By Linda Witt
Updated February 12, 1979 12:00 PM
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Nancy Hunt is one of an estimated 10-20,000 male-to-female transsexuals in the U.S.—but she was no ordinary human being even before the surgery. One of her great-grandfathers was William H. Hunt, President Garfield’s Secretary of the Navy, and another was the legendary Union cavalry officer Gen. Philip Kearny. As a boy Hunt went to the Pomfret School in Connecticut, then served as an infantry sergeant after World War II, graduated from Yale (class of ’50) and wound up as a prize-winning reporter and war correspondent for the Chicago Tribune. (She asks now that her male first name not be revealed out of consideration for her family.) While still a man, Hunt married, fathered a son and two daughters, divorced the first wife and married her best friend, a woman 20 years younger than he. In 1974 Hunt’s co-workers at the newspaper began to notice peculiar changes in him. He took to wearing rather feminine clothing and traces of makeup. He was made to feel uncomfortable in the men’s room, and one evening a company executive even made a drunken pass at him. Finally, on Feb. 17, 1976, surgeons at the University of Virginia turned Hunt into a woman. In her book, Mirror Image, Nancy Hunt, now 52, describes the ordeal that resulted in a second divorce (the book is dedicated to his wife, “Ellen, who lost her life while saving mine”) and the estrangement of his children. In Nancy’s one-bedroom Chicago walk-up, cluttered with books and examples of her needlework, she talked to Linda Witt of PEOPLE about her journey from one gender to another.

Why did you feel you had to become a woman?

I honestly don’t know. When I tackled the book I thought the research for it would—at last—provide me some answers. Why me? Of all people! But the so-called experts have such varied theories. Most suggest the little boy had an unnaturally close relationship with his mother, but that’s certainly not true in my case. Or they point to an absent father—again not true for me.

Did you find any answers at all?

One thing that seems consistent is a trauma before age 6. I had to look for traumas in my case—it may have been the dismissal of my nurse, to whom I was devoted, when I was 6. A boy has a second chance to form his identity in adolescence, but if there’s a second trauma then his goose is cooked. For me, trauma No. 2 could have been prep school, which I hated. But the idea that I was a girl was with me before any possible traumas.

What was your childhood like?

It was never very loving. My mother told my three older sisters—in my presence—how awful men were, how bestial their appetites. Even when I was a child it seemed inconsistent to me to be urged toward manhood, if it was so awful. But I did my damnedest, and I made it.

Were you born with female tendencies?

I’ve begun to read and think a lot about the possibility of reincarnation. Out of intellectual desperation I’m afraid I’ve latched onto this explanation, though I’d like to think there is some logical, factual one.

How did you feel as an Army sergeant and later as a correspondent in Vietnam?

My feminine feelings were pretty well in remission. I was supermasculine.

Did your female self ever surface?

No. I used to enjoy men—I still enjoy them! The only difference is now I go to bed with them.

In your work, did you consciously try to prove your manhood?

No, but I did specialize in stories about bravery, and I’d make myself experience the danger along with the firemen or soldiers I wrote about.

Did you ever seek psychiatric help?

No. I think most shrinks are charlatans. The one who interviewed me the night before my surgery screamed: “Tomorrow they are going to cut off your sex organs!” He was remarkably hostile.

How did you first confess your feelings of femininity to your wife, Ellen?

We’d sit for hours as the candles burned lower and lower, telling each other how much we were in love. One night I said I always wanted to be a woman, and she said, “That shouldn’t be hard to arrange.” She wore a size 12—so did I, it turned out. I had conned her into buying one of those cheap Orphan Annie blond wigs. She dressed me up.

What was your reaction?

I was terribly moved when I saw myself in the mirror as a presentable woman. I had never thought that was possible. The one thing that didn’t fit was the mustache, so I went to the bathroom and shaved it off. That was March 18, 1971—I wrote it on the wig box. It’s like a birthday.

How did you begin your actual physical transition?

I was having my beard removed, and I began to get estrogens from a doctor recommended to me by my electrologist. Later my wife, who was a nurse, injected me. Estrogen is a real happy pill. I’ve realized since that women really are serene because of their hormones; men’s androgens hound them. Women don’t write great symphonies, but we’re happier. Over a period of about two years the estrogens caused gynecomastia—you grow small breasts. Some transsexuals also have implants, but I’m resigned to being a tall, skinny, flat-chested broad.

How long were you able to continue having sex as a male?

About a year. And when it ceased, it wasn’t a great loss for me, though it was for Ellen. The curious thing to me is that during all my years as a man I was simply appalled about the idea of getting into bed with another man. Yet as the surgery approached—and as Ellen and I went out to singles bars to see how I’d be accepted by men—I thought, “Hey, this is going to be okay.”

Was your continuing metamorphosis a cause for arguments with Ellen?

As it turned from a game of dress-up to a really terrifying force in me, it was horrible for her. By the time I realized she was unhappy, my mad careen toward womanhood was like being on a greased shuttle. I don’t know if I could have stopped. Ellen really did love the man she married. She even accompanied me to the hospital for the surgery and lived with me afterward for three months—all out of love for her husband.

What is your relationship with Ellen now?

She lives across the street, and I can see her lights on at night. But when I run into her, most of the time she’s quite frosty. A mutual friend at the Tribune tells me she feels like she was an accomplice to a murder.

How have your children reacted?

My daughter has come up to the newsroom with friends to visit me and introduced me as her aunt, but we’re still having problems. My son called recently—to my astonishment. I miss them. I would like my kids to accept me.

Why did you take the final step-surgery?

I embarked on it simply for legal reasons. I was dressing more and more as a woman—which is illegal in Chicago. I couldn’t get a driver’s license, since the state of Illinois uses pictures on them. I wanted to have the legal right to be who I was.

How did your colleagues at the newspaper react?

Of my colleagues, 50 percent don’t give a damn one way or another. Of the other 50 percent, maybe 20 percent accept me. The others are guarded.

How did you announce it to them?

I changed in stages. First I started wearing man-tailored women’s shirts; they didn’t differ much from the flowery shirts some of the younger men were wearing. Finally I got up the courage to wear the tiniest bit of makeup. The men simply could not believe their eyes. I was the combat correspondent, the old police reporter. Indeed, I had once written an article on what it means to be a man, and the Marines gave me a paperweight as a token of respect. I still keep it on my desk. I finally retired from the men’s room when I saw one of the men glaring at me as I washed my hands. He was outraged at my presence in his sanctuary.

Were you in danger of being fired?

The assistant managing editor took me aside and said they wanted me on the copy desk—in other words, off the street, out of public view. “Why don’t you fire me?” I asked. With infinite gentleness he told me he didn’t want to do that. Maybe they thought I’d bring a sex-discrimination suit, but I like to think they spared me out of consideration for my past accomplishments.

How’s your social life?

Even for a genetic 52-year-old single woman, the guys aren’t there in quantity. The transsexual thing is just one more hurdle.

How has your sense of self changed since becoming a woman?

All the years as a man I would look in the mirror and hate myself. Now I’m an avowed sexual freak. Yet I look in that mirror, and after a lifetime of self-loathing I can say, “Hey, I like me.”

Your sisters do not accept your change. What about your 84-year-old mother?

She doesn’t know. We chat once a week on the telephone, and I use my old male voice.