The first sex-reassignment surgery performed in Minnesota took place more than 40 years ago at the University of Minnesota. Twenty-nine male-to-female operations were completed at the Minneapolis hospital between 1966 and 1969. Among the patients was Liz Lyons, a veteran female impersonator who had worked at the Gay 90's bar on Hennepin Avenue for many years before making the transition.
Lyons was born in Chicago in 1919. The name on the birth certificate: Reuben Elkins. The gender: male. She took the name Lee Leonard when she launched her “songs and comedy” act at nightclubs in California, Arizona, Oregon, Idaho and Alaska in the early 1950s.
Will Jones, longtime entertainment writer for the Minneapolis Tribune, let Lyons fill in the rest of her remarkable story.
WILL JONES / After last night
In a column the other day, I referred to Lee Leonard as a transvestite comic. Among the people who know, that was a big laugh, and just showed how far behind the times I am.
The label may have been accurate back when Leonard was working as a female impersonator. But now the more precise term would be transsexual. Leonard underwent sex-change surgery at the University of Minnesota, and now is a card-carrying woman: he has both a court-corrected birth certificate showing his sex as female, and a U.S. passport under the new name of Lizbeth Lyons.
And there I go, courting trouble by referring to Lee Leonard as a he. Around the Gay 90s, where Lee Leonard worked for 11 years before the surgery, Miss Leonard now has trouble getting everybody to refer to her as she.
Last week, at a meeting to discuss changes in the club's show, owner Dick Gold kept referring to Miss Leonard as him.
"So I exposed myself to him, and he ran away terrified and wouldn't even look," Miss Leonard said. "But I've warned him, that's what I'll do every time he calls me a him, so he's being very careful."
Miss Leonard said she was miserable as a child, as a boy, and as a man. As a boy, Lee Leonard had legs beautiful enough that he got work as a model for women's stockings, in legs-only photographs.
"At first I knew I was different, and then in my heart I knew I was a woman, but in those days there was nothing that could be done about it," Miss Leonard said.
More than three years ago, she underwent extensive physical and psychological tests. Because of her age, which she now refuses to reveal, there was some doubt at first about whether she could stand the surgery. Finally she was okayed for surgery, and underwent months of hormone treatments to prepare for it.
"I was miserable and depressed during the treatments while the hormones were fighting inside me, I was in surgery for nine hours, I was depressed afterward, and then I got an infection and almost died," she said. "Even knowing all that, I wouldn't hesitate to go through it all again. For the first time in my life, I'm happy.
"When people ask me how old I am, I say 3. I'll be 3 in November. That's when my life really began.
"I'm happily married now, and if anybody asks me if we have any problems, I tell them the truth: Yes. We can't have children. My husband is a young actor, and I won't tell you his name, because he's going places, and it probably wouldn't be good for his career for people to know he's married to me. People see him with me, and they think I'm his mother. But believe me, there's no generation gap. I met him in Hawaii, but he's from here. He's going to be in some "Hawaii Five-O" episodes, and probably in a movie."
After the operation, she decided she wanted to forget Lee Leonard. So she took the new name and left town. She worked a year and a half at the Dunes Club in Honolulu and started building a career under the name of Liz Lyons. She spent another year working in Las Vegas and other towns under that name, too.
"I didn't intent to come back to work here, but I came back for a checkup, and Dick talked me into coming back to the club," she said. "Here I'm worth more money as Lee Leonard, so I went back to the old name."
The billing is also Miss Leonard in Winnipeg and a few other towns where Lee Leonard built a following. Elsewhere, it's Liz Lyons.
The new Lee Leonard's comedy is still sharp-tongued and raunchy, but with some changes.
"I don't do the gay material any more," she said. "I work as a woman, like Belle Barth. And I work topless. I've developed some gorgeous size 52s and feel marvelous. One thing that really puzzles me is that my feet have gotten smaller. I'm down from a size 10 to a size 9. The one problem I had was my beard. I had it removed with X-rays, and when my surgeon heard about it, he had a fit. He told me my face could fall off in 10 years. I told him, 'Listen, sweetie, at my age, in 10 years I won't need a face.'
"Now that I'm a woman, I'm not making any mistakes. You don't catch me going to the grocery in hair curlers or a house dress. I sleep in my eyelashes, and I'm dressed to the teeth when I go out that door.
"Well, I made one mistake, right after the operation. I was out at the airport, heading out the concourse to get on a plane to Los Angeles, and I had to go to the bathroom. So without thinking I walked into the men's room, and scared the hell out of a guy in there. That's my worst mistake so far.
"You should see me in hot pants. I was in a store the other day in hot pants and a woman said to me, 'Aren't you ashamed, at your age, wearing hot pants?' I told her, 'Honey, if I had your legs, I would be.' "