Brian Lydon's leg bounced underneath his desk. He pulled on his pinstriped suit jacket and ran his fingers through his slicked-back hair.
"I want to thank everyone in advance for hanging out after the meeting to hear what I have to say," he began. His hands started to shake as he rubbed his eyes. "I would like to share something of a personal nature with all of you. In fact, I now feel as though I need to share this with you."
Around 3:30 p.m. on March 19, the 48-year-old Metro ad salesman and Northeast Philadelphia native would reveal his true self to 40 colleagues — some of whom he’s worked with for 14 years.
In the glass-enclosed conference room on the 14th floor, overlooking Philadelphia’s City Hall, Lydon’s co-workers gathered for the monthly staff meeting in order to acknowledge birthdays, milestones and Employees of the Month.
[videoembed id=424869]In an unusual aside, Metro's Human Resources Director Andrey Harmaty offered a quick presentation on diversity in the workplace. "OK, Brian, did you want to say something?” asked Harmaty, when he was done.
Lydon pointed: “Can you close the door?”
"Look, I'm a little nervous," Lydon said, his leg pumping like a jackhammer, as he unwrinkled a piece of paper. "So I'm just going to read this."
Heads swiveled: Was he quitting? Was it cancer?
"Over the years, some of you may have noticed how I always seem to shy away from social situations and functions outside of the office. I’ve never really allowed myself to simply be me. I’ve been fighting a lifelong struggle — one that in the early 1970s was not even close to being understood, one that my [first] therapist made no attempt to understand.”
Was he an alcoholic? Is this his 12th Step?
"Well, approximately five years ago, after decades of guilt, suppression and substance abuse, I finally sought out the professional help I so desperately needed — and after being diagnosed with gender dysphoria, I finally accepted the fact that I am what is more commonly referred to as transgender."
There it was: The professional called Brian Lydon was only a mask. Outside of work, he was Jennifer. Brian was just a suit, but Jennifer was real. Jennifer was a leader in her community, an organizer of support groups, a well-adjusted and confident transgender woman — just not at work.
“My family accepts me," Lydon went on to say. "My ex-wife is now my best friend, and I am currently in a long-term relationship. For the first time in my life, I can pretty much say that I am happy.
"We spend one-third of our lives at work. And personally, I can no longer play [a role]. I have no doubt that if given the chance, a happier, healthier me will not only find my place, but will also become an integral part of the team.
"I’m proud of who I am."
Lydon peered around the room. Some dabbed at their eyes; some brought a hand to Lydon’s shoulder. Applause broke the moment of silence. Metro’s director of finances Peter Handy stood: "That was extremely brave. That took a lot of intestinal fortitude to do. I could say another word, but I won't."
Lydon was ambushed by swarms of hugs and handshakes. The word most often offered was “congratulations.”
The last step of Lydon’s transformation was complete. Throughout her entire life, from now on, she would be known as Jennifer Lydon.
"You look like a huge weight has been lifted off of your shoulders," Handy added.
Jennifer threw up her hands: "Yeah, well, life's too short to not be happy."
The mailman slipped the Sept. 6, 1976, issue of Sports Illustrated through the door slot and it fell to the floor. When 11-year-old Brian Lydon opened it to the full spread on Renee Richards, the transgender female tennis player who wanted to compete at Wimbledon, his eyes widened.
“I had never seen anything like this,” Lydon said, looking back.
When his three brothers and sister finally went to bed, he read the magazine in the living room under a lamp. At age 11, Lydon knew he was a Renee Richards.
"I remember seeing that and was like, 'Oh, my God. You can actually change,'" Lydon said. "I read her story, and that's when I realized it could actually be done. And I wanted it. I wanted it."
Seeing Richards made Lydon aware that he wasn’t the only one sneaking into his sister's closet to try on her clothes. He wasn’t the only one who preferred playing with Barbies. He wasn’t alone.
The first life
Lydon put down her soda, crossed her legs and cracked her wrist. She knew she was female from a very young age, but tried to "beat it,” as she puts it.
"I went to California for a short while when I was 21 years old." As a young adult, he thought he could escape his problems. He took rides out to Sunset Boulevard. "I got scared because I wound up driving around in the middle of the night looking at the drag queens and wanted to join them."
At the time, there was no Internet. There were no support groups for transgender men and women. Lydon came back to Philadelphia.
"I'm glad, because if I would have come out then, I can almost be sure I'd be dead," Lydon said.
She brought her voice down to a whisper: "I hated what I was. And when you hate what you are, that's not a good thing.”
And then came Debbie. "Debbie kind of saved my life," Lydon said.
The couple met in their early 20s. Debbie already had two children — Amy and CJ — from a previous relationship. Before they wed, Jennifer told Debbie about her past wearing women’s clothes, and she slowly revealed more about her secret as their relationship grew.
“I loved Debbie. She was my soul mate,” Lydon said. “I still love her.”
The couple had two girls together — Vicky and Debbie — and settled into a home in Montgomery County.
A tattoo of a shamrock on Lydon’s right arm has two ribbons around it: "Debra and Brian."
Lydon’s brother Michael Tittinger remembers taking a break from watching a Raiders game years ago to check email on his phone. He stopped on a message from his brother. It started: “Michael, there is something I’ve been waiting to tell you.”
Scanning through the email, he stopped on the word “transgender.”
Ignoring questions from his wife, he got up from the couch, went to the back bedroom and read the rest of the message. He was the first in the family to know.
Tittinger said he and Lydon are now closer than ever: “I may have lost my brother and gained a sister, but I still have a best friend.”
The rest of Lydon’s Irish Catholic family was also accepting of the news. The siblings all met at their parents' home one day, and Lydon couldn’t hide the fact that something was up. Her mother broke the silence, asking what was happening. That’s when Lydon broke down.
“I’m transgender, Mom,” Lydon told her. “I’ve been my whole life.”
Lydon’s parents didn’t know what that meant. Lydon remembers her mother asking if it was the same as being gay. Realizing how alone Lydon must have felt, her mother said, “I’m so sorry you had to go through this.”
Lydon remembers feeling at that moment that her parents wanted to help her move forward. “I knew they would still love me,” Lydon said recently. “But never in my dreams did I think it would have went so well.”
Lydon’s four kids, who are all adults now, gathered in the living room of the oldest daughter's house in Northeast Philadelphia, along with Lydon’s ex-wife and boyfriend Tony. Tony and Lydon first went out in September 2011. They had met a month before at a karaoke night. He remembers Jennifer singing “Tiny Dancer.”
Now, Debbie joins the couple out together often.
"We're really close," she said. "We've changed a lot as far as, obviously, a relationship, but I love her. And I'll tell you, I did not like Jen. I couldn't' stand her. I went to the therapist and said, 'She's a bitch. Jen killed my husband.’ But now it's like, 'Jen's awesome.'"
Lydon interrupts: "It was hard. But once I accepted who I was, it was like I couldn't stop. It was like I wanted to fix myself."
Debbie admits she didn’t want Lydon to stop. “Because Jen is a better person than Brian. Brian was introverted, Jen is just a social butterfly."
Their daughter, young Debbie, says it's funny: Now people think Jen is her mom.
"People have mistaken Jen for, like, my mother," the younger Debbie said. "Like, ‘Heyyy, lovely ladies, is that your mom?' And I'm like, 'Yeah!'”
When Jennifer came out, she said she thought her family would alienate her. "I thought I would never have a loving relationship with [my kids]," she said. "They might keep me but I'll always be this weirdo."
"I think it made us stronger because now you can be yourself. Because you used to go in your room a lot and now that you feel comfortable, it brought us together," the younger Debbie said.
"I would come home, drink beer, take a few Valium and try to numb everything," Lydon said. "If I have one regret, it's maybe that I would have done some of this stuff earlier. But if I had done it earlier, I don't think everything would have played out so well.
"And I wouldn't have this beautiful family."
Jennifer Lydon sat at the bar and nursed a diet soda on a Friday afternoon in April, about a month after she came out to her Metro Philadelphia co-workers. She had taken several weeks of sabbatical to get things in order and to meet with clients who may be confused about the salesperson now in front of them.
She pulled on her leather jacket and ran her hands through her long, wavy blonde hair. A bright smile stretched from ear to ear.
"I'm crazy happy, happier than I've been,” she said.
An "F" now appears on her driver's license, her email address at work has changed and she was fingerprinted at the police station. She's officially "Jen."
"I'm excited to get back to work," she said.
She wore her makeup lightly — eye shadow and eyeliner. A cross hung from her necklace, and a yin and yang bracelet dangled off her wrist.
"I'm actually very lucky that Metro's giving me a chance,” she said, pulling on her earlobe, “because most people that try coming out at my age, it doesn't work out. Very few of us are employed. It's getting better.”
She acknowledges there will be challenges along the way, but is confident that it will all work out.
“Life always throws trouble at you, but every problem I've ever had just goes back to this. And I always put the two together, and it just puts so much stress on my life," she said.
She pulled her drink to her still-smiling, lightly painted lips, and took a sip before adding surely: “That’s gone now."
Follow Tommy Rowan on Twitter: @tommyrowan