear HER story) and they lived in this little piece of BLM land because they were not accepted in "normal" company still. But even that was not ideal. The paintball kids? They weren't just playing. They came around a few times a month to harass Jean and Lila by riding their dirt bikes around the camp and shooting at them with paint balls.
The sun was setting. Secret Garden started to play softly in the background. We relaxed into what had become our evening routine. Jean was now quieter than usual. Afraid, I think, that I would now rebuff her as my friend. Betray her as everyone but Lila had done. I reached out my hand and held hers. Held it until the sun set. In that moment, although we were nearly the same age, I was her lost mother and she my broken child.
The next day, our time there was ended. As we packed to move on, we saw Jean across the parking lot. Her big tattooed muscles rippling beneath a clean white tee-shirt, her flowing peasant skirt barely containing the huge strides she was taking toward us. She thrust a piece of paper at me.
"If you would like to write. This is our address." she said, afraid to look me in the eye.
"Jean," I replied. "I will write."
She lifted her kerchief-covered, balding head and smiled - a smile was more than a smile, it was relief and happiness and joy. Gene/Jean. Boy/Girl. Circus Freak/Tattooed Soldier. Broken Spirit/Kind and Gentle Friend. I will write.
One of the lessons of traveling is to be open to all people and all experiences. It would have been easy not to meet Jean and Lila. It would have been easy to refuse their invitation. It would have been easy to judge them. But it was much easier to befriend them, to learn from them, and to be reminded to live with compassion and gratitude. But for the sake of a genetic anomaly, go I.