LIVING AS AMY: Formerly John, Amy Hepker has found her identity, but at great cost.


At about midnight, Amy Hepker parks her 1993 Nissan 200SX directly under a light pole in the very back of a strip mall parking lot. A skittish little black cat she named Shadow jumps in the back window to watch her grab a few extra layers of clothes from the trunk.

She feels old.

The 58-year-old - all 6-foot-1, 220 pounds of her - reclines the driver's seat and settles in for the night. Her knees ache from eight weeks of not being able to stretch out, her feet are swollen from a heart condition, her back throbs from an old work injury and she worries about her high blood pressure. But mostly she feels alone.

For most of her life, Hepker has lived as John. She raised two children as John. It was always easy to get a job, be in a relationship, build a life. And she could have those things back in a heartbeat, if she'd just put on men's clothes.

"I look like a quarterback in women's clothes," Hepker said. "It's hard for a lot of people to get past that."

But she can't go back to being someone she never was.

"I don't have a choice. It is who I am. It is who I have always been."

The world saw a hard-working, blue-collar guy.

John Hepker logged a million accident-free miles as a trucker, worked on the docks, drove a tractor, cut brush.. After work, John raced a '66 Mustang, tricked out and tuned up by his own greasy hands.

"It was all about proving to myself that I could be more male than them, but then I'm laughing to myself: 'But I'm female!'" Hepker said. "Overcompensating is a kind of a 'fake it till you make it' thing."

Faking had begun early. At 5 years old, Hepker abandoned plastic soldiers, trucks and toy guns to sneak off and dress Barbie with the girls down the street. At 18, Hepker asked a girlfriend: "Want to dress me as a woman?"

The teens walked around Cedar Rapids, Iowa, in the middle of the night. Hepker's heart thundered in her chest. "That was 1975. If anyone had seen us, I would have been put away to be 'cured.'"

But for the first time, Hepker felt free and right in her own skin.

She has never been attracted to men and always told anyone she was romantically involved with that she felt like a woman. They all bought her clothes and loved her for who she was, as long as she kept the secret at home.

Six times she purged her wardrobe of women's clothes.

"I felt I had to be the man I'm supposed to be."

Twice before now she decided to live as Amy full time. Both times she lost her partner and her job.

"Younger people can pass. With hormone therapy today they could pass you in the street and you would never know.

"But people look at us older transgenders like we're drag queens. Drag queens are performers. We just want to be who we are. We don't want to draw attention to ourselves," she said.

She swears this time she is Amy for good. She knew from past experience that it was going to be rocky.

Last year she told her employer, a local document shredder, she would start coming to work as Amy in two weeks. A week and a half later, she was fired for being rude to a customer. She insists she was not.

Shortly after that, her girlfriend of nearly two years said she would always love and support her, but couldn't stay with her.

"If you were John, it would be different, but that is not who you are," she recently texted.

Until eight weeks ago Hepker lived with a friend and tried without luck to get a job. When the friend lost her home to foreclosure, Hepker found herself homeless for the first time in her life.

She has settled into a lonely routine, spending days at a local park chatting with anyone who is willing. A local restaurant owner gives her ice in the afternoon to keep her sodas cold. Shadow, the cat, comes out for a few minutes now and then. At night she finds a quiet corner of a parking lot, always under the protective glow of a streetlight.

She begins her evening prayers the same way:

"God Almighty, Jesus Christ our Lord, Mother Mary Superior, thank you for the life I have and for the miracles you've granted me."

She prays for forgiveness of her sins. Then for family and friends. Then for herself.

"Please Lord, help me find a home. Help me find enough money to get by. Help me find a lady who will love me."

She believes God makes sure nothing lasts forever and nothing stays the same. She knows God will help her.

"I just don't know when."