Is femininity a propensity to giggle toothily, a quiet, pained determination, a soft fondness for Italian shoes with buttery leather straps? In either sex, is it an ability to endure the odor of designer perfume, a tendency to cry in front of others? Where does culturally enforced femininity intersect with the silent, seeping, be-havior-imprinting chemicals of our dark brains?
Tripp makes you think about such things. The 38-year-old, who stops con- versation to reapply her British Topcoat Red lipstick, has been climbing trees, poles, and electrical towers since the age of 14. She has a wife of four years, and was born male. Last week, she clambered to the top of a tower off I-5 during morning rush hour, stripped naked to the waist, danced, played air guitar, and did a fire-breathing stunt while listening to Blue Oyster Cult on headphones cranked to maximum volume.
Now, looking to David Gerhke (Mary Kay LeTourneau's lawyer) for help in an upcoming court hearing -- she's been charged with criminal trespassing, which carries a maximum sentence of one year in jail and a $5,000 fine -- Tripp wades through calls from the media and argues for women's rights before an eye-rolling public. Animated and articulate, she clearly enjoys the attention, and in her radio interviews, she has become a sudden, ad-hoc spokesperson for the transgendered community.
Tripp planted herself at the top of the 150-foot tower for two hours to protest laws barring women from going topless in public, reported the local dailies. The stunt caused a massive traffic jam and a power shut-down, and prevented an ambulance from reaching an accident victim. A stinging P-I editorial stated that if she was so eager to go topless, she should've stayed a man.
"That was an uneducated remark," Tripp says, leaning back into the musty booth upholstery at Charlie's on Broadway. "That supposes that I made the male-to-female transition because I wanted to show off my breasts. But where I'm at is someplace else -- I'm talking about my deep opposition to the control of women in this culture. There are fundamentalist ethics that still govern this society, antiquated morals of chastity and celibacy." Tripp, who completed her sex change surgery in 1996 at a Portland medical center, says that laws based on "this supposed morality" amount to "repression of women's rights to control their own bodies."
While it's true that, in general, this culture still can't stomach the notion of true sexual independence in women, what about the more immediate consequences of Tripp's attention-grabbing act: Given the hassle she created for the city and the negative publicity she generated, wasn't the stunt a mistake?
"I do regret any inconvenience people might have suffered. But I had no idea that they would close two lanes of traffic. And they didn't have to shut off the power. I'm very familiar with the physics of electricity -- like, those towers are highly insulated. And I wasn't up there with anything highly flammable. I had a special fire-breathing solution that's got a low flashpoint. So I wasn't in danger -- and the electrical workers at the bottom of the tower even told the police they could tell I was experienced, which is true. I don't advocate other people doing this stunt, though, because you have to know what you're doing!"
Does Tripp think she deserves punishment? "I'd certainly rather pay back the community for the inconvenience by picking up litter [doing community service] than by sitting in jail and costing the state even more," she remarks.
Embedded in Tripp's tortuous tangents of self-revealing talk are off-the-wall reasonings ("In my mythology, south is my spiritual direction, so I had to climb the south tower on I-5"); strong, honest admissions about what it's like to have gender dysphoria, or discomfort with one's native gender; and lovely perceptions about human intimacy ("Love isn't something you're in, it's a state to be achieved"). Sitting, eating, and talking, she is unremittingly exuberant. She is also funny, admitting that "The amount of electrolysis I've had would kill an elephant!"
In her purple Danskin leotard top, chowing on steak fries and submerging them thickly in ketchup, she speaks about the life that led her to the top of that tower. Growing up in middle-class Bellevue in the '60s near Lake Sammamish, she acquired a "great, absolute, profound love for Seattle." She was always athletic: "I'm a Capricorn, a mountain goat, so I like balancing on things," she claims flatly. "But I always, always felt odd, growing up; I didn't feel normal. Just a profound sense of being different, and later, wanting to be a woman. It was an unacceptable feeling, but it was there. I hated myself so bad, for so long, for feeling odd. I maintained a good subterfuge, though -- I was one of the popular Italian hoodlums in my neighborhood who bragged about all the girls he'd done."
Tripp shows me photos of herself in her previous life -- a wiry, bearded dude with '70s style sideburns and glinty eyes, arms crossed in a button-down shirt among a line of male relatives. It was the same person, but not. The gaze of her male self in the photo appears more cavalier than her current expression, which, with her dark eyes, is one of calm concern, with hints of vulnerability. "I was 33 years old when I let my current wife know how I felt inside," she says. "We weren't married yet, and she supported me. She's genetically a woman, but she finds the idea of gender and the mysteries thereof fascinating."
Of the inception of her climbing feat, she says, "I've never done a public stunt, and I'm never going to climb another tower again. But I'm getting on in years, and last month, I thought, I'm just gonna climb that tower I've always had my eye on. I prepared for a month for this: no drugs, no alcohol. Zen, T'ai Chi. Ninety-nine percent of it was because girls wanna have fun, but the other part was because I am outspoken about what I believe."
Tripp's friends know her self determination well. Sara Silberstein, who has known Tripp for four years, calls her a wonder woman: "She's a gourmet cook, and she can fix cars. If she doesn't have a cider press, she'll build one. She totally puts me to shame as a woman. I just think very few people are brave enough to follow their true will -- because face it, most of us do what other people expect us to, especially girls."
Tripp, who periodically lectures at local community colleges on the subject of transgenderism, describes the sensation of climbing atop the tower: "It's a breathtaking view. Absolute heaven. I sat up there for a second and said to myself, I could climb down now, or I could push my agenda a little further. I did, and I had good hard metal on my headphones -- the Tubes, King Crimson, Kansas, Rush, Blue Oyster Cult. It was very spiritual."
But why does a tall, agile, rather fearless transsexual, someone who's never been worried about walking alone at night and a classic metal fan to boot, want to talk to Seattle about equality for women? She doesn't have the experience other women have had, and it's not a satisfying answer to simply suggest, like the P-I, that she's nuts. When people take action, especially big dramatic action, it always has a codified meaning; this is, unfortunately, what judges in court so often overlook. What's metaphoric about dancing half-nude on top of a tower, breathing fire?
"I guess, for me, my transition was a climb," Tripp says. "Don't use the word 'transsexual' -- that implies I'm in transition. I'm totally a woman now. I call myself a changeling. And oh, that was a climb. My father didn't speak to me for three years. Lots of transgendered people go absolutely loopy during the course of their change, because of all the rejection they face. I vowed to myself that I would go through it all the way, even if I died trying. And it was a risk to have the final surgery; I mean, admittedly, it is bizarre -- until you are in possession of a working vagina, you don't know if you're going to like having a working vagina! All transsexuals have to go through so much counseling to determine if they truly are uncomfortable in their own bodies, and I went through that too. So... I guess climbing is determination to get to a goal.
"It was right for me. Serenity is the ultimate goal for all people," she says philosophically, "and I found mine. I'm really, really happy now." So why do something as serene as blowing fire above hundreds of cars? "I learned how to do that at the Burning Man festival a few years ago. My direction is south, and south is heat, and love, and sexual energy. I'm not ashamed of the lust for life that's in me."
Tripp's wife objects to tower climbing, because it is dangerous. "She's conservative," Tripp says, seemingly unaware of the irony in this claim. "We're like the Odd Couple, we're so different. She said to me, 'there can be only one star in a couple, and I'm fine if that's you.' Actually, we're both straight; she likes men and now so do I, but our bond is not focused on sexual fidelity. Trust, partnership, communication, and love are so much more important. If she and I hadn't bonded as partners, I wouldn't have made it through my journey."
Tripp admits to bathing in the public spotlight, much as Seattleites bathe in the sun, with contentment and worry that the heat will fade. "I want to be told I'm pretty, and that I've done good," she says. "I want acceptance; it's true. I've had so much rejection, mocking, and jeering," she says of her three years of gender transition. "And yes, no matter how much attention I get, I want more. I think that it's chemical, that it comes with the female hormones." In Tripp's complex psyche, it seems the need to be roundly accepted, not only as a woman but as an individual, predates and eclipses even her strong belief in women's rights.
Still, she's the kind of person who fights resolutely for herself while all around her go mad -- with discomfort, ignorance, and most recently, plain irritation. As this story goes to press, Tripp faces her court hearing and is as eager as ever to speak out: "I'm not one of those typical transsexuals who just want to get their surgery done and then disappear. I understand that, but that's not me," she says. "The gay community has made strides, as they should, politically. So have women, and the transgendered community needs that, too. They need people to be out there and take all the shit, to be called names. I didn't want to go out of one closet and into another."