Longform

Death of a Maiden

By the time Dondre Johnson was a teenager, his mother had begun to suspect something. Johnson was a tall, thin boy with a timid smile. In most ways he seemed like an average child, trooping around the neighborhood with his stepbrother and stepsister, and playing trumpet in the Norland High School marching band. “He loved dancing, singing, and he loved Michael Jackson,” recalls Clara Duncan, who had married Cleveland Duncan, a pharmacist, when Dondre was four years old. “At one point he wanted to be a vet, and then he changed over to nursing.”Duncan is sitting in the living room of the family's Carol City home, a suburban ranch house in a black, middle-class neighborhood of quiet streets and manicured lawns. She is an articulate, educated woman, currently in nursing school herself. “When he was a teenager,” Duncan says, “I started to see Dondre change. I saw him using colored contact lenses. He didn't even wear glasses. When I asked he said, “Oh, this is just a fad.' Then I started to see what I thought was makeup on his face. He said he was seeing a dermatologist, and the dermatologist told him this would help clean up his face. I said, “No, Dondre, I don't think a doctor would tell you that.'”

As Duncan speaks it's clear she is still puzzled by her son's behavior. “It was on his 21st birthday -- that's when I found out he was gay,” she recounts. On that morning, November 8, 1992, the phone rang. When Duncan lifted the receiver, the caller hung up. That happened two more times. On the next call, Duncan let Dondre, who was in bed, answer. She could tell he was speaking to a man. When he ended his conversation, mother turned to son. “Is that person gay?” she asked. There was silence.

“Yeah,” he mumbled, looking down.

“Are you gay?” she asked. He didn't answer. She repeated the question.

Her son pulled the sheets over his head and said, “Yes.” He paused a beat before asking, “Does it matter?”

Duncan didn't have to pause: “No, honey, you'll always be my child, and I'll always love you.”

When she talked to her husband later, he told her he'd always had a feeling. “It wasn't natural for a teenage boy not to have girlfriends,” notes Cleveland Duncan, a well-groomed man with salt-and-pepper hair. As it turned out, most of the family knew. Dondre's stepbrother, Kevin, who is now in the military, told his parents he used to protect Dondre at school from other kids who picked on him because of his effete manner. “I'm the only one who didn't know,” Clara Duncan says now.

Dondre's homosexuality was the least of his secrets. The truth was he desperately wanted to be a woman; he felt he was a woman inside. Not surprisingly his domestic life soon began to unravel. Someone called his parents and told them Dondre's lover was sneaking into the house after they left for the day. They confronted him. “Of course he denied it,” his mother says. Then he started staying out late. His misbehavior culminated later that year, when he didn't come home for a week. Eventually he called to tell his mother he was staying with friends. Her response: “We told him, “Listen, if you're going to do this you have to find your own place to live.'” He moved out.

Throughout 1992 Dondre (pronounced don-dray) was supposed to be attending Broward Community College's nursing program, but he quit school. He continued working as a supermarket cashier at the Winn-Dixie on NW 62nd Street in Miami, a job he had held since his senior year in high school. He rented a small apartment nearby.

Now that he was on his own, Dondre began making some subtle cosmetic changes, wearing his colored contacts, cutting his hair into a page-boy, or dying it light brown. Other workers began to notice. “During high school he was just a regular guy, and then he started changing after a little,” remembers Darren Saunders, who worked at Winn-Dixie with Dondre and also was a bandmate at Norland. “I remember I asked him what he was going through, and he got offended.” In fact other workers openly teased Dondre. “You could tell he had sugar in his panties,” says one man who works in the market's dairy department. “We used to mess with him about it.”

At some point, around 1995 or 1996, Dondre met some of the transsexual prostitutes who lived and worked in the area. At night, after work, he would hang out with them at the Waterfront, a gay club off Le Jeune Road. From them he learned how to dress like a woman, something he would try only at night. Although he was awkward at first, putting on too much makeup and wobbling a little in high heels, it didn't take him long to catch on. “[Dondre] always looked like a woman, always looked pretty,” recalls Stephanie, a voluptuous transsexual with wide, childlike eyes. Dondre even drew on his musical training as a singer to perform at the Waterfront and at a club called 21 in Fort Lauderdale.

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Tristram Korten
Contact: Tristram Korten