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For their own good
Fifty years ago, they were screwed-up kids sent to the Florida School for Boys to be straightened out. But now they are screwed-up men, scarred by the whippings they endured. Read the story and see a video and portrait gallery.
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Man misses life as a woman
He blames a church for pressuring him into the change. It says he asked for help.
Published December 1, 2007
DELRAY BEACH - High on painkillers and four days without sleep, Michael Berke raced his Harley to the megachurch where he'd found a home.
He barged into the church office, cursing. In his hands he held a picture of a woman with long, red hair and pouty lips.
"This is who I used to be," he said. "And this" - he gestured to his breastless chest, bald head and red goatee - "is who I've become."
He was born a man. After a lifetime as a misfit, he transformed himself into Michelle. Then, three months ago, he had become Michael again, with the encouragement and financial aid of Calvary Chapel of Fort Lauderdale.
Now, he wanted to be Michelle again, and he blamed Calvary for making him a man.
* * *
It had never been about sex. Michael wanted friendship - the kind women have.
"I always admired how girls can hold hands, girls can hug, cuddle, and there's nothing abnormal about it. It's not sexual," he says. "The whole girl lifestyle is just so much more social and caring and loving and understanding."
Michael left home at 19, living on the streets and flitting from job to job. He drank, used drugs.
Henever felt comfortable around men. He isn't attracted sexually to men and says he has never had sex with one.
In 2003, at 39, he became Michelle. He got a nose job, brow lift and fat injections in his cheeks. His physician gave him hormones, and after a year he got breast implants. Michael kept his penis; that surgery cost too much, and he still identified himself as a heterosexual.
The transformation was easy. He had few friends as Michael and no steady job, so there were no awkward explanations.
But even as Michelle, the same old problems crept in. She struggled with drugs and alcohol.
By 2005, Michelle had tried everything else, "so why not God?" A friend invited her to church.
* * *
An evangelical church with about 20,000 members, Calvary Chapel has a reputation for embracing the homosexual community. Michelle loved the upbeat music and the feel-good sermons.
Everybody seemed so nice. Her new friends showed her videos about a gay male transsexual who accepted Jesus, got married, had kids and lived happily. You can have that too, they said.
By the time Michelle first met Calvary Chapel pastor Bob Coy, she was self-conscious about the D-sized breasts she'd had for over a year and had started wearing baggy shirts to hide them.
During the altar call one Sunday, Michelle found God. Several weeks later, she told church leaders she wanted to be a man again.
Church leaders spent weeks counseling Michelle. They brought her to their thrift store, allowed her to pick out a free wardrobe of men's clothes, says Craig Huston, a church employee. And they arranged for a plastic surgeon, a church member, to remove her breast implants at no charge.
The surgery came very soon - and so did the regrets.
Three months later, Michael stopped going to church and started swallowing handfuls of pills and chasing them with vodka.
That's when he rode his Harley back to the church and confronted the leadership. Michael, now 43, says he was cajoled into becoming a man again; he was the church's "pet project."
Coy says the church had no agenda with Michael. He asked. It helped.
* * *
Looking at Michael today, it's hard to tell Michelle ever existed.
His head is shaved. There is a faint, rainbow-shaped scar on his forehead from the brow lift.
His red goatee is long. He favors jeans, muscle tees and combat boots. His voice is low.
Sitting in the Delray Beach home his estranged father bought him, Michael listens to opera and chain-smokes.
The only reminders are in the bathroom - a hot pink rug, butterfly towels, a vase of flowers and a white vanity mirror.
Realistically, he knows he can't become Michelle again.
"If I do it again people are going to think I'm even more unstable," he said.