Easing the Transition

Arrie Fae Bronson-Davidson, 49, always knew she was in the wrong body. When she transitioned five years ago, Pilates helped her get to know her new self, physically and emotionally.

by Arrie Fae Bronson-Davidson, as told to Beth Johnson

From the time I was two, I knew that I was a girl, but everyone else said that I was a boy. I just knew my body was wrong—but I also knew I had to keep it a secret. When I was five or six, I kept a trunk of costume clothes under my bed. There was a blue dress in it and when I was alone in my room, I would put the dress on and have tea parties with my stuffed animals. I also had a Barbie doll that I got at a garage sale and kept hidden in a pink shoebox. Growing up in the 1970s, in a religious home, I had no idea there was such a thing as being trans, or gender identity. So I just kept my secret.

Since my father was an Army pilot, my parents, my younger brother and I moved around a lot. Every two years, it was someplace new, and somewhere else I felt I didn’t fit in. I didn’t really get to know anyone well. Then when I was in fifth grade, my parents divorced and my mother, brother and I moved back to El Paso, TX, where our family on both sides lived.

But even though we were now staying in one town, we still kept moving. Over the years, my parents had nine marriages between them. There were always new stepbrothers and sisters. There were always new houses. It was a lot to cope with and it wasn’t until I was out of the house that I began to realize how different it all was from most people’s upbringing. Nothing ever felt secure.

By the time I reached middle school, there was big pressure from my father for me to play football. We had a Christian home, and in Texas, there are two religions—football and Jesus, in that order. I also felt that if my parents knew my secret, they would have sent me to an institution or conversion therapy or something. Trying to please my father and deal with the extra-violent macho football world was really emotionally difficult.

The first year I played football, I wanted to quit, but my dad wouldn’t let me. So I did my best, which was not an easy thing. I loved the movement, I loved the physicality, but the locker room environment was ultra-male and misogynistic. The things that the coaches said to us in the locker room were insanely horrible. I remember always thinking in high school, I wish I could be on the volleyball team, but in Texas, there are only girls’ volleyball teams. And at that time, I was just pretending to be a boy to get by.

Then in ninth grade, I badly injured my hand playing football and had to have reconstructive surgery. My father and coach were upset, knowing this was the end of me playing football. Secretly, I was so relieved, thinking, “I don’t have to do this anymore! I’m free!”

In high school, I had more friends at other high schools than at my own. El Paso’s not huge, and there were maybe three or four trans kids in town, who all went to other schools; somehow we found each other and would meet up on the weekends. I had one really good friend. She went to an all-girls Catholic school, and we were each other’s dates at our school dances so that we would have someone to go with.

I definitely began to rebel in junior year. Once I didn’t have to play football, I started to wear skirts and makeup to high school. Showing my real self was terrifying. Needless to say, my parents hated it. But I think because it was the 1980s, people just thought I was trying to be like Boy George and other New Wave artists.

My parents, of course, couldn’t have understood that I was trans. They thought that I was just a very out, flaming gay boy. It made them very unhappy.

I first went to a really little school in the panhandle of Texas, West Texas A&M University, where I started taking dance classes. Then I transferred to Texas Tech University and got a bachelor of science in dance and kinesiology. After that, I earned a MFA in composition and kinesiology at Sam Houston State University.

After teaching dance for a couple of years in Texas and Missouri, I made the move to New York City, where I was in a dance company and did all the odd jobs you do to get by as an artist in New York. But after 9/11 happened, I thought, I need to get out of here.

So I went home, crashed on the family sofa and decided that since I had the time, I would get certified at Peak Pilates; I was in Colleen Glenn’s first class. I had been doing Pilates since college, and I thought it would give me more work options than catering, bartending or waiting tables when I returned to New York.

I moved back to NYC in 2003 and started teaching Pilates almost immediately, continued with modern dance and began performing as a burlesque and sideshow artist. I loved that something that was good for me, and my body, was also supporting me financially. But over time, pretending to be two different people was making me too unhappy. Just prior to starting my physical transition, I was binge drinking and I was cutting myself all the time because of how much I hated the body I was born in. I knew I had to transition, or I might be dead in a year. I spent some time in therapy, and decided, “You know what? It’s probably going to cause a lot of issues in my life for certain people. But I have no alternative.”

I started presenting fully as a woman six years ago. Then three years ago, I began undergoing hormone therapy: When a trans woman begins hormone therapy, medications are taken that raise your levels of estrogen and decrease your levels of testosterone. This results in chemical shifts and varying degrees of the following: the widening of the hips, some breast tissue growth, as well as facial and skin changes.

When I started medically transitioning, I had a crisis, wondering how to present my changing body to the world. How does this body even work now? What were people going to perceive on stage and on the street? When you’ve been on hormones long enough, your body starts changing and you’re no longer able to do things you could do before. You have to get used to what this new body can and can’t do.

It’s been very interesting and at times surprising to see how the changes in my body have affected how I perform Pilates moves. There has been a decrease in the amount of weight/resistance that I am able to use during upper body exercises. Instead, I focus much more on the intrinsic muscles of the upper core and shoulder stabilization muscles.

There has also been a drop in the amount of weight/resistance I use when doing lower-body work. Due to the change in my center of gravity because of my widening hips, I have had to relearn and coordinate balance. I now use a smaller range of motion, focusing on subtle shifts of weight to deepen the muscular contractions. I also pay more attention to Joseph Pilates’s philosophy of progressing the work from lying down to seated to standing movements.

The best anecdote about how my body has changed is from backstage. I was in the dressing room getting ready and my “showbiz mom,” Darlinda Just Darlinda, walked up to me and said, “You have a lady belly now.” I work very hard to achieve the level of strength, flexibility and quality of movement necessary to perform at a high level. But I will always have a lady belly…because I’m supposed to! This is something that I use to encourage and inspire as a practitioner. We as women are fierce, beautiful and strong in the natural shape of our bodies. Optimum health and fitness is unique to each person.

I met Meg five years ago, before I had medically transitioned. We had a connection, and I was upfront with her about my plans. She replied, “I’m a lesbian. I know you’re a woman. If you weren’t a woman, I wouldn’t be interested.” And that was that.

Meg is from Canada and her family has been incredibly supportive since the moment we met. Many of them made the trek to NYC for our wedding three years ago. Then they threw us a “Canadian Reception” so the rest of her family could celebrate with us; it was at a curling lodge in Port Perry, Ontario. You can’t get much more Canadian than that!

Meg is one of the reasons that I am alive today. I don’t know how I would have gone through the transition without her love and understanding and support. We are a couple of silly, happy nerds, with a dog named Sir Clark and cat named Princess Sophia. We perform a whimsically wonderful circus and sideshow act together called The Brides of Brooklyn: Faux Pas le Fae and Aurora North. We also co-direct Kinetic Cabaret Productions, and we appear regularly at nightclubs including The Box, House of Yes and The Slipper Room.

I also work for three amazing women Pilates studio owners now, all in Manhattan. Patricia Ruiz at Moving Strength Pilates has known me since before my medical transition and has been supportive every step of the way. I have also recently started teaching at Balanced Pilates. Owner Anna Howington and Director of Education Alie B. made me feel welcome immediately. As a trans woman, it is so meaningful that my skill and knowledge have been embraced and valued.

It’s been a long time since I talked to my father and brother, but my mother has taken big strides to understand and get to know her daughter. It’s not perfect, but what is? Life is messy. While the reality is that trans and other marginalized populations face violence and prejudice every day of our lives, it’s important to recognize that some people can change and grow. So I really do give credit to my mother for how she is trying to get to know me as an adult woman.

People ask if there are things that I miss about being a man, and I tell them, “No, because I never was one. I was a woman in the wrong body.” A while back, my wife and I were warming up, and I said, “In all the years of going to ballet school, I loved performing but I hated class and I hated working out and I hated the way I felt in that body. With Pilates, I feel that I could do it all day long. I love how I feel in my body.”

Pilates has definitely been one of the threads of sanity for me before and, especially, throughout coming out. It has given me a place that is physically “home.” Even when my body changed and things were a struggle, I was working through it with exercises and a philosophy that made sense. It has also helped me to get to know myself physically as well as emotionally in a deeper way. Sometimes I cry when making a breakthrough because the sensation is so authentic. PS

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