There is a self-portrait of Bob Tur with Leica—his almond-colored terrier rescue—taken in January 2013, the day he decided to kill himself. Head leaning on his right hand, Bob looks deflated but not at the end of his tether. Leica nuzzles against his chin. The artistry of the photo, its composition and lighting, is at odds with the despair it is meant to capture.
Weeks before, a production designer who was an ex-girlfriend of Bob’s had visited his apartment. She took one look at the boxes of detritus he’d piled high near the door. Freud would say you’re barricading yourself in, she said. “I was purging myself of friends and family in preparation for dying,” Zoey remembered. “I had been thinking about suicide for a very long time.” A steady job might have helped because it would have forced Bob to interact with other people. His kids were keeping their distance. His ex-wife, Marika, on those rare times he talked to her, was dismissive. “The last place someone with gender dysphoria wants to be is alone,” Zoey said.
Bob planned his suicide carefully. Not wanting to burden his neighbors, he’d do it in a rented apartment several blocks away, with concrete floors and opaque windows. Then one morning at 2 a.m., after a particularly rotten evening, another solution presented itself. “I just broke down,” Zoey recalled. “I said out loud, ‘I want to be a woman. I want to be a woman. I’m so terrible at being a guy.’ It was a cathartic thing.”
The new apartment went from a death chamber to a chrysalis, where Bob would become Zoey. Looking toward a new life, he packed for a previously scheduled trip to Florida to meet the attorneys representing George Zimmerman, who was soon to go on trial for the murder of Trayvon Martin. Bob wanted to make a documentary about Zimmerman, but throughout the sit-down his attention drifted. “All during the lunch I’m thinking about transitioning,” Zoey recalled, “and all the lawyers are talking about my exploits as a big, macho, cowboy helicopter reporter. If they only knew what I wanted to do.” Returning to his hotel, he stayed up watching YouTube videos about male-to-female transitions.
On his way back to L.A. he e-mailed his kids about his decision. For Jamie it was the latest surprise from a father who had always been predictably unpredictable. As for Bob’s daughter, Zoey said, “her reaction was classic Katy. She took it well. It was ‘I can’t believe this. My dad wants to be a woman.’ Then it stopped being funny.”
The following week Bob began hormone therapy. With the first dose of estrogen, the dark thoughts lifted, Zoey recalled. Over the weeks Zoey’s skin became softer, her male pattern baldness began to reverse itself, the stubble on her chin started to disappear. In mid-July I met her at the office of her Beverly Hills plastic surgeon, where she would begin facial injections. She had decided against dressing as a woman—eschewing jewelry, makeup, and a purse—until completing her transition. On that morning her newly sprouted breasts asserted themselves against the confines of Bob’s striped shirt. Her nipples, she said, were sore and sensitive. She had begun experiencing the kind of fundamental changes that girls go through during puberty, but in a male body that was 53 years old, past the age when most women enter menopause. She had become tentative about what lay ahead. “Life after this is going to be different,” she said. “You’re going from white male privilege to…I don’t know what.”
The surgeon strutted into the examining room as if it were a stage. In his early sixties, he radiated the age-defying magic of his profession. His tight scrubs could barely contain his bulging biceps, his face was luminous and without a wrinkle. “Zoey,” he said, drawing Botox into a syringe, “you’re going to feel a mosquito bite, and what I want you to do is look as angry as you can.” The furrows on Zoey’s forehead and the frown lines at the corners of her mouth faded in the needle’s wake. “What was I thinking?” Zoey said, wincing. “This is not without pain.”
“For my next trick,” the surgeon said, “we’re going to do some cheekbones.” Zoey tried not to flinch. When poked with a facial filler, her cheeks began to swell and ooze droplets of blood. Her unfocused eyes staring downward, Zoey had to hold the doctor by the hips to keep from falling over. It wasn’t just that the nerves beneath the skin were screaming, Zoey told me later. It was that she could feel Bob retreating and herself emerging. “It was the moment,” she said, “when it all became real.”
Mid-morning in September 2013, six months into Zoey’s transition, I met her and her friend Dana Vahle at a Denny’s in Hollywood. Having polished off their breakfast specials, the two of them began arguing over bragging rights for the filming of the O.J. Simpson Bronco chase.
“Dana’s my former helicopter competitor at KNBC,” Zoey explained. “She’s also done 71 movies as a motion picture pilot. She’s a really good pilot, just not as good as me.”
“I might have a somewhat different opinion,” said Dana, who used to be known as Dirk. The morning haze played gently on the black-and-white flowers of Dana’s scoop-neck blouse, shimmered across a triple-strand bracelet of costume pearls, and deepened the crimson lipstick that marked her wry smile. Now there was not even a passing resemblance to the man she used to be—the bearded pilot who can be seen in the opening sequence of 2002’s Austin Powers in Goldmember, jamming the joystick of his Cobra attack helicopter as he strafes the hero’s Jaguar roadster in a race across the desert. I looked at Zoey. Scheduled for a live news segment at KTLA studios across the street, she wore a sport jacket and a pair of dark trousers. At this juncture a pedicure was about the only womanly luxury she would allow herself.
“Dana,” Zoey said, “believes that she found O.J. first.”
“Not that I found,” Dana said, “just that I got there first.”
“Dana,” Zoey said in a mock whisper, “is fucking delusional.”
With that, Dana laid out her case, conceding Bob had shot the earliest real-time coverage of the chase to make it on-air. However, she insisted that Dirk had O.J.’s Bronco already in his sights, with the camera rolling, when Bob entered his airspace. For some reason, the news team at KNBC studios delayed going live with Dirk’s feed and blew a historic scoop.
“Not that it really fucking matters,” Dana said, dropping the F-bomb with a certain playfulness. “Because it really doesn’t.”
They hadn’t been friends back then. But when Bob announced his transition, a former news pilot who knew them both suggested that he give his old adversary a call. “I said, ‘Why would he want to talk to me?’ ” Zoey said. “ ‘He doesn’t even like me.’ ” That’s when Bob learned Dirk was now Dana, having undergone her facial feminization surgery four years ago and her gender reassignment surgery in 2012. The two met for breakfast.
“You said what I said: ‘No fucking way,’ ” Zoey said.
“I think I just said, ‘First again,’ ” Dana corrected her.
Dirk Vahle began the transition process in the 1980s. An army vet, he separated from his wife and moved her and their son to California. After confiding in a colleague about his transition, Dirk lost his job. Out of work and missing his boy, he stopped his transition cold, moved to L.A., remarried his wife, became a stunt pilot, and had more children. On the 24th anniversary of his second marriage, his wife left and Dirk decided to become Dana. “Doing this in your fifties sucks,” Dana said. “You’ve got 50 years of conditioning yourself to everything society expects a man to do, and that’s very difficult to overcome.”
Zoey nodded. She was having the hardest time, she said, with her estrangement from her daughter. Dana urged patience. “Daughters, I believe, have a particular image and idea of what their father is,” she said, “and this kind of blows it to smithereens.”
“What do you mean by that?” Zoey asked. “The girl’s 30 years old.”
“Even if she were 50 years old,” Dana responded, “you’re still her dad.”
The two pilots talked past each other like this for some time. Zoey began to cry. Katy’s rejection, she said, made her feel like a “nonperson. I didn’t kill anyone. I didn’t hurt anybody. Even sociopaths go to court and have their families sitting next to them, but God forbid you want to be a woman.”
A shouting match—even that, Zoey felt—would be preferable to her daughter turning her back on her. “You could scream,” Zoey said. “You could say horrible things, but at least you’re communicating. But when you cut off all communication—that is so much worse.” In fact it was Zoey who stopped communicating, soon after her transition began. Katy had been in town for work and met her father at a restaurant. As Zoey remembered it, Katy tore into Bob because she was furious about his transition, but a scrap of diatribe that sticks in Zoey’s mind suggests another source of their conflict. “Just because you’re changing into a woman,” Zoey recalled Katy saying, “doesn’t mean you’re going to change.” After unloading, Katy took her father’s hand and asked if they could start talking. Zoey experienced that gesture as Katy’s attempt not to mend fences but to do more damage. She told her she never wanted to see her again.
When I reached Katy, she wouldn’t talk to me about the argument, but she did describe a parent-child relationship that had been strained since she was a teenager, when her father went from a hero who could do absolutely anything to a depressed and embittered stranger unable to pick himself up. She praised him for doing something about his gender dysphoria. “I’m proud he has the guts to face this,” she told me, “to say, ‘This is what I need to do to make myself better,’ and have him be content and not as angry as he once was, and to be able to inspire others.”
Across the breakfast table at Denny’s, Dana sensed Zoey’s anguish and backed off. It was not for her to tell Zoey how things stood with her daughter and in what direction things should go. “You’re going to be the only one who can make that call,” Dana told her.
“You and I are good,” Zoey said, her face still red from crying. “We’re good, we’ve always been good.”
Then she gazed up at her old adversary and mustered a smile. “But I still beat you at the O.J. chase.”
From the summer of 2013 to the spring of 2014, as Zoey appeared on local TV news and public radio, she proved to be a master narrator of her transition. She detailed possible neurological causes of gender dysphoria and explained the estrogen-induced changes taking place inside her. She outlined the surgical procedures that turned the sensitive skin of the penis into the walls of a vagina, and she raised awareness about the need for greater social acceptance of transgender men and women and for equal protection under the law. She was charming, her timing was spot-on, and she delivered her message with the kind of self-assurance Bob Tur had exuded from the cockpit some 20 years before.
Off the air, though, by the early months of 2014, he was feeling overwhelmed by the stresses of transitioning. One evening she told a patron sitting outside a café that he shouldn’t be smoking. The guy blew up, calling her a nonnormal bitch, yelling that she was going to get her penis chopped off, warning others about the horrible sex crimes she would surely commit after her transition. By contrast most of the comments that flooded Zoey’s Facebook page were positive, including several from men and women thanking her for speaking out and giving them the courage to face their own gender dysphoria, and from parents who were now better able to relate to their trans sons or daughters. As for her own children, Zoey rarely spoke with Jamie and didn’t see any way to reconcile with Katy.
Zoey’s hair grew full and long. She dyed it—the result was a reddish-orange—and gathered it in a ponytail. Her body had become more womanly. Zoey’s butt was ample enough to split a pair of Bob’s pants, but she kept wearing his now-unflattering clothes. She was worried about her employment prospects. She had sent her résumé to a local television station and after some months hadn’t heard back. She had developed some patentable medical devices. Maybe she could find investors.
In February 2014, Zoey sent a notice to her insurance company, Blue Shield of California, requesting precertification for her transgender surgeries—mandatory coverage for gender dysphoria under a California antibias statute. The insurer denied coverage because there were “no available in-network surgeons” to perform them and dropped her policy retroactively. I contacted a spokesperson at Blue Shield, who wouldn’t talk about Zoey’s experience but chalked up such situations to an “inadequate number” of surgeons specializing in transgender procedures, which “drives up costs and hinders our ability to secure appropriate specialists.” The insurer, it seems, won’t comply with the state law protecting trans women unless it can do so at an attractive price.
Zoey had reached specialists in Thailand, where more transgender surgeries are performed than in any other country in the world. “Medical tourism there is very popular, and it’s very reasonable,” she told me. “You can get sexual reassignment surgery for $8,000. The hospitals are beautiful, and they put you up in four-star hotels.”
It had been 14 months since the start of Zoey’s transition—by no means an eternity. On average a transition that leads to surgery takes two to three years. Male-to-female procedures cut into and reshape two of the most sensitive areas of the human body, and the pain of recovering from both simultaneously is more than many people can bear. If she chose Thailand, Zoey would be undergoing gender reassignment and facial feminization procedures within days of each other. Better that, she felt, than to sink deeper into this netherworld, where she was no longer a man and not yet a woman. “Transition’s horrible,” Zoey said. “You are walking through hell.”