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In midlife, a rebirth

For four decades, Ed Kozlowski tried to fit the mold, but nothing worked - until he changed his name, his body and his life.

By MEGAN SCOTT
Published February 25, 2005


CHATSWORTH, N.J. - Jennifer Edwards is nervous when she rings the bell.

She stands on her mother's porch in the backwoods of New Jersey, where hummingbirds sip at the hanging feeders, her heart racing.

She wears blue jeans, a long-sleeved shirt and sandals. Not a dress. She didn't think her mother could stand to see her in a dress.

The rain has left her long blond hair damp. Other than some blush and rose lipstick, her face is plain. When she looks in the mirror these days, she loves what she sees.

The last time her mother saw her, three years ago, Jennifer was a man: Edward Kozlowski, a Harley-riding, cigar-smoking software engineer.

Jennifer left Edward behind for good in an operating room on the way to a whole new life without the old friends, the $100,000-a-year job and the wife who was her best friend.

She has become a public figure, appearing on CBS's 48 Hours for a show called "Trapped" and lobbying for a human rights ordinance in Gulfport to protect transgenders, gays and lesbians.

Now she waits on the doorstep with a St. Petersburg Times reporter and photographer, who asked if they could make the trip home with her.

For the first time in her life, Jennifer feels like she belongs.

Mom is the only thing missing.

A son with a secret

Behind the door, Olga Kozlowski is picturing her middle son.

He is a little rough around the edges but virile, with smiling eyes and a charming personality. He weighs 205 pounds, has a size 38 waist and wears his medium brown hair closely cropped.

He wears business suits to work and putters around in jeans and golf shirts on the weekend.

She sees the bright boy who loved to go crabbing with his father. The one whose manly strength she sought when she needed someone to listen.

Her Ed had married. Her Ed was a stepfather.

Her Ed is at the door.

But sometimes a mother can see only what a child chooses to show. Ed had never shown her his other self. Inside Ed, there was someone else. Inside, there was always Jennifer.

Mom knew that as a young boy, Ed played nurse and dressed in her clothes. But she didn't know he wanted to be a girl. He was too afraid to tell her.

"I remember when I was a kid, my dad saying, "Son, are you okay? Are you gay?' " Jennifer now says. "If I had the courage to speak up, I would probably have gone through this transition much earlier."

At 13, Ed ran away to New York and slept with men to survive. His mom wandered the streets looking for him, carrying his picture around, but never found him.

After befriending three transgender women, he began living as a woman full time, working as a cocktail waitress in a bar. He was small, a size 3 junior, and with no body hair and a high voice, it was easy for him to pass as a girl.

But soon his voice changed and testosterone transformed his body. The struggle between Ed and Jennifer became unrelenting. "I was turning into a man," says Jennifer. "I couldn't hide it anymore. I didn't know what to do. Even though it was the late '60s, it was still a lot of pressure to be male."

Ed bounced around the country after that, working as a boat builder in San Diego and a computer programmer back in New Jersey. He married a woman with three children, but it didn't last.

He ended up working on computers in St. Petersburg. In 1998, still trying to exist as a man, Ed married again. He and his new wife bought a home in Oldsmar, where Ed became chairman of the town's code enforcement board.

But the effort it took to suppress the desire to be a woman had exhausted him.

"You try to make it better," Jennifer says. "You try harder at being a real man. But it gets to a point where your whole life is a fraud. You're not happy with who you are and what you are."

In November 2002, Edward sat his wife down and told her he wanted to live as a woman. Eventually they divorced.

Ed changed his name to Jennifer, the name his mother would have given the daughter she never had. He began laser and hormone treatments and went from a flat chest to having breasts that filled B cups. He dropped 65 pounds to a svelte 140. And he replaced the chinos and polo shirts with skirts and dresses.

But merely dressing as a woman wasn't enough.

"Every time I went to the bathroom, it was a constant reminder of what I was not," Jennifer says. "I had a birth defect. And surgery was the cure."

Jennifer wrote her elder brother a letter telling him about her plans to become a woman. He wrote back, declaring, "From this day forward I no longer have a brother."

She told her mother. Mrs. Kozlowski couldn't understand and felt uncomfortable, but Jennifer said her mother wished her well.

Jennifer's boss told her she would be a distraction to clients and fired her. She had no money to pay for the transformation, which she expected to cost about $40,000.

"I'm going to start selling personal possessions," she told a Times reporter as she scraped together the money. "If I have to sit with a sign on an overpass that says, "Will work for hormones,' I'm getting my vagina."

So she sold her three motorcycles for about $2,000 each. She gave her navy blue Volvo back to the bank. And she borrowed a couple of thousand dollars from a friend.

She had the surgery in Miami Beach on Jan. 15, 2004. The procedure took five hours.

From her hospital bed, Jennifer called the important people in her life: her stepdaughter from her first marriage, her second wife, her mother. She smiled through the pain as she told them the news.

"It's a girl."

Comfortable in her skin

The hair on Jennifer's chest, arms and legs is gone now. She maintains her size 8 Her hands are soft. She can have sex and experience orgasms. If someone yells "Sir," she doesn't turn around.

Last summer, she wore a bikini to the beach. A group of girls saw her lying on her blanket and invited her to join them. She was thrilled.

Now 48, she lives in a yellow doll house in Gulfport with Sandra Orlando, a transgender woman. Jennifer makes jewelry in her spare time and helps Sandra with her laser treatment business, called Laser Lovers, which caters to the transgender community. They say they're in love.

The 48 Hours segment about Jennifer and other transgender people aired last February. Jennifer received more than 1,200 e-mails. She responded to every one, even the mean ones.

"Nowadays, I'm just confident," she says. "I feel good about myself. I'm comfortable in my body, comfortable in my surroundings. I don't worry who's looking at me."

She has become a champion for the cause, speaking to transgender support groups and lobbying for human rights. She plans to write a book.

But, as the trip to New Jersey approached, she was unsure what would happen when she went home for the first time. She wasn't sure how her younger brother, Danny, would respond. The two, only a year apart, were best friends growing up, hiking, riding motorcycles, sharing a beer at a bar Jennifer used to own.

He had mocked Jennifer's transformation, answering the phone with, "Oh, it's Ed, or whatever he's calling himself these days," and then handing the phone over to his mom.

A tense reunion

Olga Kozlowski, 81, lives 8 miles from a gallon of milk. Her husband, Jennifer's father, passed away 16 years ago from Alzheimer's disease. She spends her days watching Court TV and talk shows.

Mrs. Kozlowski was reluctant to be interviewed for the story. The reunion with Jennifer, in July, was a private moment, she had told the Times by phone.

But Jennifer wanted a reporter and photographer to be there to document her story. She was hoping her mother would change her mind.

"There were times I felt like I was out there all alone," she said. "I want to let people know that they are not alone, that there is life after being a transsexual, that you can be accepted and out in the community."

Now Jennifer is standing at the door, waiting. Mrs. Kozlowski opens the door with tears in her eyes. They embrace in the foyer of the four-bedroom Cape Cod house. She welcomes Jennifer but calls her Ed. She invites the Times reporter and photographer inside. She is cordial but firmly rules out picture-taking.

There's an uncomfortable pause, then everyone settles into the den. Mrs. Kozlowski serves shrimp cocktail and soda. She and Jennifer make small talk about the flood that took out bridges, people they know, everything, it seems, but the obvious.

Mrs. Kozlowski studies her son's face.

"I want to help you," she says.

"I don't need your help," Jennifer responds. "Just your love."

Then Danny, 47, walks in. Jennifer tries to hug him, but he pulls back.

He glares at the Times crew and begins chastising his mother for letting them in. He tells Jennifer she should go on the Jerry Springer Show in a G-string.

Mrs. Kozlowski tells Danny he should be ashamed. She apologizes to the Times crew and asks him to leave the room.

With Danny gone, she invites everyone to sit outside on the front porch. She points out the white-tailed deer and describes how she gets those hummingbirds to sip on the hanging feeders. She reminisces about how much her husband loved their house.

Danny comes outside and apologizes for his behavior. Then he turns to the Times reporter, a black woman, and says, "Are you ready for a white man's meal?"

The Times reporter and photographer ignore the comment, thank Jennifer and her mother, and then leave.

That was when Danny really blew up, Jennifer said later.

"He said, "You're not going to live to see the morning,' " Jennifer said. "I was frightened for my life. He scared the living hell out of me.

"I guess maybe he feels like he has been robbed of a brother," she said.

Jennifer asked her mom to take her to a motel. Instead, they went to Atlantic City, where they blew about $800 playing roulette (they won it back the next morning), then stayed up late talking. Mrs. Kozlowski told Jennifer she looked beautiful. She asked how Jennifer removed her beard and body hair. She wanted to know whether Jennifer was all right physically.

Jennifer said goodbye to her mom in the lobby of Bally's Atlantic City. "I'm proud of you," Mrs. Kozlowski said. She told Jennifer not to worry too much about what her brothers thought of her.

"She could tell that I had found peace, and that made her happy," Jennifer said later.

A happy milestone

These days, Jennifer stays busy with the business and her work as an activist. She is planning to run for the Gulfport City Council next year. Maybe she can get the council to take up the human rights ordinance again.

TLC is planning to air the 48 Hours piece sometime this year. She is expecting another mass of e-mails and will respond to every one.

Last month, Jennifer celebrated what she considers her first birthday (it had been one year since her sex change operation). More than 40 people attended her party, half of them transgender women. She received birthday cards wishing her a happy first birthday. The cake had one candle.

In lieu of gifts, she asked guests to donate money to WestCare Florida, an organization that offers transgender support services.

On that day, her mother called and wished Jennifer well. She told Jennifer she sounded happy and confident. They talk on the phone about once a week.

Mom sent a card at Christmas.

It was addressed to "Jennifer Edwards."

Megan Scott can be reached at 727 445-4167 or mscott@sptimes.com To contact Jennifer Edwards, e-mail jennifer@laserlovers.com