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Salt Lake City Weekly Gender Bender

How Neal Cline resolved a lifelong dilemma by becoming Nicole Cline.

By Carolyn Campbell

MARCH 29, 1999:  Two hours after he and his wife of 16 years agreed to separate, Neal Cline sat on the bed at his newly rented apartment and vowed to resolve whether he was male or female. He rested his bearded face in his hands and thought about both his past and his future. As a young boy, he lay awake nights, hoping to arise the next morning as a girl. Since that time, confusion over his inner gender and outward anatomy continued to plague him.

As a youth, he longed to feel appropriate in his body, and for years felt he was the only freak in the world. He recalls feeling "a first breath of fresh air" when he was 10 and his mother dressed him as a girl for Halloween. "It felt good--I wore makeup and a short dress borrowed from a teenage girl. I didn't want Halloween to end," Cline says confidently, in a voice not easily distinguishable as male or female. Cline says he soon discovered he felt at peace donning feminine apparel--on occasion a slip, a nightgown, a blouse and skirt. Yet this momentary calm was a brief respite in a life filled with inner turmoil. In everyday conversation, he'd pause to think how a man would respond before answering questions. For years, he chose vocations he hoped would wake up the masculine behavior he assumed should be inherent.

Cline worked as an aircraft mechanic, graduated from the police academy and served in search and rescue operations. When his boss told him he was the most macho man he knew, Cline told himself he'd had a lot of years to perfect his role in this lifelong charade. But by 40, Cline was weary of lying about who he really was. "I was terrified, but determined to find the answer, good or bad. I decided I was going to be happy for the first time in my life," Cline recalled in a newer and higher version of the voice with which he once sang tenor.

Although he was finding his occupational niche as a land-use planner, Cline stumbled through a maze of mental health advice about his gender confusion. Salt Lake County Mental Health originally assigned him to a male counselor. "I didn't know how to talk to a man about something so personal. I went for six to nine months and we got all of his issues resolved," Cline laughs sarcastically. After he saw the male counselor, he entered group therapy but found no better result. "If I can't tell some guy my deepest feelings, I'm not going to tell 10 strangers."

Following a failed marriage Neal Cline (inset), determined to resolve his identity crisis by becoming Nicole Cline, above.
photo: Fred Hayes

After sitting silently through several sessions, he approached a female counselor. "I thought I would have found someone very understanding, but she couldn't crawl into the couch any deeper." Eventually though, the female counselor asked Cline specific questions. "Like what kinds of games did I like to play and how did I feel about my penis," he remembers. When Cline didn't meet the counselor's challenge to come back to the next meeting dressed as a woman, she was disappointed and referred him to a psychiatrist at the University of Utah.

That day in the basement of the U. of U. Medical Center conjures up scary memories. "There were old pipes and a row of chairs that went off into the darkness. I remember thinking I was down here with the janitors and wondering how that could help me." The psychiatrist looked at his file and proclaimed that he wasn't ready for surgery--yet. "Back then, I didn't know about any kind of surgery. I envisioned someone opening my head to fix my brain, taking a plug from one outlet and putting it in another. I would have considered therapy a success if I left feeling appropriate in my body," Cline said.

Eventually one counselor told him to simply wear unisex clothes. Feeling bewildered and even more convinced he was a freak, Cline returned to Salt Lake County Mental Health. Again he was referred to a male counselor, which left him feeling he was back where he started.

Unsure what clinical path to take, he got a job with the Army Reserve as a technician working on helicopters. He married, more "out of cure than love." He recalls his mother telling him that he wouldn't need his own femininity, because he could take pride in his wife's. But only three weeks into the marriage, he told his wife about his gender confusion. "I said I felt peace when I wore women's clothes. It floored her. She was silent for a period of time. Then she said, let's keep it in the bedroom, taking me to mean I was interested in weird sex. I couldn't explain that this wasn't a sexual odyssey at all. After about a year, I still loved her, but I just didn't love her as a wife."

The marriage became a good friendship and thriving financial partnership. But the two lived separate lives, he says, his voice trailing off as he recalls the unhappy time. "If we went anywhere, we arrived and left in our own vehicles. If we were home together, we would be in separate rooms doing different things."

Cline buried himself in a full-time job, another part-time job, and 16 to 18 hours of school. "Once I graduated, it was the beginning of the very end. Grasping at straws as I fell off the cliff, I bought a set of Kathie Lee Gifford marriage improvement tapes." But by then his wife wasn't interested in either the tapes or marriage counseling. Soon feeling he had nothing left to save, Cline asked for a divorce. Soon he had his own apartment.

Although his marriage grew turbulent and then dissolved, his professional career remained solid. Karen Richards, Cline's former secretary--who also became a close friend--describes her former supervisor as a highly respected planner who was a perfectionist at work for Tooele County. "Neal was highly regarded. We'd go to professional seminars where the speakers they hired to attend would ask Neal for his opinion." Besides being very astute regarding land-use laws, her boss was also meticulous in dress, she said. "He had every hair in place, kind of greased back. Beard and mustache neatly trimmed. His shirts were always dry cleaned, pressed crisp. He always wore silk ties, cufflinks and dressed to the nines."

Despite his outward perfection, Richards sensed her colleague was inwardly unhappy. Cline appeared depressed, as if hiding his real self. "He was trying to live the life he was expected to and just buried himself in his job," Richards concludes. She and Cline were at a land site when the subject of homosexuality came up. "I thought he was homophobic from what he was saying. Then he looked at me and said, "You just don't get it do you?" I'm going through a sex change."

Cline matched his dedication at work with after-hours determination to resolve his gender issue. He began attending groups in the Salt Lake "gender community" where he met transvestites and transsexuals. Eventually, he became convinced he was one of an estimated 100,000 transgendered Utahns--both those who have and have not undergone sex change surgery.

In September, he underwent one of three planned surgeries. He also has undergone electrolysis and now takes hormone therapy. The hormones caused him to grow breasts and led to fat redistribution that made Cline's body shape conform more smoothly to female clothes.

Because he had a wide vocal range as a singer and his Adam's apple did not protrude, he was able to rely on speech therapy rather than surgery to transform his voice to the mid-range tone he likes to refer to as asexual. Today Cline's voice sounds slightly breathy, but not raspy or deep. Somewhat broad shoulders and large hands are the only visible reminders that this person was once a man.

He changed his appearance slowly at work, and took on an androgynous appearance for a long time. Richard's noticed that after Cline separated from his wife, his hands were no longer hairy. "They'd obviously been shaved. At the time, I didn't know why."

In mid-1996, Cline began wearing women's slacks and blouses to work at the Tooele County courthouse, along with experimenting with makeup. "Most women have 10 years to learn mascara and eyeliner. I had six months. It was an act only mastered with great patience and determination," Cline says, flipping back her wavy, brunette shoulder-length hair. Besides eyeliner and mascara, she now wears foundation, lipstick and blush on her recently-smooth skin.

"I was a good enough friend to tell Neal the blue eye shadow had to go," recalls Richards.

Besides appearance changes, Cline also began using her initials rather than her first name at the office. But the final transition from Neal to Nicole occurred on the first day she wore a dress on the job. Donning a mid-calf, two-piece suit with tan and blue stripes on a spring day in April 1997, Cline felt very apprehensive about how people would perceive her. "I wanted to wear something tasteful and proper. I've always been conscientious about my clothes and didn't want to dress like a slut. I remember the first thing anyone said was, I guess you'll be using the women's restroom."

The Tooele County courthouse women's restroom remains a bone of contention through which Cline's co-workers express opinions about her transition. Earlier this month, Nicole received a letter accusing her of insubordination for using the women's restroom. It's an issue she plans to contest. Richard's recalls that from the first day Nicole wore a dress, "Everyone was so curious and afraid. One man worried that if his wife used the restroom, Nicole might rape her. Someone else thought a guard should stand outside the door telling people to wait until she finished. And somebody asked what would happen if she peeked under the stalls," Richards said incredulously.

As the story of Cline's sex change spread, visitors made special trips to the county courthouse to steal a look at her. Some co-workers and townspeople initially refused to speak to Cline. Richards remembers a day when she heard catcalls as the two of them visited the local 7-11. She wondered how her children, who were close to Nicole, would react after she told them Cline didn't want to be a boy anymore, but wanted to be a girl. "My son went into her office and whistled at her. He said, 'Woo, woo, you sure look pretty.' Nicole broke down crying," Richards remembers.

To those who ask if it wouldn't be easier to simply disappear and assume a new identity, Cline's voice rises: "My research is acknowledged nationally. I've put too much effort into who I am. I couldn't be born 40 years old. In 40 years, I had all the lying I could take."

Certain as Cline felt about maintaining the office status quo, the thought of pursuing a new romantic relationship remained puzzling after the divorce. "I knew I couldn't get back together with a heterosexual woman. Yet I wasn't gay per se and I felt gay men are attracted to other macho men. With a lesbian woman, I didn't have something total to offer. My sexual orientation is bisexual. A bisexual man? During my transition, the idea of getting back into a relationship was terrifying."

Nonetheless, when he was still Neal, Cline met Marlene Smith, a slim, red-haired divorced mom of two. The pair became acquainted at a gender issues support group. At the time, Smith was finishing a liberal arts degree and dating a male cross-dresser. The two struck up a friendship. "Like me, she lived in Tooele. Too, she was someone who had been to the support group and knew that side of me. Back then, I really just wanted somebody to go kick a few rocks with," Cline recalls.

They went to a Halloween haunted house on their first outing together, and soon felt they'd always known each other. Smith remembers one evening when she was steeped in homework and Cline called and asked her to visit. Smith initially said no, but after 10 minutes of doing homework changed her mind. "I went to her house at eight and we talked until three in the morning. We discussed everything about what it's like to be a woman picking out clothes, makeup colors, men. It turned into a hen session. At the end of the night, we were just two women talking, and that's when I knew we were best friends."

Although Cline still had a beard and was dressed as a man in black Levis and a pullover that night, Smith had previously seen him in a dress at the support group and fully understood that Cline was transitioning.

Their first physical contact occurred later that night when Smith asked Cline to hold her hand as she walked down his icy driveway. They kept calling each other and getting together. Before the day Cline wore a dress to work, Smith called Cline "Neal" when accompanying her friend at professional seminars, but referred to her as "Nicole" at "safe" times. Neither can pinpoint a day when their friendly outings became dates.

"We don't recall who said I love you or even who proposed first," says Cline. Marlene's 11-year-old daughter, Amanda, picked up on the romance first. "She asked when we would live together and when she could call me Mommy," Nicole says.

Nicole Cline and her legal wife, Marlene Smith, at home in Tooele.
photo: Fred Hayes

After the relationship became romantic, the two discussed gender issues. "I made sure she had no thoughts that she would marry me now, then get me to go back to being a man," says Cline emphatically.

Smith was previously married to a man and says she never pictured herself in a romantic relationship with a woman before meeting Cline. "I'd spent my entire life being heterosexual and had to really feel deep down in my soul to be able to overlook the idea of being called lesbian." If this relationship ended and she began another, it would probably be with a man. "But our situation is unique. Nicole has the softness of a woman and the strength of a man."

When the office got wind of the unusual relationship, Richards says the most common question was "whether Marlene was really a girl." Today, Smith describes herself as "lesbian by default."

When Neal became Nicole, the two stopped showing physical affection publicly. While Cline nearly always wears a dress or skirt and blouse, Smith is often attired more casually in a T-shirt and slacks, her long hair in a ponytail or drawn up in a bun. Despite their differences in appearance, it's obvious these are two women together. "After I no longer looked male at all, I missed the days when I could put my arm around her or hold her hand when we walked to the movies, but flaunting our relationship isn't what we're about," Cline says.

Before deciding to become a family, the women had Smith's two children evaluated by a psychologist to be sure the relationship wouldn't be a detriment in their lives. They received a clean bill of health, Cline recalls.

On March 22, 1997, both women carried bouquets, adorned their hair with lace-topped barrettes and wore calf-length silk and lace gowns when a minister joined them in holy matrimony at Metropolitan Community Church in Salt Lake City. They also exchanged matching diamond-studded wedding rings. Marlene Smith became Marlene Cline.

In January, Nicole Cline was also wearing a dress when she presented her birth certificate and driver's license to the Salt Lake County Clerk's Office to apply for a legal marriage license. "The first time she came in, she showed her driver's license, which said she was a woman. We told her we couldn't issue a license for her to marry another woman," said Nick Floros, chief deputy County Clerk. When Cline responded that she was really a man, Floros required her to bring a certified copy of the birth certificate, indicating she was legally male. Cline also brought a copy of a court order indicating she could change her name from Neal to Nicole.

"As long as she had not had her gender changed legally, which is permissible in Utah, she was legally entitled to her license," says Marlin Criddle, Cline's attorney.

Criddle explains that when Cline previously applied for the name change, she also applied for a gender change, which the judge denied. "If the judge had granted the gender change, she wouldn't have been entitled to a marriage license."

"One of the implications of Nicole's unique situation is that it shows how arbitrary gender really is, and how arbitrary laws are that prohibit people of the same sex from marrying. There are institutions and religions who think that gender is an eternal characteristic, but experience in the real world disproves that," Criddle said. "Basically, in Cline's case you have two people trying to create a family and provide protection for their children. I can't understand why anyone would want to object to that."

While her attorney doesn't foresee complications, Cline becomes adamant at the thought of her marriage being threatened. "I have a legal right to be a human being and pursue happiness. If anyone tries to take this from me, I'll fight them to the ends of the earth."

Actually, fighting is something Cline is less inclined to pursue since she became Nicole. "When I was full of testosterone, as a man, little things could set me off and I'd be mad for days. My driving in traffic was very impatient. Now when I get angry, and it takes quite a bit to get me angry, I try to accomplish something with that anger."

Nicole hopes the environment at work remains congenial, too, although she says objections to her use of the women's restroom have escalated since her marriage to Smith.

"While she declared herself as a male for purposes of a marriage license, it does not automatically follow that she should be treated as a male for use of the workplace restrooms," says her attorney. "She is in the process of becoming a female. Part of the standards and protocol for that include dressing and living as a woman and using the women's facilities."

"I give some credit to Tooele County and Nicole's employers. Her transition occurred in a rural county and a conservative state, yet they were able to retain the services of a highly qualified planner," says Criddle.

Today, Cline, Smith and Smith's two children live in a house they purchased together in Tooele. Aside from Smith's son's room, it's obvious that two women share the home. Roses abound on the curtains, antique lamps, in artificial bouquets and on the bathroom towels. The women own rose-print dresses and their recliners, too, are rose colored. Both Cline and Smith love decorating, cross-stitching and reading. Danielle Steel is Cline's favorite author, while Smith prefers Dean Koontz. They love to spend evenings having a cryfest over movies like Philadelphia and The Crying Game.

They also like to laugh at themselves and their unique plight. Nicole recalls how an insurance company originally questioned whether to provide coverage to her dependents, initially requesting that she sign an affidavit stating she was male. She refused to sign. "Their concern was unduly biased. Why would an insurance company, whose concern should be my dental and orthodontic health, be so concerned about my reproductive parts? I wrote them a letter saying that if any dentist tried to work on my sexual organs, I'd violently protest."

During a lighthearted moment, Marlene kids her partner. "Come on, Nicole. You've got to miss the ability to stand up and pee."

After mulling this thought over, Cline responded, I really can't say that I do because I so seldom did that. Even before, my natural inclination was to go in and sit down."

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