Becoming Zoey Tur

As the most famous helicopter news pilot in American history, Bob Tur prided himself on being the ultimate alpha male. Except all along, he knew he wasn’t

Zoey Tur joined the arrivals line at LAX’s Tom Bradley International Terminal with nothing to declare. Returning from her trip to Bangkok, she carried only the black Swiss Army backpack she had flown out with, and its contents couldn’t have been more innocuous—bras and panties, a spare blouse, three dresses, a bag of toiletries, an iPhone and a MacBook Pro. Yet there she was, inching along with as much trepidation as if she were attempting to smuggle in a box of Cuban cigars. She scrutinized the three customs agents on duty that summer afternoon in 2014. One was Asian American, another Latino.  Zoey eyed the third warily. “Please,” she whispered to herself. “Don’t let me get the older white guy.”

The older white guy waved Zoey forward and opened her well-thumbed passport to the page with the photo. It showed a middle-aged man who looked a little like the agent himself—lean, with thinning hair, a well-creased forehead, and a tight smile. To the right of the two-by-two-inch image was the passport holder’s name: Robert Tur.

If the agent recognized the most storied helicopter news pilot in American history—if he remembered Bob Tur from when he hovered over the beating of trucker Reginald Denny at the flash point of the 1992 L.A. riots or when he delivered live coverage of O.J. Simpson’s fleeing Ford Bronco to a world audience in 1994—he gave no indication. He compared the man in the photo with the woman standing before him in the purple silk dress and sun hat, her newly feminized face still swollen from plastic surgery. Zoey’s lips were plumper than Bob’s. The jawline gently curved where once it had angled sharply. The brow bone no longer jutted past the searching blue eyes.

If anyone had the authority to question Zoey’s identity as a woman, it was this public official examining the passport of the man she used to be. But when the agent looked up, he spoke with a warmth that surprised her.

“What have we been up to in Thailand?” he asked with a genial smile.

“I had a sex change,” Zoey said.

How long had she been gone? Three weeks, Zoey said.

“Can you do everything in three weeks?” he asked, genuinely impressed.

“I did,” said Zoey, seeing no need to factor in the 16 months of physical and emotional turmoil that had preceded the surgeries.

“Wow!” the agent said, waving Zoey through. “Welcome home, miss.”

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In the early 1990s, when Los Angeles became a federal disaster area seven times over, Bob Tur was a force of nature. Broadcasting from the cockpit of a Eurocopter AS350, flying hundreds of feet above canyons or as close to street level as the telephone lines would permit, he brought images of devastation caused by fires, floods, earthquakes, and civil unrest to millions of viewers in Southern California and beyond. Boyish-looking and still in his early thirties, he sometimes wore prescription aviator sunglasses that, combined with his stubborn chin and a stiffened thatch of brown hair, evoked Tom Cruise in Top Gun. During those years, Bob—an L.A. native who seemed to know the city better than traffic cops or cartographers did—was ubiquitous. If something was worth showing up for, he was usually there first.

Bob’s video feeds weren’t always high-minded, and he had no qualms about becoming the story. He crashed Sean Penn and Madonna’s wedding. He helped turn the televised police pursuit into an infotainment phenomenon. He valued accuracy, but he had little patience for journalistic dispassion or distance. In 1988, when he was reporting on a Redondo Beach hotel that had partly collapsed in a freak storm, he suspended coverage to make 12 flights in 50-mile-an-hour winds and near-zero visibility to save 54 people stranded on the hotel’s roof.

That rescue operation was one of many. By the time I first met Bob in 1996, while profiling him for a British magazine, the tally of people whom he had pulled from mortal danger or revived by CPR had probably grown past 100. On his office shelves were three Emmys, the Radio Television Digital News Association’s Edward R. Murrow Award, and various plaques from local news organizations and municipalities congratulating him for his professionalism and valor. He prided himself on demonstrating the attributes of the alpha male: audacity, bravado, cutthroat competitiveness, and the belief that he was bulletproof. You couldn’t accuse him of boasting, really, because there was so much evidence to justify his self-portrait.

On April 29, 1992, a mostly white jury in Simi Valley acquitted four Los Angeles Police Department officers on trial for beating Rodney King, despite a notorious videotape that showed them bludgeoning, punching, kicking, and stomping the African American motorist. As arson, looting, and violence erupted at Florence and Normandie avenues in the aftermath of the verdict, the LAPD pulled out of the area. Without protection, Los Angeles Fire Department ambulances couldn’t retrieve victims, and the unfought fires spread. Into that maelstrom flew Bob Tur, who headed toward the South L.A. neighborhood the minute he saw the verdicts handed down on TV. With his wife, Marika, handling the camera, Bob hovered over the intersection and remained there for three hours to broadcast the scene live on KCOP-TV—even after rioters began shooting at his aircraft. “To see this happening and not be able to help these people…,” he told viewers as Reginald Denny crawled on his hands and knees with his head caved in. “It’s indescribable—the feeling, how powerless we are. But these pictures are important.” He was airborne for the next two days, coming down only to refuel.

At this, the height of his career, when men would stop him on the street to shake his hand and when women would proposition him, Bob was careful not to get too close to anybody. Zoey explains why: “Because then they might find out about you, that you’re a fraud. I always felt like a fraud.” The macho helicopter newsman? He was a fictional construct, Zoey says now, conceived by a man who at his core was a woman, whose male body had been in conflict with his female consciousness for as long as he could remember. This condition—of identifying with the opposite gender and experiencing psychological torment because of it—was called transsexualism when Bob was a boy. Today it’s known as gender dysphoria.

Only in the midst of catastrophe could Bob find relief. “When you’re living a lie,” Zoey says, “the scariest thing is to be alone with your thoughts. Flying, talking on six two-way radios—you’re in the moment and you’re multitasking. So that’s an amazing place to be because it shuts out all the pain.”

If Bob never worried about his own safety, it was because he had never felt safe. His father had physically abused him as a child, so often and so severely that he feared he’d be killed in his sleep. “I was raised in an environment where chaos was the norm, so I was at my best in chaos,” Zoey says. “Remember how chaotic it was during the L.A. riots? Or during the O.J. hunt? That’s when I was the most comfortable.”

Bob Tur, in 1996, piloting his news helicopter over Los Angeles during a live KCBS report
Bob Tur, in 1996, piloting his news helicopter over Los Angeles during a live KCBS report

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I first heard about Bob’s decision to become Zoey in June 2013, not long after he granted an online interview to TMZ. The gossip site had learned of his transition from his Facebook page.

For celebrities with secrets, TMZ head Harvey Levin can be a scourge. Bob considered him an old friend from their days in local news, and in their interview it became clear that he had little to hide. He explained that he had been “born with a feminized brain” and that he’d always found that confusing. “You don’t recognize your image in a mirror,” he said, adding that in recent years the inner conflict had become unbearable. When Levin noted that the newsman’s famously aggressive piloting didn’t jibe with his claim of a lifetime spent hiding his femininity, Bob objected. “True transgenders do hypermasculine things,” he said, citing Kristin Beck, the former Navy SEAL. Bob’s kids were struggling to process his transition as they mourned the loss of their dad. Similarly, he said, “I’m mourning the loss of Bob Tur. He’s got to die for me to be me.”

In disproportionate numbers transgender Americans continue to face job discrimination, police harassment, homelessness, even injury or death as a result of hate crimes. At the same time, it is also true that the political and cultural climate has begun to shift in favor of transgender rights. In 2013, California governor Jerry Brown signed legislation enabling trans public school students to use the bathrooms and join sports teams of whichever gender they identified as. The U.S. Department of Education extended federal antidiscrimination protections to trans students. In 2014, Time magazine featured Laverne Cox of Netflix’s Orange Is the New Black, television’s first openly trans star, on its cover with the headline “The Transgender Tipping Point: America’s Next Civil Rights Frontier.” It was in this atmosphere of change that Bob resolved to become a woman.

Bob remembered me from the earlier article I’d written about him. We met for coffee in Santa Monica. He was easy to spot, in dark slacks and the kind of crisply pressed button-down shirt businessmen favor during their leisure time. Estrogen therapy had hardly begun transforming his body and face—or if it had, the changes were too subtle to see. He told me the name he’d chosen for his female self, Zoey, which was inspired by the Greek word for “life.” For the purposes of this article, Zoey will be Zoey from this moment in time forward; before it, Bob will be Bob.

Zoey was aware of the challenges of transitioning, but she was also excited and energized. She would approach what lay ahead of her with as much focus as Bob brought to the toughest of his news assignments. When I asked Zoey why she had chosen to transition so publicly, she told me that she wanted to help others struggling with gender dysphoria, make them feel less marginalized, and show them what transitioning looked like. In the coming months they could track her progress on Facebook, TMZ, The Huffington Post, and television and radio. She allowed me to follow her closely during the next year and a half: through hormone injections, the gradual ramping up to facial feminization and gender reassignment surgery, and the first few months of Zoey’s life as her posttransition self.

Zoey was entering unexplored territory. In the most private of circumstances transitioning can put a strain on relationships with friends and family—and her announcement had already been put before TMZ’s 23 million monthly subscribers. Several transgender women have attained fame over the past six decades, but after transitioning, not before. Most Americans were unaware that there were “women trapped in men’s bodies” until December 1952, when Christine Jorgensen made page one of the New York Daily News. EX GI BECOMES BLONDE BEAUTY, the enormous headline blared, supported by photos of a glamorous Christine and the awkward, jug-eared young man she had been before her surgery. Twenty-five years later, in 1977, ophthalmologist Renée Richards won her legal battle to play professional women’s tennis at the U.S. Open two years after gender reassignment surgery. Besides Bob, the two most famous men who have become women are Lana Wachowski, cocreator of the Matrix movies, and classical Moog virtuoso Wendy Carlos. Both led reclusive lives before transitioning and have continued to do so since.

With Bob’s heroics so widely viewable on the Internet and etched in so many peoples’ recollections, he could never entirely disappear. However, Zoey had begun her transition almost 21 years after the L.A. riots, and Bob hadn’t been a fixture of nightly television news in Los Angeles for a long time. By transitioning quietly, Zoey could have come into her own while the brash helicopter newsman continued his slow fade. With the TMZ interview, he had gone viral, even as her future depended on making him a thing of her past.

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