Melina Rayna Farley-Barratt is not sure how many years she has left, but she is sure of two things she wants to do with them: live publicly as a woman, and change the Constitution of the United States.
Trenton, Fla. — On a mid-September morning, Melina Rayna Farley-Barratt taps her foot to the “Ghostbusters” theme song and applies fuchsia blush to the pale of her high cheekbones. She stayed up well past midnight preparing, trying to avoid this type of last-minute flurry. But for every few minutes of packing she had to sit down and rest for another few. She worries her body won’t make it through the week, though her heart and mind have been waiting for this for a long time: a chance to have her say in Florida’s halls of power.
She learned the trick of applying makeup as a MaryKay consultant in college. She was still living outwardly as a man then. Her heart pounded when she first approached the cosmetic giant’s table on the campus lawn, requesting an appointment in private, please. A facial, and maybe you could help me find the right shade of foundation. Though she quit consulting, and college, she hoarded the leftover makeup in a cardboard box at her mother’s home. She began living publicly as a woman a few years ago, at 37, and when her mother later found the box she told Melina, “Here. This is yours.”
They let Melina ring a large bell on her way out that day, and she was surprised by how emotional she got at something that seemed so absurd.
It was a goldmine. She figures she has enough blush to last the rest of her life, and maybe enough lipstick, too, depending on how long she lives. She finishes her makeup but does not cover the red striations on her neck.
Her room is the result of a colorful life lived in a small space, a menagerie of fantasy and feminism, a portal to the ‘80s. On the dresser, tucked under pliers and headphones and evidence of a life that kept going, is a certificate from the Moffitt Cancer Center Radiation Therapy Department: “Congratulations!! Thank you for allowing us to participate in your care!”
The staff who filled out the certificate had added hand-markered rainbow confetti. They let Melina ring a large bell on her way out that day, and she was surprised by how emotional she got at something that seemed so absurd.
She makes a mental note to move some things into the newly empty second bedroom as she weaves through the piles on the floor. Her stepson finally picked up the rest of his belongings two days ago. There are perks to living alone in a house with so few square feet, but she has worries measured by the millimeter — a normal esophagus is 20mm wide, but built-up scar tissue makes hers 5mm, roughly the size of one of the many pills she swallows each day.
She packs a bag with traditionally feminine dresses she knows will please conservative men, mined from thrift stores and friends’ closets. It won’t change their minds, but they’ll be more likely to let her say something. She slides one of her signature handmade hair clips into her still-wet auburn curls — a bright yellow daffodil with a huge purple butterfly.
David Bowie’s voice blasts from her iPhone. “We could be heroes.”
“Just for one day,” Melina sings.
In the kitchen, she pulls out bulk cardboard flats of Nestlé BOOST. The doctor recommended the nutritional shakes because they are easy to swallow, but she discovered that she can get by on six shakes a day at 30 cents each, which goes a long way towards stretching her disability check.
Outside, Florida is debating whether to finally break the summer heat. The swell of the cicadas is punctuated only by a distant dog bark. She lives in the breath of space between the small towns of Trenton and Newberry, the kind of place where no one minds when her yard grows tall and moss covers her roof, where there’s freedom to let appearances go. She likes the space for her tools. For herself.
A rust-brown Volkswagon Rabbit convertible sits in the yard. She’s owned Rabbit convertibles since high school. This one is her fifth but it needs fixing up. Into each new Rabbit she transferred the performance parts over — a drop suspension, performance valve springs, a short shift mechanism. Her latest addition would have been the intake manifold from a five-cylinder Audi engine. She had taken the part to an expert welder, but she came out as transgender before she could pick it up again. The welder was the only real friend she lost. She never returned for the part.
Her body isn’t up to working on cars anymore, but she holds onto all the accoutrements. Maybe one day she can tell someone, whose body can lift the heavy tools and crouch over the open hood, how to fix it.
In her first Rabbit, she once flew across the interstate at 122mph. Today she will be driving the backroads in a Ford Fusion Hybrid with the pacing precision of someone who knows the gas price to the cent. She has packed everything in light, small bags, but still by the second trip to the car it is hard to breathe. She shoves aside the red signs that say “STOP VIOLENCE AGAINST WOMEN” to make room for a flat of BOOST. After the fifth trip to the car, the driver’s seat is an overwhelming relief.
The dirt road takes her past a confederate flag, past plywood spray painted with a neighbor’s street number, past a boat on a vast empty field, before fading into the mercifully smooth asphalt of Route 26.
Weeds is how she describes the cancer that started in her thyroid and spread throughout her body, popping up wherever it liked.
She is worried she’ll be late. On this first week of legislative committee session, she has a meeting with the head lobbyist for the Florida National Organization for Women at 12:30 in the Florida Capitol’s 10th floor café. She had never been there before and did a test run last week to get familiar with where she’d be staying, the best place to park, what the access ramps and automatic doors were like. She timed how long it took to drive.
Hands at 10 and 2, she commandeers her car through a long stretch of mostly pine trees and a few clues that something used to be there. To her right, a small white building is caving in on itself, barely legible letters spelling “Candy” above what used to be a door. A tree, framed by the remaining window, pushes up through the roof. Weeds fill the inside.
Weeds is how she describes the cancer that started in her thyroid and spread throughout her body, popping up wherever it liked. When a lesion didn’t respond to chemotherapy, they blasted it with radiation — six or seven places in her spine and two in her pelvis, so far. It is hard to keep track.
Mick Smiley’s “Magic” plays — another Ghostbusters track. She adores songs with two parts, that start one way and then take a sudden shift, much like her life.
What do I want my life to look like?
Her parents named her Michael Richard Barratt.
Inside Michael’s looser shoes, she could slip a pair of her younger sister’s — metallic white, thin-soled and high-ankled, like figure skates without the blades. Underneath Michael’s baggy jeans, she could fit a pair of pantyhose. She put on several of Michael’s shirts at once to cover the back strap of a bra. It started in elementary school. It never really stopped.
In high school, one of Michael’s friends was sent home for wearing a kilt to school. In protest, friends told Michael, a bunch of the guys were going to dress up in skirts tomorrow.
She already had a skirt, the one she bought at a thrift store when she was 11. Denim. Totally guessed on the size. She had been so nervous bringing it to the register, but the cashier, mercifully, hadn’t said anything to make it worse. At 16 came a day she could wear it to school.
She paired the denim skirt with pantyhose and heels. Her friend in the theater department did her makeup. When she arrived at school, she discovered they hadn’t meant it like that —they were only wearing skirts in protest. They were not fully dressed as women.
If you could completely change — pregnancy, periods, the whole thing — would you?
Everyone assumed Michael was doing a bit for the protest, except for one curious girl who approached Michael alone and asked, If you could completely change — pregnancy, periods, the whole thing — would you?
Yeah, I would, Michael had said, without a second thought.
She found some spaces during college where she felt the freedom to dress as she always wanted — an LGBTQ nightclub called The Bottom Line; the Florida Gulf Coast University dorms she stayed in while attending Edison College; a 24-hour Walmart, between the hours of midnight and 6 a.m.
But she failed out of college in her third year, and with no language for gender struggle, no examples to look to, no resources or community, living as a woman didn’t feel like a real option.
So instead, she tried to be the best man she could be. She started going to the gym. She took a job at Home Depot lugging 100-pound bags of concrete. She got into mechanic work. She was rewarded for performing Michael’s gender well, and she enjoyed the approval.
She married, adopted the child her wife was pregnant with, and had another child with her. The marriage failed. She got married again.
And then, in 2012, she noticed swelling in her neck.
Metastatic follicular thyroid carcinoma, the tests confirmed.
Cancer began to permeate her body and her life. By Thanksgiving of 2015 it had appeared all along her spine and in her pelvis. She had separated from her second wife. She had been forced to leave her job as a mechanic for RTS — she couldn’t lift the huge bus tires anymore. Her whole career had been physical, and now it was over.
She spent Thanksgiving week trying to save the marriage. She took a trip with her wife and mother-in-law, her parents and her kids. They went to a timeshare in Branson, Missouri, a place she remembers as a more religious Atlantic City. There was dinner theater on a riverboat.
It hadn’t worked.
On Dec. 1, 2015, she sat at her computer desk, facing a window in her empty, silent house.
In 10 years, I’m either going to be dead, dying, or doing well, she thought. I can’t do anything about the first two. If I can make it to the third one, what do I want my life to look like?
The next five seconds brought a liberating realization: She wasn’t a little kid anymore. She didn’t have to hide truth under layers of loose clothing. She knew how to transition now, and she could.
She stayed up until the early a.m. hours filling an Amazon cart with breast forms, underwear and makeup. She felt equal parts amazed and relieved.
She didn’t know how many years she had left, but she was going to live them how she wanted. And if she was going to finally live as a woman, she would need to fight for women, too.
‘Everything is on fire and you’re in hell’
Melina saves her personal anthem, Don Henley’s “I Will Not Go Quietly,” to soundtrack the moment when the Capitol looms in view. She walks up to the entrance swinging a black cane in a proudly upright way that seems out of place in a world where everyone curves over their phones. She doesn’t actually need it today, but it’s shorthand for “I need a little more time to do everything, please be patient,” and carrying it all day is less tiring than explaining herself.
She unloads her dolly and feeds her bags onto the security belt. She takes off a Florida NOW pin, a name tag, and a button that says, “I know I know I stood up for myself, I’m such a bitch,” and tosses them into the plastic tub.
She enters a lobby that is an extravagance of marble and plaques. Above her the preamble to the state constitution hangs, promising “equal civil and political rights to all.”
If the representatives of the people were better promise-keepers, she thinks, she wouldn’t need to be here.
The elevator spits her out onto the 10th floor, and she settles into an armchair in Sharkey’s Café. It is 12:22 p.m. — she’s eight minutes early.
A blue T-shirt is for sale behind the counter. “Being a lobbyist is easy,” it reads. “It’s like riding a bike. Except the bike is on fire, you’re on fire, everything is on fire and you’re in hell.”
Barbara DeVane, the chief lobbyist for Florida NOW, rounds the corner in a sweep of purple: purple purse, purple cell phone, purple shawl, purple flowing dress, chunky purple jewelry, purple nail polish, purple glasses.
“I like the purple,” Melina says.
DeVane’s cropped hair reveals a lined face radiating energy.
“There are no bills up; it’s a workshop,” DeVane says, prepping Melina for the imminent senate hearing on gun violence. “I didn’t warn you, the room we’re going into is like a meat locker.”
They attack us because we exist
The cold in the hearing room is excruciating. It hits Melina’s upper back first, the place of her last radiation treatment, and travels up to her throat, makes it hard to swallow. She rests her jaw in her hands to stop her teeth from shivering, presses her fingers to the place her thyroid used to be.
A few of the senators, all white men, express confusion over the definition of a hate crime.
“Isn’t every shooting a hate crime?” Sen. Aaron Bean asks. “It just seems like there’s so much hate involved.”
The expert clarifies the definition. Bean asks for an example.
Decorum prohibits her from speaking, but she wishes she could tell the senators about Bee Love Slater, the 23-year-old whose body was found in an abandoned car outside the Lake Okeechobee town of Clewiston two weeks ago, burned beyond recognition. Slater was the 18th transgender person known to be killed in America so far this year. Florida law doesn’t yet protect transgender people under the definition of a hate crime.
That’s the difference, she would explain to the committee. They attack us because we exist.
She didn’t mean to sit within the frame of the TV camera in the hearing room. She didn’t know you could feel like you belong somewhere and like an intruder at the same time.
‘Time is like a thief in the night’
The next day, Melina is lost in the labyrinth of Capitol hallways. She is prepared with more layers. She has placed a red carnation in her hair and swapped her pin for one that says “ERA YES.” As in the Equal Rights Amendment.
It mandates that equal rights cannot be denied on the basis of sex. Congress passed the ERA in 1972 and sent it to the states for ratification with a seven-year deadline that was later extended to 1982. In order for the ERA to be added to the U.S. Constitution, 38 states, or three-fourths, must ratify it. But only 35 had.
Activists have been fighting for its passage for nearly a century, but the movement has been recently reenergized. In the wake of #MeToo, Nevada and Illinois voted in support of the amendment, making it just one state short of being ratified. Eyes are now on Florida and Virginia, the two most likely to finally make the ERA a reality. Melina wants it to be Florida.
On this day, Florida NOW is formally at the Capitol to support the abolition of the Florida Constitution Revision Commission, which has a bad habit of bundling a bunch of proposed changes together — people end up voting for things they don’t want because they are tied to things they do.
But DeVane and Melina have a second agenda: to get face-to-face with lawmakers to win support for the ERA. They are forced to have these conversations in hallways and elevators because Sen. David Simmons, chair of the judiciary committee, has not put the ERA on the agenda. Until he does, there will be no formal discussion about it — and no vote.
The mission to pass the ERA is part of the reason Melina joined Florida NOW, and later volunteered for the position of legislative director.
She stops her heeled stride to examine one of the many Florida archival photographs hanging in the hallway. Hundreds of mustached white men in suits stare back at her. “Democratic Convention / Jacksonville 1901,” the caption says.
A still moment passes before she kicks her cane back out and keeps walking. It is easy to feel out of depth here, insignificant. Everything is unfamiliar. And yet, she’s here.
She pauses at a photograph taken in 1964. Three blonde girls in red and pink bathing suits are building a sandman on the beach.
Melina finds the hearing room. People are still milling under the fluorescent lights, and they look at her when she enters. She knows everyone will recognize her long before she does any of them — a helpless feeling.
DeVane is in lime green today.
“I want to introduce you to Simmons,” DeVane says, guiding Melina towards the front of the room, her eyes twinkling.
DeVane walks up to the Republican senator as though they are old friends.
She knows everyone will recognize her long before she does any of them — a helpless feeling.
Simmons is 67, small-framed, blue-eyed, and wields enormous power as the president pro tempore of the Senate. He has taken his seat on the elevated platform, behind the mahogany divider. He greets DeVane, reaches down to shake Melina’s hand.
DeVane wastes no time bringing up the ERA.
“Are you giving me the research?” Simmons asks, “So I can see if this is merely symbolic or — ?”
“Oh, it’s not symbolic!” DeVane responds, still beaming.
“Well bring me cases. And not from people in the minority decisions. Bring me majority decisions.”
“Oh, I will!”
Simmons, a lawyer, worries the language of the ERA is too vague, and he isn’t convinced it’s needed. He believes the Florida Civil Rights Act and the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment are enough. He had told DeVane the day before that women are more equal than men — a sentiment he claimed was a joke, but which DeVane immediately declared as “Bullshit!”
He would like to see examples of Supreme Court cases in which the lack of the ERA played a role in preventing justice.
Melina thinks of Christy Brzonkala, the Virginia Tech freshman who said she was repeatedly raped by two football players. One of the men was found guilty in the college disciplinary proceedings, but Virginia Tech never imposed the recommended two-semester suspension. So Brzonkala brought a civil suit under the Violence Against Women Act, but the Supreme Court then struck down the civil provision of the act as an unconstitutional use of legislative power.
To Melina and other supporters of the ERA, this is proof that the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment doesn’t go far enough in protecting women. Violence against women is one of the main forms of sex-based discrimination that the ERA is designed to prevent.
She doesn’t voice this. She will add it to the case pile.
DeVane chuckles as she makes her way back to her seat. Melina chooses to sit on the other side of the room, out of the camera’s frame.
Simmons calls the hearing to order and a lightning round of bill passing ensues. Suddenly, the resolution to abolish the Constitutional Revision Commission is up.
“Waiving in support” is a shorthand way to show public support for a bill without annoying the legislators with repetitive commentary, and several groups waive in support before Melina’s name is called on behalf of NOW Gainesville.
Melina is frustrated by how weak her voice feels, but she hopes that it’s just heard as soft. She hesitates for a second before her words are entered into legislative record forever: “We waive in support.”
The senators vote unanimously in favor.
Melina catches Simmons as the meeting adjourns.
“I would love to sit with you and have a conversation about the ERA,” she says, matching his stride.
“Just bring your cases!” Simmons says. “I’ll need a notebook!”
“I’ll leave that to her,” Melina says, pointing to DeVane as the three of them enter the elevator.
When Melina and DeVane exit, Simmons says, “Remember, time is like a thief in the night. I need those cases.”
“I’ll get it!” DeVane replies.
As they turn the corner, Simmons’ voice rings from the elevator — “ASAP!”
“I wish I had a law degree,” DeVane mutters, thinking how much easier that would make it to prove to Simmons, in language he’d respect, that women’s rights will not be secure until the ERA is passed.
Melina stops to look at another photograph on the wall of two women holding a dress up. The caption reads: “Women fashion shopping.”
Safety pins and resistance
On her third day of hearings, Melina leans heavier on her cane. The red carnation is back in her hair, the “ERA YES NOW” pin back on her dress.
She emerges into the sunlit white expanse of the rotunda on the fourth floor. A press conference for the Florida Competitive Workforce Act, which would protect LGBTQ Floridians from employee discrimination, is wrapping up.
Melina introduces herself to Rep. Holly Raschein, whose skin and hair are trademark Floridian shades of tan and blonde.
“Oh, yes! You were in both committee meetings this morning,” Raschein says, and Melina brightens.
“I love your dress, by the way,” Melina says.
“Oh, thank you! So funny, my hem came out during my committee hearing,” Raschein confides. “So now I have safety pins in my dress.”
They share a laugh in the sea of suits.
“I appreciate you supporting this,” Melina says. “Anything we want done isn’t going to happen without the support of Republicans.”
Melina mentally notes Raschein as a possible ally to the ERA. Conservative women stopped the ERA from passing in the 1970s. It would take conservative women to pass it now.
Melina takes the elevator to the 22nd floor, walks to the window, and props on her cane. The city sprawls beneath her, the road stretching from the Capitol’s front doors all the way home.
When she was debriefing the day before, DeVane’s eyes had traded their usual twinkle for a focused seriousness.
“The pendulum swings back and forth, back and forth,” DeVane had said, “but it’s our job to help the pendulum along. In the last two years since Trump’s been in office I’ve seen almost all the things I’ve worked for in 55 years get unraveled. My grandson says it makes him depressed. But I say: No, no, no! You gotta get up every day and do something to resist. It might be something really tiny, or it might be something big! That’s how I’ve survived all these years, and I intend to keep doing it until they throw me in the oven at the crematorium.”
Melina plans to do the same. It’s why she keeps moving on the days her whole body aches, why she raises her voice even though it feels weak, why she is here in Tallahassee at all.
She’s not worried that people will forget her right away — a lot of people love her. But what happens when they die, too?
She hopes in a hundred years people will have a reason to look her up. She hopes that when they do, they’ll find something. A Wikipedia page, maybe. A footnote in an entry on the passage of the ERA. Some trace that she was here.
That afternoon, Melina leaves her business card at several reception desks, unable to get time with the lawmakers directly, but when she finally gets to Rep. Fentrice Driskell’s office she is welcomed in.
Dozens of velcro strips line a wall, but only one photo has been hung so far: 1980, Carrie Meek in a prophetic T-shirt — “A woman’s place is in the House and the Senate.” Meek later became the first African American woman elected to the Florida Senate. In the empty space next to that photo, Driskell plans to hang Betty Castor, another former senator who later became the first woman to serve as Florida’s education commissioner, voting thumbs up on the ERA in 1982.
“I’m Melina, I’m the legislative director for Florida NOW,” Melina begins. “I mainly wanted to come and introduce myself. As I understand it you’re planning on leading up on the ERA.”
Melina and Driskell brainstorm groups to ask for support in passing the ERA. Collective action has always been necessary for people who aren’t born with power.
When Driskell speaks, it is full of context and history. She makes it impossible to forget how long the fight has lasted. How many generations of women, of women of color, have tried to get their country to guarantee them equal rights?
She takes pride in her involvement in Athena Society, the same Tampa organization that Betty Castor once presided over. It was formed in the ‘70s — a time, Driskell reminds, that professional women needed sisterhood because they were so outnumbered — and one of the requirements of membership was support of the ERA. Athena Society has been pushing for the passage of the ERA for decades.
“An enduring legacy,” Driskell says. “We’re talking a lot of years.”
Driskell offers to connect Melina with their executive board.
“I’m so glad you came by,” Driskell says to Melina. “I saw you at the press conference earlier, right?”
“I thought so! Us tall girls gotta stick together.”
“That’s right,” Melina smiles.
How tall the weeds have grown
The Florida People’s Advocacy Center, where Melina is staying for the week, is a 41-room dorm/office hybrid. It used to be a drug treatment center — the bedroom doors have windows covered with wrapping paper.
In the lobby, a poster hangs: “1900-2000: An extraordinary century for women. Now, imagine the future!”
When Melina gets back to her room that night, she drops a LENVIMA chemotherapy pill into a glass of water and lays down while it dissolves. She lets it sit for an hour, shaking it every now and then, careful for it to dissolve completely. Careful to get the full dose.
LENVIMA only works for about a year and a half if you use it constantly. She’ll have to find a new medication after it stops working.
At the end of October, she will get a new PET scan. She will see how tall the weeds have grown.
Of patriots and patriarchy
On the last day of her first week at the Capitol, Melina stops at a crosswalk with a TV cameraman. There are officials gathering on the Capitol lawn.
“Do you know what’s happening over there?” Melina asks.
“It’s a patriot flag they’re unfolding,” the cameraman says. “Like a symbolic display for the firefighters from 9/11.”
Melina walks a few yards away from the firefighters in their formal uniforms and waits. She wants to see what happens. They are staring at her.
She is wearing a small hat with a pale mauve flower. Her pin — a brown leaf on a pink background — says, “My favorite season is the fall of the patriarchy.”
She is tired enough that makeup felt like a hassle earlier that morning. She wishes she could have come bare-faced, but first impressions are important, and there are still so many people here who haven’t met her yet.
Suddenly, a man with a jet-black chevron mustache and a uniform covered in medals appears by Melina’s side.
“Are you gonna help us with the flag? You look like you’re really important,” he says, taking in her hat.
He pulls her over to the uniformed firefighters. TV cameras move in around them.
Melina is grateful to be included, but she is worried. She wonders if the firefighters know she is transgendered. What would they think if they did know? She wonders if he still would have pulled her over, though he seemed kind and guileless.
The flag unfurls and Melina grasps an edge. Everyone begins to move back, stretching the 60-foot flag out in front of the seat of the state’s government. An odd image develops: 19 dark-trousered uniforms and one woman in a beige crocheted dress, standing in silence around an impossibly large symbol of their shared country.
They are assembled at one end of Route 27 as it exits Tallahassee. After one last committee hearing, Melina follows the road home.
Leaving a legacy
The week had taken a toll, but back in the still quiet of her house, Melina is thinking.
Time is both a thief and her greatest gift — her years may be shorter, but her days are longer. She is unencumbered by the hours that her friends and neighbors have to work to make ends meet. She knows it’s a privilege to be able to travel up to Tallahassee and back. She has always wanted to advocate for ordinary people in the halls of power.
But maybe she could be power, too. Maybe she really could leave something behind.
It’s funny how similar it feels to her decision to transition. Equally daunting and simple, terrifying and sure. She returns to the computer desk, but instead of filling an Amazon cart, she grabs a pen and begins filling out paperwork — an official form to file for office.
A strange peace fills her.
In 100 years, if they look up Melina’s name, they will find she was the first openly transgender candidate to run for the Florida Senate.
Editor’s Note: Bee Love Slater was the 18th known trans person to be killed in the United States in 2019 at the time this article was reported in September. By mid-November that number had risen to 22, according to the Human Rights Campaign.