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Valley Center selects trans-woman as honorary mayor

VALLEY CENTER, California -- Two years ago Gina Roberts had to decide whether to leave Valley Center forever — a rural, mostly conservative town in north San Diego County, and her home of 25 years — or stay put.

An active volunteer in her community, Roberts had been involved in the local chapter of Kiwanis International for more than a decade, formed a Boy Scout troop, and won the annual Irish Stew Cook-Off for three years straight.

The problem was, everyone knew her as Rick, not Gina.

For most of her life, Roberts, 59, had a led a double existence as an overtly macho man in public; a woman in private. Despite repeated efforts to push her female identity back into the closet, the pressure to come out mounted inside her. She ultimately decided that 2012 was the year to introduce Gina to the world.

“Most people that transition pull up roots and go someplace else and do it,” Roberts said. “I love Valley Center. Always have. It just occurred to me that I owe it to these people to give them the opportunity to deal with it. If they choose not to, then they choose not to.”

It turned out to be the right choice.

Since coming out two years ago, she has encountered widespread support from the largely conservative community, and in May, she was named the 2014 Honorary Mayor by the Valley Center Chamber of Commerce.

“I’m so happy I stayed here,” Roberts said. “One of the most significant moments I’ve had in a long time was when the 10 of us were standing there for the honorary mayor contest and it was just empowering. Everybody congratulated me as a person.”

Ever since she was a child, Roberts felt she was living the wrong gender. Despite external male features and being raised as Rick Roberts, she always felt uncomfortable imagining herself as a man. She would take days off from elementary school to stay home and dress up in her mother’s clothes — a practice she continued through college.

“I always felt more comfortable,” she said. “It wasn’t a voyeuristic kind of thing, it was a satisfaction kind of thing. I never ever, ever mentioned it to anybody. It was just something that intuitively you knew wasn’t normal. So I hid it.”

By the time Roberts went off to UC San Diego for college, it was the early 1970s and the idea of being transgender was still strictly taboo. What few references she encountered to the subject only spoke negatively of “transvestites” and a deviant, underground sex culture.

“I actually didn’t know what I was for a long time,” she said. “I thought I was just some kind of freak. I got so good at hiding it; it was like my brain was sectioned.”

Although the urges never went away, Roberts got married twice and had two natural children. Over the years she spent plenty of money and energy investing in hobbies like shooting, backpacking, and off-roading, just to prove how macho she was.

“You try to do anything you can to prove what you aren’t,” Roberts said. “You get married, you have kids, you try to be the ‘ultra dude.’

“It’s self-destructive in some sense, because you still have this program running in the back of your mind like, ‘No, that’s not you,’” she said.

Thanks to the Internet, Roberts eventually learned more about cross-dressing and the transgender community in the late ‘80s and realized she wasn’t alone. She gradually became involved in the San Diego LGBT community and began sharing her story at college campuses. However, even as she began accepting her own identity, she was wary of telling friends and family. Back home in Valley Center she was still the Hummer-driving, world-class shooting, macho man.

Finally, after a trial run of living as Gina for six weeks with her son in Texas, Roberts realized the time had come to tell the world. She decided to make the announcement before a meeting of the VC Kiwanis Club at the end of May 2012. Still dressed as Rick, Roberts read a letter she had prepared at their weekly Friday breakfast.

“I was all teary and I looked up and about half the crowd was crying,” she said. “I thought, ‘Oh God, is this good or bad?’ It was good; it was really phenomenal. A couple people came up and said ‘I can’t believe you have the guts to do that.’ They’ve been 100 percent behind me.”

Jim Dorschel, Kiwanis president, has known Roberts for 15 years and supported her throughout the process, but he was unsure how the Kiwanis would take the news. He too recounted their reaction as “overwhelmingly supportive.”

“We’re not embarrassed by it, we’re proud of her,” Dorschel said. “It takes a lot more courage than I think I would ever have to do it. Valley Center kind of has the reputation of being a little bit of a redneck community. I have been amazed by the response so far.”

After that week, Rick Roberts was no more.

Two years later, the Kiwanis ran Gina Roberts as their candidate in the Chamber of Commerce’s annual Honorary Mayor fundraiser. Her slogan: “Make a big change in your life.”

After raising $3,600 for her candidacy in the first months of 2014, Roberts’ name was entered more than any other candidate in the drawing to be mayor. She outraised all nine of her opponents. When her name was finally drawn before the eager crowd at Valley Center’s annual Western Days Festival on May 23, she was totally taken aback.

“I couldn’t imagine a better thing happening to me in a better place,” Roberts said. “It’s just another great thing that’s happened in my life, supported by a bunch of really great people.”

The next day she rode in the Western Days Parade down Valley Center Road inside a Model-A roadster. She says she received a few “deer-in-the-headlights stares” from people who hadn’t seen her since her transition, but aside from that she has encountered widespread support from the town.

“It was an exceptional endeavor by Gina and the Kiwanis in raising $3,600,” said Greg Carlson, president of the Chamber of Commerce.

The Chamber raised a total of $11,000 between the ten candidates in 2014 mayor’s race.

In many ways, Roberts is a paradox. Although she is socially liberal and remains supportive of the San Diego LGBT Center, she is also a member of the Valley Center Republican Women Federated and a range officer at the Escondido Fish & Game shooting range.

However, Roberts’ story is actually one of overcoming contradictions and embracing difference.

“It’s all about finding common ground and making people realize there’s just a humanness to everybody,” she said. “There are people in the Republican party who don’t think I should exist, which makes me all the more insistent that they know I exist.”

Roberts said what kept her from coming out the longest was telling her wife of 25 years. Although they are still close friends, they are no longer married. However, to anyone in a similar position as she was, she still advises that honesty is the best choice.

“It’s a significant soul-searching thing,” Roberts said. “You need to fully understand that you want to make a big change. Be honest about who you are with the people you love and the people you’re around, because deceit hurts and it will always hurt.”

Roberts plans to continue sharing her story with people on both ends of the spectrum. She will also be starting a scholarship for Valley Center High School students who write the best essays on diversity.

Although she harbors no resentment for her past life, not one day has gone by in the past two years that she wished she was Rick again.

“Gina was born in December, 1954 and it just took a long time to figure out that’s who she was,” Roberts said.

—Michael Crane is a local freelance writer. He can be reached at mcrane30@gmail.com.

(Editor's note: This story was originally published on SDGLN media partner Gay San Diego).