July 21 2015 CITY PAPER
Alana Florio has a smoky, deep voice and pink polish painted perfectly on her fingernails. Her brown hair sweeps across her chin, and her high cheekbones stand out from the rest of her face. Her silver earrings are clipped on. Her eyes are gentle and curious and lined with shadow and mascara, but not much. Her lips are nearly neutrally glossed. Her smile: pensive, friendly.
Florio was born on Easter Sunday in 1950. She was assigned male at birth and lived nearly entirely that way until a few years ago. She still lives the professional half of her life as a man today. Growing up, she knew she was different, but felt ashamed about the feeling that she was innately a woman.
“I played sports, but mostly because that’s what I was supposed to do,” she says. Her mother and sister both caught her dressing up in their clothing a couple of times, but never seriously questioned it. “I learned over time to just suppress this part of me. But it was always there, churning,” she says.
Florio learned to play piano after her older sister took one lesson and quit. She stuck with piano, and then picked up the guitar and eventually bass. As a teenager in Long Island, she joined a few rock bands and played clubs throughout the area before and while she attended St. John’s University. No one knew she identified as a woman.
A few of Florio’s high school friends attended college in Arizona and would tell her about the place when they’d visit New York on school breaks. She was enthralled with what she’d heard. “A couple of days after I graduated St. John’s, I packed everything in a U-Haul, everything I had, and drove to Arizona,” she says. “I stayed there for 40 years. That’s where my whole professional life was, with Motorola and US Airways.”
Florio says her parents were shocked that she planned to leave home for the west. “I can still see them standing on the porch, waving goodbye,” she says. Her family was a traditional, New York, Italian family. “No one moved away,” she says. But eventually nearly everyone in her family moved to Arizona, including her parents, her older sister, and her first wife’s parents.
“I’m a people-pleaser. If I’m doing something that disturbs people, I don’t do it,” she says. She learned to suppress her desire to be the woman she knew she was and focused on her career and family.
“I kept it very secret and it affected me over time. So I just blocked it out of my mind and almost became an actor. I learned how to be very good at being a guy and being very successful at my job. No one would have any idea that I had this other part of me,” she says.
Being found out, at that time, would have been frightening for her. “I was a master at deception. And that made parts of my personality not so good. Learning to hide things . . . ,” she says.
She married her first wife and they have two children together. Around the age of 35, when her father died, she got more involved with her true self directly. “When I was younger, it was always a fantasy,” she says. “You always think sometime in the future you’ll do that, but then as you get closer, or older, you realize there’s less time.” So she started shopping for a wardrobe, on her lunch breaks at work, and kept it in a secret storage locker. “I was still married,” she says, “and my kids were 10 or 11 years old.”
“Once a week or so, on a Saturday or Sunday, I would take a day off of work, and go to a hotel and take pictures,” she says. She had connected with a small network of other trans people and they would exchange photos and letters in the mail, encouraging each other. Because she was married, she felt a lot of guilt over the deception, and would occasionally purge all of her wardrobe, hoping that would expel her desire.
“It was too hard. I don’t think the world was ready to accept that. With my job and my family, I didn’t think this could ever go right,” she says.
But in October 2012, Florio finally went out in public as Alana. After divorcing her first wife for other reasons, and remarrying another woman in Arizona, she ultimately relocated to Baltimore for a job.
Once she settled in, she dressed up to attend a meet-up group for what she thought would be trans folks. “It wasn’t even ‘out’ really, it was someone’s house,” she says. She didn’t entirely fit in with the first meet-up group because most of the people were cross-dressers, not transgender.
Florio attended other meet-up groups, but never really felt she fit in. “I made some friends here,” she says, “but not a lot.” The trans group was focused on surgeries and hormones, and she wasn’t at that point of her transition because of her job, though she did meet some people from the group along the way who initially helped her get out into the world as Alana.
Feeling somewhat lost and unsure of where she belonged socially, Florio branched out into the gay bar circuit. She was surprised to find that some gay men were immediately drawn to her, though others were what she calls “tranny-chasers”—men who are often married and appear straight in much of their life, but pursue trans women, specifically those who have a penis. She says she felt like she could identify with women who feel used or manipulated by men after going out with a couple of these guys.
“I wanted someone to like me for who I am, not because of the organ I have down there,” she says.
Next she turned her attention to liberal churches in the Baltimore area. She attended a Catholic college and had studied the Bible, but didn’t consider herself especially Christian at the time. She has always felt spiritual, however, and sees many religions as sharing similar beliefs that she can relate to. “I just kind of like to go to churches sometimes to just be there to connect with God,” she says.
“I saw this site for gay-friendly churches,” Florio says. On the list was St. Vincent de Paul Church off of Fallsway. “I figured there wouldn’t be Catholic churches,” she says.
“But Father Lawrence was kind of an activist from the ’60s, and he’s been the pastor there since the 1970s. I sent him an email and told him about myself. I asked if I’d be comfortable if I attended Mass that Sunday. Within an hour he emailed me back, saying ‘by all means, come to Mass on Sunday. I’m the fat guy with the white beard sitting in the back looking like Santa Claus.'” He invited her to introduce herself at the end of Mass.
“I had Uber come pick me up,” Florio says of her first service. “I got to the front of the church, and I’d never really been outside in the day. I didn’t know any of these people. All I knew was that this man who says he looks like Santa Claus says I should introduce myself.” Before she knew it, people from the congregation were introducing themselves to her.
“They’ve taken me into the church as one of them. Now I’m very active [at the church],” Florio says. “I’m a lecturer, I read scriptures, I do liturgy planning.” She is also a member of a group of women who want to increase women’s role in the church, called Women In Ministry.
Although things are going well for Florio—she’s now taking classical piano lessons at Peabody Preparatory and occasionally playing music for her church, and she’s a regular at a diverse neighborhood meet-up group near her place—there are still some aspects of her life that are unsettled. Initially Florio’s current wife, who still lives in Arizona, supported her exploration of the scene and herself, but that support seems to have waned in the last year or so. Florio is unsure what the future will hold for their relationship, but she is hopeful that her wife can be accepting of her new life, but says she understands if she can’t be.
Florio has a leadership role in IT management but hopes to retire in the next year or two. She oversees hundreds of employees in her current position and loves her career but it takes a toll. She doesn’t feel comfortable transitioning on the job because she was hired while presenting as male, and feels it would be unfair to expect everyone else to adjust along with her. One day she will transition to female full time. She sees herself taking a different job or volunteer position that accepts her as Alana.
“I don’t like trying to be someone I’m not,” Florio says. “I just want to be myself. I want to try to look presentable. But I don’t talk in a high voice or act totally feminine. I don’t want to look like a truck driver in a dress, either. I’m just trying to be normal.”