It wasn’t easy for Brandee McReynolds to tell her husband that she was really a man in her heart and mind, that she had been trapped in a woman’s body for decades and wanted to transition to the right gender and sex.
Then she had to sit down their four children.
“At first, it was kind of shocking, and I was a tiny bit disappointed because I knew I would be the only girl in the family,” said daughter Alexandria, 13, of Highland. “But I support MaPa. There’s that little part of me that doesn’t think it’s fair, but I know that it hasn’t been fair for him all of his life. I have to suck it up and let him be him.”
“MaPa” is the children’s nickname for Brandon McReynolds, 41, who now looks more masculine after taking testosterone for three years, cutting his hair short, growing a beard and undergoing a double mastectomy.
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It took awhile for everyone to get used to the pronouns “he” and “him,” but now it seems natural, they say.
James McReynolds, 41, Brandon’s husband of 15 years, also has grown accustomed to explaining why he’s willing to stay in a marriage with a transsexual man.
“You try to be the best person you can be,” James said. “I came from a broken home, and it sucks to have a family ripped apart because of something superficial. I just didn’t see why our family should be ripped apart. I’m not some saint. I have my own issues and my own proclivities. We just take one day at a time.”
James is a disabled veteran who developed knee problems and post-traumatic stress disorder after three tours of duty as a U.S. Army paratrooper in the Middle East and Bosnia.
The family lives in a massive two-story Victorian brick home near downtown Highland that was built in the 1860s by a prominent brewery owner.
I came from a broken home, and it sucks to have a family ripped apart because of something superficial. I just didn’t see why our family should be ripped apart.
James McReynolds on staying in his marriage
On a recent weeknight, James and Brandon were going through their usual routine — putting supper on the table, helping kids with homework and getting them in the bathtub and ready for bed.
Brandon was wearing a tank top that showed a collage of colorful tattoos on his chest, designed partly to cover mastectomy scars. Images include estrogen and testosterone molecules. A phrase is formed with ransom-note letters, reflecting his one-time dream of becoming an FBI profiler and helping to catch criminals.
“It says, ‘I am what I am, and that’s all that I am,’” said Brandon, now a stay-at-home parent with a forensic science certificate.
Chased out of Texas
The McReynoldses have three sons — Quinton, 14, Lucas, 8, and Oliver, 6. The two youngest only vaguely remember Brandon as Brandee.
The family moved from Klondike, Texas, to Highland in December after seeing an online ad for the Victorian and falling in love with it during a quick visit. They verified that local schools had a good reputation and figured Illinois would be more tolerant.
Brandon had faced increasing hostility in Texas during the two years he fought in court to have the gender marker on his driver’s license changed from F for female to M for male.
“We literally got chased out of Texas by the KKK,” he said. “They were chasing out trans people. They were distributing literature and all that.”
This was around the same time that two national controversies unfolded — the U.S. Supreme Court decision that legalized same-sex marriage and Caitlyn Jenner’s coming out.
In some cases, people in Brandon’s area went further than just voicing their disapproval of his life.
“MaPa can pass as a boy the first time you see him, but in Texas, some people saw through that,” said Quinton, a freshman in high school. “They saw the need to harm, like vandalizing his car. It was kinda sad, and it ticked me off a bit. He was trying to go through this whole thing, trying to change his gender marker, putting in all this effort.”
It took only 15 minutes for Brandon to get an M on his Illinois driver’s license at the Bond County Courthouse in Greenville after he presented a surgeon’s letter verifying his transition.
The challenge now is figuring out how to come up with the $50,000 needed for his phalloplasty (surgery to form male genitalia).
In the meantime, the family is feeling at home in Highland. Brandon has been volunteering at fundraisers for a local girl with brain cancer. He’s made some friends, including social worker Amanda Passmore, 41, whose daughter, Rowan, went through second grade with Lucas.
“It’s a small town, and I know a lot of people,” she said. “So I have gotten a lot of questions and Facebook messages and texts (about Brandon and James). But I haven’t heard a lot of negative comments.
“There’s a lot of interest in their relationship. People want to know the dynamics. One thing that has helped, I think, is that right now, trans is trendy. There’s a lot of dialogue and discussion on TV. It’s cultural, and we’re a small town. It’s like he’s Hollywood here.”
Growing up a girl
Brandon grew up in Spearman and Greenville, Texas, where his father was a farmer and his mother was an office employee. He has a brother and sister.
Brandon says he knew he was a boy by age 5 and wondered why he didn’t have the same parts as male animals. In elementary school, other kids laughed when he sat on the toilet backwards. By age 9, he thought puberty would fix his “defective” body.
“I was looking in the mirror and waiting for an Adam’s apple and chest hair,” Brandon said. “Instead, I got breasts, and at 11, I got my period. And that kind of set me up for a whole destructive path.”
Brandon felt uncomfortable showering with girls after P.E. class in middle school. He started smoking pot and using meth to cope with his identity issues and his parents’ unwillingness to accept his female relationships, he said.
Brandon earned his GED at an alternative high school before moving to Amarillo, Texas, and getting his own apartment at age 15. He worked at an International House of Pancakes, dressed like a male and lived with a girlfriend.
A turning point came when Brandon spent two weeks in the hospital after being raped and beaten by a friend of a friend, he said.
“Everything was falling apart. I decided it was time for me to go back to Greenville and live as a woman. I really felt at that point that what I was doing was wrong.”
Brandon married his first husband at 17, and two years later, a therapist diagnosed him with “gender identity disorder.” The prescribed treatment included anti-depressants and hormones, make-up, etiquette lessons and participation in a Christian women’s group.
Brandon worked at jobs ranging from church secretary to designer at a chocolate factory and earned a floral-design degree at a community college. His marriage lasted eight years before ending in divorce.
“He wanted a girly girl as a wife,” Brandon said.
Faithful and loyal
In 2002, Brandon married James, who had been a friend since eighth grade. During the next 12 years, James was stationed in Texas, Arizona, North Carolina and Germany.
Brandon tried to be the perfect homemaker and wife — rearing a family, making nice dinners, baking cookies and trying to look pretty for James.
“We’ve been the best of friends for a long time,” Brandon said. “I’m not sure we were ever really in love, but we’ve had a solid relationship. We’ve been married for 15 years. We’ve been faithful and loyal and always had good communication.”
Perhaps for that reason, Brandon felt he could tell James his true feelings in 2014 after watching the “Transgender Lives” episode of the OWN show “Our America with Lisa Ling.”
Brandon taped the show and persuaded James to watch it, then asked what was going through his head. James expressed empathy for the five people Ling profiled in various stages of transition.
“I said, ‘That’s what’s wrong with me. That’s who I am,’” Brandon said. “That’s when I came out. It was June 3, 2014. (James) said, ‘What do we need to do about this?’ And I said, ‘I need to transition.’ And he made my first doctor’s appointment.”
Brandon started taking testosterone, which gradually caused body hair growth, fat redistribution and other physical changes. The mastectomy was a relief, he said, because he had always thought of his large breasts in a negative way, as if they were tumors.
It wasn’t just Brandon going through the process and getting used to a new reality. It was the whole family.
MaPa can pass as a boy the first time you see him, but in Texas, some people saw through that. They saw the need to harm, like vandalizing his car. It was kinda sad, and it ticked me off a bit.
Quinton McReynolds on hostility toward Brandon
“It took some work,” James said. “It wasn’t like second nature. It took time. I think probably the most difficult part was talking to other people about it. I didn’t know how to tell my parents.”
Brandon chose his new name because it was similar to Brandee and it honored Brandon Teena, a young transgender man who was raped and murdered in Nebraska in 1993. His story was told in the Academy Award-winning movie “Boys Don’t Cry.”
Today, the McReynoldses share the Victorian with their three dogs — a Doberman named Widow, a Huskie named Yuki and a Shih Tzu named Hanzel. They’re enjoying Highland’s small-town atmosphere and slow pace. It feels safer than Texas, where they lived in fear that someone might firebomb their home.
“I think they’re doing great raising the kids together,” Passmore said. “They have a great partnership, and they have built a great foundation for the kids. So Mom turning into MaPa hasn’t been catastrophic for them.”