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For two months, Mike Reynolds said goodbye to his old self and became Lisa Anne

Jim Shelton , Register Staff 06/08/2003
Mike Reynolds of New Haven recreates his Lisa Anne Weber persona, the basis for his book. Jeff Holt/Register photos
Two years after his big experiment, Mike Reynolds of New Haven still can’t get his sex straight on his Connecticut driver’s license.

In fact, unless he produces letters from a physician and a psychiatrist proving otherwise, the Department of Motor Vehicles will continue insisting he’s female.

It’s not so far-fetched. For two months in 2001, Reynolds was legally a 35-year-old woman named Lisa Anne Weber.

He dressed as a woman, talked as a woman, sought jobs as a woman and even went to singles dances as a woman — all for the sake of a literary treatise on gender.
 Meet the author
Mike Reynolds, author of "The New Girl," $19.95, Publish America, will appear as several book signings:

July 24, Edwards Bookstore in Springfield, Mass., noon to 1:30 p.m.

Sept. 18, Barnes & Noble at Yale, 77 Broadway, New Haven, time to be announced.

Oct. 1, Meriden Public Library, 105 Miller St., 7 p.m.

Oct. 4, New Haven Free Public Library, 133 Elm St., 7 p.m.

Also, the book is on sale at Atticus Book Store-Cafe, Book Haven and the Foundry Bookstore. It can be ordered at Barnes & Noble or at
"I became female to try and understand what it’s like to go through life, or at least two months of it, as somebody else," says Reynolds, 41, who teaches media studies at Quinnipiac University in Hamden and Sacred Heart University in Fairfield.

"Nothing I expected happened, other than some guys being attracted to me," he laughs.

In the tradition of John Howard Griffin’s classic book, "Black Like Me," Reynolds spent 24 hours a day in a different physical persona and wrote about the experience. But while Griffin transformed himself from Caucasian to African-American, Reynolds chose to become an unemployed, overweight, unmarried woman.

The result is "The New Girl," a 191-page softcover book put out by Publish America.

In it, Reynolds tells of his experiences as "Lisa" at local restaurants, businesses, social events and religious services at a prominent New Haven church.

"I was very skeptical when he first told me about it," notes Michele Hoffnung, a psychology professor at Quinnipiac and head of the university’s women’s studies program. "It seemed unbelievable this large man could pass as a normal-looking woman."

Luckily, Reynolds had a brief gender-bending experience before this. Several years ago, he was cast in a woman’s role for an amateur theater production in Cheshire. Reynolds noticed that other cast members acted subtly different around him as a female, which gave him the notion to develop his experience into a book.

"But in order for people to take it seriously, I had to go out and do it, write about it and get it published," he explains. "My plan was simple. Of course it didn’t turn out that way, but the plan was simple."

Reynolds, a former speechwriter and advertising man from Chicago who moved to New Haven in 1992, went to dramatic lengths to attempt his deception.

It was necessary because of his size. He’s 6 foot, 1; weighs more than 200 pounds; and has a baritone voice.

He prepared for more than a year. To eliminate face and body hair, he went through a series of laser and waxing treatments; to modulate his voice, he consulted a vocal coach; to soften his skin and lend a slight curvature to his body, he took low doses of estrogen with an herbal supplement called black cohosh root.

As for his weight, Reynolds lost 35 pounds through an intensive workout regimen. Gradually, he invested in hip pads, a special wig, bras, a cleavage enhancer, cosmetics and breast forms.

Reynolds went to a New Haven judge to get his name changed. The judge agreed, and asked Reynolds to send her a copy of the book if he ever got it published. With the court order in hand, Reynolds arranged for a new Social Security card and driver’s license.

He also needed a new wardrobe. For this, Reynolds enlisted the aid of his girlfriend — now fiancee — Kim Morris.

"We went shopping together, did nails together," laughs Morris, who is a research analyst with the University of Connecticut Health Center. "To the extent I could, I helped."

Reynolds says it was crucial to the experiment that he be viewed as a woman, rather than a female impersonator or a man in the process of having a sex change.

"You have to have people see you and think, ‘Oh, she’s nice,’ instead of, ‘What’s he up to?’ You can’t be thought of as a transvestite," Reynolds says.

As much as possible, Reynolds wanted to see the world through a woman’s eyes. The value of the experience, he says, is to discover how much of gender is biological and how much of it is learned behavior.

"Part of it was intellectual curiosity, of course," he says. "And the undiscovered country element of it. I suppose there was also a little bit of anger, about how women I’ve known have hidden behind the prerogatives of their gender."

Reynolds took a leave of absence from his teaching jobs as Lisa’s debut in September 2001 grew near. He also told his condominium neighbors that he was going away for a couple of months and his cousin Lisa would be visiting.

Reynolds decided to stay in Lisa mode day and night for the duration of the project, keeping a journal of each day’s events. He would call girlfriend Morris every night to check in, but use only Lisa’s voice.

Morris recalls the first time she saw her boyfriend as Lisa. "I was astounded," she says. "My first words were, ‘You have better legs than I do!"

Reynolds started with a couple of trial runs. He visited Hoffnung in her office as Lisa, for instance, then met with one of Hoffnung’s classes.

"I can’t say enough about the way he transformed his appearance," Hoffnung says. "It was remarkable. When he was in my class, it was really clear that they related to ‘her,’ and ‘she’ related to them." Also, Lisa discovered the aggressiveness of inebriated men.

Lisa sat at the bar of a Hamden restaurant and a small, thin man in his 30s began making conversation. After some superficial smalltalk, the guy made a pass. Lisa thwarted the advance only by allowing the man to walk "her" to her car.

Lisa’s official launch was Sept. 22, 2001. In the first few days, Reynolds visited stores, shops and restaurants, applied for jobs at Yale, the Shubert Theater, the Peabody Museum and Southern Connecticut State University and attended a suburban job fair.

He also noticed how long it took him to do his makeup, how often he ran out the door late and how difficult it was to deal with a purse.

"It turned out to be this completely liberating, emotional roller-coaster ride," Reynolds says. "There’s no emotional middle ground when people are treating you as female. You’re perceived as the recipient of everyone else’s agenda. One whose value is involved in what somebody else does."

But not everyone was convinced by his ruse. The manager of a Hamden fitness center, for example, tried tactfully to ask Lisa which locker room "she" planned to use if she joined. When Lisa said her driver’s license showed her to be female, the manager apologized. He explained there had been a previous incident in which a man going through a sex change had wanted to use the women’s locker room.

Another time, a man in conversation mentioned that Lisa’s voice sounded somewhat like a female impersonator. Reynolds responded with an indignant tone and the man didn’t pursue the argument.

"By Thursday of each week, I was exhausted," Reynolds says.

Meanwhile, the job search continued.

Reynolds encountered potential employers who stared at his fake breasts and others who automatically steered Lisa toward jobs below her qualifications. Lisa attended a networking event at New Haven’s Zinc restaurant and made the rounds of every arts organization in the Audubon Street neighborhood.

In all, Lisa completed 47 job applications and had 30 interviews. Lisa’s only success was finding a part-time gig selling ads for a non-profit journal.

Although Reynolds can’t prove there was discrimination, he notes that he later got an assignment as himself from an area advertising firm that had turned him down as Lisa.

As for Lisa’s social life, one of the most intense aspects of the experiment was a singles dance at the North Haven Holiday Inn.

That night, Lisa shared flirting strategies with a group of women at the event, and one of the men at the dance took a shine to Lisa. They danced several times before Reynolds decided he’d taken the encounter as far as he could.

"This guy was very attracted to me and he didn’t look like he would take no for an answer," Reynolds says. "I really had to sneak out a back way and try to find my car." Yet, perhaps the most meaningful relationships Reynolds had as Lisa were at Trinity Episcopal Church on the Green in New Haven.

Lisa began attending services at the venerable church. Almost immediately, Lisa was asked if she’d like to be an usher.

"After the service, the other parishioners began coming up to me en masse to introduce themselves and their families, shake my hand, and warmly welcome me to the congregation," Reynolds writes in his book. "It was only the second week I’d attended as Lisa, and I was, frankly, surprised. This had never happened to me here in male mode."

Soon Lisa also was attending weekly "house churches," which are smaller, weekly prayer group gatherings. Lisa developed a fast friendship with a woman named Rachel (Reynolds changed most of the names in his book) and the two talked and exchanged e-mails throughout the next few weeks.

As Lisa’s time in New Haven drew to a close, Reynolds fretted over what to do about Rachel. Their friendship was one he hoped to continue in his true persona, but it was based on a lie.

He broke the news to Rachel after a house church meeting in which the members had given Lisa a birthday cake. Rachel’s reaction?

"Oh yeah. I know."

She had assumed Lisa was a transsexual, trying to assimilate into society. When she learned the truth, Rachel grieved at the loss of her friend, Lisa. She felt unable to maintain the same level of intimacy with the same person as a guy.

"We effectively became strangers," Reynolds says.

And now Reynolds is telling the world — or, at least those people who buy "The New Girl" or come to his book signings.

"Everyone is more intrigued about the change in gender than in what I found," he says.

His fiancee, Morris, also worries the public will pick apart Reynolds’ physical characteristics as Lisa. "I think he was able to hit most of what we do as women," she says.

"I’m cheering him on, rooting him on. He’s put his whole heart into this for three years and I hope it flies. He had to have so much nerve to do this, and faith in himself, to not give up halfway through."

At one of his initial book signings, at the Cheshire Public Library, Reynolds faces some mild skepticism.

More than a dozen women and a few men are in the crowd. They listen quietly to Reynolds read from the book, then come to life during the question-and-answer phase. Mostly, they have comments.

They critique his hands, his gestures and his voice. They question whether he was able to fool many people into believing his disguise.

"There are some things you just can’t hide," one woman says.

Reynolds maintains his findings were valid. He also notes he and Morris will wed in August and that he still attends Trinity Church.

But one thing he lost when he returned to the male population, he tells the audience, is the ability to connect emotionally with women even in casual conversation.

"I miss the ease of bonding," he says. "I don’t have that ticket in my pocket."

Jim Shelton can be reached or (203) 789-5664.

©New Haven Register 2003
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