As racer J.T. Hayes, the subject of this article won over 300 regional and national championships in go-kart, midget, and sprint racing, and then competed in NASCAR Winston Cup before having sex reassignment surgery in 1992. Coming out in Creative Loafing is the latest turn in a life full of perilous curves and wide-open straightaways.
In her biography, Pink, Blue & Checkered (due out in 1998) Terri O'Connell recounts a Huck Finn childhood when, as a boy, she was told by the old racers she was going to be the next A.J. Foyt. Trouble was, she really wanted to be Marilyn Monroe. Even so, she excelled in the extrememly dangerous sport, hobnobbing with movie stars and earning $100,000 a year, until she finally gave up the career she loved to find peace and harmony within herself.
O'Connell's story puts gender bending slap in the middle of the country's newest Mom-flag-and-apple pie pastime, motorsports, causing us to question assumptions about masculinity, femininity and heroism. Between go-karts, motorcycles, boats -- anything with a motor on it -- motorsports is touted as the biggest spectator sport in the world. It's also said to be the last clean sport on earth, untainted (except locally by Tim Richmond) by drug or sex scandals. The racers' wholesome, family-oriented, masculine images are kept under tight rein by a handful of powerful men. Neither they nor their fans cotton to people messing with their family, their church, their favorite pastime. They especially don't like the suggestion that things aren't really what they appear.
O'Connell contacted CL last fall after reading a review of an art exhibit entitled "Where Do Queers Come From?" She agreed with the theme of the show, which was that the only thing we know for certain about the cause of gender anomalies is that it's a random roll of the genetic dice. To make a point about the mistakes people make about transgenderism, stemming mainly from sensational depictions by the media, O'Connell challenged us to pick her out in the crowd when we met for coffee.
It was impossible -- her long blonde hair, Ann Talylor wardrobe, and soft voice belied any notions we might have had about Adam's apples and big hands. In fact, O'Connell has been mistaken at various times for Marlo Thomas, Michelle Lee, Diane Pennington, and, most recently in Daytona, Kathie Lee Gifford.
So how the racing world handles the news that one of their own, one of their big, brave, ballsy men is really a petite, shapely, attractive woman remains to be seen.....
Creative Loafing: Between RuPaul and Lady Chablis, transgenderism has lost its shock value. What makes you so different?
Terri O'Connell:Well, I don't know any transies who look like real women and are national racing champions. I designed and built 20 race cars, then drove the hell out of them. Nobody ever mistakes me for a man now, however. It's no a ho-hum story, it's an incredible journey.
Are there racing fans out there wondering whatever happened to J.T. Hayes?
I'm sure there are. Some know, some don't. Before surgery, I kind of tapered my racing down from stock cars to midgets, then just didn't show back up. On the one hand, it's a sport in which you establish tight, lifelong friendships; on the other, whoever the new hot shoe is gets all the press.
How famous were you?
I'm sure there are people in the Midwest and West Coast and Winston Cup who might ask, "You know that guy who raced for Dunlavey at Rockingham? Whatever happened to him?" In the mid-South, I was pretty famous; in the West Coast sprint car wars I was pretty famous. I won races out there against guys who won races -- Kading, Hanestadt, Green. I wasn't a household name but I was well-known. As a matter of fact, some friends brought up my name at the Winston Cup in California just last month and a reporter remembered me. I was only five years ago that I was racing.
I won the first race I ever ran, at age 10, and the last, when I raced on Saturday night, drove to Trinidad, CO on Monday, and was in the operating room on Wednesday. But that was the kind of life I led for 20 years -- very exciting, very stressful, back-and-forth from macho to chick to macho again, very peaks and valleys. My psychiatrists were more concerned about me than usual because I went from one extreme to the other [requirements for sex reasignment surgery include at least one year of therapy].
Was it a hard transition to make?
No way! I hated being a male. I'm so happy -- I get up in the morning, get dressed, go to work, hang out with friends...I live a completely normal life. I hate being compared to the freak-of-the week on Geraldo or Sally Jessie, but that's all people see. I would love to have a husband, a rose-covered cottage, 2.5 children...I'd be a great soccer mom!
I imagine guys have a tough time with transgenderism because of, you should pardon the euphemism, "the operation"?
You should see how men wince when they find out. The think I'm the worst kind of pervert to do that to the most important thing in the world. What they don't understand is, it didn't mean to me what it means to them. It wasn't important to me at all, except for the terrible anguish it caused me.
They're also aftaid they'll find me attractive, or that I'll hit on them or something, and that really messe up their minds if they're the least bit homophobic. But plenty of guys are OK with it, like "Hey, as long as she's happy."
You're very feminine -- I imagine you must have been an effeminate man.
Not at all. I was very sensitive to what people thought of me, so I did whatever I had to do to be accepted. I hated rejection, was devastated by it, so I learned to walk like a man, talk like a man, and evidently convince most people I was a man. Racing helped me be masculine, and the more I looked and acted like what people wanted me to be, the more I was accepted. I'm a good actor -- I've been acting all my life. But I paid big time. I paid with my soul. It took me a long time to stop trying to make other people happy and be real.
I've conquered many obstacles in my life but the biggest one I have now is convincing people who haven't seen me that I'm not a hairy quarterback in pantyhose. The first thing people ask when someones tells them about me is, "What does she look like?" And people who've known me for a long time are utterly shocked when they find out I used to be a boy. On dates, I tell them early on that I used to be a boy. That way, I'm honest and upfront so I can never be accused of pulling anything over on anyone. The real joke is, the never believe me, so I can still enjoy the relation- ship as a normal female. On the other hand, if someone hears a rumor that I used to be a boy, I just strike a pose and ask, "Oh, come on. Do I look like a boy to you?" And they say, "No," and I'm off the hook.
What kind of relationships do you have with men? Do you date?
My relationships are very interesting. I could go out seven nights a week if I wanted to. I love men and men love me. Dating's cool.
Did you have crushes on men when you were one?
Yeah, I had crushes on boys when I was young, but my Southern Baptist background wouldn't allow me to go any further than that. I knew it was wrong to like someone of the same sex. But while I was expected to date girls, even fall in love with them, I felt I was a girl. It was very confusing. So my relationships were very superficial.
Are you still a Southern Baptist?
I'm not a practicing Southern Baptist, but I've been to every Bible study there ever was, vacation bible school, Sunday school -- church was my next-door neighbor when I was growing up. In fact, there are three churches within view of my bedroom window. So I'm very aware of who God is. He never abandoned me. He couldn't -- I needed Him.
What do you think about the situation in Charlotte regarding the county commission and gays?
It's misguided. If they want to cut funding for financial reasons, fine, but don't pick a certain group and degrade them and make them something they're not. The reason I'm coming out in Charlotte is because the "Gang of Five" took the word "transgender" and made it dirty and I don't think my mother looks at it that way. I know my minister back home doesn't and my friends don't look at it that way. I'm a normal girl who likes girl things, who looks like a girl, who always was a girl -- only thing that wasn't a girl about me was my plumbing.
So what would Hoyle [Martin] have me do? Appease him by being a boy? Or appease myself and be the person I am? I'm sorry he doesn't have the right information on this. I was appalled at what I heard at the [April 1 county commission] meeting -- it made me sick to my stomach and hurt my feelings. Basically, it hurts my mother's feelings when people say those things.
Don't judge me until you know me. Until you know me, you have no idea about who I am, what I stand for, what's in my heart, how God feels about me, and how I feel about God.
How do you reconcile your beliefs with those of conservatives? Do you argue with them? Do you find another church?
Yeah, you just find another Chuch. The right wing religious community will never accept that there's nothing in the Bible about my situation, not one word. It's just misrepresented by peple who want to put this issue in the negative. However, God gives me grace, he helps me with my faith, with humanity, with myself.
The decision to do this centered around me and God. You have to ask why things happen. Why did I have a 24" waist and 34" hips? My mother's face and hands and feet? Why did I also have a feminine heart and a feminine soul? Why did I have male plumbing? Why do I love both build- ing motors and being at the mall? What was I suppose to do? At three years old [when dressing in girl's clothes], I knew there was something different about me. Then as I matured, my body became more feminine, my needs became more feminine, but everybody said, "But you're a boy!" I'm sorry, it doesn't work that way.
It's a non-issue to my minister, to my true Christian friends, to my parents, and those who know me well tell you what a difference it's made emotionally. I look better, I'm open, I'm free. I've never been happier with myself and I've never been closer to my maker.
Back to racing -- what skills made you a champion?
I was a very, very smooth driver. I was an excellent qualifier, with more quick times, more front-row starting positions than anybody else. But I also won my share of races. I wasn't a Dale Earnhardt-style of racer, but more or less like Terry Labonte -- I was aggressive but I wasn't dangerous. I didn't tear the race cars up, although I had my share of crashes, too. I broke my ankle, my neck, my hand, several ribs, got a few concussions, burns, cuts, and bruises.
Any really bad ones?
I ran into a wall in the Astrodome at 140mph. Another time, I rolled for about 75 yards, ending up with gasoline pouring all over my ran- away engine and I couldn't get out of my shoulder harness. I woulda been barbecue if somebody hadn't thought fast and yanked me out.
So why did you stop racing?
I probably could have raced as a female. Racing is a non-gender sport, but [sex reassignment] surgery took at least a year to heal and get my emotional direction -- that's too long to sit out and if I went back now it would cause incredible controversy. You're not dealing with the wine-and-cheese set on this thing -- these are hard-nosed, testosterone-driven, wannabe-fighter-pilots people. They're good people, but they don't understand this end of life. There was no place for me in the sport.
The sport's homophobic. Let's face it, even though I'm not gay, they do group it that way. It's tough for women anyway. I have some perspective now, having been beaten up just doing business in the sport -- I've seen the glass ceiling, I've been chased around the boardroom. I see how women are treated. That's one of the reasons to do this book, because I understand where women are coming from. But I am fixin' to come back in '98! Possibly road racing, maybe back in midgets.
So you miss it.
Absolutely. I love it, it was my life, it was all I did. I was damn good at it. I miss the driving, miss the ambience.
So what were you? A man race car driver or a woman?
I was a race car driver. My daddy was a pretty famous midget racer in the 60's, so I was raised in motor sports, encouraged to do it. Being an only child and a chip off the old block added irony to my situation -- tragedy, really. When I changed into a girl and gave up racing, my parents lost the son they'd pinned all kinds of hopes on. I hated to subject my family to bigotry and ridicule. It took me a long time to commit to sex reassignment because of that, but ultimately, I had to take care of myself.
Tell me more about your family......
My family's had as hard a time with it as anybody, mainly with the social stigmas in our smal, rural Southern town. We've had our ups and downs, our good moments and bad, compassion, rejection -- we've been through all of it, but now we're closer than we've ever been because they've had time to see it, think about it, understand that yeah, you're right, it wasn't working the other way. The only mistake my parents made was not getting enough education about my condition. That's the problem most every family, every friend, every religious rightwinger has -- they don't know enough about it to judge it. It's kind of like this: a non-practicing Christian all of a sudden becomes an expert on the Bible when they hear the situation. Stigmas, stereo- typing become religion. Our society doesn't deal very well with strange biological happenings. Especially if we think it has to do with S-E-X, we don't want to go there. Even though this has nothing to do with sex. It's about gender.
You've mentioned friends, family, church, but not racers -- how do they respond to this?
Well, I haven't told many. The ones I have told are my friends and they've embraced me. They say, "We see a girl, not a boy in girl's clothes. You're a chick." I'm sure the rest of the racing community, when they hear about this will go, "OH MY GOD!"
Men have a harder time with it than women do. It's the good ol' boy- fraternity brother thing and they don't want somebody messing with the fraternity.
Ironically, I could have been a poster boy for motor sports. I was everything they want their champions to be. On the track, I was smart and fearless. Off the track, I didn't drink, do drugs, or screw around. I was -- and still am -- a straight-arrow kid who promoted the hell out of the sport becuse he loved it and believed in it.
What do you like about life now? What I like best is getting up in the morning and not having to fight the battle of being a male, which I wasn't. Going out in the world and being something I was not. Walking the walk, talking the talk, doing what men do every day and hating every single minute, every second of it. I always felt awkward in the fraternity of hot shoes, even though I took pride in being a member. It's not about makeup, not about putting on clothes, it's about looking in the mirrow and saying, "This is who I am. I can do my day." As a male, I never wanted to do my day.
I like hair and makeup, clothes, all those things. I like the way I look as a girl, the way my body looks, I love it, I'm really comfort- able as me. Before, I was never comfortable with anything male. I like cuddling on the sofa and watching TV with my boyfriend. I like going to movies with my boyfriend -- I cry at every one of 'em. I like being treated like a girl. He looks after me more, not only for my physical well-being but my emotional well-being.
Just day-to-day activities women have I enjoy. Women enjoy diffent things than men do. Me and my girlfriends shop till we drop, drink coffee and talk about girl things like fashion and stuff. I hate talking about boy things. I have no interest in talking about football, baseball, basketball, smoking cigars, or any the the crap men talk about.
Would you encourage women to get involved in racing, either as spectators or competitors?
Sure! Women can understand motor sports better than they understand football, baseball, or basketball. Sure, it's a mechanical experience, but behind the machine is a human being. It's color, it's motion, it's emotion. It brings out the primal in everybody because it has an aggression to it....
How rough is it? How much of a contradiction is the aggressive world of racing and the feminine world you live in now? How can you be both a fashion model and a competitive championship driver?
When you put it that way, I have to say....there's a contrast, yes, but why a contradiction? Why are the two mutually exclusive? Yes, it does take bravery and courage and cojones, but first of all you've gotta enjoy what you're doing. If you enjoy the speed, the competition, and the aggression, that's not just a male testosterone thing. Girls play baseball and basketball just like guys do -- they all have competitive spirit.
So while it would be impossible for someone like you to play football, racing, like tennis or skiing, could accommodate you because it doesn't require brute strength or size......
Exactly. A lot of your race car drivers, not all but a lot, are little people -- Jeff Gordon, Mark Martin, Terry Labonte, Bobby Labonte, Lake Speed, 95% of Indy car drivers, sprint car drivers, motorcycle riders, are all small human beings. That doesn't make them physically weak, they're just small individuals.
What psychological effects did your double life have?
Well, it kept me from being all that I could be. Because I was fight- ing the battle of trying to control something that was out of control, I was never able to give 100% to watever I was doing. Whether it was business or racing or companionship. I was always trying to hide something, trying to fight something.
How did that figure into your career?
That's a hard question. I'm sure it affected it. I think at times I was totally focused on motorsports, but at other times when I should have been completely focused I wasn't. I was always, during every racing season of my life...basically I wasn't able to control the gender thing. So it did cause troubles. I suffered burnout every year -- sometime during the year and I would fall back into my shell and not be 100% mentally.
It's an incredible thing to be caught between two different worlds and having to be successfull in the world you don't want to be in. I was constantly having to choose between two bad things -- getting tremend- ous rewards for being someone I hated, and getting punished for being real.
Readers won't be satisfied unless you talk about sex.....
They can read about my sex life in the book -- it may be interesting to them, it may not ... I've been chased around the casting couch a few times doing business in North Carolina -- it's in the book. It pissed me off then and it pisses me off now that I was treated that way -- there are things that need to be told about people whom I liked and admired.
So, were you a pig when you were a guy?
No, I was never a chauuvinist. In fact I went out of my way to make sure women were on an equal footing. I always spent a lot of time with women I raced with -- went by and encouraged them, patted them on the back and told them they were doing great jobs and to stick with it, to not pay attention to what the hard-nosed macho boys were saying about them.
I understand you've chosen this interview to come out. How big a risk are you taking?
I don't like losing my anonymity, of having people accept me for what I am, not what I was. But in racing, we say "If you want to win, you have to finish. If you want to finish first you have to stand on the gas." That means you can't wimp out, you have to take risks. I've never had a problem standing on the gas. And talk about risks -- what do you call wearing panties and pink toenails under my racing suit?!