For the first 40 years of her life, Karli Rabe—then Karl—struggled with the problem of not knowing what her problem was. She was discontented with her work, life, love—but why? The word transgender didn't exist in her vocabulary, nor did the concept that she might actually be a she, and not the married man she was. Unlike Rachel, unlike Anderson Wiltshire, she hadn't "known" anything as a child, consciously or otherwise.
Except this: As a boy, she'd been caught wearing a sister's clothes, and her mother "shamed the shit out of me about it." Said it would be their secret and they'd never talk about it again. Which meant that Rabe kept on cross-dressing, but in secret shame.
A repressive family that shunned talk about "bodies" and sex; no money to go to college; a series of jobs—photographer, electronics repair, stereo sales, biomedical equipment sales—that hinted at untapped talents but didn't go anywhere; a marriage "that lasted just long enough to have two children," sons who are now 16 and 13; a painful divorce.
At 53, Rabe looks back with the aid of years of therapy and self-study and thinks she was paralyzed by what Swiss psychologist Carl Jung called a "shadow"—a hidden problem at her core that, until she could grasp and resolve it, would prevent her from coming to grips with other, less fundamental issues.
The core problem: Her dishonesty. "I was living, you know, out of integrity with myself," she says. "There were holes in the bucket."
But, of course, not grasping it was also a matter of self-protection, too. As long as she didn't, she could avoid feeling the pain and the burden of doing something about it.
Ironically, Rabe's first glimpse of a trans future came when, with the marriage in trouble, she joined a "New Warrior" group to look for her true male self. The warriors were asking themselves the right questions. When Karl tried to answer them—well, Karli is still trying to answer them.
Rabe eventually got started on female hormones, but after a year had to stop because she couldn't afford them. She'll start again as soon as she can, she says, and would like to get going on electrolysis for her facial hair; eventually, she wants to have a sex-change operation, the same as Rachel did.
But as of now, Rabe is between steady paychecks and trying to figure out whether she can start a business—she has several in mind—when she sells some land she bought years ago; which means she's also having to contemplate the prospect of postponing the hormones again, and the electrolysis and surgery, too.
Where would that leave her?
Good question. She's asked it of herself, and whether she can live a life of integrity if she remains as she is, still "on this edge" between a cross-dressing ex-male and an uncertain future form that she'd like to be female but could end up androgynous or even male-appearing. And maybe that'll be all right, too.
"It's still a little fuzzy, it's hard to pin down in some respects for me," she says. But she's determined to follow her mind and her heart from now on and to shed what remains of repressive socialization, even if she can never shed her male anatomy. "It's not either-or, I think that's the point." She was put early on into a box labeled "male." It didn't fit, but a box labeled "female" probably wouldn't fit either, because her genes are male and so is a lot of the experience she wants to draw on going forward.
"And at the same time, there's another part of me that was never developed, never fostered, never nurtured, so it's still an opportunity for me to connect with that—who I am—and express that. And that comes in many forms, not just physical form."
So if you could "be" your female side without the sex-change work, would you really still need it? I ask.
"Don't need it," she answers. "Want it. It's about self-expression. This is the nature of who I am."
For the moment, Rabe is trying to focus on business and money, but inevitably those problems also hinge on whether she's finally ready to test her mettle. Will she "commit" to an open exploration of her own sexuality? "I told my church group, I haven't arrived yet. I'm not present," she says, and smiles at the thought that she will be soon. "I do feel like I have a lot to offer that the world hasn't seen."
But the world in Chapel Hill and Carrboro, where she lives, is starting to see it. Rabe's wearing skirts out of the house when she feels like it, and jeans when she feels like that, and makeup sometimes, too. Sometimes she puts on "outplants"—false breasts—because they feel right. Sometimes, it's too hot for them.
The crux is to be self-confident, she says, because people will accept you if they sense that you accept yourself. Most of them, anyway. She's sometimes surprised by who's thrown at seeing her in a woman's garb and who isn't. "Label jars, not people" is her message to herself about that.