Who was Rexanne Battershell? We know she was born some 46 years ago. And we know she died October 3, in the arson fire at the King Hotel.
Sometime around midday on that Sunday, Rexanne was getting ready for an afternoon shift at the Share Group, a telemarketing firm specializing in raising money for nonprofits. For some reason, she never sensed the smoke. She collapsed in her bathroom, where her body was first identified as that of a man.
Ironically, Battershell was a volunteer Red Cross rescue worker, and had spent a month or so helping the victims of Hurricane George in Puerto Rico last year. A few months ago, when the Share Group went to work to raise money in the aftermath of Hurricane Floyd, Rexanne was particularly effective, adding her personal experience to what colleagues describe as a natural talent for communicating with strangers.
This is our first clue. We've all answered the phone and steeled ourselves at the first indication that the caller is not, after all, a friend or family member. We all know how to interject the brush-off lines -"I'm sorry," "Now's not a good time," "I'm not interested," "I don't have any money,"--before the person on the other end of the line gets going with their official pitch. But we've also all had the rare experience of finding ourselves drawn to the individual on the other end of the call. We find our-selves listening to them, liking them, promising to send them a check. Rexanne was apparently one of these people - able to break through the barriers and touch a person she'd never met, both emotionally and presumably financially. She must have been genuine.
Rexanne had worked for the Share Group for a year or so, and
her col-leagues uniformly described her as upbeat, happy, sweet
and intelligent. Her hair flowed down to the middle
of her back. She wore twirly skirts and loved makeup. She had soft hands. She didn't talk about her past. She didn't talk about her transition.
Her friends in the trans community provide a deeper picture. Rexanne used to be in the computer industry, working as a man in San Jose and elsewhere, perhaps even at the level of a systems analyst. She transitioned eight or maybe ten years ago, and began to have problems getting and keeping a job in her field. When she returned to San Francisco early last year, she had let her hormones lapse and seemed depressed. She wasn't passing very well - a phenom-enon that takes, the discrimination and hate directed at transsexuals and magnifies it, adding ridicule to the intense social stigma of changing your perceived sex.
Recently, however, she had determined to stop languishing and go forward with hormones and - most importantly - work towards having the surgery she dreamed of. Her family life was not good, her friends said.
The cheerful Rexanne at work - who appeared to have no past seemed to mask the difficult feelings of a woman coming to terms with the conflict between her gender and her physical body. One former colleague probably saw her best. "This is a person," Linda McNerny recalled thinking, "who's been through a rough time and not only survived but survived to honor and celebrate who she was. McNerny never talked to Rexanne about her transition or her family, but they often talked about universal issues and spirituality. The Rexanne that McNerny described was given to laughter and discussions of the latest Mary Kay cosmetics, but she was also a profound individual, a thoughtful person. After Battershell's death, her former supervisor agonized about the fact that she had never told Rexanne how much she admired and appreciated her. Everyone's death should have that impact on the friends and acquaintances they leave behind, but the cold fact is: not everyone's death does have that impact. Rexanne's did.
What, asked Rexanne's union boss two weeks or so after her death, was a union worker doing living at a fleabag firetrap of a residential hotel?
In a sign of her new attempts to take charge of her life, Rexanne was within days of moving into a house with a friend in Fremont. But why was she living in the King Hotel in the first place? The answer seems to lie in the virtually automatic marginalization of non-passing transsexual people in our world.
San Francisco is not much different from Topeka, Kansas, in this respect. We have our gay community, filled with handsome, successful gay guys and executive lesbians all dressed to kill at the latest dinner party or the coolest club. We stick a "T" onto the official community acronym. We may even celebrate "trannies" with their cutting-edge films and festivals and their fluid definition that includes everyone from a transsexual to a dyke drag king having fun with a little gender bending. But when it comes to MTF transsexuals, particularly those who have not pulled off the perfect transition, this city is cruel. Perhaps a little less cruel than Topeka. But it's not welcoming.
Jobs are tough. You can't be a salesperson. You can't work in the front office. Housing is just as difficult. You live on the edge - not the cutting edge, but the sharp one. The simple task of getting other people to recognize your humanity becomes a major effort-unless, of course, you're a voice on the telephone. Is it any wonder Rexanne chose to hide out in an SRO hotel while she got her feet on the ground again? In the unconscious mind of many people in this city, SRO hotels are where people like Rexanne belong. Their talent, their education, their sense of humor, everything about them is overshadowed by the one quality our society pledges never to evaluate: their looks.
When she died, Rexanne was making plans. She was moving to Fremont. She was heading towards surgery. And she was working with an employment coun-selor, thinking of upgrading her computer skills and rejoining the industry. These plans reflected a new vision of herself. Physically female at, last. A new job. Money to spare. Out of the Tenderloin and into the suburbs. Living with a friend instead of living alone.
But instead of moving forward into this vision, Rexanne moved all the way back. In death, she lost her name and once again became "Rex Battershell." Her long hair was trimmed to her shoulders. She was dressed in a man's suit.
Up in Ukiah, Rexanne's family wanted no part of the woman she had become, They told her boss at the Share Group to keep the personal effects he retrieved from her desk. As for Rexanne's colleagues, they were afforded one hour to see Rexanne's body in the funeral home. On October 8, about a dozen of her coworkers made the drive to Ukiah, where they were appalled to find their friend forced back into the gender she devoted her life to escaping. No family members came to the funeral home during the one hour viewing. There was no guest book. Nor were any of Rexanne's friends invited to the actual service. At a loss, the mourners left a bouquet, and passed around a card in which they wrote their last words to Rexanne. Ironically, the staff at the Share Group contributed nearly $2,000 to the costs of a funeral which left their friend spinning in her grave.
I called Rexanne's sister to get a picture, not of Rexanne, but of the "Rex" she knew. Why, I wondered, did Rexanne's family leave her hair shoulder length? Why not cut it all off into a completely masculine style? Was there some vague twinge of conscience? Perhaps her family had so little knowledge of Rexanne that "Rex" was all they were capable of peceiving? Maybe they were aiming for a feminine version of "Rex," the best they could do?
I don't know the answers to these questions and Rexanne's sister never returned my call. But I do know that the family didn't even want to speak to any of Rexanne's friends or co-workers. I know that 48 hours after her death, Rexanne's sister was asking questions about the liability of the King Hotel owners, and I would not be surprised to hear about a wrongful death civil lawsuit in the near future. The, only problem is that the family lost "Rex" a long time ago. It's Rexanne who died in the King Hotel fire-a person the family apparently never knew and never cared for.
On October 18, those who did know and care for Rexanne gathered in front of the Civic Center for a memorial service and rally, Over a hundred people held candles, closed their eyes in silence and prayer, and listened to friends and activists remember her life and call for an end to the discrimination that brought her death.
Mourners at the memorial event for Rexanne
demand "justice for Rexanne" at Civic Center Plaza on Oct. 19.