In an Adair Park bungalow painted multiple shades of green, Lucy Eden sipped tea one cloudy morning in June, ate a bagel, and set out for her commute to work on a unicycle.
The catalytic converter had gone kaput on her minivan, relegating the professional circus performer to what could be the zaniest commute in town. Wearing a polka dot dress, her brown hair flowing in the breeze behind her, she pedaled around the neighborhood’s namesake park, past the entrance to the Beltline’s Westside Trail, and on for another sweaty mile to the West End MARTA station, where she would continue her journey to Sandy Springs.
You can ride a unicycle! an astonished little girl blurted as Lucy passed by.
Commuting via unicycle — not just to work but to the post office and corner store for groceries — regularly triggers double takes and surprised commentary on the streets of southwest Atlanta.
Lucy, 33, was delighted by the girl’s observation. But other comments she finds disturbing.
You look good up there.
Oh, baby doll, if I was that bicycle seat, I’d be so happy!
Then there are the scary ones, like the teenager who called her “tranny” and the man who blatantly asked how she urinated.
In the back of Lucy’s mind as she rides is her friend, another Atlanta transwoman, who had her teeth knocked out in a brutal, transphobic assault. Lucy keeps a running tally of transwomen murdered this year — 31 across the country, by her estimation.
But to Lucy, the hazards of living her life as a woman are better than the alternative: crippling depression and a life built upon lies.
Each public errand she runs dressed like a girl is a means of bringing her true self to light and putting to rest the character — Luke Eden — she played for three decades.
2. Secret withheld
A yellow-framed photograph of Marilyn Monroe was one of Luke’s favorite possessions when he was a boy. He carried it around with him everywhere he went.
He was also fascinated by majorettes, and fancied taking baton and dance classes some day.
Tossing in bed with insomnia, he became preoccupied with the idea of escaping his male body until he eventually dissociated from it and fell into a dysphoric malaise.
But Luke’s difficulties may have begun years earlier, prior to birth.
After their son was born, Giana Eden, a free-spirited potter, and John Eden, a social studies teacher, learned that a second placenta was discovered during delivery. It was possible, they were told, that Luke may have been a twin in utero, but the embryos had coalesced into one during the early stages of development. Today some scientists believe the merging of male and female zygotes in utero may result in homosexuality and transgenderism. It is a theory that Lucy embraces.
In any case, Luke came home to a nurturing environment in Eugene, Oregon, the first of John and Giana’s two children together. When John’s father died of a heart attack in South Georgia three years later, the family uprooted to Jesup, a flyspeck town between Savannah and Brunswick, to live with John’s mother.
A free-thinking family, they eschewed church on Sundays for studying Buddhist teachings and meditating on the front porch. Luke grew up feeling like an interloper in the community. Once at a friend’s birthday party, a man led a prayer circle to save Luke’s soul.
Giana wasn’t concerned that her creative, headstrong little boy was best friends with girls, enjoyed pushing Cabbage Patch Kids around in baby carriages and wore colorful clothes and funny hats.
But by grade school, Luke realized he’d either assimilate or be bullied. He learned to lower the pitch of his voice and avoid a feminine gait, and he mimicked what the other guys did, cracking rude jokes. He befriended two football players and formed an alliance they called The Manly Triumvirate. To deflect negative attention, he bullied others. One year a girl from England was in Luke’s class, and he shouted in her face, goading her to recite the Pledge of Allegiance.
As convincing as Luke may have been to others, his feminine tendencies continued to stir a mixture of confusion and sadness in private. He envisioned himself a knight in armor protecting the princess inside, but often he thought, There’s just something wrong with me.
Luke was a fixture in gifted classes, but he had a subversive side, too. One time, he inserted a name of someone who didn’t exist into the school yearbook.
He wasn’t “like typical high-achieving exemplars,” said longtime friend Emily Strickland, also a transwoman. He “relished defiance and liked being a bit of a misfit.”
After high school, Luke went to Georgia Tech, where he studied computer science for a year and hated it, before transferring to Columbus State University and graduating with a degree in English.
Along the way he learned to juggle, growing fascinated by the technical, physical artistry of it.
Luke aspired to be a great memoir writer but realized he hadn’t lived a life worth writing about yet. Feeling confused and lost, he covered high school sports for Jesup’s newspaper for a while, but then quit and headed to Athens where he got a job at a restaurant and found a girlfriend.
He started taking a series of clowning workshops and performed a few times with a troupe called Sacred Pudding Society. In one show, the whole cast dressed up as princesses. In high heels and a dress, in front of an audience, Luke felt ebullient — ironic, considering he’d spent his life ducking attention. But beneath clown get-ups and dresses he realized how capricious human identities are, how clothes and face paint have the power to instantly transform.
Something about being a clown afforded Luke a sense of security. Suddenly gender was irrelevant. No one typically sees a clown and thinks “man” or “woman”; they see only “clown.”
A breakup with his girlfriend left Luke devastated, and he found solace in his newfound skill. Juggling requires absolute focus, and it helped him escape his own head. He became obsessed. Within a year, he could juggle five balls — a technical feat.
3. A career blossoms
Knives, daggers, swords, burning torches and one-pound steel machetes — Luke soon mastered juggling them all, punctuating performances by balancing weaponry on his face, and twirling fire.
The next few years went by in a madcap blur. With another Athens performer, Luke honed an act and started getting paying gigs in Atlanta. Then, on a whim, they sold all their stuff, bought a school bus as a makeshift mobile home and busked around for a while. Eventually Luke settled in Atlanta.
With its burgeoning entertainment industry, deep pool of large corporations and penchant for hosting one big festival after the next, metro Atlanta was a land of opportunity for circus acts. Clients like Coca-Cola, the Braves, Delta, megachurches, wealthy parents, country club owners and developers of new apartment towers would call entertainment agencies when they needed fire-breathers, jugglers and stilt-walkers to make their parties zing.
In 2001, Kester Chau founded Dream Friends Entertainment, a company designed to meet such demand. It’s become one of the largest in Atlanta, with a stable of about 100 performers.
Five years ago, Kester was leaving a fundraiser when something caught her eye: a unicycle performer who looked like an amalgamation of vintage carnie and hipster-bar mixologist, with a handlebar mustache, curly soul patch and splotch of long hair atop an otherwise shaved head. Luke’s repertoire had grown to include a triple unicycle and stilts, and he could emcee events while performing — essentially two acts in one.
Kester handed over a business card and said, You have an interesting look.
Luke was an immediate hit with Kester’s diverse clientele base: edgier companies and families across metro Atlanta aiming for throwback carnival parties with jugglers to complement the bearded lady and strongman. He became Kester’s most marketable male performer, and because juggling knives atop a unicycle was a unique talent, he had leverage to negotiate higher rates.
Soon Luke was making a comfortable living, residing in a nurturing Atlanta artist commune, with no logical reason — at least on the surface — to be unhappy.
But in secret, as always, Luke was grappling with gender dysphoria. Only now, the yearning to be different was so intense it triggered debilitating depression. He was so good at acting differently than he felt, however, nobody had an inkling. His parents were just elated that Luke had finally found his calling.
Luke’s insomnia began to disrupt his life. Each time he closed his eyes, suicidal ideation, self-loathing and bizarrely violent thoughts besieged him. Dreams, when they came, were hyper-realistic sessions of grotesque violence and blood. So Luke would lay awake until dawn, imagining how things would be different if he’d only been born a girl.
The act could not go on.
4. Risking everything
I need to get out of Atlanta, Luke thought.
Luke moved to Asheville in late 2015. He worried his career would suffer, but he shouldn’t have. Clients in Atlanta were so fond of him, they happily paid travel expenses to bring him back for performances. Luke suspected the stress of living in a big city was fueling his depression, but among the slower paced life and sweeping mountain vistas of Asheville, his issues only worsened.
Luke began slipping into sad, dissociative states during the day. Each mirror was a reminder he didn’t like himself — that there were incongruities between the life he had and the one he wanted. Increasingly, the only option for escaping the dissatisfaction and cognitive dissonance seemed like suicide.
It took a loving push from a close friend to get Luke to admit his true dilemma.
That turning point came when Lexi Galbreath — a transgender woman and former roommate whom Luke idolized — sat him down for what they now refer to as “the intervention.”
Are you trans? she asked point-blank.
Something inside Luke crumbled. He began to weep.
Someone finally saw his true self. And for the first time he voiced what he’d felt all his life: Living as a man was a farce. He was a woman.
They talked for a long time, then Lexi said: I don’t think I can call you Luke anymore. Can I call you Lucy?
Later he would recall that had been his grandmother’s middle name.
* * *
It’s one thing to declare oneself female and another to present it in public.
By the spring of 2016, Luke had come out to a couple of Asheville friends. Then he paid a visit to Jesup to tell his parents. He fought back nerves before telling his folks the news. They were surprised but supportive.
Oh! I knew I got this for a reason, his mother said before handing him a rainbow-colored, inflatable ball and wrapping her child in a hug.
Luke made “Lucy” official on Facebook and received a cascade of “likes.” He gave away his male clothes and started a fresh thrift-store wardrobe of skirts, dresses and frilly tops.
His first public outing dressed as a woman came one evening when he ventured down the streets of Asheville in a purple lace dress with a group of friends to a gay-friendly bar called The Crow & Quill. To his surprise, the first few steps in public felt like a sigh of relief; he wasn’t trying to be female so much as not straining to be convincingly male anymore. Inside the bar, that relief became euphoria. There were no guffaws. No whispers. No sneers. Everyone just treated him normally, and for a moment he was happy.
But Luke’s depression didn’t really begin to dissipate until he started taking hormones that summer — first via arm patch and then pills that dissolve under the tongue. Allergic to alcohol and paranoid of needles, he was nervous about introducing chemicals, including anti-androgens to block testosterone, into his system and undergoing the consistent, requisite bloodwork. But the emotional lift was worth it.
After Donald Trump was elected president in November, Luke grew worried that LGBTQ rights would be rolled back, so he made a rash decision that he knew could impact his burgeoning career. He would move back to his birthplace, Oregon. Legally changing his gender would be faster, cheaper and simpler there than in North Carolina or Georgia, where lengthy background checks and fees are required. He feared being “stuck” in the South, unable to fully become Lucy.
In Portland Luke was issued documents legally changing his name to Lucy and his gender to female, which she then used to obtain a new passport and Social Security card.
Unfortunately, Portland’s job prospects for circus performers were slim. She felt pulled back to Atlanta, although she wasn’t sure a transgender act would fly in the conservative South.
5. Degrees of change
One sweltering afternoon in July, Lucy and Melissa Coffey, 38, were honing a clown routine at Sky Gym in Sandy Springs.
Lucy wore a petite black dress and juggled three pins striped like candy canes before balancing one on her nose, dropping suddenly to the floor, bowing her back like a seal, and rising back up to her feet, keeping the pin balanced on her nose the whole time.
“We’re both clowns at heart,” said Melissa.
Lucy and Melissa are not just partners in clowning, but they’re partners in life. Like Lucy, Melissa was drawn to the circus life, ditching a career in fashion design to become an aerialist and fire performer, as well as a trainer. They met at an art party about five years ago, but they didn’t start dating until a few weeks before Lucy went to Oregon.
At Sky Gym, they were preparing for a gig in the LEAF parade in Asheville.
“We have a lot of common interests,” said Lucy. “Similar and different in interesting ways, and we’re good practice buddies.”
After coming out as a woman, Lucy landed the highest-paying job of her career as a Who in a “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” production at Ponce City Market. Not long after that, she landed three substantial performances in female clowning roles.
Maybe my career isn’t over, Lucy thought at that point. Maybe I’ll survive.
The local prospects were strong enough that Lucy moved back to Atlanta. Since then, she’s scored jobs with a wide range of clients, including company parties, a Fourth of July extravaganza at Lenox Square and a daddy-daughter dance at a suburban Baptist church.
“I’ve gotten no complaints,” said Kester.
Still, Kester weighs each booking, taking into mind Lucy’s personal safety and clients’ open-mindedness toward a transgender performer. She wants to support Lucy, but she has a business to run. She doesn’t want Lucy’s physique — albeit gradually softening — to become a distraction that ruins her performance or angers paying clients. That means Lucy gets booked about half as often as Luke did before she started her transition. So she’s started looking for part-time jobs to supplement her income.
Lucy continues to undergo estrogen treatments at an Asheville clinic subsidized by a private endowment. She notes each physical change. Her skin is softer, her body hair less coarse. Her breasts are bigger. Fat has redistributed toward her hips. Beard growth has slowed down. And while she does have less strength than Luke did, performing atop the triple unicycle is no problem.
As for sexual reassignment surgery, Lucy is so happy with the changes her body has undergone so far, she not sure it’s worth the risk, cost ($20,000-plus) or recuperation time.
Her clown persona has changed, too. The style of “LuLu,” as Lucy calls her character, is commedia dell’arte or cirque nouveau — that is, more elegant dresses and heart-shaped face paint than rainbow wigs and floppy shoes. In clown attire, Lucy finds not a disguise but uninhibited freedom, a performance mode that invites moms and dads and kids to interact with her in a carefree way. To her, clowning is almost sacred. It teaches an important lesson to not to take ourselves — and the rules of society — so seriously. And while LuLu is definitely a mask, it feels to Lucy like the most honest mask she’s ever worn.
“I’m finally taking the steps to make myself happy,” she said. “The negative (thoughts) are still there, but I’m not letting it stop me from (making) myself better any more, and I never will again.”
On New Year’s Eve, a new kind of fear presented itself when a guy at a club aggressively tried to grope Lucy against her will. Had his hand slipped farther south, he would have encountered a surprise that could have turned an ugly situation much uglier. Occasionally while walking in public, Lucy gets swept up by the sensation of being incredibly light — unburdened from the effort to present as male — which she recognizes could put her in danger.
“I’ll forget for a moment that I’m someone that so many people fear and hate … just for who I am and how I live.”
Unlike her physical changes, Lucy’s social structure remains the same. In a time of “bathroom bill” controversies and gay conversion therapy camps, Lucy is fortunate that no friends, family or colleagues have dropped out of her life. She knows nobody else in the queer community who’s been so lucky.
Lucy’s mother concedes that she misses Luke, the realized dream of a boy she helped grow from a “wonderful, colorful, happy little being” into an intelligent young man, hell-bent on living life on his terms. Even Lucy misses Luke — or rather the “male privilege” of not being harassed and walking safely alone at night. But Giana also accepts the “great daughter” she now has.
“I think when it’s your child,” said Giana, “you take a deep breath and assess the situation. [Becoming trans is] a very strong commitment, and if it’s born out of necessity and biology and whatever else — who questions that?”
Lucy’s father shares the sentiment.
“During the transition to Lucy, we lost Luke. I think we’ve pretty much moved through that,” said John. “You realize it’s all still there — the heart’s the same. She seems to be very happy and fulfilled, and that’s what you want for your kid.”
6. Into the light
Like the scent of patchouli, there was an early nip in the air as Lucy lined up for the LEAF parade in Asheville one Saturday afternoon in August.
Surrounded by Art Deco high-rises and hazy mountains in the distance, Lucy — dressed in a black romper, her face painted in a white heart with sparkling red lips — joined Melissa and a motley cast of misfits. There was a bearded unicyclist, a pink-haired stilt-walker, a giant owl made of bamboo sticks, a rhinoceros of paper-mache, and Toybox the Clown. The Asheville Second Line band began its thumping, Mardi Gras march, and the parade officially launched.
A few steps behind the grand marshal, Melissa acted the classic jester brandishing a black-and-white parasol while Lucy juggled three purple pins, hardly missing a marching beat. The day would yield for them little more than stipends for food and maybe gas money, but it was clear they got a lot of joy from the experience. Talk of dysphoria and nightmares couldn’t have seemed more like an afterthought for Lucy, who looked giddy and electrified among the cheering, whooping crowd.
When she speaks about her transition, Lucy describes it as a process of ushering dreams into the sunshine, of being free and unafraid, so it was fitting that only faint swabs of clouds dabbed the sky.
As the parade snaked into a park, down into the shadow of Asheville City Hall, Lucy launched a pin above her head then extended her leg and caught it behind her kneecap. A father leaned down to his son and said, “That’s unbelievable!”
“Yep,” said the boy.
ABOUT THE STORY
While working on an unrelated magazine assignment, I heard about Lucy Eden and her decision to jeopardize her career by becoming a transwoman. Her experience seemed to have the makings of a powerful story. I interviewed Lucy’s friends, her family members, her girlfriend and her colleagues in the performing arts community. And I spent time with Lucy at home, watched her rehearsals and went to Asheville to see her perform. I’ve always been intrigued by underdogs, rebels and people who take risks for their beliefs, and I think Lucy Eden is all three.
ABOUT THE REPORTER AND PHOTOGRAPHER
Josh Green is an award-winning freelance journalist whose 2016 Atlanta magazine story on gentrification won Atlanta Press Club and Green Eyeshade awards. He is also editor of Curbed Atlanta, and the author of a short story collection called “Dirtyville Rhapsodies,” published in 2013.
Akili-Casundria Ramsess is an award-winning photographer who has worked more than 25 years working for a variety of news organizations, including as photo editor for The Atlanta Journal & Constitution, San Jose Mercury News, Los Angeles Times, Associated Press and director of photography for the Orlando Sentinel. She is also executive director of the National Press Photographers Association