Fifty-eight years into her life, Marsha Bradcoe found herself, and subsequently set herself free.
The now 63-year-old has lived in Elkford for the past 40 years of her life, and five years ago, came out as transgender. As far as she knows, she was the first in the area to do so.
“The day that happened, a lot of people caught their breath,” said Bradcoe.
Living in a rural mountain town of 2,523, with mining as the main industry, she was afraid she would not be accepted. However, the response was quite the opposite.
Bradcoe previously worked at the Fording River Operations Teck mine in Elkford as a haulage driver, retiring on the 28 of March after 38 years of service. Standing at 6’2”, 400 pounds with a large bushy beard, she was an unexpected candidate for a sex change.
“You learn, by living in a man’s world, [if] you look like the biggest, scariest, meanest son-of-a-b**** that ever walked the earth, people leave you alone,” said Bradcoe.
In reflection of her career choice, Bradcoe said that many transgender women, before they transition, take jobs in dangerous industries like the military, RCMP, or heavy labour.
“You’re in denial,” she said. “I have a macho job; look everybody, I’m a guy!
“But you’re not.”
In the old days, things were old-school. Bradcoe remembers the only safety they had was generated by themselves. She also remembers the mine being a very male-oriented workplace.
Driving down dangerous dirt roads, if the loaded truck slid, one wouldn’t get on the radio and say ‘don’t come down here, it’s scary!’, one would say, ‘yahoo, that was fun!’.
For 45 years, Bradcoe buried any thoughts of being different.
“[Growing up] I always felt wrong, I always felt like a fake me,” she said.
“Your gender will find a way to the surface. I buried mine in my subconscious, but I always knew something was wrong.”
Bradcoe learned as a child that it was safe to be a male, and unsafe to be anything else, or anything different or unusual.
Bradcoe grew up in a rough neighbourhood, without a father, and was often bullied and beat up. When a bucket of hot tar was dumped on her head at the age of five, her two older brothers said, “It’s time for you to man up” and threw her back out into the street to face her foes. She doesn’t remember dealing with the issue, but she does remember coming back inside to her brothers yelling their approval and slapping her on the back.
It was then that Bradcoe buried her thoughts of any gender difference that was starting to surface, and decided to carry on through life a tough and strong alpha male.
Bradcoe started crossdressing in her 20s, alone and in secret.
“I was so ashamed, because I had no idea where it was coming from, I just figured I was off my nut,” she said. “You go through purges, you throw everything away…”
Growing older, Bradcoe had fully accepted the mountain man lifestyle of bushwhacking, hunting and fishing. However, every moment spent in the bush were moments Bradcoe wished she could be spending in the kitchen, cooking.
At the age of 19, Bradcoe married her wife Nancy who was 18 at the time. They are still currently married but in the process of a divorce.
“We just both realise, we have different futures from here,” said Bradcoe. “She’s a wonderful woman. She stuck by me. The one thing I’m sorry for, it’s like she had to keep it a secret too.
“Secrets are bad,” she added.
One night at the age of 45, Bradcoe was watching a Canadian picture called, The Journey of Natty Gann, a story of two young men in the dirty 30s, riding the rails, looking for work and all the while, getting in trouble. Towards the end of the picture, the two get in a fight with each other. All of a sudden, the younger boy pulls off his cap, and a long head of hair falls out as he cries uncontrollably. While doing this, he screams at the other boy, “I’m a girl, I’m a girl”.
“When I saw that, I started to bawl, uncontrollable sobbing for 45 minutes and I couldn’t stop. I didn’t know what was wrong,” said Bradcoe. “And then it was like this ten-million-watt light bulb went off in my head, and I just sat there, dumbfounded.”
Bradcoe’s mind flashed back to all the things in her life that didn’t make sense, and they all simultaneously fell into place.
She got up, looked at herself in the mirror and said, “There’s nothing I can do about this. Look at me, look at where I live, this is impossible, I’m too old…
“I just thought to myself, I’ll just bump along like I’ve been, and eventually I’ll get old and die and it’ll be over. But it doesn’t work like that, once you know.”
What followed was a 10-year downward spiral into a deep depression. She only left home to work and spent the rest of her time on the couch watching TV. After 10 years, it came time to do something. Bradcoe sought refuge with Vancouver Coastal Health’s transgender program, which explains everything about transitioning, surgery, the effects of hormones and more. Another feature included what to do if you’re in a rural place, and want to transition.
“I read that, and I started to have hope,” she said. “My days before transition, were dark. I couldn’t see any good in the world.”
Bradcoe found herself in her doctors office for another appointment. When it came time to leave, she just sat there and started to cry. It all came out.
“I told her, I’m transgender, I’m destroyed, I want to grow breasts, I didn’t know how else to do it. It all just came out,” said Bradcoe.
“Her response was perfect. She said, we can do that, it’s not rocket science.
Even with this reassurance that transitioning was possible, Bradcoe had not yet fully accepted herself.
“Unless you know from the time you’re a child and you’ve lived most of your life as a female, to transition later in life, it takes some getting your head around,” said Bradcoe.
At this point in 2011, Bradcoe decided she was going to grow breasts, but keep it a secret. She eventually started meeting with other transgendered people and a therapist on a regular basis.
The therapist taught her that not everyone will accept her after this transition, including family members.
Her parents are both long since passed away. Finding out about her transition, one of her brothers, older by nine years, didn’t talk to her for three years.
Once she started hormones, a whole different battle began. While overdosing on estrogen to combat testosterone, body shape began to change. This also caused her to lose some of her muscles, and she became weaker.
During the process leading up the announcement in Elkford, all her friends thought she had cancer. She was required to lose 100 pounds before she started to take hormones, and she lost it in eight months. She also shaved off her big bushy beard.
“Everyone thought I was dying,” said Bradcoe.
The medical system was beginning to change at this point. It used to be required to live full-time as a transgender for a year before going through hormonal changes or surgery. This was before accurate statistics came out which shed light on just how many transgender people live in society.
Bradcoe believes statistics were always poor because transgender people remained hidden.
Statistics used to say that one in 30,000 people is transgender. Now doctors know that one in 1,300 is closer to the mark.
Bradcoe’s surgery was delayed three years because of her age and her weight. There is only currently one doctor in Canada that will perform this surgery, and this is Dr. Pierre Brassard in Montreal, Quebec. He performs 200 sex change surgeries per year.
A few days before her surgery on November 30, 2015, her brother called. He referred to her as ‘sis’ for the first time. She almost cried on the phone.
Working in Elkford, Bradcoe needed to come out and live full-time. She began by reviewing policies of Teck Coal as well as local companies and governments, as to her rights as a transgender in the workplace as well as society.
She approached her manager and told him that she needed to come out at work, as well as let the whole town know.
”I said, if we do this right, you won’t be forced to fire employees that are key to your operation,” said Bradcoe. “I didn’t want anybody to lose their job because I was transitioning.”
However, while talking to the company as well as the union, she made it clear that she had the right to demand respect in the workplace, just as much as anybody else.
“You don’t have to like me, but you have to treat me like a human being. Everyone is entitled to that,” she said.
For three weeks, she planned her announcement with the head of human resources for Fording River Operations. Bradcoe introduced a short educational piece to present, which would educate others on transgender people.
Together with the head of HR as well as the head of her local union, they formed a plan.
Finding out they knew little to nothing about transgendered people, she was delighted to inform them. She presented to them over two stacks of information, and on top she had a picture of herself in a tutu, a little bit of added comedy to help break the ice between these two people who only ever meet on less-than-ideal terms.
When medical professionals found out that Bradcoe was planning on coming out in a small rural community, they were afraid for her.
“Elkford has been know as the Redneck capital of Canada,” said Bradcoe. “But I had a few things going for me. I was always a stand-up ‘guy’. I’ve been on picket lines, and I’ve done things to support my brothers and sisters in need. So this gives you a bit more credibility.”
The day of the coming out in May of 2012, Bradcoe had prepared a video which she would show to her coworkers. To Bradcoe’s amazement, Teck shut down the mine for two hours and pulled in every worker, contractor, shop worker and foreman into one room. She was shocked mainly because at a mine, time is money. When a truck stops moving on a mine site, it is rated at a value for so-many-thousand-dollars per minute to calculate loss of profit.
“What the company did… I was shocked. I couldn’t believe that,” said Bradcoe.
Bradcoe was not present at the mine for her announcement. She had taken a week’s holiday.
A manager read a letter that stated, ‘We have a transgender person in the workplace.’ The union spoke and affirmed this, and gave listeners no option for any ifs, ands or buts.
The workers were then briefed on ‘Trans101’. The video then began, with Bradcoe dressed in fem (as a female).
Before revealing who it was, nobody had a clue. As soon as Bradcoe started to speak in the video, the room went dead silent and jaws hit the floor.
While the announcement was being made on-site, Bradcoe was walking around Elkford with enough handouts for its 2,500 people. She thought this would take only a few hours but it took all day. The response was overwhelmingly positive.
“It was such an amazing experience. I did not expect it… I told Nancy, at best, we’re going to be ignored. At the worst, we’ll have to move. But it was none of that,” said Bradcoe.
Going back to work, some old-timers were standoffish with Bradcoe, not because they thought she was a freak, but because they didn’t know what to say to her. But after a while, they got used to it.
“I know how they think because as a kid, I know how people thought of gay men,” said Bradcoe.
“It’s been very, very good at work. Some of those guys, which I never would have expected, came up and shook my hand. And they told me, ‘you’ve got huge balls’. That really meant a lot to me.”
Bradcoe believes what stops people from approaching her is fear. Fear not of her, but of what people will think of them for associating with her.
“That stems from (the idea that) there’s something wrong with being transgender, gay or lesbian… We’re all a part of humanity and we always have been,” said Bradcoe.
Bradcoe retired from the mines last month.
Not often do people talk down to Bradcoe about her sexuality. However, not long ago, Bradcoe was refused service by the owners at a restaurant in Cranbrook.
While interacting with people in public, if she receives a second look, Bradcoe simply smiles back. Ninety-nine per cent of the time, they smile back.
“It’s almost like having an instant little conversation. Oh, you’re one of those trans people? Yes I am, and it’s okay!
Bradcoe has had trouble entering some women’s events in the past. Ever since Alberta Vital Statistics allowed people to change their gender identification on their birth certificates without surgery in November of last year, this has helped Bradcoe with this issue of identification.
“Your gender is hardwired, it has nothing to do with your body,” said Bradcoe, who believes this new bill change was a huge step for the transgender community.
“Your gender is set by a hormone wash to the fetus… And then your gender is set. The immediate week after that, those hormones start to decide what genitals your body is going to develop. And sometimes, they don’t know why yet, but that hormone wash gets messed up.
“I was born as a male, but my gender was female,” said Bradcoe.
Thinking back, Bradcoe believes if she had come out thirty years ago, things would have been much different.
She remembers when the first gay marches started during the stone wall riots in New York City in 1969. She remembers people being killed.
“I’ll never forget… That I’m standing on the shoulders of other people who have fought,” said Bradcoe.
“It really is an honour. That’s all I can say.”
Despite being accepted in Elkford, Bradcoe plans on moving to Kelowna to join its thriving transgender community. There, she hopes to meet a new partner and start a new life.