Bella Kaldera is a transwoman and Constable of Hubbardston, Massachusetts. She transitioned in 1987, and completed her surgery in 2010. In addition to serving as Constable, she practices martial arts, studies military history, and contributes to her family's working farm. She sat down to talk to TBC about her experiences growing up trans in a time when it wasn't as accepted as today, as well as serving in the Air Force.
How early did you realize you were “different”?
Because very early on I realized I was different in pretty much all ways that I could think of from almost anybody, but as far as gender goes, this was just something that started out and was frequently reinforced. My father would yell at me for being effeminate, and my brother would get on my case about being effeminate. I remember one time my brother says, “I’m going to give you a masculinity test! I want you to look at your fingernails.” And so I looked at my fingernails. (looks with fingers curled and palms towards her face) And he said, “You see! That’s so feminine! Because men do it this way!” (looks with fingers outstretched and palms facing away) And I said, okay.
Basically, I was an effeminate, wordy little git whose mother dressed him, her, or it funny. I can remember some of the outrageous things I wore to school that my mother picked out for me, like dickies, bell bottoms, and shirts with huge, mutton-y sleeves. I loved that shirt with the mutton sleeves! And when I was wearing it, it must have been in the fifth grade. Now, looking back, I can understand why I got beaten up a lot!
Do you mind me asking if that was the style at the time, or if you liked them because they were pretty clothes?
It was kinda retro at the time. The pinstriped, multicolored bell bottoms and all of that. I mean, sure, this was still the sixties, but this was the late sixties by then. All of this stuff was a little bit too outrageous.
But it was fun!
I liked it! But, you know, I had no clue a lot of the time about a lot of things. I didn’t understand how babies were made because nobody ever told me. Until one time I went on a class trip to the science museum, and they were taking us through this exhibit on human reproduction. I said that this was all very interesting, and I understand how the sperm gets into the fallopian tubes and all of that, but how does the sperm get in there in the first place? (laughs) After which, some of my classmates took great delight in explaining to me in great detail how it occurred.
In graphic detail, I’m sure.
Yes, but you know, in my childhood, anything even remotely sexual was not discussed. It was like a void; I had no clue. I didn’t know or really understand how males were supposed to act, or maybe I didn’t have many good male role models. But really I had no clue about anything about gender until other people started hitting puberty and I didn’t. But then I never really got through male puberty. This is one of the reasons why I’m pretty convinced I have an intersex condition of some kind or another.
So why did you choose to join the Air Force?
Oh, let’s see… I was largely tired of paying rent. Yes, that was really a big thing. (laughs) I had gotten literally thrown out of my house six or eight months before, and then had a few shit jobs, and had been living in extremely substandard housing. So I said, you know, at least in the Air Force I might get to go see someplace. It seemed like a good idea at the time. (laughs)
I also had the common fallacious notion that it would make a man out of me, because I still had no clue. Goodness, when I joined the Air Force I must have looked like I was fourteen, because I looked like I was fourteen in my high school graduation pictures. They made me a patrol leader, which caused immense amusement. And, of course, no one would follow my attempts at leadership. So I begged to be released from being patrol leader, because it taught me the basic lesson that you can lead, but if nobody follows, you’re not a leader. (laughs)
So what kind of challenges did you have in the Air Force?
Well, after I begged demotion, they did make me Latrine Queen. (laughs) Well, shortly after I got off the bus at the Air Force, I realized how ridiculous everything was. And my sense of humor lasted for about three days until they cut my hair off. For some reason, the barber shop wasn’t available for three days, so I kept my extremely long hair even longer. But it was good to be wandering around San Antonio with hair for a while.
I barely got through Basic Training, thankfully. I did not have to repeat anything, though they threatened me with it. I went to Tech School and found that was a breeze. I had a buddy who had orders to go to Korea, and he had just gotten married and discovered he couldn’t take his wife. Being concerned about his marriage, he wanted to swap orders, and I had gotten orders for K.I. Sawyer in Michigan, which everyone had told me was one of the most boring places on earth. So I swapped orders with him, which they would let you do, and I went to Korea. And, of course, I went over to Korea and discovered that things were more ridiculous in many respects than they were in basic training. And I was also discovering that there were things that made me a poor fit for the Air Force.
After you got out of the Air Force, what kinds of challenges did you face as you became Bella?
It took me a while to get past the denial. I was basically frightened of being a tranny girl. I knew that I did not have the standard masculine identity. I was figuring out that I was a tranny girl while I was still in the Air Force, but I didn’t necessarily want to go there. Who wants to be the sort of being that is reviled pretty much by everybody and sundry across the board? No, you don’t really want to take a complete step down from low class to underclass if you can avoid it. But you can’t really avoid who you are. No, it catches up with you. I tried being a gay man, I’ll admit, but it just did not work. I am not a gay man. I gave it a good try, but that only left me more convinced.
I got myself into therapy in 1984. I was still living in Vermont at the time. I loved Vermont, and my therapist there came to the conclusion that there weren’t the sort of facilities that I needed in Brattleboro at the time. There is now, but there wasn’t then. So I decided the best thing to do would be to move back to Massachusetts, where I had some more support. I managed to make the right connections, and I managed to get into the gender program at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut. That was definitely a challenge because I had to go to Trinity College a bunch of times for various evaluations: psychological evaluations, social evaluations. They set me up with an endo[crinologist] that was actually in Bloomfield, Connecticut. That meant that I had to, every 4-6 months, find a way to get down to Bloomfield. That lasted quite a few years, because it’s hard to find endocrinologists who treat trannies. And then, eventually, the endo announced that he was moving to the Joslin Clinic, and was going to be focusing on diabetes, and wasn’t going to be doing any more trannies. Then after that, I went to the endo back here in Worcester, who had initially sent me down to the Trinity program in the first place. By that time, there were other trannies coming out of the woodwork, and she was starting to treat trannies herself.
Now, you often refer to yourself as a tranny girl, and some people don’t care for that term. What are your thoughts on that?
Well, I can understand that there’s negative load to that. But hey, African Americans will casually call each other as nigger. Why can’t I use the word tranny? I’m perfectly happy to avoid using the n-word, but why shouldn’t I call myself whatever term I’m comfortable with? After all, I’ve been a tranny girl twice to three times longer than the people who are complaining about the word tranny girl, considering I transitioned in ’87.
Definitely one of the challenges is being a second class citizen, the extreme discrimination that I’ve run into. I’ve had people break out laughing when I applied for a job. I had gone to job interviews and had people quiz me on my sex life, as if that was relevant. I’ve received and heard every excuse on the book. And then, of course, there is the fact that there are people hunt us for sport. That was particularly bad in Boston. There were times when I definitely felt I was in danger of assault. But, you know, this is just one of the things that makes me pick up the martial arts again. Because if someone is going to assault me, I want them to regret it deeply.
I’ve also been denied housing. I’ve been denied medical care, and all kinds of shit. It wasn’t just being denied employment. After all, I had to go to Canada for my surgery.
Please check back next week for Part 2 of the interview.