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In Small-town Northern California, When 'She' Becomes a 'He'

A change for the better meets with mostly compassion from the town where he was raised.

Healdsburg's Tyler Erlendson is better known to many in town as Audra Erlendson, a female volleyball and fast-pitch softball player at in the late 1990s and early 2000s, graduating in 2001.

Audra made the switch to Tyler in 2007 in an operation done by a San Francisco surgeon. But rather than disappear after that to build a new life with a new identity, Erlendson chose to stick around his 4-square-mile, 11,250-person Sonoma County wine country hometown, where he has family and friends -- and a measure of tolerance.

"I've had way more support in Healdsburg than I've had adversity," said Erlendson, 28, in a recent interview.

Now, Erlendson's film on his sex change, seven years in the making, has been accepted into a prominent film festival in L.A. next month. He said he hopes to have the first Bay Area screening at Healdsburg's venerable --if they will have him.

"I really wanted to do a story on what it's like to be a human being," said Erlendson,  explaining why the transgender film eschews heavy political or sexual overtones. "I wanted to remove the politics and sex, and have people see an ordinary person living an ordinary life."

Justin Whitaker, a well-known Healdsburg videographer who was a classmate and friend of Erlendson's at Healdsburg High School, said Erlendson has always been about defining the essence of a person.

"He's always challenged me to ask the question, 'Where am I in my life? Am I being true to myself?'" Whitaker said. "I really appreciate having him in my life and asking that question."

Whitaker helped Erlendson on some of the earlier film shoots. Later, Erlendson hired professional film editor Califa Weiss to co-produce and edit the film, titled "Straight White Male."

Ironically, the main change for Erlendson, he says, has not been physical -- although to his regret he has lost his singing voice due to the hormones that he will have to take for the rest of his life.

Neither has it been community reaction -- although he admits he "sometimes feels like a freak on parade walking down the street," he said.

His main change, Erlendson said, has been the startling discovery of a new feeling of what he calls "male privilege," he said.

"I didn't realize how much male privilege there was until I became one," he said. "It's been a huge difference for me -- I used to have to defend myself all the time, just to justify my existence; now, I don't have to."

He said he feels that, as a man, he automatically "commands presence," he said.

"I'm allowed to be a much more forceful character in society," Erlendson said. "If you're a woman, and you're forceful, you're just a bitch." 

Having lived both sides of the fence, Erlendson said he speaks from personal experience.

"If anyone thinks that white males are not privileged in our society, they'd better think again," he said.

On the downside, Erlendson said he has to hold back his nurturing, caring side -- especially with children -- that he was free to show as Audra, to avoid being seen as a threat or potential child molester.

"I've had to learn to navigate the world completely differently," he said.

Erlendson's decision to stay in Healdsburg after his sex change operation has been a happy one in many ways. Once a primarily agriculture-based village outpost in the northern reaches of the San Francisco Bay Area, Healdsburg in the last 10 to 15 years has grown into a stately city and upscale wine country tourist destination.

Erlendson married his former high school gal-pal, ZanD Erlendson, a nursing student at Santa Rosa Junior College, in April 2010. They met while both were in chorus at Healdsburg High.

At the time, Erlendson said, Audra considered herself by default a lesbian -- but that didn't feel totally right either, he said.

"I didn't identify as anything -- I didn't feel like either a boy or a girl; I felt like both," Erlendson said. "I had no vocabulary for what I felt."

Erlendson said that when he heard about transgender males, it was his "aha" moment.

"As soon as I heard the definition, I knew that's what I was," he said. "I don't think there were any transgender males in Healdsburg at the time."

Most of Erlendson's family has been at least accepting of the change. His father, Greg Erlendson, a 6-foot, 9-inch-tall construction contractor, has been tolerant but not effusive in his support, although he did help his son with medical expenses, Tyler Erlendson said. His younger brother Gunnar Erlendson has a similar attitude as his father.

Erlendson's mother, who was divorced from his father when Erlendson was 13, does not live locally, he said.

Most supportive, Erlendson said, has been his sister, Amanda Erlendson of Windsor. Amanda Erlendson, 29, a board member of the newly relaunched civic group, , picked up the new identity right away, Tyler Erlendson said.

"As soon as I said my name was Tyler, the next day she's calling me Tyler," Erlendson said. "She didn't respond with anger, or try to talk me out of the decision."

Amanda Erlendson said she knew, growing up, that "Audra was much more than just a tomboy," but she didn't know what that could possibly be.

"I am and have always been proud of what Tyler has gone through," she said. "I think that it takes more courage than what most people possess to make the decisions he has made, making himself the person he has become."

She said she wants her brother to be happy -- and is glad that the sex change has helped him become his true self.

"Tyler is one of the most stand-up people I know," Amanda Erlendson said, "He is one of my best friends and I can tell him and count on him for anything."

Like his sister, others have accepted Erlendson's sex change because of who he is as a person, apart from gender.

"I applaud him for being true to himself," said Christine Castillo, executive director of Verity, a Santa Rosa sexual abuse counseling organization where Erlendson has volunteered on the crisis hot line for more than four years.

"He's a strong resource," Castillo said. "We can call him and say we have a person who's dealing with some stuff and can he help --and he's just there."

Erlendson's wife's parents, who knew him first as Audra and saw him through the change, also embraced him as a son-in-law.

"They just want her to be with a good person and to be sure that I would take good care of their daughter," Erlendson said.

At 5-foot, 9-inches tall, with a solid build and short-cropped hair, Erlendson appears completely masculine -- and said he finds that a number of women, including older women, are flirting with him.

Even as Audra, he said, he was so masculine in demeanor that a high school girls' softball umpire once asked Audra to prove she was a girl by taking off her outer sports gear -- she was a catcher -- to reveal her feminine figure.

Erlendson is currently working full time as a funeral director in Santa Rosa to save money so that he and his wife can raise a family.

He said he expects to enroll in a master's degree program in creative writing, with a goal to write non-fiction and poetry. He also wants to gain teaching experience at the university level.

Aside from the obvious, Erlendson said he has pretty much the same goals and dreams of everyone else. That means to live a peaceful, prosperous, happy life, surrounded by family and friends and people he loves, and to help educate and counsel others -- on gender issues and the greater issue of what it means to be a contributing person to society. 

If the city of Healdsburg is OK with that, then he is OK with Healdsburg, he said.

Melanie Gentry, new president of the said she doesn't know Erlendson, but she's not surprised that he has been met with mostly acceptance and tolerance in Healdsburg.

"I think Healdsburg is a town of porches," she said. "People who live in homes with porches want to be connected."

She said Healdsburg is the type of community where "your kids can walk down the street, and if a neighbor sees your kids out, she'll call you," Gentry said.

"I've never found a town that was so open as Healdsburg," she said. "Healdsburg has healed me, personally."

Donna Piranha July 19, 2011 at 07:16 PM
Great story!
kittywells July 19, 2011 at 08:01 PM
Tyler and Keri, Congratulations on sharing such an important story. For those of us who believe in inclusivity, it is heart warming. For others, it may be challenging, and let us hope, a stretch and an opportunity to practice loving-kindness. Thanks, Kitty Wells
Aimee July 19, 2011 at 08:53 PM
While I applaud Tyler's courageous journey to become the person on the outside he feels on the inside, and find very heartening the open-mindedness his friends and neighbors have shown towards his transition, I found this section of the article discouraging and a bit disturbing: "...I used to have to defend myself all the time, just to justify my existence; now, I don't have to." He said he feels that, as a man, he automatically "commands presence," he said. "I'm allowed to be a much more forceful character in society," Erlendson said. "If you're a woman, and you're forceful, you're just a bitch." On the downside, Erlendson said he has to hold back his nurturing, caring side -- especially with children -- that he was free to show as Audra..." I do believe that male privilege (white, especially) is an all-too real facet of our society, but this (and limit-enforcing gender roles and stereotypes) are something to be fought against, not facts to be accepted and perpetuated. Is the message here that if females want to be able to command a forceful presence (without being a "bitch") and feel like a valuable human being they must physically change themselves to become a man?? And that male nurturing should be discouraged?? I'm not saying this was necessarily the motivation of Tyler Erlendon's transition but his quotes bring up the question of these gender-biased expectations that are so damaging (especially to fragile young female psyches) and hold us all back as a society.
Alexandra Erlendson July 19, 2011 at 09:38 PM
"I'm not saying this was necessarily the motivation of Tyler Erlendon's transition but his quotes bring up the question of these gender-biased expectations that are so damaging..." Of course male privilege was not the reason for Tyler's transition. It is rediculous to even hint that someone would go through major surgery and submit themselves to the roller-coaster ride of emotions that ensue from injecting hormones just to be in a man's world. Tyler's transition was, above all, for himself. He needed to feel comfortable in his body, not in his society. He doesn't accept or perpetuate his status as a white male. In fact, he is an avid supporter for women's rights, which is why he volunteers for Verity. I think the message here was not that females must become males to command a forceful presence, I think it was to shed light on the irony of Tyler's situation. Yes, the gender binaries are harmful. Thank you for advocating for change.
Christopher Young July 21, 2011 at 03:41 PM
This is one brave man! Not only the social implications of a small town but the surgery and pain involved. This took a lot of courage. Dont loose your sensitive side brother, "hold back his nurturing, caring side". Its ok to be a male who is nuturing and caring,
Rafe Ellis July 26, 2011 at 12:37 AM
Congrats Tyler!! I'll never forget the day I applied for a job where you were working in operations and the look of shock on your face when you learned I had transitioned from female to male; I categorize my transition as a gender correction. It's great to see your movie project coming to fruition and to hear you and Keri took the plunge into marriage. Prejudice and bigotry remain an unfortunate manifestation of narrow mindedness and fear based belief systems; I believe that guys life you and me, along with our wives are an incredible force of positive change. In terms of privilege - it is rampant in our world and in our local communities here in Sonoma County – white privilege, male privilege and especially white male privilege. There are also downsides that I never saw coming: being rejected by many members of the gay and lesbian community and the most painful of all, for me personally, is related to men and children. Often, especially in public venues such as grocery stores and shopping malls, I am painfully aware that women are more protective of their children in my presence simply because I am male and smiled at their child in a completely benign friendly manner. Sadly, at least statistically speaking, I understand the necessity of this protective behavior. There are far too many issues to address in one article AND it’s great to see the conversation opened yet again!!! Be well brother!! Rafe
cheryl cobb July 26, 2011 at 05:55 AM
Amazing story. What courage this man has. Best of wishes to he and his wife.
Tyler Erlendson December 02, 2012 at 11:05 PM
Thank you everyone for your comments. You can gain access to this film by visiting our website at: www.straightwhitemalefilm.com. Copies are available for purchase.

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