Be Every Day

by | Mar 1, 2024 | 1 comment

  • Martha in 2018
  • Martha in 1992
  • Martha with a manhattan in 2022
  • CDTG’s First Thursday Glamor & Glitz Christmas Party in 2023

Martha Marvel (born 1951) describes her youth on the South Side of Milwaukee as one of dealing with “strange feelings” that she remembered from her earliest memories. Martha grew up with three sisters and had what she calls a “weird obsession” of trying on her sisters’ clothing when no one was around. The clothes fit just fine, but Martha said that the “magical feelings I had—scared the shit out of me.”

On TV, Martha saw comedians such as Flip Wilson or Jackie Gleason that were men who dressed as women—in comedy routines that people laughed at and made fun of. Martha hid deep inside herself. She had no idea if other kids had the same feelings as her. She was unaware of terminology for her feelings but as she grew older, she learned the terms.

Running From Her Feelings 

Martha described herself in high school as a “super over-achiever” who was, at first, heavily involved in sports and always pushed herself to be the best. She excelled in football at halfback and was at the top of her range playing varsity her junior year when a torn leg muscle ended her football dreams.

When senior year arrived, Martha passed on sports and decided to run for student council where young Martha would become President and would receive the Milwaukee Rotary Club Award for Leadership. To top off her final year of high school, she had the role of Captain von Trapp in “The Sound of Music.” Martha stayed super-involved as a way to run from and suppress “those feelings” and not have any time for what she believed at the time were “those sick fetishistic behaviors.”

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It was in college that Martha came across an article by Ann Landers. A word Martha was unfamiliar with was mentioned. It caught her attention and for weeks Martha obsessed over the word. Eventually she gathered the courage to go down to the library and look it up in the card catalog. The word was: “Crossdresser.” Martha finally had a word for her feelings of trying on women’s clothes. The term didn’t fit as well as the clothes, but it was the 1970s. Transvestite was a term commonly used in the 70s and 80s, and the term “transgender” wouldn’t gain traction until the 90s.

Having grown up in a strong Catholic family, Martha felt called to serve and thought about becoming a priest. She ultimately pursued a Master Social Work (MSW) degree, but in college she became very involved in campus ministry. Martha felt that God gave her talents for a reason, and at the campus ministry she was an “off-the-charts super-Catholic.” Her thought process was that if she could get involved in the church, it might counter the feelings that she struggled with.

She opened a volunteer-operated, drop-in coffeehouse, received a Catholic Student Leadership scholarship, and was hired as a volunteer coordinator for the campus ministry. Martha still had a nagging call to become a priest—but she stomped it down because she continued to struggle with her feelings.

She decided instead to serve the church as a lay person. She attended graduate school in Detroit and graduated with a master’s degree in Religious Studies. In Detroit, Martha was a member of the campus ministry team.

In what Martha would call a “lightning rod” moment, a fellow member of the campus ministry staff would come out to her as a lesbian. Prior to leaving for Detroit, Martha also met the woman who would ultimately become her wife. They became engaged and lived hundreds of miles away from one another while in graduate school before they wed. Martha hoped that being married would bring happiness, and the feelings and desire to wear women’s clothing would all go away.

Be All Weekend 

As the years passed, the family expanded by four children. Martha would seek out professional counseling and suffer through bouts of depression and mood swings. All the while, Martha’s wife and children never knew of her private struggle. In the mid 80s, Martha did not feel safe going out in Green Bay for fear of being “outed.” So, instead she took an excursion to the north side of Chicago.

Martha parked in a dark parking lot and dressed by flashlight in her car. She was going to a bar she had heard was a trans hangout space: Charlie’s Angels. While walking inside, she tripped and went flying. She caught herself, but was deeply embarrassed and darted to take a seat. Taking a glimpse around, she saw no other trans folks in sight. A kind bartender came over to Martha and said: “Honey, it’s okay,” and Martha promptly ordered a Manhattan.

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Over time more information began to surface about transgender individuals. Usually, this information could be found in the back of adult magazines. It was here that Martha would learn of national “Crossdresser” organizations. In the late 1980s and 1990s, organizations like TRI-ESS–CHI Chapter and The Chicago Gender Society caught her attention.

They had an ad for an event called: “Be All Weekend” where annually they took over a hotel near the O’Hare airport. They also periodically sponsored “Holiday En Femme” weekends that Martha decided she wanted to attend. She had never before met or spent time with other trans persons. At this time, she was successfully working locally and nationally full-time for a religious organization, and her wife still had no clue about Martha’s secret.

As Martha put it: “I signed up for the weekend, but I was scared shitless. I walked into the hotel as a man. I remember getting into my room literally shaking. I changed, put my make-up on, and then sat down for an hour and a half—all the while working up the courage to take the elevator to the gathering. I had such a fear of being laughed at. I walked into the ballroom and looked around. Easily, there were 250 trans women chatting and laughing—the energy in the room was unbelievable. Years of self-loathing and confusion melted, and I almost burst into tears. Everyone was so nice and comfortable with who they were.”

It was there that Martha met a woman in her late 70s who dressed all the time because she could easily pass. She was the first trans person from NE Wisconsin that Martha had ever met.

From the “Be All Weekend,” Martha was also able to connect with a group of trans women in Milwaukee. Several met once a month in a church basement on the West Side of Milwaukee. These ladies eventually evolved into a more organized group. Martha was present at the initial organizational meeting of what was named the Gemini Gender Society (GGS). Some members of the GGS met every other Thursday night, at the Club Metro, just down from the Pfister Hotel.

The group of trans women would get a few drinks and then pick a restaurant. The group befriended cocktail waitresses at Blu at the top of the Pfister Hotel, and it became their end-of-the night go-to spot.

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Martha could only attend gatherings a few times a year because she was still leading a life of secrecy with her family and friends. Martha said just knowing the group existed gave her something to look forward to. It gave her a much-needed space to be herself after stuffing her femininity down inside herself over the years—she finally had a place to shine.

We Will be Seen 

Being a workaholic was Martha’s way of running from and not having time for “those feelings.” She always told herself that if Martha became known to others, that the work that was accomplished “would save me from total ridicule and rejection.” She remembers praying to God many times just hoping that “one morning I would wake up and God would take it all away.” In moments of frustration, she would question her creator: “Why the hell did you make me this way?”

Finally, after being married for about 13 years, Martha decided she would use her Halloween costume of a bearded lady to facilitate a conversation with her wife (who rounded out the couple’s costume dressed as a guy). After the party was over, Martha and her wife had a heart-to-heart. Martha provided her the 1988 book Transvestites and Transsexuals—Toward a Theory of Cross Gender Behavior by Richard F. Docter and some articles that went through all the basic questions: Are you gay? Are you transitioning? There were many questions that Martha just didn’t have a clear answer for, as she was still figuring it out. It would take a full nine months before they talked about it again.

It was the mid-to-late 1990s when Martha worked up the courage to walk into the Napalese Lounge in Green Bay for the first time. She remembers sitting by the door with the intent to dash out the door if she needed to should a friend, neighbor, or co-worker walk in. She was scared, but she stayed and had a “liberating conversation with a local drag performer who was in male mode.” Martha was told she was safe, and if anyone harassed her, there were several people in the bar who would “kick the shit” out of the offender. Since Martha’s conversation with her wife, she felt much freer to communicate and always told her wife where she was.

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Though they talked openly about Martha, her wife preferred not to meet her. Martha got a P.O. box to correspond with the transgender community, to order clothes, make up, jewelry, etc. The next 30 years would pass in this fashion. Martha used to keep her clothes and makeup in clever hiding spaces around the house and garage, but after coming out, she didn’t have to do that anymore. Little by little, Martha became herself over the years. Martha and her wife are now nearing almost 50 years of marriage. Fairly recently, Martha’s wife met and has spent time with Martha.

Martha retired from her “professional” career in 2017. She no longer had to fear that she would be fired from her job if she was “outed.” In October of 2017, Martha invited three other trans women from the Green Bay area to gather on a monthly basis in what was “The Back Storage Room” of the Napalese Lounge. This meet and greet social support group became known as the CD/TG First Thursday Gathering. Word of the group spread quickly. It has met every first Thursday since then, and today has an average monthly attendance of 25–30, having reached more than 300 trans adults.

In 2020, Martha was working with a local arts group called United Arts who had received a modest grant to help underrepresented and marginalized artists. Utilizing some of these funds, it was Martha’s idea to recruit a queer artist to paint a public art mural on the side of the Napalese Lounge to celebrate the LGBTQ+ community in NE Wisconsin. Butch, the co-owner of the Lounge, was very supportive. Martha was the Mural Project Coordinator.

With considerable assistance from a young, talented, queer, community activist, Justis Tenpenny, eventually 24 organizations were brought together and over $20,000 was raised for the recruitment of an artist, installation of the “We Will Be Seen” mural, lighting, plaque, a new front door, the staging of a weekend of Pride activities, and a block party at the mural unveiling which was attended by 600 people. Chue Lor San would be the artist chosen from the submitted designs to paint the mural.

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In August of 2021, the Napalese Lounge had an unveiling of the “We Will be Seen” mural. It included the progressive pride flag and the images of Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera painted on the side of the Napalese Lounge. In attendance was Green Bay Mayor Eric Genrich, Lieutenant Governor Mandela Barnes, and other community leaders.

Martha was the emcee of this event and introduced the folks who made the mural possible. It was a big celebration that had a ribbon cutting and reopening of the bar’s front door, which had been sealed for years due to prior incidents of homophobia.

Being Seen 

Prior to the mural unveiling, Martha had been working with the trans community but trying to fly under the radar. However, this was a big public event for her. Martha knew that there would be people who knew her as her male self in the crowd. She wondered if they would recognize her. The answer came eight weeks later when a close friend called up and said a colleague had commented to him about seeing “Mike in drag” at the Napalese mural unveiling.

Initially “Mike” panicked and denied that there was a “Martha.’’ She felt terrible for lying because this man had been a close friend for more than 25 years. After languishing for 24 hours, “Mike” called his friend, and over drinks “Mike” told his friend about “Martha.” The friend listened intently, affirmed Martha, and then told her three things:

1. I’m hurt you lied to me.

2. I’m sad you didn’t feel safe to share this with me sooner.

3. I’m going to kill the person who outed you.

Martha knew the woman who outed her, and she had a conversation with her after. She was apologetic, and they moved on from it. The friend has now met and spent time socially with Martha. With Martha being outed, she knew it was only a matter of time before her four adult children would hear about it. Since word about Martha was getting out with her wife’s support, she planned to tell their children about Martha in-person.

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In 2022, on the day after Thanksgiving, Martha met up with her three daughters, told the story and went through all the questions with them. Her son couldn’t be there, so she told them not to say anything to their brother. Martha sat down with her son the next day. Her son is a former Marine Sergeant, and she was a little nervous. Martha told her son: “I need you to shut-up and just listen. I need to get something out, and I need you to listen.”

Throughout Martha’s sharing, she watched his face, and he was hard to read. After Martha finished, her son asked if he could talk. He responded: “Well, fuck dad—I’ve known for 20 years.” Martha was shocked. Her son told how when he was younger, he came upon an unlocked file cabinet drawer and found Martha’s correspondence with other trans folks and other items. He never told a soul and thought Martha would die before the news came out.

Bay Area Council on Gender Diversity 

Another offshoot of the August 2021 Mural Unveiling weekend of Pride was the gathering at a local church of 10 families with transgender kids and several counselors in attendance. Eventually, the group formed the Bay Area Youth Trans Alliance (BATYA). Trans youth in grades 7–12 began a meet-and-greet monthly Drop-In for Trans Youth. Dave & Busters provided a private party room for the gatherings, game cards, pizza, and soda. Authorized adults facilitated while the children made new friends and had fun. Sometimes parents also gather and support one another. What started as 10 families in 2021 has grown to 150 participating young adults. BATYA has held holiday parties for trans youth and also sponsored the first annual area-wide LGBTQ+ High School Prom at The Historic Tarlton with 80 youth in attendance.

In 2022, a local arts activist, Kent Hutchison, asked Martha if she would help him organize a gathering of 40 artists called “Unhinged,” held at the UWGB Weidner Performing Arts Center in Green Bay. Martha convened and facilitated a group of trans artists (now known as the Trans Artists Collaborative) that installed and offered The Transperience. The goal is to use immersive, innovative art to help people experience what it is like to be transgender. In October 2023 it was installed at the St. Norbert Mulva Library, and in summer 2024 it will be available to the public for six weeks at the Brown County Neville Public Museum.

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With the continued growth of the First Thursday Gatherings, the monthly Drop-Ins, and the growing demand for installations of The Transperience, it was time to organize a more permanent overarching organization. In February, 2023, Martha organized and convened the first meeting of the Board of Directors for what is now known as the Bay Area Council on Gender Diversity (BACGD). In March, it was officially recognized by the IRS as a 501c(3) nonprofit corporation. Martha was elected as its first president. Later in 2023, BACGD launched its own website (BACGenderDiversity.org) and a monthly newsletter.

Meeting Martha & Maggie 

In August 2023, Martha did an interview with NPR’s StoryCorps when they made a stop in Green Bay. Martha’s trans friend Maggie would be in town. Prior to this, Martha’s wife had never really spent time with “Mike” as Martha and had never met face-to-face with any of Martha’s trans friends. Two days later Martha’s wife said she would like to meet Maggie. Martha was floored.

They picked up pizza and beer, the three of them just hung out. It was wonderful. Inside, Martha was doing backflips over this new experience with her wife. A few days later Martha’s wife shared that she really enjoyed the visit. Maggie and Martha’s wife bonded over shared interests. Martha had always dreamed a day like this would come when she would be in retirement and could spend more time being who she is. Martha considers herself to be an independent Christian (though few know of her “faith” perspective—she just lives it and doesn’t talk much about it) who has gifts and talents for caring for the marginalized—like herself.

As Martha reflected on her life, the organization of the monthly CD/TG First Thursdays for adults, the “We Will Be Seen” public art mural and celebration, the monthly Drop-In for Trans Youth, the Trans Artists Collaborative’s The Transperience, and the founding of the non-profit Bay Area Council on Gender Diversity are things she is most proud of.

Through her lifetime of service to others, Martha has lived by the creed of always trying to build “communities care of service.” She has accomplished much. Martha plans to continue to serve and lead others in the queer community. It is what brings her the most joy and is what she believes she was meant to do.

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1 Comment

  1. I have known Martha for over 5 years. Now, I know her much better through this article.
    To me she is my “Martha Darling”……
    She is such a SPECIAL human being. God has not forsaken her.
    I love and respect Martha, as does our ‘community’ . I’m so happy to be a friend, and to me she will always be my “Martha Darling! “

    Sandi

    Crossdresser

    Reply

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