"I'm not a transvestite," cracked the raspy voice on the telephone answering machine. "I'm a transsexual!"
Angry and indignant, Marilyn wanted to make something perfectly clear: She was not merely a man who preferred to dress as a woman; she was a man who wanted to be a woman and had taken several significant steps toward achieving the sex change.
"I'm a pre-op transsexual!"
In a column I had referred to Marilyn as a transvestite, without having personally confirmed exactly what Marilyn was. She had appeared one morning in District Court -- in fact, she lit up the room -- and the operative word in the gossip gallery was "transvestite." That's the word that made my notebook. Big mistake.
When Marilyn read the paper, she flipped.
Later, after she had chilled, we met. She wanted to talk.
She appeared to be in her mid- to late-20s. The hair was, again, the most striking thing about her -- shimmering blond, light as a feather. Marilyn was tall and thin, with long legs. She wore high heels, black slacks and a billowy white blouse. Her wool jacket was slung over her arm. Her fingernails were polished. She had a pleasant face, enhanced by makeup and rouge, and a slightly nervous smile. She spoke quietly and shyly. She was self-effacing at times.
"I've been in therapy for 13 years over this," she said. "I bet I've been through 20 psychiatrists. This is not a simple story."
She grew up with three brothers and a sister. Her mother and father had a house in Pimlico, later one in Hampden. She thinks she was about 8 when her body started sending her signals.
"I felt feminine, for lack of a better word," she said. "I wanted to wear frilly things, not to get a turn-on sexually or anything, but just because I liked girls' clothes.
"I quit school in the eighth grade. I had been threatened a lot because I was different. They thought I was strange. I was very lonely. I craved affection, and I became sexually active when I was a teen. I was with men, and when I was with men I felt like the woman.
"I had light brown hair then, but I wanted to be a blond. I wanted to be a blond like Marilyn Monroe. I plucked my eyebrows. My mother was shocked by it all. My father just thought it was a phase I was going through. They didn't understand. I'm not sure I understood.
"I guess my parents started to think I was gay. And I went along with that for a while. But I had strong female desires."
She moved to Ohio for a while, lived with an older man, a gay college professor, for three years, but it didn't last. "He wanted me to be a cute little boy. He thought I was gay," she said.
She broke off the relationship and moved back to her hometown.
She has many friends in Baltimore and spends a lot of time in this city that, to the delight of some and the dismay of others, is said to have a reputation for tolerance among people living "alternative" lifestyles. Gays and lesbians say Baltimore is becoming increasingly popular because the prejudices that exist everywhere are at least offset here by an overall live-and-let-live atmosphere and legal protections, such as the 1988 city ordinance prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation.
Marilyn's circle includes gays, married heterosexuals and transsexuals. Her most intimate relationships are with straight men.
"Let me live my life," she said, when asked what she tells people who find her weird. "I'm not from Mars. What does it matter to anyone else what I do with my life?"
Her parents, she said, have came to grips with her desire to change her sex.
"Now they buy me makeup instead of GI Joes," she said. Her mother, father, sister, boyfriend and several friends went to a gay and lesbian nightclub once to see her perform a Marilyn Monroe imitation. "I sang, 'Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend,'" she recalled. "I got a standing ovation."
That was a few years ago. Now, Marilyn is trying to earn money -- "I dance," she said -- for a sex-change operation.
"It costs between $5,000 and $12,000," she said. There is a doctor in Colorado who will perform the necessary surgery once Marilyn obtains letters from three psychiatrists certifying that she is emotionally ready for it. The doctor, she said, is internationally famous and very skilled.
One of Marilyn's friends had a sex-change. "She's gorgeous," Marilyn said, "but nothing on her is real. I call her Miss Fantastic Plastic."