Take off your shoes. Put them on the opposite feet.
You can walk around like that for a while, but it'll gnaw at you. If you're distracted, you can get through the day. But no matter what, you know something isn't right.
That's how Candice Hart described her life before her transitionproductive, sometimes even fulfilling, but never true to the person she was. Now 62 years old, parent to two grown children and a vocal activist in Chicago's transgender community, she's finally embracing the person she's always been.
"I figured if I put everything in a vault and tried to lose the combination, which I did pretty successfully, that I could still be fulfilled," she said. "If I thought about it too much I would throw a little pity party for myself, but then I'd say, wait a second, that's not true."
Hart said she knew she was a girl as early as age 4. As a kid, she would dress up in women's clothes with her twin sister. She was horrified when puberty hit and made male body features inevitable. She was afraid to tell anyoneback then, "transgender" wasn't in mainstream lexicon, and she was worried she would be institutionalized.
"At that point, at about 10 or 11, I said to myself, you have to make this life for yourself," she says. "You've got something wrong in your mind, put it in a vault and lock it up."
"This isn't you"
Determined to power through, Hart compensated for her female-minded interior by exaggerating her masculinity. She asked her parents for a set of weights and started taking karate lessons. When she started to grow facial hair, she didn't shave. She set goals for herselfto get married, buy a house, have childrenthat could distract from the dissonance she felt. She checked everything off her list, but it didn't go away.
"I distracted myself with my work and my family and ignored it," she says. "I told myself, this isn't you, because if it was I would have been born this way."
As a director of public works in the northwest suburbs, an appointed position very much in the public eye, she blocked out any means of expression that could be read as feminine, afraid to out herself. She couldn't speak in front of crowds without meticulously planning her words; they came out cold and calculated.
At home she couldn't be comfortable around her kids, and she said she knows she treated them differently as they grew up. She and her daughter joined a club at the YMCA that provided them with six years of monthly meetings, camping trips and other prime opportunities for father-daughter bonding. She could be herself around her daughter more often than around others.
Things were different with her sonshe couldn't be empathetic or understand his point of view, and their relationship suffered. She signed on as the manager of his Little League team, but when they went out for pizza after a game, the other parents would ask why she was so hard on her son.
"It was evident during the gamesI was never a boy, per se, and I didn't know how to be a man," she says. "Straight answers without feeling or emotionthat's how I treated my son."
Hart was remarried and living in the suburbs when her spouse came home one night to find her dressed as a woman. She thought it was cute, Hart said, and they went out together that way. When Hart came out to her privately as transgender in 2001, the news wasn't so surprising.
That year Hart started on hormone-replacement therapy and slowly started to see changes in her physical appearance. She grew her hair just long enough to put back into a ponytail, which she tucked back into the collars of the suits she wore to work. Although she never came out on the job, some of her co-workers became suspiciousduring late-afternoon meetings, Hart was the only one without a five o'clock shadow.
Three years ago, she came out to her son and daughter, her now 21-year-old granddaughter, her sister and her first spouse, now remarried. In December 2010, she got divorced from her second wife, retired from her career and moved to the city. A month later, she was out to the world as Candice.
"It's been a whole new experience for me," she said. "Everything that I do and say is spontaneous now. When you're trying to protect your identity, you don't have spontaneity. You have filters in your head."
Since coming out, Hart has chaired the Illinois Gender Advocates and served on a number of local LGBT task forces and on the board of directors for the Center on Halsted. In December 2011, the Chicago Tribune featured her in an article about local transgender people. In May, the theater company Erasing the Distance featured Hart's story in Finding Peace in This House, a play of monologues about real people's life experiences.
"She was so positive and was doing so much for her community and had such a positive outlook, I thought she was a perfect person to talk to," said Heather Tahler, 24, who worked with Erasing the Distance as a graduate student at the Chicago School of Professional Psychology. "People who saw the show said it was really touching."
Hart said her family has been overwhelmingly supportiveshe's still close with her ex-spouses, and she and her granddaughter text back and forth. She recently sat down with her kids, now 39 and 36, to apologize for her past behavior. Her daughter has accepted her unconditionally; her son is getting there.
"He said, 'I really like the way you are,' he compliments me on how I look," she said. "He just bought me a birthday present, and it was a fan, but he went out of his way to get me a pink fanjust to show me that he is thinking about me in that way. And I reciprocate by making sure he understands I'm his father, and that will never change."