The American Legion post needs a coat of paint. It's a rather run-down shingled Victorian house at the corner of Williams and Granite, with white paint flaking off the front porch and "BUD" and "Miller" signs glowing forlornly in the windows. Once it had 800 members; now it struggles to keep from falling below 300, each year pulling in a few younger veterans, but usually not enough to replace the boys from the Big One who have died. In late afternoon, a few subdued beer drinkers glance up at "The People's Court" on the color TV above the bar.
Bridgette Poi stays away from the bar these days. Some of the men are reassuring, but she says there's always "some grudging soul" that snipes, tells her to join the women in the auxiliary, calls her a queer. Poi isn't gay; she's a surgically transformed woman, a widow, an officer of the post, who, when she was growing up here and serving in the Air Force, was a boy named Bobby. Now at 50, she's running for commander of John Coleman Prince Post No. 9 in an election tomorrow, and reporters and talk show hosts from Boston to Sacramento are taking relentless interest. Having a transsexual seeking leadership has caused a certain amount of confusion and hostility.
How did all this happen anyway? How did Post No. 9, in this small New England city full of Coast Guardsmen and old clapboard houses, become an arena in which questions of sexual identity -- like what is a man, and what is a woman, and what does it matter -- are thrashed out? A phenomenon that was sort of funny when it involved Renee Richards, Jan Morris, people in New York or somewhere, isn't so funny when it hits home.
On nominating night last month, when 10 people would normally have shown up and browbeaten one another into accepting offices they'd just as soon not hold, there were 40 members at the meeting, four people running for commander and a flock of reporters asking for comment. "Let me ask you this," one legionnaire asked a woman television reporter triumphantly, as though he'd arrived at a telling truth. "If you were in the ladies' room, and Bridgette came in, would you drop your drawers in front of her?"
No one quite knows what to make of it.
The senior vice commander of Post 9 stands tall and solid in jeans and a sweatshirt, with a mop of platinum hair, a wedding ring on one large hand, salmon pink toenails. She has a few errands to run before she can sit down and talk: she has to drop off her boyfriend's suede jacket at the dry cleaner's and she has to pick up a few items at the grocery. "I have to have supper on the table when he comes home," Poi says sarcastically. "It's my duty, right?"
"Transsexual" is not the word Poi generally uses; she sees herself, simply, as a woman. Until the election flap she rarely discussed her past, and once offered to resign to spare the Legion post embarrassment when a local reporter wanted to tell her story. "It's a medical term," she says. "I'm striving for my rights as a woman."
She was always, she says, a woman -- as a boy whose teachers tried to make him play with other boys, as a nonconformist teen-ager running a New London coffeehouse ("The talent was terrible and the cockroaches were worse"), as a "sexually confused" airman.
"Since Bridgette was born, I've never had a qualm about being a woman," she says. "When I woke up after 8 1/2 hours of surgery, I said to my friend, who was a nurse, 'Oh, I feel so good.' I knew I had done the right thing; there was never a question."
The facts are these: Bridgette Poi was a decorated veteran, eligible -- after eight years with the Air Force in Morocco, Japan and Guam during the Korean conflict -- to join any veterans organization. She chose, two years ago, to join the Legion, as her father and her uncle had.
District Commander Frederick Treat, who oversees 16 posts in New London County and who recruited Poi into the ranks, checked with state Legion officials and found that it made no difference that the name on her military records was male (Poi avoids using her birth name to spare her family, still living in the area, harassment; she uses her married surname instead). No one on the executive board at Post 9 raised public objection to the fact that in 1973 Bobby, after two years of counseling and preparation through a Stanford University Medical Center gender clinic, underwent surgery in Mexico and became Bridgette. "They said, 'Beautiful, bring 'er in. Maybe she's a good worker. We need workers,' " Treat remembers. "Then when the post of senior vice commander came up, there was no one to run, so I nominated Bridgette," who ran unopposed. She also served on Post 9's executive board and as district historian.
The nominating committee was going to ask her to be senior vice commander again this year, says Joseph Desnoyers, the committee chairman. "She's done a good job," he adds, "but she said she was going to run for commander," the traditional step up the ladder from the senior vice commander's position.
At which point, the wire services radiated what had been a local story all over the country, the networks started calling. That was when Commander Joseph Ottaviano Jr., 65, who'd intended to step down, began to reconsider. And before long, all hell broke loose.
Reporters were everywhere. Some legionnaires opposed Poi, fearing that a transsexual commander would harm the post's image in the community or bring in the wrong element. Her leading supporters countered that some of the opponents didn't know the difference between a homosexual, a transsexual and a transvestite. Poi resolved to speak out.
Tomorrow's election will be one of the most extensively covered of the year. "We're going to have to put some extra bartenders on that night," Ottaviano says.
Poi lives in a garden apartment whose living room is a shrine of Legion memorabilia. Here's Poi photographed in a shirred aqua gown with flowers in her hair, emceeing the Mardi Gras Night she organized. "We grossed $800 at the bar," she announces. Here's a plaque as a memento of the Law and Order Day awards she staged. "You should have seen how proud we were," she recalls warmly. "The hall was bedecked with flags; the rookies came; the guests were ushered in by the patrolmen of the New London Police Department. It inspired me."
Also on the wall, a treasured Friendship Award from the women of the post (who are wives or employes, Poi being the only female member) that reads "Our Love to a First Class Lady." For Poi, the Legion is more than a club or a hobby; it's a matter of affiliation versus exclusion. "Win or lose," Poi says, "I will be a legionnaire."
When Poi joined, she remembers, "I went through total hell for eight months or so. I'm accustomed to people talking behind my back, but some of these guys were literally cruel. They have a tendency to call me a queer. I had to bite my tongue a lot. This is a Yankee town: you're a man or you're a woman." Other Legion visitors sometimes got the same reception, Poi says. "All those Archie Bunker types from World War II. I have brought Vietnam vets into our post and some of the old cronies thought they were pissants; they were nothing but derogatory. They think the only war was The Big One."
Why stick it out then? "You've got to belong," Poi says in her throaty alto. "I belong to the church" -- St. Mary's Roman Catholic Church, the same one she attended as a child. "And I belong to the Legion. I haven't missed but one meeting. Who put the Veterans Bill of Rights together? The Legion. When I put on my uniform, I'm a proud lady.
"But lately I sit here and wonder," Poi confesses. Last month, for the first time in years, she called the psychiatrist who helped her through her sexual transformation. "I said, 'Isn't it funny how I have to sit here and be afraid to be seen in public because the post has humiliated me?' " Poi had wanted to return to New England, even though she describes it as Peyton Place, after she was widowed. A year after her operation, she met a Marine named Richard Poi; they lived together, then married, and 14 months later he was killed in Vietnam. Bridgette, after several shaky years in California, headed home to New London. "It's stability here," she says, "don't ask me why. I guess I needed my mother."
Her family has been accepting; she was maid of honor at her brother's wedding. Elsewhere, she feels less welcome. Poi declines to talk about her income but says she has had employment problems and hopes all the publicity will at least alert the state of Connecticut to the need to protect transsexuals from discrimination. "It's everywhere."
She tells, sadly, about a childhood friend who, she learned after returning from California, was gay and had committed suicide. Poi lights a candle for him, and candles for her husband and her grandmother, when she goes to mass. "Why in hell can't we all live as human beings and accept each other as what we are?" she says wearily, leaning back in her recliner. "Life is so damned cruel, I swear."
But there is an election to think about. Poi says she's going to stage wrestling matches to raise funds, bring in Vietnam-era and women veterans, plan more civic events. "I'd keep something going all the time," she vows. "I might not be the world's best commander -- I'm fallible like anyone -- but I'd work at it. The building is decaying; we're poor . . . the Legion needs new blood more than ever."
"You're gonna hear a lot of flak," says Fred Treat, who's one of the beer drinkers at the bar on a quiet weekday afternoon. "A lot of it."
Treat's been hearing a lot himself since he nominated Poi for commander. "The only thing I don't like about it," he says, "is the way they're talking about her like she's a homosexual, which she's not. Other members of the post are saying they don't want a homosexual because it'll bring in all the gays. Well, she's been in two years and she hasn't brought in any gays yet."
Treat, himself a past commander of Post 9 and one of Poi's strongest supporters, will be keeping an eye on tomorrow's voting. "Only paid-up members can vote" -- annual dues are $17 -- "and I'm going to be checking." The post commander says the sergeant-at-arms has instructions to admit only those with current membership cards to the hall.
A couple of the legionnaires unwinding in the half-light sound noncommittal about Poi's candidacy. "Don't make any difference to me," says William Egger, a member for 36 years. "If she wins, I'll have a drink with her."
Commander Ottaviano, known universally as Commander Otto, sometimes attributes his opposition to Poi's inexperience. He sometimes says Poi hasn't "gone through the chairs," Legion talk for serving in all the lower positions before seeking a commandership. He has told local reporters that he's a "beer-drinking type of commander," while Poi doesn't play softball or hang around the post.
Even if she'd gone through the chairs, Commander Otto says, "I still don't think I'd want her as a commander of our post. I'm afraid of what it might do to membership. We're a small community and I don't want a segment to come in that's going to make the Legion look bad. I don't believe Post 9 is ready yet for a transsexual.
"If she wants to work for me I'm glad to have her," Commander Otto adds. "She's a good party giver. Why doesn't she join the auxiliary? That's a good helping hand. She's eligible. But no, she wants to be the commander."
Commander Otto is not Poi's only opponent. On nominating night the name of John Cable, a former commander, was placed on the ballot. Also nominated was Jim McNally, a New London firefighter and Vietnam veteran who's sitting near the TV, beefy in a blue T-shirt, nursing a beer. When Poi first announced her candidacy, McNally turned in his membership card and told Treat he was leaving the Legion. "I left because I thought the club had too proud a history to be represented by a person of her notoriety, a transsexual," McNally says. But like-minded members persuaded him to run for commander instead , although he'd never held an office in the post before.
"A transsexual representing people who fought in the wars? All the good men who made the supreme sacrifice, their widows, their kids, don't deserve this," says McNally, who has since withdrawn from the race for personal reasons.
There was also, McNally believes, a religious element. "I believe in God and I don't believe God makes mistakes. She thinks God made a mistake when he made her a boy instead of a woman.
"We do a lot of work with youth," McNally also said. "How would you explain Bridgette to youth? I don't mean that to come across as an insult. But I'm not the only member who feels this way. I guess you'd call us the silent majority, but we'll speak on July 8."
It's an assault that would daunt a less committed legionnaire. "I wouldn't go through this," comments Clark van der Lyke, New London's city clerk and one of Poi's backers. "It's a nice organization, but not important enough to ruin your life over. But if I know Bridgette, she'll stick with it anyway. She's a gutsy lady," he adds. "It'd be easy to stay home and pull the shades, with the admitted difference she has. It'd be easy to stay by herself. But she confronts people. Maybe that's what bothers people. They can't avoid the issue."
Van der Lyke, who joined the Legion at about the same time as Poi, wonders why her candidacy has created such a furor. It could be simply gender: the first woman commander of the post would face some flak even if she hadn't grown up male. It could be the media attention. It could be some complicated psychosexual motive. "Here's a person who was a guy and chose not to be a man anymore," van der Lyke muses.
"I don't understand the fear I see in these people's eyes," says van der Lyke of some of the post members. "These people fought in wars, in World War II and Korea and Vietnam, and they faced people a lot more hostile than Bridgette."
Lord knows what van der Lyke would think if he heard the two men talking at the end of the bar. The guy in the green shirt is saying that Poi is really a man because the surgery didn't remove her "prostrate" gland, which he considers the seat of virility. He also figures she's writing a book which will then become a movie, like "The Christine Jorgenson Story," and is creating all this ballyhoo to help sell it.
"Isn't that right?" he asks his companion.
Nods the other, "That's about the way it is."
Bridgette Poi has a migraine. She had expected 150 people at a chicken dinner to honor the Firefighter of the Year last weekend, but only 83 guests showed. Though the mayor, several city council members and the fire chief attended, only six legionnaires were there -- and Poi, her date, van der Lyke and Treat were four of them. She lost $300 on the affair, and says she'll take it out of her own pocket.
Things are getting uglier at Post 9. A barmaid accused Poi of insulting her; Post 9's executive board took up the matter and Poi says "they sort of accepted an apology from me." Poi claims the post is following election procedures that are not provided for in its bylaws; Commander Otto says everything is by the book.
"Can you believe I still want to be commander so badly?" she asks. But she does. She's already paid her 1986 Legion dues. Over the Fourth of July weekend she planned to join her family for a cookout and then write two press releases (Poi's media tally to date is nine television appearances and 19 radio shows), one to pass out if she wins and one for if she loses. Then, tomorrow evening, she's going to the post for the election.
"I have to be there," she says, "to vote for myself."