By ELODIE REED
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Carefully applying eyeliner in the mirror, Kae Mason said her makeup isn’t about covering her face.
“Want to know a little secret?” she said. “I like it.”
Mason, 49, says she’s an open book. She readily explains that until a year and a half ago she went by Keith. She shares details about her male-to-female gender reassignment surgery in Thailand less than a year ago. She talks openly about her home life with her wife, Monica, and three of their five children in Bow.
Sitting at home beneath a photo of her family and of herself before she transitioned, Mason said, “I’m very comfortable.”
She feels no inner turmoil about her identity – as far as she is concerned, she is not transgender. She’s a woman.
“I’m not transitioning,” she said. “For me that’s over. . . . I live my life as a girl now.”
In that life, Mason is still a parent and still sees herself mainly as a family person.
“We’re as close as we’ve ever been,” she said. “That was my biggest focus.”
Mason quickly acknowledges that she has been “blessed” to have had such a good experience. She knows not everyone is as fortunate.
“I just see a lot of suffering, a lot of instability,” she said. “It’s sad.”
Given her own, stable situation, Mason has become an activist in the community. She mostly sees the struggles of other transgender people at her Concord business, Salon K, where she does trendy styling and advertises transgender-friendly services. When people sit down in her chair, Mason listens to them, points them toward resources and gives them support – and a good haircut.
Just the other week, she said a mother told Mason about her 4-year-old son who was showing outside signs of identifying as female, such as wearing tutus.
“It reminds me of me,” said Mason, her eyes tearing. She talked to the mother about her son possibly being transgender, and explained how the mother could support her child.
The mother later texted, “You made me feel lighter as I walked out of your salon.”
In addition to creating a safe space in her salon, Mason has been sharing her story with news outlets, posting her transition journey on social media, and she recently organized a vigil for the victims of the Orlando Pulse LGBT night club shooting.
Mason does all this, she said, because she feels there’s a need for resources in the transgender community, and she’s in a position to help.
“Most people start, where do I even get hormones?” she said. “They don’t even know.”
Navigating a transition
Mason said her transition was fairly straightforward. She always had feminine preferences, and once she fully understood she was transgender in her late 40s, she had the ability to pay for the gender reassignment surgery, at a pricey $17,000 several continents away. The closest clinic in the U.S. is in Boston as of May, and before that, in Pennsylvania. There, Mason said, it would have cost her $45,000.
She’s also had moral support from her family, her neighbors and her salon clients. Mason said she hasn’t experienced any harassment around Concord, just curious stares.
“There was no confusion for me, there was no rockiness,” Mason said.
The woman whom Mason married 16 years ago, however, had more trouble navigating the process. Monica Mason said she wasn’t prepared when, one night, her husband walked through the door and into their dining room, with a wig on.
“She was like, ‘Do you like my hair?’ ” said Monica. “None of us knew anything.”
Mason eventually sent her wife an email, with a link to a gender reassignment surgery website complete with photos of pre- and post-surgery. That, Monica said, was the first time she realized, after perhaps some denial, that something bigger was happening.
“That was hard,” said Monica. “You think your life is going to go one way . . . (then) you do a 180.”
At first, Monica said she felt left out of Kae’s transition, like when Keith changed her name to Kae without any warning, or when Kae told their 14-year-old son at the time, Kyle, that she was transitioning without letting Monica know first.
“I was very upset,” Monica said. But when Kae wanted to tell their twin daughters, 9 years old at the time, the couple did it together, in their kids’ bedroom, sitting on the carpeted floor.
“Kae was so beautiful the way she said it,” Monica said. “I just teared up.”
In the meantime, Kae began wearing women’s clothing and makeup as she took hormones and scheduled her surgery. There was one time when, walking in the mall, Monica said her spouse was heckled by a man, in front of their children. And that was difficult, too.
“It makes me so angry,” Monica said.
These days, Monica said that doesn’t happen anymore, and their children “are fine.” Their friends readily accept Kae, and they haven’t experienced any bullying due to the change, much to the relief of both parents.
For herself, Monica didn’t know of any resources for the spouses of transgender people, and she’s connected with just one other through Kae’s salon. Monica said she relied heavily on the other families in the neighborhood to get through the process, and continues to do so now.
“Everyone watched the transition,” Monica said. “I don’t have to explain anything to anyone here.”
Monica decided to stay with Kae, she said, because she felt her spouse had been unselfish for many years taking care of the family, and not living 100 percent as herself, as Kae.
“It’s really hard to not get caught up in yourself – how is this affecting me?” Monica said. “Now I think it’s my turn to, not live unhappily, but to think about everything else.”
Monica and Kae’s relationship has changed due to the transition. They are no longer romantically involved, though they live in the same home and work together to raise the three children they still have living there.
Kae said, “It changes the dynamic a little bit. But we’re still soulmates and we still love each other.”
The teamwork they have in parenting, their friendship, and trust and respect for each other, Monica said, is unaltered. She said that she’s not exactly sure what the future holds, though for now, has no plans of leaving or moving on.
“That’s not where I’m at,” Monica said.
Out in the open
Whatever ends up happening, Monica knows the conversation with her spouse will be an honest one. Like Kae, Monica is up front about what she thinks.
So when Kae put on a small crop top for work one recent morning, Monica, who describes her style as more “conservative,” raised her eyebrows.
“You think I crossed the line?” Kae asked, standing in their joint bathroom.
Monica said she thought it was revealing, but didn’t impose. “Don’t change because of me,” she said.
Kae didn’t – she put on a necklace to complete the ensemble – and then finished her makeup and hair. She poked her head in the doorway of Kyle’s bedroom – he’s now 16 – before leaving the house. Monica stood in the doorway, waving to her spouse as Kae backed out of the garage in a sporty blue car.
Monica said her family isn’t perfect, just like any other. The difference is, everything is now out in the open for all to see.
“I don’t think people put truth out there,” Monica said. But for the Mason family, she added, “Kae’s walking out in a dress, there’s no way to hide it.”
Monica said Kae’s entire transition process forced her own “coming out” process, where she had to get up the courage to tell other people what was happening.
“The first few times, it takes your breath away,” Monica said. The more she talks about it with others though, the easier it is and happier she said she is.
“Now it’s like, ‘Oh yeah, my husband is a woman,’ ” Monica said. “All of a sudden it’s not a thing anymore.”
For a long time, the true Kae Mason was hidden from all of her family – and maybe herself, too.
Mason was around 7 or 8 when she said she first recognized she liked feminine things. “I would sneak into the bedroom when nobody was looking and try my sister’s clothing on,” she said. “I felt really great with them on.”
She had those small, stolen moments, but for much of her childhood, Mason said she was sexually abused. In young adulthood, she also experienced homelessness for a time, and she had two children in her late teens and early 20s.
She was living in Washington state and managing a car dealership in 1996 when she met Monica, one of Mason’s employees at the time. The pair would marry four years later. They had three children together, moving to Wyoming and then to New Hampshire six years ago.
From childhood to the middle of her life, Mason said, “I was foggy. Living as someone I wasn’t, but wanting to take care of my family, loving my family.”
She didn’t have the chance to figure out who she really was, or even to identify as transgender, until a few years ago. She thought she might be gay for a long time, but didn’t feel attracted to the same gender.
She finally went to her doctor and explained what she was feeling. Mason said the doctor told her, “I don’t think you’re gay. You don’t present gay, you present trans.”
She went home and did some research on transgender identity, and then she saw herself clearly for maybe the first time.
“I said, ‘Oh my God,’ ’’ Mason said. “Nailed it.”
She began visiting the transgender clinic at Dartmouth and started on hormone therapy soon after her “big ah” moment. She changed her name from Keith to Kae in January 2015, began dressing more consistently as woman, used laser surgery to take away facial hair, and then nine months ago, took the final step.
“I had my sex change surgery in Thailand,” she said. Alone, in a sterile white room on an operating table, Mason said she felt no fear about surgery to her chest, face and genitals.
“I was just so excited to wake up,” she said. She added of the lower body surgery, “Good riddance.”
Mason said that prior to her transition, she was depressed for many years. Once she realized she was transgender, it was “demoralizing” to shave her face, or to look down at her “bump” in shorts or a bathing suit while on family vacation.
Now, she said, “it’s an absolute joy to have clarity. It’s a beautiful thing if you know who you are.”