Michael Berke looks the biker-dude part. He's a solid six feet in tattoos, Harley jeans, a black cut-off T-shirt, a narrow ginger beard, the beginnings of a Fu Manchu, and a freckled, clean-shaven head.
On a recent Tuesday, he climbs a wooden ladder in a suburban Delray Beach garage and enters the attic. Ninety percent of what's up here belonged to Michelle, he says. "She had so many purses and things," Berke says, unsealing a blue plastic bin. He lifts out a knee-high black XOXO boot and studies it. "These were Michelle's favorite pair of shoes. What's neat about them is that you can see the skin through the laces."
It has been two years since those D-size breasts, beautiful legs, fire-red hair, and killer smile belonged to him. Literally. Yep, Berke used to be a woman who used to be a man. He's an m-t-f-t-m. An ex-tranny. The taker of a surgical U-turn. Add up all of Berke's surgeries, including breast implants, a brow lift, a nose job, cheek implants, and more, and the cost equals about $80,000. "She bankrupted me," Berke says.
The truth is, not every tranny lives in gender bliss ever after. Sometimes surgery doesn't fulfill expectations.
In his sitting room, Berke perches cross-legged on a chair, flipping through baby pictures that were taken in his hometown, Cincinnati. In every photo, the baby has a tuft of red hair and a toothy, carefree smile. "I was an extremely happy baby," Berke says. In third grade, he was diagnosed with a neurological disorder, but he doesn't know which one. It prevented him from getting dizzy.
As therapy, Berke remembers, his doctor would spin him like a top. Sometimes he would be placed inside a plastic ball and rolled around. His mother would wrap him cocoon-style in a hammock and spin it for 70 minutes a day. (This treatment is unheard of in modern medicine).
From third through sixth grade, he attended a special school for children with learning disabilities. The next year, he re-entered the public school system, but was placed in very basic courses. Though he had no early inclinations to become a girl, Berke suspects he was a little effeminate.
Kids would stick their tongues out at him. They'd bash him. One time somebody tripped him and he knocked out his front teeth. His family was supportive to a point, but then, as a teenager, he became a vandal. "We were using slingshots and breakin' windows and lighting Dumpsters on fire."
He tried college and then lived a wild life on the West Coast for several years, doing drugs and working as a roadie for the Sea Hags, a sleaze metal band. After the band's bass player died of an overdose, Berke tried to clean up.
His sister, Robin, wouldn't comment for this story except to say her brother is too unstable to be part of her family's life — and that he has been unstable and destructive for as long as she remembers.
A friend from San Francisco who had moved to South Beach spoke highly of it. So in 1996 Berke packed up again and drove back across the country — 73 hours — without stopping. His secrets were coffee and the company of a pet dingo, Amber.
In Miami things fell apart with his friend. "It didn't work out at all," Berke says. And that's not a huge surprise. He admits he has trouble getting along with people.
He wound up staying at a sober house, which didn't accept dingoes (Amber went to a no-kill shelter), and enrolling at Miami Dade College. He planned to study psychobiology, which required he take remedial math and English, offered only at the Boca Raton campus of Florida Atlantic University. Rather than drive there every day, Berke convinced his father to help him buy a home in Delray Beach.
He began going to fetish parties, dropped out, and several times dressed as a woman. He liked it a lot but soon tired of the scene. "Once you see someone get spanked or whipped, it kinda gets old," he says.
In 1997 Berke began reading psychology books and decided that his symptoms — instability of moods, emotions, self-image, behavior, and identity — met a particular definition. "I'm a chameleon," he says. "My identity doesn't exist."
Berke is often suicidal, and he cuts his arms and legs with razor blades. His self-image shifts depending on offhand comments from strangers. It's not an easy way to live. "I had always told myself that I would have my shit together by the year 2000 or I was going to check out," he says.
His first suicide attempt failed. A concoction of Tylenol PM and antidepressants didn't do the trick. So Berke tried to pull himself together.
He got a job at a tanning salon, and his father set up a trust for him. With the extra bucks, he bought an Argentine thoroughbred named Destiny's Dream. He trained "Dezy" and entered barrel races. A bad fall off the horse ended the cowboy phase and began an addiction to Percocet. Berke sold the horse.
Soon afterward, Berke tripped on his dog and injured his knee. He went on disability and had a lot of time on his hands.
"That's when I said, 'Tomorrow I'm going to start living as a woman.'" Soon there was a nose job, a brow lift, fat injections in the cheeks, breast implants, electrolysis, hormones, and more. "I love surgery!" Berke says. "I love waking up to the painkiller fairy."
He also loved being pretty. Michelle had long reddish locks bonded to her scalp at the Hair Club for Women, and for her $300-per-month membership, she could have the hair styled and rebonded when necessary. Then came the butterfly and flower tattoos, placed strategically over the Mohawked skull on the left forearm.
She dressed her new body in fashionable, provocative clothing. She bought accessories. She taught herself to speak from the diaphragm, and walked in heels like she was born to do it. "I even developed an eating disorder," Berke says with pride. In a matter of months, Michelle's bulimia shrank her from a size 12 to a 7. She weighed 150.
"One time I was a little pissed," says Ben, an acquaintance, "'cause I saw Michelle from a block away and I was like, 'Who's that hot chick?' Then I was like, 'Oh, it's Michael.' It made me feel like I was gay for a second."
Another day, at Starbucks, a man approached Michelle and asked her to dinner. She informed him she wasn't interested in men sexually, but he didn't mind. He took her to an upscale sushi restaurant and bought her toro, the most expensive cut of tuna.
"I got to feel what it would be like to be treated like a lady," Berke says. "It was just so beautiful."
But soon what Berke calls "the pink cloud" — the honeymoon phase of being female — began to disappear.
Seeking comfort, Michelle landed in the pews of Fort Lauderdale's Calvary Chapel, South Florida's largest megachurch, which claims about 18,000 Protestant congregants. Soon she began speaking with a biblical counselor, Deacon Craig Houston. God would not accept Michelle, he told her. Over the next few weeks, the church had her watch an anti-transsexual video and toss some of her books, Berke says.
"Do you think God makes mistakes?" Berke remembers Houston asking Michelle.
"I couldn't argue with that," Berke says. "I immediately decided to go back."
He cut off all of his hair and stopped wearing makeup. The brow lift had left Berke's bald head with a thin rainbow of a scar from ear to ear. For two weeks he wore giant T-shirts to conceal the 36-Ds. Then, in what felt like a miracle, the church agreed to pay for the removal of the breast implants.
Soon, though, he lost interest in the church. "I couldn't get myself to believe that a guy rose from the dead," he says, shaking his head.
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After again trying to commit suicide, he spent time in the hospital and then returned home to find it had been burglarized. Berke immediately traded in his Nissan Altima for a Harley. He rode around for three days "ready for war," he says. On the third day, he pulled up to Calvary Chapel and burst through the doors with a picture of his female self in one hand. "This is who I used to be, and I was happy to be her," he announced.
After being asked to leave the church, he went home and kicked in the door to his oven. Then he had a mental breakdown.
A year later he takes pleasure in his Harley and rides around with a bunch of guys who barely know him. Sometimes he's very angry. Sometimes he thinks about going back on hormones — just to feel more feminine. It seems to depend on what mood you catch him in.
"I think Michael is quite capable of morphing into different things," Ben says. "I think he's almost done with the biker thing. There will be another incarnation. It'll have to be something different and shocking."