HAGERSTOWN (AP) – Four years ago, Debbie Reefer could not have played on a women’s softball team because she was a man.
“I was a typical beer-drinking, head-busting type of guy,” said Keefer, the 41-year-old top pitcher on Hagerstown Junior College’s softball team.
“That’s the best I can sum it up. I was tough and people knew it. But that was on the outside. I disguised my problem very well.”
Surgery in May 1988 transformed Reefer’s body and her life, liberating her from 37 years of self-doubt and confusion.
Discovering her real identity and making the decision to mold her body to her female soul did not come easily for the Franklin County, Pa. native.
“I really felt that I was a bad person and something was terribly wrong with me,” she said. “As a grown man, I would cry myself to sleep.”
The uncertainties persisted until the early 1980s when she finally sought professional help to deal with her feelings. She began preparing for the surgery in 1983 by taking the female hormone, estrogen.
“The changes I made in my life were decisions that did not come easy and it wasn’t something that happened overnight,” she said.
Growing up hi a small Pennsylvania town, Keefer played the role of a typical high school teen-ager in the 1960s, but her life was far from normal.
“My problems went back to my very early childhood. It followed me along and progressively got worse. It certainly was a problem in high school although I certainly never let my feelings be known to anybody,” she said.
She made the basketball team and became a starter on the baseball team, playing center field and second base. She also played football, as a defensive guard in her sophomore year.
”To some degree I overcompensated in that direction to try to hide my feelings the other way,” she said.
Reefer said she knew something was wrong, but she didn’t know exactly what it was until she started reading about transgenders.
“I have never been homosexual and I have never been gay,” she said. “It was a basic, down-to-earth general feeling of femininity on the inside, but afraid to release to the outside.”
To protect her family, she refused to say what her name was before her sex change operation at a clinic in Trinidad, Colo. Her surgeon, Dr. Stanley Biber, said in a telephone interview that his clinic performs two to three sex-change operations each week.
The complete cost of her transformation, including therapy, electrolysis and the surgery, was between $60,000 and $70,000, she said.
After the surgery she entered Hagerstown Junior College to pursue a nursing career.
When Reefer decided to play softball this spring, there were a lot of questions. Was she eligible? Did her past give her an advantage over other women? Was she too old to play against 19-year-olds?
College President Norman Shea eventually gave her the OK to play. George Rillian, director of the National Junior College Athletic Association in Colorado Springs, Colo., said Reefer is the first transsexual to play at the junior college level.
Rick Evrard, director of legislative services for the National Collegiate Athletic Association for four-year schools, said she probably was the only transgender person playing college sports in the nation.
Reefer, a designated hitter who batted .353 this season, was the top pitcher for the Hagerstown Hawks, finishing 9-5.
The team ended the season May 4 at 14-10 when the Hawks were eliminated from the Maryland junior college softball tournament.
She does not think her past gives her a physical advantage, but some of her teammates disagreed.
“I personally think it is an advantage because being a man before a woman. Men have big, broad, strong shoulders,” said teammate Ratie Hahn.
As Hahn talked during a batting practice, Reefer smashed a ball over the outfielders’ heads in deep center field into a small clump of trees.
“See. She’s hitting everything out to the forest,” Hahn said. “That’s an advantage right there.”
Reefer said, however, that the estrogen she’s been taking since 1983 has a softening effect on her muscles. And Hahn, not Reefer, was the best hitter on the team this season, finishing with a .492 batting average.
“There have been comments, but we keep them to ourselves,” Hahn said.