Monday, June 11, 2007
The Peculiar Practice of Dr. John Ronald Brown
By Paul Ciotti
Wednesday, December 15, 1999 - 12:00 am
Twenty-five years ago, when I was a junior reporter and stringer for the San Francisco bureau of Time magazine, I came across the greatest story I never wrote, which was actually a pretty smart decision at the time, given that the story had no ending, I didn’t know how to write such a story then, and even if I had written it, Time wouldn’t have run it. It wasn’t merely that the story was too bizarre. Time was a news magazine, and this wasn’t news. It was, rather, a glimpse into the darker corners of the human spirit, the kind of thing you naturally gravitate to late in the evening, when, tired of films and politics, you’d say to your friends, "Do you want to hear something really sick?" And there’d be a silent, collective "ahhh," like that of children snuggling in for a bedtime story, knowing they were about to hear what they’d been waiting for all night.
I first came across the name John Ronald Brown in the late fall of 1973 in the San Francisco Chronicle when I saw an item in Herb Caen’s column about a doctor down on Lombard Street who was "lopping" people’s penises off. As it was my (self-appointed) job for Time in those days to cover the more raggedy edges of the ongoing paradigm shift, I called up the clinic and found myself talking to Brown’s partner at the time, Dr. James Spence, who, despite some reservations, invited me to see him.
Spence struck me as a bit of a hustler, far less polished than one would expect of someone with a medical degree — if he had a medical degree. To some people he gave business cards reading "Dr. James Spence." But to me he said he’d earned his medical degree in Africa and thus couldn’t practice here. (I later heard he was an ex-con who claimed to be a veterinarian, but that degree was phony, too.)
The clinic wasn’t much — just a few rooms on a busy street, it seemed more like a real estate office than anything else. Sensing my skepticism, perhaps, Spence invited me to an upcoming formal dinner at his hilltop home in Burlingame, where he and his partner, the renowned plastic surgeon Dr. John Ronald Brown, would be explaining his new operation to a group of urologists, proctologists and internists, some of whom, Spence hoped, would join him and Dr. Brown in setting up the finest sex-change facility anywhere in the country.A week later, I drove to Burlingame and discovered that Spence had a splendid home — if it was his home — overlooking the distant San Francisco Airport and, beyond, the bay. It was a surreal evening. Dinner was served by half a dozen attentive transsexuals who were undergoing hormone therapy while awaiting surgery. . . .
When Reuben Zellman was a girl, he didn’t know that he wanted to become a rabbi. But since he began identifying as male four years ago, his Jewish involvement has become more intense and, with the support of his synagogue community, he realized that he wanted to become a leader of the Jewish people.
Zellman has recently been granted his wish with admission to the Reform movement’s rabbinical school. He will begin his studies next summer. Sources say that Zellman will be the first transgender individual ever to study in rabbinical school.
“I applied to rabbinical school because I love Torah,” said Zellman, in an interview from his San Francisco home. “I realize that there are political ramifications to what I’m doing and hope that they will be positive,” said the 24-year-old, who currently studies music and teaches Hebrew School at his synagogue, the predominantly gay Sha’ar Zahav. “And I hope people will remember that I’m a regular human being like others are.”
Zellman, a California native, declined to specify how his physical appearance has changed since he began his transition from female to male, but described himself as a transsexual as well as someone who falls under the broader scope of transgender. . . .
As the representative of the most rejected minority group of all - transgenders - Nora Greenberg is busy lobbying the Interior Ministry to permit `sex changes' on identity cards.
Nora Greenberg, a transsexual who underwent a sex-change operation two years ago, stops the car at the hitchhiking stop by the North Tel Aviv train station, to pick up Lior Mencher, the director-general of the Association of Gays, Lesbians, Bisexuals and Transgendered in Israel (known as the "Agudah"), and Shaul Ganon, the Agudah's coordinator of minority affairs. The group is heading to Jerusalem for a first meeting with Guy Ben-Gal, the new interior minister's deputy in the population registry department. On the agenda: the problem of Palestinian gays who flee the Palestinian Authority seeking refuge in Israel because their lives are in danger. Seemingly unrelated to transgenders, but Greenberg says the struggle is the same: Transgenders (people whose identity includes a component of the other gender, that is, whose internal gender identity differs from their physiological gender, but who do not want to change their sex).
"Transgenders are people who do not feel good with the gender identity with which they were born. Some undergo a process of transition or change, and then all they want to do is disappear and live their life quietly," Greenberg explains.
Wearing two hats - as representative of transgenders on the Agudah's national board, and as coordinator of the political lobby representing all of the organizations affiliated with her community - she makes sure that the other parties present at the meeting give her at least 15 minutes to speak of the unique problems faced by her own small population. When the other speakers exceed the amount of time allotted to them, at her expense, she lets them know that it is her turn.
Greenberg begins her remarks at the meeting with a complaint that the Interior Ministry is not providing access to information on the number of persons who have had sex-change operations in Israel, thereby making it impossible to assess the scope of the phenomenon. She then moves on to more acute problems. . . .