Although SueZie Hawkes knew in her mind and heart that she was a little girl in her youth, her physical form and society said otherwise. As she grew up, she experienced the isolation, depression, and challenges that many transgender women experience.
Then she met Cheryl, who lived an ocean away.
Cheryl filled SueZie’s life with the love, acceptance, and support that SueZie needed to live authentically within an exterior that matched her interior. Now together twenty years, this couple epitomizes unconditional love and support.
Their story has received substantial interest globally. They have been featured on Fox 13 News Stories, Channel 10’s Studio 10, and CBS Insider. Their interview with Fox received an Emmy nomination.
OUTCOAST had the honor of sitting down with the loving couple to learn about SueZie’s childhood, how they met, how the transition process changed their relationship, and how they kept grounded and connected throughout the process.
SueZie, where did you grow up?
I grew up in one of the oldest villages in England surrounded by thatched cottages and structural remains from AD825. In this picturesque village of Wroughton, that had evidence of habitation dating back to the Neolithic period, there was no shortage of traditional values.
SueZie, at what age did you know that something about you was different?
At 5 ½ I noticed that in my household the girls got all the attention! With three generations of award-winning ladies hairdressers, it’s no surprise. There were always lots of hairdressers and beautiful models for hairdressing competitions around our house. I had an interest in hair and other activities traditionally associated with females, like sewing, knitting, and macramé.
Starting school, I was socially disconnected with boys and their sports, like football or cricket, because my family’s activities rarely had anything to do with sports. Our activities focused on making women beautiful.
Can you share a specific experience from childhood that exemplifies your internal identity struggle?
SueZie: In those days, I had no idea what gender identity was. I just wanted to be a girl. At bedtime, while closing my eyes, I could clearly see who I felt I was on the inside and would fall asleep as the girl. I dreamt of my inner soul leaving the physical masculine shell and entering the feminine shell of a girl. In later years, the recipient’s shell was specifically that of a partner, girlfriend, or wife.
As a child, I also became less vocal; my thoughts were dominated by seeing that I did not look like the other girls. It made me sad. How I saw myself and how I physically looked were becoming further and further apart.
I even contemplated suicide. I inflated a small bicycle inner tube, made several coils, slipped it over my head and around my neck, and then removed the valve. The air rapidly expelled, it swiftly reduced in size and length, and constricted around my neck. I became dizzy and faint. At that point, I thought of my sister and mother finding my body. I didn’t want to upset them, so I frantically slipped my fingers between the tubing and my throat.
Cheryl adds: To this day she carries that characteristic of caring more about others feelings than her own. That’s one of the many reasons why I love her so much.
Their story was first told on Fox13 and nominated for Emmy (Image provided by SueZie Hawkes)
As a child, who were you in your mind versus who you saw in the mirror?
Evenings usually involved my mother cooking or sewing in another room whilst my father, older sister and I watched television. I remember seeing “Barbarella” and falling in love with Jane Fonda’s image. She was one of the first characters on television that I idolized as my self-image. As I got older, I replaced that character with the latest I saw. By the age of 10, it was a dancer by the name of Louise Clark. Interestingly, she had features similar to my sister. From that moment until I transitioned, she remained my goal.
How did your given identity hold you back from living an authentic life as a child? What are some key experiences you wish you could do again as a little girl and why?
Recently a psychologist asked me one question. “Who put you to bed at night?” I thought hard and said “no-one”. The only memories I have of any parent in my bedroom were when I was sick or had awoke to their shocked faces because I fell asleep with makeup and/or lipstick on my face.
That one psychologist’s question opened my mind; it unlocked memories long forgotten. Shortly after, I described to my mother a specific memory of being held in the arms of a relative during a family celebration. The room in that house, details like the mirror on the wall, the direction in which my head and feet were pointing, who was there, and where they sat. I had to have been under 1 year old.
I didn’t fit in, like other girls. I missed out on things like wearing the pretty dresses and playing hopscotch, but without a doubt, I missed out on having a romantic relationship, like all the girls. I just wanted to live and be treated like a girl.
SueZie chokes back tears as Cheryl holds her close. It was just so f%$&#@ up. Seeing other girls looking like girls, yet I clearly didn’t.
However, my family was typical of those days – very conservative with very traditional relationship viewpoints. I saw no solution to my dysphoric distraction; it was reinforced every time I saw a girl. I couldn’t maintain focus on anything, especially school.
Cheryl, where did you grow up?
My father was 62 when I was born, making me the 9th out of 10 children. We lived on a small 100-acre farm in Michigan where we milked cows and planted crops.
Cheryl, tell us a little about your childhood and upbringing. Any favorite memories?
I was a young girl in a large family of mostly boys. The food on our plate was dependent on doing hard work. My father was strict and worked every daylight hour, fingers to the bone. I think I learned to be nonjudgmental from him, as he always accepted people for who they were. My mother gave me the soft side, to love and care deeply for people.
When my parents were alive, my immediate family would get together every Sunday for dinner. We would all hang out in the kitchen, either sitting around the table or helping to prepare the Sunday dinner. It was our time to catch up on each others’ lives, talk about when we were kids, and sometimes, laugh so hard we would cry. I really miss those times.
How did you two meet?
We met in a chat room called Geocities back in 1997. I visited the site on a daily basis. One day, the new name “Pillowtalk” appeared and it caught my eye right away. It reminded me of the movie starring Doris Day and Rock Hudson. So I said, ”HI!” The rest is history.
Cheryl, when did you realize that SueZie struggled with her gender identity?
SueZie told me from day one how she saw herself as female. I didn’t realize the extent of her inner turmoil until about 2009. It was then that she brought up the subject of transitioning. I am ashamed to say that I was not listening.
After that, I knew she had those thoughts, but couldn’t bring myself to mention them. I thought they would go away, but knowing how she felt made me open my eyes and start seeing. I could see and feel her sadness and depression getting worse every year until the day in 2014 when she asked me if she could transition. I knew in that moment that I had been so selfish. I have always been a believer that nobody has a right to tell another person how to live their life and that is exactly how I had been. It was then that I gave her the ok to do what she had been wanting to do her entire life.
When SueZie decided to begin the transition process in 2009, what was your biggest fear?
My biggest fear was how people would react when they found out. I didn’t want our kids to be ridiculed. I knew how much life would change and I thought it would be for the worse. I figured we would lose all our friends and the kids would be ostracized. Couldn’t have been more wrong.
What was the biggest challenge during her transition process?
Cheryl: We were the first to use the insurance coverage through our employer and it was a nightmare from the beginning through to the surgery process. Frustration came from all of the roadblocks we encountered during the process – at first insurance said the procedure was covered, then it wasn’t. It was a continuous battle. Whenever we hit a roadblock, SueZie would get distraught. I would tell her to hang on whilst I took on the insurance company to straighten things out.
Also, SueZie held so much value on the physical changes. They were more important to her than life itself. She suffered a severed mammary artery shortly after breast surgery and, as they were taking her into the operating room, she said “I’ve waited all my life to achieve this. Are you going to put me back to the way I was?” His response was, “I don’t know.” SueZie then replied, “If you can’t, don’t bother waking me up.”
SueZie adds: On several occasions, I have been asked, “Do you have any regrets about your surgery?” That statement alone tells me that people cannot truly understand what it feels like. This isn’t about switching sides – this is about taking something that was rightfully yours.
How did you two remain grounded during the process?
Cheryl: Just by being there for each other. We were each other’s strength and sounding board and our love for each other kept us going, strong and together.
SueZie: We have tremendous passion for each other. There is something very grounding about holding each other intimately.
From an “out in the community” and society aspect, I like to tell this story: In the beginning, I’d get out of the shower, put my makeup on and get dressed. That was the last I would see of my exterior image. From there I was out, I was SueZie. During the day someone may simply use the wrong pronoun or the previous name. All of a sudden the reality of my self-image and another’s conscious or unconscious perception collide. I have just been reminded of the traumatic former life experiences.
There were also instinctive things that I did to realign my mental state: I would look at my long slender legs with the uncomfortable high heels; I’d look at my long slender arms and fingers with painted nails stretched out on the keyboard in front of me; I’d lean my head to the side to hear my jangly earrings; I’d deeply inhale thru my nose to smell my perfume; and I’d lick my lips to taste the lip gloss. All the senses covered, it put me back into alignment with who I was internally, despite my outward appearance.
How did your son react to the transition?
Our son embraced the change with courage. On his first day back at school, he had to fill out some contact information. He told us, “I stood up in class with my shoulders back and chest out, proud as ever and said, ‘My dad is having a sex change and now goes by Sue! Do I put that on the form?’”
How has life and your relationship changed since your transition?
Cheryl: We are more connected and stronger than ever before. We accept the other for the whole person; for instance, out dancing, SueZie dresses like the party girl and I dress casually in jeans. We are total opposites, yet we compliment each other. She’s clearly changed on the outside, but it doesn’t matter because I fell in love with the person on the inside.
SueZie: I said to Cheryl, “I have no idea where our feelings will lead us, but I will always be honest and my intentions are honorable.” I went from being straight in the former body to lesbian during my transition. For a while, I was nervous about my new identity.
However, our passion for each other has become so strong that we don’t see a male or female in each other. All we see is SueZie and Cheryl. We’ve discovered what true love, and making it work, really means.
What social activities do you do now that you didn’t before?
Cheryl: I always wanted for us to go dancing, yet we never did. By contrast, we now go out dancing as often as we can. I can’t keep my girl off the dance floor! I really enjoy our close dances together.
SueZie, how do you feel these days?
No longer having gender distraction, I am happy. I can now completely express my love and feelings. Like a python, I coil myself around Cheryl to gain contact with every inch of flesh that I can. I am protective of what we now have.
On that first day at work, starting out on my journey of transition and as a woman, I felt I looked awful and didn’t gain favorable looks. Nothing will ever compare to the humiliation I felt, nothing ever again. Having to be strong and internalize the tears! I’ve evolved into a stronger person that will take on anything. I see things from both worlds and I am objective and grounded.
Physically, my limbs are the same length but I carry less body mass. I am a lot faster mentally too.
Cheryl, how has SueZie changed, if at all?
SueZie now looks like a different person, I’m sure, but she is basically the same person I married in 2000, just happier and more emotional and outgoing. The sadness that reflected in her eyes is gone, only smiles shine through now. The happiness is the biggest change – it’s now her aura. Confidence and happiness – it’s a beautiful thing to see.
Tell us about your next project.
Cheryl: A book is back in progress, but the bigger focus is still on maintaining awareness by showing the world our love. Whenever we are asked to, we contribute a part of our story to the media for the world to see. It’s never “a next” project – it’s our ongoing life.
SueZie: We are active supporters of the LGBTQ community, assisting with awareness by sharing our story.
So, now I am bold in the high heels and with striking hair. How I see it is, if you’re bold, it’s very positive. When you’re positive, it builds your confidence, and of course, confidence is attractive, and with attraction comes acceptance. That’s my theory on the whole thing.